Long ago, there was a small kingdom on the fringes of a wild forest afflicted with a terrible burden. The king, himself, was so worried by the troubles his people faced that he personally ventured into the wood to confront the witch who lived there. The king did not suspect the witch was responsible for his kingdom’s troubles, but he hoped that she would know a solution — a sign of his utter desperation.
The kingdom was haunted by a terribly hideous beast, one which also seemed to reside in the woods. Each night the beast would come out of the forest and into one of the villages on the edge of the wood. Anyone who saw the beast would not survive the encounter, frightened to death by the mere sight of it.
So, when the king arrived at the witch’s hut in the wilds, he begged: “What must I do to rid my people of this danger?”
The witch stroked her chin briefly, and her eyes seemed intensely entertained by something or other as she brushed her hand against the large wart on her nose. “Do you truly wish to end the terror on your kingdom?” she asked him. “Would you be willing to do whatever it takes?”
The king hesitated to respond for a moment, an appropriate pause of reverence for the impact of the possible threat in the witch’s words.
The witch cackled suddenly. “Oh, do not be so frightened of me, your majesty. The solution is simple enough. Your daughter must take the hand of the man who is her perfect match. Her equal of intellect, of passion and of purity. Only then will this beast no longer plague you.”
“Do you mean that finding her perfect match means I will have found the man capable of slaying the beast, then?”
The witch only smiled, but the king knew he had his answer. But it was certainly not the answer he expected; nor, for that matter, was it an answer which seemed at all helpful. For the princess was the pride of the kingdom. No man, woman or child could match or rival the king’s daughter in wit, passion or purity.
“How will I find such a suitor?”
And the witch must have anticipated this question, for she smiled again, and summoned a box before he’d even finished the asking. “Within this box,” she explained, “are three butterflies. If you command them to kiss the lips of your daughter, they will seek out her perfect match. The black butterfly will find the one who can rival her intelligence. The red will seek out the one who can match her passion. And the white will show you her equal in purity.”
So, the king accepted the box and returned to the palace. By the next morning, an assembly was called to perform the test of the butterflies: A call for all eligible bachelors in the kingdom and the surrounding territories who might be found worthy of the princess’s hand. Once all had arrived, the king did as the witch instructed, commanding each of the three butterflies to kiss the lips of his daughter, and seek out her match among those who had gathered.
Each butterfly gently tickled the princess’s mouth for the briefest instant and flew as one away from her and into the crowd. And that’s when the confusion began, for each butterfly landed on the shoulder of a different suitor. The black butterfly had determined that a lord was the princess’s intellectual match. The red butterfly had chosen a duke as her equal in passion, and the white butterfly had selected a prince from a neighboring kingdom as the one with a pure enough heart.
“But which is her match?” the king demanded angrily of the creatures.
But they did not answer, for they were only butterflies.
The king immediately sent for the witch, but when his missives returned, they brought with them only the news that the ugly enchantress seemed to have vanished from the world, leaving behind no trace.
The princess interrupted her father’s pacing. “If my perfect match is truly to be a match for me, then allow me to decide which of the three is worthy to be my husband,” she insisted. And she spoke with such gentle authority, with such firm kindness and confidence, that her father could not refuse her — nor could anyone who beheld her.
So, the king’s daughter devised a three-part challenge of which she would be the judge, and it was announced to the whole kingdom that these challenges would take place over the course of three days.
On the first morning, the three suitors were called to the palace, along with an audience of all the curious denizens of the kingdom. They found in the great hall a grand tapestry, upon which a riddle had been embroidered into the fabric, a puzzle invented by the princess to test the wit of her would-be husband.
What can either be opened or closed, but has no doors, windows, hinges or handles?
The lord, the duke and the prince were given until the next sunrise to present their solution to the riddle, and all day, the three suitors racked their brains. Only the lord seemed confident.
That night, however, as the suitors slept before presenting their answers, tragedy struck as the beast was sighted. The villager who encountered it was found frozen dead on the ground the next morning. There was a sense of urgency as everyone arrived in the great hall for the result of the first challenge; the whole kingdom eager to be rid of this terror.
However, all who arrived in the great hall of the palace were met with a great shock: Below the tapestry upon which the riddle was embroidered, painted on the wall in large letters, was the answer:
“Who is responsible for this?” asked the princess, eyeing the three suitors.
None claimed the deed, but each insisted their answer would have been the same when it clearly was the solution the princess had been looking for.
With her quick wit, the princess barely paused as the commotion of outrage began before reaching out to the box which contained the butterflies. She gently removed the black butterfly, and asked it to kiss the words painted on the wall and to seek out the author. For a moment, the whole room seemed to hold its breath as the butterfly began its flight through the room to obey the request made of it… but then it flew out of the window, and out of sight.
