King Thrushbeard…a kinder, gentler version of The Taming of the Shrew.


Simplia seemed to be stirring from a doze that had lasted for weeks. “And I hate it when the Twelve Dancing Princesses get slut-shamed by their father, who is off-the-charts creepy. And I hate the whole double standard of the Thousand and One Nights.”

Sagacia looked up from her book and said, “Huh? What ever are you talking about.”

“Puzzling in Pomona’s problem with ‘The Magical Pear Tree.'”

“Remind me. So much has happened since that letter arrived. I’ve forgotten.”

“So, this fruit vendor brings a wheelbarrow full of gorgeous, perfect pears to market. We’re talking Harry & David quality pears. He knows they’ll bring a premium price. But no sooner does he get set up at the market than, first shot out of the box, he’s accosted by a mendicant holy man, who asks for a free pear. The fruit vendor refuses. ‘I worked hard to harvest these pears and bring them to market. What have you done today? Begged. Period. You don’t deserve a pear.’ The monk kept asking, and the fruit dude grew so angry the people in the market noticed. One man scolded the parsimonious pear peddler, then  purchased a pear, full price, and pointedly gave it to the beggar, who ate it down to the core and then planted one of the seeds, which grew, in a flash, into a mature tree heavy with beautiful ripe fruit, which the beggar picked and gave away to all the onlookers. The fruit vendor was furious, of course, and then perplexed when he noticed that his wheelbarrow was not only empty of pears, it was also missing its handle, so he went home bewildered and broke. We don’t know if was wiser or behaved less churlishly afterward. And Puzzling in Pomona…”

Sagacia started remembering. “…thought the holy man went too far, taking the peddler’s entire day’s income. Yeah. It’s coming back to me. Imbalance. The consequence of the vendor’s selfishness seems out of scale for the nature of the infraction.”


“I see,” said Sagacia, shaking out the wrinkles in the newspaper. “And when the world is out of balance, even in a fairy tale world, folks get…”

“…twitchy!” said Simplia. “Twitchy is what I get. So whenever I’m the one telling the story, I don’t send Red Riding Hood off to the depradations of old versions of that story. I scare her, show her what could happen if she’s ever that stupid again, she may have some PTSD to deal with, but at least she’s still alive to deal with it. And the princesses…”

Sagacia finished her friend’s thought, “…were subjected to parental protection gone terribly, terribly overboard. At least by modern standards.”

“So when I’m the boss of that story,” Simplia resumed, “I make it the king who has to learn a lesson, and the princesses get to marry the men they had to go underground to meet.”

Sagacia chewed that one over for awhile, and then she said, “I think next time I’m the voice of that story, I might tell it from the point of view of the young men. What drove them underground?”

“And don’t even get me started on the despoiler and murderer of virgins whose manhood demanded that he slaughter his wife and her attendants and a bunch of dark skinned slaves. I know. Different era. Different culture. But if that one isn’t going to get silenced and forgotten, some of it has to be fiddled with, doesn’t it?”

Sagacia had just smoothed the newspaper down. She laid it out on the coffee table and pointed to the Letters page, where, of all people, Charles Kiernan had written an opinion piece on, of all topics, just this very one.

Puzzling in Pomona’s question evokes two jumbled notions in my brain (a brain quick to entertain confusion.) First is a personal decision I made with an uncomfortable story element.

I tell Grimm’s The White Snake, during which our protagonist slays his horse to feed three starving ravens. There cannot be a little girl in my audience who will not be appalled.

My conundrum, do I tell the story, or do I not tell the story. I did neither. I changed the story. I have the horse turn to our hero saying, “Slay me, neither you nor I will regret this.” (The protagonist understands the language of animals.)

Have I been dishonest to the story? Have I interjected my personal concerns into a centuries old tale?

Then my poor brain turns to an observation. There are two tales of the same motif. One is The Queen of the Tinkers, an Irish tale where the princess does not get to marry the king until she sticks to her convictions. The second is the Grimm/German tale King Thrushbeard, where the princess does not get to marry the king until she is humbled.

I will take comfort in that I am not the first to tweak the tale to suit the society that feeds me.

Simplia thought for a moment and said, “Speaking of tweaking…Didn’t William Shakespeare ‘tweak’ both The Queen of the Tinkers and King Thrushbeard into The Taming of the Shrew?”

“Possibly,” said Sagacia. “But we should probably be very circumspect with our tweaking. I mean…we’re not Shakespeare.”