When the princess Melisande is born, her father the king decides they should not have a christening party - after all, everyone knows how those can turn out, because it's nearly impossible not to offend or forget to invite one fairy or other. The queen worries that all the fairies will be offended - and being able to tell the king, "I told you so" is poor comfort when, in fact, her worries come to pass.
The throne room is so full of offended fairies, and Malevola (of "Sleeping Beauty" fame) steps forward first, saying that the princess shall be bald. The king slaps his hand over the next fairy's mouth, and with some quick thinking and smooth talking, he is able to convince the other fairies to go home peacefully. Things could have turned out far worse - and indeed, the little princess is perfectly happy running about with pretty green caps covering her smooth bald head. The queen, however, is despondent about her lovely daughter's lack of hair. The king comforts her that he still has a wish left over from his fairy godmother, and the princess can use it for hair, if she wishes, when she grows up.
When Melisande is grown, however, she could care less about her hair. She wishes for prosperity for her subjects - but they already have that. Her generous wishes for others do not work, because they have already come true. The queen gives her a wish to ask for, and as soon as Melisande repeats her words, the king knows they are in trouble - with hair that grows an inch every day and twice as fast every time it's cut, Melisande is soon beset by hair that is growing completely out of control. Eventually they are so desperate that they fall back on the usual solution - the prince who can solve the problem will have Melisande's hand in marriage. A sweet and amusing tale with sudden twists and unexpected turns ensues, and my children and I enjoyed it very much indeed.
While Melisande is rather passive (as is typical with this sort of fairy tale), and it is left up to the prince to save the day with his quick wits, there were elements in the story that made it surprising to think that it was written over a hundred years ago. The prince asks the princess if she'll marry him should he succeed in solving her problem, and she replies that her father has promised that she will. He tells her, "Your father's promise is nothing to me. I want yours. Will you give it to me?" In this way, they meet on a much more equal footing than in the usual tales, and I liked that!
Melisande is generous and resourceful, finding uses for her hair that succeed in helping the kingdom in a time of need. I also enjoyed the mathematical theme - it reminded me of Demi's retelling of the Indian tale One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale, which also explores this concept in an unforgettable way. This fairy tale is typical of E. Nesbit in that she takes ideas that are not necessarily new or unusual, but reworks them in such a clever way and with such wonderful characters that it becomes something altogether fascinating and unique.
I adored the illustrations of this book - for more on the work of P.J. Lynch, see this wonderful post by Valentina.
Melisande by E. Nesbit; illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Walker Books, 1989)
Also reviewed at:
Geranium Cat's Bookshelf: "This is a lovely subversive fairytale."
Sara's Holds Shelf: "Having had a love/hate relationship with my own long hair for years, I could really relate to Melisande's plight."