Though the king was far too exasperated to speak, now feeling hopeless as the butterfly had fled the hall, the lord was quick to offer a possible explanation. “Perhaps the magic of the creatures is limited, and they can only match a person to a person.”
The princess furrowed her brow, though she didn’t speak her disagreement. She doubted it if the butterflies were incapable of the task she’d given to the black.
After much deliberation, it was decided that despite the failure of the first challenge, they should proceed to the second. With no further ado, the princess announced the terms of the next challenge: “Make, with your own hands, a token of your loyalty as a symbol of your devotion to your would-be wife. The most passionately crafted gift shall win the challenge.”
This time, the three suitors were given a week to meet the challenge, allowing them enough time to create their token without being rushed. In the meantime, the entire kingdom was tense as they waited for the deadline to arrive; all fearing the return of the beast.
But just as they dared hope that the beast would not take another life, on the morning of the deadline, another victim was found near the woods.
And, as fate would have it, another mystery awaited all who gathered for the result of the challenge. There, in the center of the hall, perched upon an easel fashioned out of tree branches and briar vines, was the most beautiful creation the princess had ever seen: A portrait of the king’s daughter not painted upon a canvas, but a collage of nature; a likeness of rose petals, white for her skin, pink for the blush in her cheeks, and red for her lips; autumn leaves of brown and gold for her hair; and two bright blue river stones for her eyes.
After the initial shock of this discovery, when it was obvious how overwhelmingly moved the princess was by the mysterious gift, it was the duke who broke the silence; stepping forward to claim responsibility for the portrait. “It was not enough to simply make this token of my devotion to you, your highness — I wished to express my passion for you with a gesture that also take your breath away.”
But the lord and the prince argued against this claim almost immediately, both also attempting to take the credit for the portrait, and a commotion began.
The princess called for silence so that she may think on the mystery for a moment. In the corner of her eye, the king’s daughter caught a glance of the box of butterflies once more. Suddenly, she realized something. The day her father asked the butterflies to seek out her match, he only asked them choose from those who had gathered in the hall to be tested. Perhaps the black butterfly didn’t fly out of the window because it failed to find the one who had answered her riddle — perhaps he simply wasn’t among those gathered in the hall.
Without a word to the crowd, the princess reached out for the box, and asked the red butterfly to find the artist who had created the portrait. Hardly anyone even noticed, and those who did could not understand why she would attempt the same test which seemed to have failed with the black butterfly. Almost all who noticed the transaction with the butterfly were disappointed when it’s red wings fluttered out of the window — but none were surprised that it offered no more help than it’s black counterpart.
The princess, however, attempted to follow the butterfly — but her father held her back, insisting that it was a waste of time to follow it when it had already disappeared from view.
There was now an air of panic about the room. The king, worried now more than ever, insisted that it must have been the prince who had solved the riddle and crafted the portrait, for the white butterfly had chosen him as the purest of heart — and surely he was the least likely to lie about his claims over either.
It did not escape the princess’s notice that the prince’s eyes fell to the floor. Though he would not confess that he had lied, she could tell he felt guilty about the king’s undeserved confidence in him.
“Allow the final challenge to commence to help your daughter decide,” suggested the prince.
Though the king was clearly frustrated that they could not simply be done with it right then and there, he agreed.
Though the princess could respect what the prince was trying to do — and realized that she may have done the same if she were in his shoes — by suggesting this despite the lack of his confession, she only half-heartedly announced the terms of the final challenge: “Find me a symbol of the sanctity of marriage, and present it to me on the morrow as only one pure of heart would.”
That night, as if to further mire the kingdom in hopeless despair, the beast was sighted again; another life vanquished, and a reminder of the terror the king could not undo despite his efforts to do as the witch had instructed. There was a dim hope in the morning as all congregated in the great hall for the result of the final challenge, as there were no more words painted on the walls or mysterious portraits in the middle of the room — though the princess had secretly wished there would be another surprise awaiting her from her true match, whoever he was.
The lord stepped forth and presented a copy of the bible to answer her challenge. “I can think of no better symbol of the purity and the sanctity of marriage than as they are written by the word of God,” he explained. But, the king’s daughter felt that the logic of his offering rang inside a hollow heart.
From the duke, an original sonnet, which he performed for all before the princess. She wasn’t very impressed, despite the passion of his words.
And then the prince approached her.
“I offer only my hand, princess,” he said reaching out his hand to her, “and my honesty. I did not solve your riddle. I did not invent that portrait. I lied only because I wanted to be worthy. There is no other symbol I would ask of you than to have you hold my hand, for the sanctity of marriage is the connection of two souls and not their worldly possessions.”
The princess was sincerely moved by the gesture, and held her hand out to the prince.
