the light princess

The Light Princess: A Fairy Tale

by George MacDonald, adapted by Ross Byrd

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived a king and a queen who were very sad because they had no children. But after years of waiting and hoping, the queen gave birth to a girl. The king was so delighted that he called for a great celebration and invited almost the entire kingdom. Almost. What the king did not realize–or perhaps he did–was that he neglected to invite his own sister, who happened to be…a witch. When the witch found out, her blood boiled. She began to plot her revenge. 

Soon the day of the celebration arrived. People from all across the land poured into the royal courtyard to get a glimpse of the baby princess. The witch came too, though secretly. When the moment came for the king and queen to introduce their princess child, the witch did something very strange. She turned round in place three times and muttered the following words:

Light of spirit, by my charms

Light of body, every part

Never weary human arms

Only crush thy parents heart!

The people near the witch shuddered, though they hardly understood what was happening. The child laughed. But the queen let out a gasp, because at that moment she could no longer feel the weight of the baby in her arms. The princess had lost her gravity.

From that day forth, the king and queen began to notice the strangest things about their daughter. If they tried to bounce her gently in their arms, she would begin to float upward toward the ceiling. And she would stay there, suspended above them, kicking and laughing until someone climbed the steps or the furniture high enough to get ahold of her blanket and bring her back down. If a window were left open near her crib, even the slightest breeze would blow her out of bed, across the room, and out the door. This, of course, terrified her parents. But the happy child went on cooing and giggling even as she flew. When she grew a little, the other children in the palace loved to play ball with her. But not in the way you might think. In this game, she was the ball, floating back and forth between them, enjoying it as much as they did.

The king and queen were distraught. Night after night they sat up discussing and arguing. Something had to be done. So the king decided to go directly to the house of his sister, the witch. He begged her to undo the dreadful curse. But she replied that she knew nothing about it at all. When the king turned to leave, however, her eyes shone bright red behind him. And she grinned a terrible grin. 

Meanwhile, the princess grew into a young lady. Thanks to the careful precautions of her parents and servants, no serious harm came to her. But her parents’ sadness only grew, as they realized that the princess’s lightness not only affected her body but every part of her. 

Now, lightness of spirit might seem like a very good thing. And at times it is. But not all the time. You see, when the princess was told that her favorite uncle, a great general, had to go off to war, she laughed. When she was told that he and many other men might be killed, she laughed even more. 

She could never quite see the serious side of anything. When her mother cried, she laughed and said, “What funny faces you make, Momma!”  When her father became angry with her, she danced around him saying, “Do it again, Papa! This is fun!” Her parents were heartbroken. For though the princess was always laughing and having fun, they could tell there was something missing in her laughter. Something hard to describe…as though happiness, without the possibility of sorrow, weren’t happiness at all. Oddly enough, she never smiled.

Perhaps the best thing for the princess would have been to fall in love. But how a princess who had no gravity could fall into anything was the greatest mystery. Yet, in the princess’ seventeenth year, something happened. The palace of the king and the queen and the princess stood on the bank of a great lake, the most beautiful lake in the whole land. 

One day the princess was out on the royal boat in the middle of the lake when her father slipped and fell, accidentally bringing her with him into the water. At this, every one of the king’s men dove in after her. But before they could grab her, she was far from the boat, swimming like a swan. She was diving down deep and swimming back to the surface as any normal person would. In fact, she liked the water so much, she refused to get back in the boat! 

From that day forward, all she wanted to do was get in the water. And the king and the queen began to notice that she was somehow better behaved and more beautiful the more she did. In the lake, she even laughed less, as though true pleasure made laughter unnecessary.

The lake also gave the princess a special kind of solitude. Everywhere else she went she was accompanied by at least twenty of her father’s men, who often tied ropes to her dress just to make sure the wind did not suddenly sweep her away. The lake meant peace and…something that seemed like gravity. So, as often as she could manage, she would sneak out at night for a swim.  

It was around this time that a prince from a distant land set out to look for a princess to marry. He was a fine, handsome, brave, and generous young man, worthy to be called a prince. In his wanderings, he met many beautiful women and many princesses, but none that suited him. He also heard rumors about our princess, but thought little of her. For how could he marry a princess who was bewitched? 

