This evening I am considering a story from French Legends, Tales and Fairy Stories (Oxford Myths and Legends), by Barbara Leonie Picard; called, "The Prince of the Seven Golden Cows." I remember reading the story many years ago, and considering it a lovely one about loyalty. However, upon re-reading, the tale left a sour taste in my mouth - for it seemed to me to have another, less comfortable, level to it.
Normally I try not to judge a tale, since each is product of the time and culture in which it is collected. Granted there are some stories I would not choose to tell; not because they aren't interesting tales, but the mores and messages they reflect would not fit in with modern society. And the time taken to modify, or explain, them would be better used in picking out other stories.
Yet, I wanted to understand what was bothering me about the tale, "The Prince of the Seven Golden Cows."
The tale is of a fortunate prince; he has all he can ask in land and home, friends and regard. Nor is he proud or hard-hearted; he is generous to all the poor, and equally generous to his friends. No one in his realm wants, and his life is very pleasant.
One day the prince sees a man weeping along side the road, and asks what his sorrow is. The man explains that he has nothing left - his wife has died; despite having spent every coin he had. Now he has nothing to bury her with.
In an instant the prince gives him more than enough to bury the woman, and to keep the man comfortable.
A few weeks later the prince sees the stranger again, and still the man is sad; he has no true will to live - only a desire to join a monastery, but he has no knowledge of Latin. He offers to work for the prince for no wages. Of course, the prince will not hear of not paying the man, and hires him.
As time goes on the fellow proves adept at his work, and his made steward of the castle. He is called "The Black Steward," because he always dresses in mourning.
At last he tells the Prince that the coffers are nearly empty from his generosity, and soon the prince's friends note the reduced fare and warn that the steward is stealing from the coffers. The steward admits to it, and accepts banishment, since the prince is more wounded than angry.
Soon the prince is broke and his friends abandon him, and the poor turn on him; each group blaming the Prince for spending on the other. At this point the steward returns - driving the mob away. He tells the Prince that he only took the money so that the Prince would have something set aside, and takes the Prince to an estate that he has purchased in the Prince's name.
There he serves the prince without pay.
As the Prince ages he decides to show his friend where his wealth comes from - the secret of The Seven Golden Cows. He never truly was wanting - for his wealth was unlimited, but after learning how false his court was he only wanted to give the Steward the secret. Which he does.
When the prince dies the steward buries him in state, and take the wealth to build a monastery; where he becomes a monk and offers prays daily for the Prince's soul.
As I said, at first it seemed to be a story of deep loyalty. Yet, on reflection, I realized that the steward was in truth very selfish. Nearly obsessive.
Here is the Prince, who is happy, and his realm is happy through his generosity. Into it comes a man who will not give up his mourning over the years, and who is the one to create the very involved circumstances so that he can reveal what he thinks is a necessary lesson in a dramatic fashion. He could have quietly told the Prince that the coffers were running low, which would have given the Prince a chance to make his own decisions. Yet that is not the method he takes, and the outcome of which means that he becomes the Prince's only friend, and they live in isolation and bitterness; not only does the Prince suffer, but so does the realm.
As mentioned, I know that different mores shaped this story so I am not trying to judge it by modern standards. I am just endeavoring to understand my own reactions to it.
Nor does it mean that I won't ever tell the tale should a good venue arise; it just would be a challenging story to work with.
And considering the story has added to my knowledge; while doing some online research I came across a couple of fascinating references to the story. One is the "Laws of Silence" blog, which offers quite a write up on how this folktale ties into St. Fris.
The other reference was to The Book of Stories for the Storyteller, by Fannie Coe, which has a vastly different story from France, "Teechny Duck," which offers a different view of "The Prince of the Seven Golden Cows." In this he is a miser, and the story is more of an animal story for younger children. I also learned that Fannie Coe was actually Fannie Fern Andrews, who was a remarkable woman in her own right. She endeavored to use education to bring understanding between cultures on a global scale.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.