But suddenly the prince retracted his hand as something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. “Your highness,” he said, bowing apologetically, “If your intent was to find one worthy of a heart as pure as your own, I would be failing the challenge miserably if I didn’t point out what we all failed to notice when we first arrived.”
The princess followed his eyes to the butterfly box, atop which, was a small object; a golden wedding band. As the princess approached the box and the token upon it left for her, she realized how this truly met her challenge perfectly. As her intellectual counterpart, surely he realized that the princess would call the white butterfly to seek him out, and that’s why he left the ring on the butterfly’s box. The mystery suitor did not make an ostentatious show of his final gesture; as her equal in passion, he would have known she didn’t need further proof of his devotion other than simply continuing to answer her challenges. And with a heart as pure as the prince, whoever he was, he wished more for the princess’s happiness than winning her as a prize.
The king’s daughter kissed the cheek of the prince, and thanked him for uplifting her heart. Then she reached into the box, and called forth the white butterfly, asking it to find the giver of the ring she now held in her hand.
As everyone might have guessed, the white butterfly, as the red and black had, flew out of the window, but this time everyone chased after it. Led by the princess herself, the crowd grew as they passed people on the streets. What a sight it was to see a the hoard of more people chasing after a single tiny creature as it twirled in the air, making a path for the edge of the wood.
Finally, as the white butterfly disappeared into the trees, a deep booming voice called out for the crowd to halt.
“Come no further!” the voice shouted out. “I have never wished harm on anyone, and I do not wish to frighten anymore souls to death!”
Many gasps and cries of terror rang out from the crowd. “It’s the beast!” some called out. “It’ll rip us to shreds!” others yelled.
Though she was shaken, the princess remained calm enough to reply to the voice. “Do I have your word that you will not harm any of my people?”
“As I said, your highness,” the gruff voice called back, barely audible over the panicking crowd, “I have never wished harm on anyone.”
“Then show yourself.”
The creature which emerged from the woods was a terrible thing to behold. The sheer massive size of the creature dwarfed even the tallest man present, it’s broad, hunchbacked shoulders angled as though ready to pounce upon weak prey. A warped face, with large beady black eyes. A snarling mouth bulging from the foul yellow fangs protruding from it unevenly. Atop its head, a crown of horns which twisted in every direction, each varying in size — one twisted into the creature’s face, piercing through its cheek and curling out through its nose.
The princess could not stop herself from softly screaming at the sight of him — but there were two things she almost immediately took notice of despite her horror. Firstly, the beast cringed, as if in pain, at the sound of her shriek — as though it deeply wounded him that she would be so afraid.
But more importantly, perched upon the taller of the beast’s uneven shoulders were three butterflies; one black, one red and one white.
Though she hesitated, the princess relaxed her posture as much as she could, and slowly approached the beast. “It was you?”
The beast looked afraid to answer her, but nodded.
“I…,” the princess began to say, but she could not find her words. She looked at the ground for several moments before bringing her eyes back to the beast’s. She gazed upon the creature, and realized how harmless he was, despite his appearance. The villagers who died did so of fright, not of violence; surely she could not blame him for the deaths when no creature could decide how God should make them look.
She swallowed, and took a deep breath, slowly extending her arm out towards the creature. “I do not know if the butterflies can truly tell me who my perfect match is,” she said, “but you met every challenge I presented to prove that you are worthy of my heart. Man or beast, whatever you are, if you would offer me your hand, I would take it.”
The beast’s eyes widened, and though he paused — hesitating, as if worried that the princess was trying to trick him — he held out his gnarled hand.
As the princess’s hand met with the beast’s, the creature was a monster no longer, and suddenly transformed into a man more handsome than any the princess had ever seen. There was silence but for the thrumming heartbeats of everyone held in the suspense of this unexpected turn of events — until someone’s cackling laughter pierced the silence.
“I told you, your majesty,” said the witch’s voice as she emerged from the crowd, “Only when your daughter took the hand of her perfect match would the beast no longer plague your kingdom.”
But before the king could demand answers from the witch, she disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving only an echo of her cackles behind. It was the beast — now a man — who offered an explanation. He was a knight from a neighboring kingdom, who ventured out in the world to find love and adventure. He spotted the princess riding in the woods one day, and, enthralled by her beauty and her kind aura he tried to follow her, but in his pursuit he encountered a hag who turned him into the beast because he refused to make her his bride.
“I have been searching the forest for her ever since,” he explained. “I had no hope of ever being free of my curse, but I could not help myself when I learned of your challenges, princess. It was a selfish happiness, but I wanted to prove my love.”
The princess blushed, and offered her knight a bashful smile, gently cradling his face with her hand. “Then allow me to spend the rest of my life proving myself worthy of your devotion.”
And despite the awed confusion of all who witnessed the gesture, the whole kingdom knew that the clever princess and her true love with the pure heart would live passionately ever after.