One lovely evening, after wandering for many days in a deep forest, he found his way to the edge of a great lake where he decided to set up camp for the night. No sooner had he done so than he was disturbed by a strange sound across the water. It was the princess laughing. But, as you and I know, there was something odd in her laugh. A laugh without gravity can sometimes seem as though it weren’t a laugh at all. In fact, the prince mistook the laugh for screaming. 

He saw something white in the water and dove in. In a few moments, he reached the princess. He grabbed hold of her and began to swim her back to shore. The princess swallowed so much water in the struggle that she could not speak until they both reached the edge of the bank. There, the prince gave her a strong lift out of the water onto the shore. Yet, without the gravity of the water, she flew upward, screaming at him as she went.

The prince watched in bewilderment. After a moment, she managed to grab hold of the top of a tree and climbed down, still enraged. It was the first time anyone had ever succeeded in making the princess angry.

“How dare you pull me out of the water and throw me into the air?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to harm you,” said the prince.

He now realized that she was the bewitched princess, and he had already offended her, and that he was in love with her. Her anger actually made her more charming and beautiful than she had ever been before. He got out of the water and stood on the bank next to her.

“Put me back in the water this instant!” she said.

“Very well,” he replied. He took her up in his arms and carried her to an even higher part of the bank. Then he sprang off the rocks with her. She had just enough time to give one delighted shriek of laughter before the water closed over them. When they surfaced, the prince asked, “How did you like falling?”

“Is that what you call falling?” the princess replied. “It is the most delightful thing I have ever done. I never fell before. I wish I could learn to do it myself. To think, I am the only person in my father’s kingdom who can’t fall.”

She looked almost sad.

“I shall fall in with you anytime you like,” the prince said.

“Thank you,” she said. Her eyebrows furrowed strangely. “I don’t know. At least, we are here now. So let’s keep swimming.”

Away they went swimming and diving and floating together until at last they heard cries along the shore and saw the flashing of torches.

“I must go home,” said the princess. “I am very sorry. This has been delightful.” And she left.

The next evening the prince sat at the edge of the great lake, watching as the royal boats made their way back to the palace. All except one. Just before dark, that boat also departed, leaving only a white speck in the middle of the lake. Hoping it might be her, he began to sing across the water. And she swam to meet him. He looked down at her white dress gleaming in the dark blue water. 

“Would you like a fall, princess?”

“Ah, there you are! Yes, if you please, prince!”

This time the prince took her up and climbed to the highest ledge he could find. They fell in together with a great splash. Night after night, they met to fall and swim for hours. The reflection of the stars shone on the surface of the water. And the prince was so happy, he felt as though they were swimming in the sky. 

Over time, he discovered that the princess was very like other people when she was in the water. She even laughed less often, and, when she did, it was gentler. But whenever he tried to speak to her of his love for her, she laughed at him dreadfully. Sometimes, in the water, he thought he could see her trying very hard to understand him. But whenever she got out, it was as though she was someone else altogether. 

“If we ever marry,” he said to himself, “we’ll have to turn merman and mermaid and never leave the water.”

The princess had grown so delighted by her time in the lake that she could hardly bear to be out of it, even for an hour. Imagine then, her dismay, when one day a sudden suspicion seized her that the lake was not as deep as it used to be. 

Yes, the water of the lake had mysteriously begun to recede, little by little each day. The princess was so distraught that she could hardly bring herself to enter the water at all. The prince rarely saw her. The people said she would not live an hour after the lake was gone. It was terribly sad. 

But the princess did not cry.

As you might have guessed, this mischief was the doing of the old witch. She had come to notice the powerful effect of the lake on the princess. And she despised it. So she used her dark magic to cut a hole in the bottom of the lake, which she accessed through a secret tunnel deep underground. And the lake had begun to drain. But this was not enough for the witch. So, one night, she left home with her black cat and walked all around the kingdom muttering terrible words. She cursed each babbling stream and mountain spring until every source of water that ran to the lake and the palace dried up. Even the rain stopped. The next morning all the babies throughout the land were crying, except without tears.  

And the lake drained even faster. 

One day, a group of children were playing in the deepest remaining part of the lake when they saw something bright and shining at the bottom. It was a gold plate covered with writing. They brought it to the king. He read the following words from it:

Death alone from death can save.

Love is death, and so is brave–

Love can fill the deepest grave.

Love loves on beneath the wave.

