The Princess of Riddles
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The Princess of Riddles
A Portuguese Story by Laura Silva
There once was a beautiful Princess called Maria who could answer all riddles. The only thing more obvious than Maria’s intelligence and beauty was her boredom with the dull and predictable life of the royal court.
Princess Maria’s remarkable ability to answer riddles became apparent seventeen years ago when she was just a small child. Back then, the jester would often entertain the court with brainteasers that he had learnt during his travels with the town circus.
The jester was newly returned from just such a journey when he appeared before the court with an exciting tale. ‘I have for you the greatest and most difficult riddle ever,’ proclaimed the proud jester that day, ‘and nobody but me has ever been able to solve it. I bring it to you from across the great sea, from a small island that plays host to an old beggar you see. This beggar told everyone he came across that he would not ask for a dime, “Just answer me this,” he would say, “and you will be on your way in no time.”’
The jester mimicked the old beggar’s voice with a smile upon his face as he repeated the riddle to those assembled at court…
‘I am as large as a castle, yet lighter than air
One hundred men and their horses cannot move me
What am I?’
The court filled with indistinguishable whispers, then slowly hushed into chin stroking meditation.
To this day the riddle causes the same reaction wherever it is told. On the island where the beggar lived, everyone whose ears it passed was so baffled that nobody could ever fathom an answer. When a person could not come up with the answer to the riddle, he or she would give the beggar a coin from their pocket. This went on for so long that the beggar soon made a fortune and became the richest man on the island. Many people considered the beggar to be a crook, declaring that the old man had written a riddle with no answer so as to outwit the islanders. But the jester insisted that he had solved the riddle and that he was the only one to ever have done so.
‘The trick to solving the riddle,’ said the jester to the court, ‘is too not over think it.’
When it was clear that not one of the lords in the court were able to answer the riddle, the jester puffed out his chest and proclaimed, ‘The correct answer is…’
‘The castle’s shadow!’ interrupted young Princess Maria.
All those gathered in court that day turned to the Princess and gasped in awe. Little Maria continued to play with her doll house, completely unaware of the shock she had caused. The court erupted into laughter and applause and the jester, most shocked that the child had solved his riddle, turned pinker than the little Princess’s dress and ran out of court in a huff.
Needless to say, the Jester was not a great fan of the Princess from that day forwards; he resented her for stealing his thunder and making him look silly in front of the entire court.
Word of the Princess’s talents spread throughout the kingdom to the most distant lands, and soon after she celebrated her twentieth birthday, the King was keen to find his daughter a suitor. And suitors there were many.
The trouble was that Maria found most of the dukes, lords, and noblemen, very tiresome indeed. And above all, she found them predictable.
One day, Maria told her father, ‘I want to marry someone whom I truly love. I will only agree to marry the man who can pose a riddle that I cannot answer.’
Maria explained to her father that such a man would brighten her world by adding the element of surprise and excitement. ‘He would truly win my heart with his brains and his keen nature,’ said the young Princess.
And so the challenge was set. And a challenge it was, for any suitor who posed a riddle that the Princess was able to answer, would be locked up in the castle dungeons. The King reasoned that such a challenge would befit only the best and most determined of suitors.
Over time, news of the challenge reached far and wide; even to a forgotten corner of the Kingdom where there lived a peasant boy called Manuel.
The young peasant was very keen on challenges, and as he had always been intrigued by the Princess, he decided to travel to the castle to pose a riddle and win her heart.
The town’s people thought that Manuel was crazy as everybody knew that the King’s dungeon was already half full of distinguished men who had failed in finding a riddle that the clever Princess could not answer. They admired his courage, but all were convinced that the young man would end up in the dungeon like so many before him.
Manual paid no heed to the town’s people. He was too interested in meeting the beautiful Princess, and he was also fascinated by her boredom and could not understand how a person could be so disinterested when there was so much beauty in the world. It did not matter to the young peasant that he had no riddle to pose to the Princess, he simply set off on his journey, confident that he would think of something along the way.
Manuel travelled for such a distance that time lost all meaning. Although the journey was arduous, so as it might break even the strongest man’s spirit, Manuel walked on blissfully, encountering beauty and intrigue with every step. He was overwhelmed by the symphony of the mighty rivers, the songs of the woodland creatures, and the whistling wind in the trees all around. He played hide and seek with the animals whose paths he crossed, and he always stopped to notice how every sunset was different from the last.
The closer Manuel got to the castle, the less he understood the Princess. He felt sorry for a person who could not be astonished by the world, by all of its beauty and wonder. He could not see how anybody could be bored in such a world.
The castle soon appeared on the horizon, and still Manuel had no riddle for the Princess. But something very strange happened that evening when the young peasant sat down to cook his dinner of wild boar. As he calved open the animal’s belly, he noticed that there was a frog inside! ‘Boars don’t eat frogs,’ thought Manuel. And no sooner had this thought occurred then the frog leapt out of the boars belly and hoped away into the forest. Manuel found this very funny indeed. He laughed and laughed to himself, and he didn’t stop laughing until he realized that he could use this strange occurrence to form a riddle for the Princess.
Once he arrived at the castle the following day, Manuel was allowed time to eat and rest. He was given fine garments to wear and then taken to the Princess’s quarters to be introduced. She was even more beautiful and exceptional than he had predicted, and her apathetic but endearing greeting left Manuel dumbstruck. The young peasant wished to all the heavens that she would not be able to answer his riddle as he wanted desperately to spend as much time with her as possible, maybe even marry her!
