When the princess was born, her country was so poor that the king and queen could only afford one fairy godmother at her christening, and not a very experienced one. The young fairy was overwhelmed by the responsibility. She could only give one gift to the baby, and the future of the nation hinged upon her choice. Should it be wisdom, so that if the princess grew up to be queen, she could guide her people to prosperity? Should it be beauty, so she could win the heart of a rich prince and bring foreign wealth to the country?
The poor fairy dithered at the cradle for a good five minutes, while the courtiers tutted and tapped their feet impatiently. Then, finally, her face lit up. She had the answer! One gift that would cover all eventualities!
‘Your Highness -’ she waved her wand over the cradle – ‘I give you the gift of absolute perfection.‘
And so the princess grew up as beautiful as a swan and as wise as an owl, as gentle as a lamb and as brave as a lion. Everything she tried, she did perfectly. She was always loving, always virtuous. She never so much as whispered an unkind word.
Princes came from all over the world to court her; but after a few days in her company, they always turned away. ‘Your Highness,’ they would say, ‘I feel ashamed to stand next to you. You are better than me at everything, even slaying dragons. I can give you nothing.’
‘You could give me love,’ she wanted to say, ‘for I am lonely.’ But she was perfect, so she simply smiled, and thanked them, and let them go.
Years passed, and the perfect princess began to wonder if she would die an old maid. Then one day a ragged minstrel came to the court, selling songs and stories for a few copper coins or a bowl of soup. He was weather-beaten and unshaven, and he bowed before the princess with a rakish grin.
‘So you are the perfect woman,’ he said. ‘Tell me, Your Highness, are you happy?’
Nobody had ever asked the princess this; they just assumed, because she always smiled. She would have liked to say yes, because she hated to make anyone feel bad; but she was perfect, and so she could not lie. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I am terribly lonely. I have no friends, no man to love me. Even my own family are ill at ease around me.’
‘I can see why,’ said the minstrel. ‘Being perfect is really a terrible flaw.’
Because she was perfect, the princess was not angry, but she was hurt. ‘How so?’ she said.
‘It’s so boring. If everyone were perfect, we storytellers would starve. The only story in the world would be, ‘Once upon a time, they all lived happily ever after,’ and who would ever pay to hear that? Look at you. Not a hair out of place, not a freckle, not the slightest asymmetry to your smile. If that were beauty, men would marry dolls.’
The princess blushed, with a curious mixture of emotions.
‘Then – are you not ashamed to stand next to me?’ she said.
‘Not at all,’ said the tattered man with his wide irrepressible grin. ‘I think I look rather handsome standing next to you.’
‘Even though I am perfect at singing and telling stories too?’
‘Well,’ said the minstrel, ‘it would be very quiet in the forest if only the best birds sang.’
‘I think,’ said the princess slowly, ‘I should like to see you again – if you think you could put up with my flaws.’
Some months later, the minstrel came to ask the king for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The poor old king nearly had apoplexy; he had pinned all his hopes on her marrying a wealthy prince. But the queen, who had long since given up hope of her marrying anyone, was just happy that she had finally found love; and she persuaded her husband to give his blessing.
Since the princess and the minstrel had no money for a proper honeymoon, they set off together in a wooden caravan pulled by two old donkeys, and planned to earn their bread along the way by singing and telling stories.
The princess’s talent was every bit as wonderful as she had claimed; and with the minstrel beside her, and the chemistry between them, they were unstoppable. Everywhere they went, from country to country, people clamoured for more, and threw them gold and silver. They were invited to perform at all the royal courts and all the best castles. They enjoyed themselves so much that their honeymoon lasted for years; and when they finally came back, they came back with enough money to lift their country out of poverty.
In time, they became king and queen; and the king loved his queen to the end of their lives, even though she was perfect.