The meaning of this verse was a mystery to both king and court. Thankfully, the reverse side of the plate gave some explanation:

If the lake should disappear, you must find the hole through which the water ran, and plug it. But not by ordinary means. The only way is by the body of a man who gives himself of his own will. Otherwise the offering will be of no avail, and the kingdom shall perish.

The king and queen immediately announced the message of the golden plate far and wide. But no one came forward. They felt hopeless. They would never find a man willing to sacrifice himself. 

But they were wrong. 

When the prince received word of it, he sat down and thought to himself, “She will die if I don’t do it. And life would be nothing without her. So I shall lose nothing by doing it.” So he went to the king, and offered himself as the sacrifice. The king agreed. That very day, the prince proceeded to the place where the hole in the lake was draining its last. 

When the princess heard that a man had volunteered himself to die for her, she got up, feeble as she was, and danced around the room for joy. She did not care about the man–whoever he was–only that the hole in the lake would be filled. Nevertheless, her servants helped her down to the shore of the lake to see it for herself. There, she saw that it was the prince. 

When the prince saw her coming toward him, he knew it was time. He entered the water, and as he did so, he began to sing:

As a world that has no well, 

Darting bright in forest dell; 

As a world without the gleam 

Of the downward-going stream; 

As a world where never rain 

Glittered on the sunny plain; 

Such, my heart, thy world would be,

if no love did flow in thee.

Lady, keep thy world’s delight; 

Keep the waters in thy sight. 

Love hath made me strong to go, 

For thy sake, to realms below. 

Let, I pray, one thought of me 

Spring a little well in thee; 

Lest thy loveless soul be found 

Like a dry and thirsty ground.

“Sing again, prince,” she responded with an air of nonchalance. But he could not bring himself to sing anymore.

“Why can’t we go and have a swim?” said the princess. “There seems to be enough water here.” 

“I shall never swim again,” said the prince. 

“Oh, I forgot,” said the princess, and was silent. They sat there together. A long time passed. It seemed that something had begun to change ever so slightly within her. At last, as the sun began to set, the prince spoke.

“Will you kiss me, princess?”

Her nonchalance was gone. 

“Yes,” she answered. And she kissed him with a long, sweet kiss. 

“Now,” he sighed, “I die happy.”

The prince did not speak again. He turned and dove into the deepest part of the lake. He swam down and lodged himself in the gap. And the lake stopped draining. 

The princess gave a shriek. She sprang into the water in the direction of the prince. But by the time she reached him, his body was already lifeless. She tried with all her might to break him free of the hole, but she could not. She went up to take a breath and swam back down to try again. And again. And again. Finally, love and water gave her strength. She pulled him out and dragged him to shore. 

It was dark now. They were alone. She cried for help, but no one heard. She tried everything she could to revive him, but nothing worked. At last, the princess fell on the ground and burst into tears. There she lay for hours weeping. And the tears, stored up from a lifetime, flowed and flowed until it seemed as though the lake itself were beginning to rise. Then the rain came in a downpour. And, at the same time, the sun began to rise, and the kingdom found itself in the heart of a rainbow. And the droplets were like rubies and emeralds and sapphires and topazes. Waterfalls poured from the cliffs like molten gold. And the lake was brimful. 

But the princess did not notice. She was still looking down through her tears at the lifeless prince. 

But at that moment something happened. The prince seemed to let out a breath. His eyes slowly opened. The princess was so overjoyed that she wept even more uncontrollably. She tried to get up–to help him up–but somehow she could not. It was the strangest thing. She tried again, and this time she stood for a moment, but fell back down.

The prince rose and helped her. 

“You found your gravity!” he said.

“Oh, is this gravity?” she said. “It’s quite unpleasant. I think I was much more comfortable without it. I feel as though I might be crushed to pieces.”

“No,” he said. And he took her up in his arms and began to carry her back to the palace like a child, kissing her all the way. “No, princess. This is gravity.”

“That’s better,” she said. “I don’t mind that so much.” And she smiled the deepest, loveliest smile the prince had ever seen.

Of course, the prince and the princess were engaged to be married at once. But before their wedding, the princess had to learn to walk. Unfortunately, she may have complained of her gravity more than once after that day. Learning to walk was not an easy task, especially for a full grown adult. But she had two great comforts along the way. The first was that the prince himself was her teacher. The second was that she could fall into the lake with him whenever she pleased. And the splash they made now was far greater than any they had made before.

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