Manuel stepped forward, summoning all of his confidence, and delivered his riddle to Princess Maria…
‘I settled your hunger but failed to settle my own
Supper hopped away in a race
Too late for a belly to croak or moan
At this strange case
What am I?’
Princess Maria was speechless. She simply could not work out that young Manuel was talking about the frog he had seen the previous night. Her mind went rushing to and fro. It was the first time ever that Maria was not able answer a riddle right away, yet she refused to be made a fool of by this bold simpleton, much less marry him!
The Princess said to Manuel, ‘Thank you for your riddle, kind sir. Let me invite you to stay at our castle for three moons so that I may ponder on this great question.’
Manuel had nothing against enjoying the luxury afforded by his royal host and readily accepted the offer, confident that no number of moons would grant the Princess knowledge of the strange happening he had witnessed on his journey.
The Princess knew right away that she would not be able to answer the riddle, and so she decided that she would have to come up with a plan in order to outsmart Manuel.
It did not take Maria long to come up with such a plan. She was, after all, a Princess of great wit.
Maria had her most beautiful lady-in-waiting sent to Manuel’s room. Her name was Lidia and she was given the task of making Manuel fall in love with her and trick him into telling her the answer to his riddle. ‘That way,’ reasoned Princess Maria, ‘not only will it seem as if I solved the riddle in only three moons, but Manuel will lose interest in marrying me because he will be too distracted by Lidia.’
But despite her best efforts to please him, Manuel took little interest in Lidia. He did enjoy her company and the wine she offered him, but he could not stop thinking about Princess Maria. He was not anxious for the days to pass as he was sure that he and the Princess could learn a great deal from one another. In fact, Manuel was convinced that they would make a fine couple indeed.
When Lidia returned with no answer to the riddle, Maria was distraught. The very next evening she sent a second lady-in-waiting whose name was Carmen. And this time she also sent a stronger blend of wine. But Carmen also returned without the answer to the riddle.
On the third night, the Princess decided to send her final lady-in waiting, Rosa. But before Rosa arrived at Manuel’s door, the old jester appeared and said to the young man, ‘Are you really so pure that you cannot see the Princess is trying to trick you, boy? Even though it is against the rules for you to have such visits, the Princess is sending her ladies-in waiting so that they might find out the answer to your riddle. Remember, boy, the Princess is more cunning than she is wise.’
Although the innocent Manuel was surprised to hear this news, he did not change his attitude and received his third guest cheerfully that evening.
Rosa brought with her a book of poetry and a jug of strong wine. Manuel listened to the poems and drank a little of the wine, but he was not to be fooled. Before Rosa left that evening, Manuel gave her a false answer to his riddle, and he also kept the little book of poetry as proof of the Princess’s deceitful behavior. ‘If this is how she wishes to behave,’ thought Manuel, ‘than I shall beat the Princess at her own game.’
On the final morning, the court gathered to witness yet another suitor sentenced to life imprisonment in the castle dungeons. Manuel stood alone in the centre of the court and waited until the Princess arrived.
‘Your question has entertained my thoughts for three days now,’ said the Princess in her best hoity voice, ‘and I am grateful to you for this. However, I am sorry to say that the answer to your riddle is clearly this… that strange things happen in nature and that on your travels you happened to come across a hare that had eaten a grasshopper. Therefore, the answer is… I am a grasshopper!’
Manuel smiled. ‘A great attempt, Princess,’ he said as he pulled Rosa’s poetry book from his pocket. But I do believe somebody has given you the wrong answer.’
The Princess’s eyebrows reached for the heavens and Rosa instantly fainted in shame, followed by Lidia and Carmen who also gave themselves away by fainting. The court was in uproar at what they correctly perceived to be a case of foul play against poor Manuel.
‘Has the Princess attempted to trick this young man?’ came an accusing voice from the crowd.
‘Have you been sending your ladies-in waiting so that you might learn the answer to the riddle?’ shouted another.’
But the kindhearted Manuel soon calmed the crowd and addressed the Princess once more. ‘Do not worry, Princess, I do not wish to marry you unless you share such a desire. Instead I shall pose you another riddle. If you answer it correctly let us agree that I will go on my way and never bother you again. But if you fail to answer my second riddle, then you must free all those whom you have imprisoned in your dungeons.’
Princess Maria was red with fury at the peasant’s nerve. He had already made a fool of her in front of the entire court, exposing her as a cheater; her only wish now was to have him taken away by her guards. Yet she had no choice but to agree to Manuel’s challenge. And at the same time there was a strange new feeling growing inside of the young Princess, one which could only be described as admiration, perhaps even desire.
The young man spoke: ‘What can be swallowed but can also swallow you?’
Princess Maria knew the answer to this riddle almost immediately. The answer was Pride. And pride was exactly what the Princess was prepared to swallow.
Maria pretended that she did not know the answer. She pretended this so that Manuel would not leave the castle, and she at once ordered that all of her previous suitors be set free. Then she told Manuel that she did indeed share in his desire to marry.
Upon hearing this news, the entire court erupted into applause, clapping and cheering at the release of the prisoners and the impending marriage of their Princess to such a worthy suitor.
You see, Princess Maria was wise enough to understand that Manuel could provide her with more wonder and surprise than she ever thought possible. And she knew that any man who was able to outwit her was certainly worthy of her love.