A lunatic king was giving away his daughter for practically nothing. In exchange for spending three nights guarding an unused palace estate, any fellow of marrying age could have the girl and all rights and properties accorded the son-in-law of a king.
Now along came a young neer-do-well lad who was wise to world and knew how to carry himself. He’d spent many years wandering and thought it time to settle down, so with nothing to lose he applied to the king for a chance at the easy life.
“You may request three things to take into the palace with you, three inanimate objects,” the king said, “so choose wisely.”
The lad had heard tales of this king and his palace of madness and knew from the stories he would be best to take with him a carpenter’s bench with a blade, a lathe, and fire. The kind was impressed for it seemed the lad knew what he was up against, and he was not wrong. The lad had heard tales in a nearby tavern of others who had tried their hands at winning the king’s daughter, strange tales at that. Tales of disembodied legs tumbling out of the chimney, followed by heads, that could be carved into bowling pins and balls. This would be followed by cats who would challenge young men at cards but would require the trimming of their claws first. In cards and bowling the lad had honed his skills in all the taverns of the land, and as for trimming cats claws, well, how hard could it be?
And so it was on that first night that the lad built a fire in the fireplace and say on the carpenter’s bench and waited.
At first he thought he head the sound of something coming down the chimney but instead it turned out to be someone knocking at the front door. When he opened in a man walked in dressed in a most unusual manner. He wore a lose-fitting tunic with the word STATE across the front of it, a pair of hose that hung loosely from his hips to his feet, and on his feet wore boots of such fine craftsmanship that the lad assumed they must have been enchanted. He had a sack of shiny cloth slung over one shoulder with openings that would yield and seal with the zip of his fingers. Out of the sack her removed a pair of floppy bound manuscripts.
“How you doing? My name’s Brad. So listen, you’ve got a bit of catching up to do here. Most of the other kids have been studying for the better part of the year so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover on these practice exams.”
The lad was puzzled. Where were the legs he could carve into bowling pins? “Practice for what?”
“Indeed, practice for what?” Brad said. “What are the SATs practice for? For going to college and taking more tests, so that you can prove you’re a good test taker and graduate and show the world your diploma and say ‘See? I am a master of test-taking!'”
The lad bent over and looked up the chimney. “Hello? Anyone up there?”
“But then what?” said Brad. “They tell you that you can’t get a good job unless you go to college, but then you graduate college and there aren’t any jobs anyway. Then where are you?”
“Yes,” the lad said, perplexed by most of what Brad said. “Where am I?”
“Right back where you started from. Back to taking the GRE and the LSAT and the GME and getting into grad school because a graduate degree is the new undergrad degree in terms of getting a meaningful job. So it’s back to the tests to prove that you’re in the top percentile of test-takers and ready to get right back to it.”
“You don’t happen to be from St. Ives, by any chance? Maybe have some cats in that fine bag of yours?”
“But a graduate degree isn’t any better. There’s still no guarantee, and chances are good you’re going to end up like sixty percent of grads who end up working in a different field than the one they have degrees in.”
The lad began to get nervous. He understood magical bed that would romp through houses, and talking animals that would challenge him in games of chance, but the nonsense this Brad spewed sounds like the enchantments of a warlock. Clearly the palace had been abandoned for a reason and that reason was becoming clear to the lad; it had been cursed and this Brad must be the wizard who had laid the curse upon it. He picks up the knife from the bench and held it at arm’s length.
“Begone! I am not to be taken in by your spells and enchantments! I have come to spend three nights here and in doing so will win the king’s daughter!”
Brad paused and rolled his eyes. “Yes, and then what? No test no diploma, no diploma no job, no job no way to support your little princess. You ever think about that?”
“I shall share the king’s wealth… won’t I?”
Brad smiled and shook his head. “You kids. You think you know it all. I’ll leave these here and you can get started. Try to have the first section in each book done by tomorrow. We’ll see how you do and adjust your study strategies accordingly.”
Once Brad left the lad bolted the door and took the bewitched exam prep workbooks and threw them into the fire. Then he sat and waited all night for other strange things but none came. Soon enough he had fallen asleep.
The next morning the king arrived to see how the lad had done. Seeing the lad had sleep apnea he appeared to be dead and the king sighed. Just then the lad snorted and woke up.
“Holloa! You survived the first night!”
“Yes, and you shall find me long gone before the second night arrives! If this were the sort of place frequented by body parts and maniacal animals I could sort it out. I’m a fine kegler and a fair cardsharper and I could have at these sorts of trials. But this place is haunted by an evil spectre that speaks in riddles and I swear attempted to steal my soul away. You may keep this madness to yourself, and good riddance to any bride that must be won through such trials.”
With that the lad returned to his wanderings and lived happily ever after.
As for the lunatic king and his daughter, who knows.
This is my adaptation of “Good Bowling and Card Playing” from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes, part of a series. Collect them all!