The King’s Sons by A. A. Milne

“Tell me a story,” said Margery.

“What sort of a story?”

“A fairy story, because it’s Christmas-time.”

“But you know all the fairy stories.”

“Then tell me a new fairy story.”

“Right,” I said.

Once upon a time there was a King who had three sons. The eldest son was a very thoughtful youth. He always had a reason for everything he did, and sometimes he would say things like “Economically it is to the advantage of the State that—-” or “The civic interests of the community demand that—-” before doing something specially horrid. He didn’t want to be unkind to anybody, but he took what he called a “large view” of things; and if you happened to ask for a third help of plum-pudding he took the large view that you would be sorry about it next morning–and so you didn’t have your plum-pudding. He was called Prince Proper.

The second son was a very wise youth. You couldn’t catch him anyhow. If you asked him whether he knew the story of the three wells, or “Why does a chicken cross the road?” or anything really amusing like that, he would always say, “Oh, I heard that years ago!”–and whenever you began “Adam and Eve and Pinchme” he would pinch you at once without waiting like a gentleman until you had got to the end of the verse. He was called Prince Clever.

And the third son was just wonderfully beautiful. He had the most marvellously pink cheeks and long golden hair that you have ever seen. I don’t much care for that style myself, but in the country in which he lived it was admired more than I can tell you. He was called Prince Goldenlocks. I’ll give you three guesses why.

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Now the King had reigned a long time, so long that he was tired of being king, and he often used to wonder which of his sons ought to succeed him. Of course, nowadays they never wonder, and the eldest son becomes king at once, and quite right too; but in those days it was generally left to the sons to prove which among themselves was the most worthy. Sometimes they would all be sent out to find the magic Dragon’s Tooth, and only one would come back alive, which would save a lot of trouble; or else, after a lot of discussion, they would be told to go and find beautiful Princesses for themselves, and the one which brought back the most beautiful Princess–but very often that would lead to another discussion. The best way of all was to call in a Fairy to help. A Fairy has all sorts of tricks for finding out about you, and her favourite plan is to pretend to be something else and see what you do.

So the King called in a Fairy and said, “To-morrow I am sending out my three sons into the world to seek their fortune. I want you to test them for me and find out which is the most fitted to succeed to my throne. If it should happen to be Prince Goldenlocks–but, of course, I don’t want to influence you in any way.”

“Leave it to me,” said the Fairy. “You agree, no doubt, that the quality most desirable in a king is love and kindliness—-“

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“Y-yes,” said the King doubtfully.

“I was sure of it. Well, I have a way of putting this quality to the test which has never yet failed.” And with that she vanished. She could have gone out at the door quite easily, but she preferred to vanish.

I expect you know what her way was. You have read about it often in your fairy books. On the next day, as Prince Proper was coming along the road, she appeared suddenly in front of him in the shape of a poor old woman.

“Please give me something to buy a crust of bread, pretty gentleman,” she pleaded. “I’m starving.”

Prince Proper looked at her sternly.

“Economically,” he said, “it is to the advantage of the State that the submerged classes should be a charge on the State itself and not on individuals. The civic interests of the community demand that promiscuous charity should be sternly discouraged. Surely you see that for yourself?”

The Fairy didn’t quite. The language had taken her by surprise. In all her previous adventures of this kind, two of the young Princes had refused her roughly, and the third had shared his last piece of bread with her. This adventure was going all wrong.

“Let me explain it to you more fully,” went on Proper, and for an hour and twenty-seven minutes he did so. Then he went on his way, leaving a dazed Fairy behind him.

By and by Prince Clever came along. Suddenly he saw a poor old woman in front of him.

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“Please give me something to buy a crust of bread,” she pleaded. “I’m starving.”

Prince Clever burst into a roar of laughter.

“You don’t catch me,” he said. “I’ve read about this a hundred times. You’re not an old woman at all; you’re a Fairy.”

“W-what do you mean?” she stammered.

“This is a silly test of Father’s. Well, you can tell him he’s got one son who’s clever enough to see through him.” And he went on his way.

By and by Prince Goldenlocks came along. I need not say that he did all that you would expect of a third and youngest son who had pink cheeks, long golden hair, and (as I ought to have said before) a very loving nature. He shared his last piece of bread with the poor old woman….

(Surely he will get the throne!)

But the Fairy was an honest Fairy. She did understand Proper’s point of view; she had to admit that, if Clever saw through her deception, it was honourable of him to have said so. And though, of course, her loving heart was all for Prince Goldenlocks, she felt that it would not be fair to award the throne to him without a further trial. So she did another thing that she was very fond of doing. She changed herself into a pretty little dove and–right in front of Prince Proper–she flew with a hawk in pursuit of her. “Now we shall see,” she said to herself, “which of the three youths has the softest heart.”

You can guess what Proper said.

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“Life,” he said, “is one constant battle. Nature,” he said, “is ruthless, and the weakest must go to the wall. If I kill the hawk,” he said, “I am kind to the dove, but am I,” he said, and I think there was a good deal in this–“am I kind to the caterpillar or whatever it is that the dove eats?” Of course, you know, there is that to be thought of. Anyhow, after soliloquizing for forty-seven minutes Prince Proper went on his way; and by and by Prince Clever came along.

You can guess what Clever said.

“My whiskers!” he said, “this is older than the last. I knew this in my cradle.” With one of those nasty sarcastic laughs that I hate so much he went on his way; and by and by Prince Goldenlocks came along.

(Now then, Goldenlocks, the throne is almost yours!)

You can guess what Goldenlocks said.

“Poor little dove,” he said. “But I can save its life.”

Rapidly he fitted an arrow to his bow and with careful aim let fly at the pursuing hawk….

I say again that Prince Goldenlocks was the most beautiful youth you have ever seen in your life, and he had a very loving nature. But he was a poor shot.

He hit the dove….

“Is that all?” said Margery.

“That’s all,” I said. “Good night.”

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