Tell me, dear Story Warren readers, does browsing through the children’s section of your local bookstore leave you slightly depressed? It certainly causes me to feel a little down. So many titles seem overly educational, age-inappropriate, or focused on imparting some Big Socially Conscious Message. By the end of a spin through Barnes & Noble near my home, I wonder what happened to the good old books, the ones that remained fun while still touching on the stuff of universal human experience. Then my mind inevitably turns to C.S. Lewis’ famous quote from his prelude to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation: “The only palliative [to cultural myopia] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” Of course, not every old book made mistakes per se. Consider, for instance, E. Nesbit’s Melisande, a riff on Sleeping Beauty first published in 1901 that remains remarkably readable today.
When Princess Melisande was born, the Queen wanted nothing more than to throw a christening party. But the King realized that little good has ever come from such a soiree. Why? Because inevitably a fairy is left off the guest list, takes offense, and then shows up slinging maledictions. But the Queen insisted on the celebration, saying that the fae can’t take offense if none of them are invited. Her reasoning, though, backfired when all of the fairies turned up in a huff, and only the king’s quick thinking kept baby Melisande from a whole phalanx of curses. Still, the evil Malevola landed one, and it was a doozy: The Princess will be bald for the remainder of her days. So as year rolls into year and little Melisande grows tall, her scalp shows all the follicle development of a freshly laid egg. Only when the Princess reaches maturity does the King offer her a very special present—a wish from his fairy godmother. And at her own mother’s prompting, Melisande asks for coiffure beyond that of mere mortals: “I wish I had golden hair a yard long, and that it would grow an inch every day, and grow twice as fast every time it was cut.” What a shame that Melisande didn’t study more math, because her golden locks will soon threaten not only herself but the kingdom too.
Nesbit originally titled this story “Melisande or, Long and Short Division” and for good reason: The tale’s central conflict turns on an arithmetic problem, the accelerating growth of the Princess’ hair. On its own, that would’ve made for a cute high-concept story. But Nesbit turns it into something much more, cutting in economics (the King and Queen turn Melisande’s excess hair into a national industry), wordplay (the curse undergoes a number of permutations thanks to several puns), romance (a Prince Florizel risks life, limb, and definitely some dignity to help the hapless Princess), and some loving skewering of more than a few fairy tale conventions. And while you could read the public domain version, little ones who are less likely to be enthralled by numbers will doubtlessly find P.J. Lynch’s sumptuous illustrations in the 1989 Walker Books edition far more preferable. Melisande’s only flaw is perhaps being too smart for its own good.
(Picture: Copyright 1989 by P.J. Lynch; used under Fair Use)