Two Fables by Roald Dahl (1986)
This thin book containing two original stories was published by Viking UK, then by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in honor of the author's seventieth birthday. Neither Viking nor Farrar, Straus have reprinted the book. To my knowledge, neither story has ever been reprinted in an anthology or in another collection of Dahl's short stories. The stories were only two of three Dahl stories not included in the author's massive Collected Stories. (The third was a very short deleted scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I covered it here earlier this year.)
The first story, "The Princess and the Poacher," tells a tale of a remarkably ugly, remarkably strong young man named Hengist who refuses to follow his father's trade of basket-weaving. Hengist was lonely and (being eighteen) horny:
"He was a pleasant enough fellow, there was no doubt about that, but there is a limit to the degree of ugliness any woman can tolerate in a man. Hengist was well beyond that limit."
Hengist often roamed the wood alone and soon discovered that he had a talent for "moving so silently through the forest that he could come within arm's length of a timid creature like a hare or a deer before it was aware of his presence." A talent, he discovered, that fit well with the trade of poacher. But Hengist also grew cocky. He began to poach in the daylight and he began to poach near the very walls of the king's castle. So it was that one day when he was near the castle he came across the most beautiful girl in the kingdom while the king and his court were out chasing wild boar. Suddenly the boar came racing out of the woods, chased by the king and his hunters. The panicked animal with its razor sharp horns headed straight toward the girl. Hengist leaped on the boar just before it could gore the girl, who happened to be the king's only daughter.
The king, so impressed with Hengist's valor in saving the princess, made him a count and showered riches upon him. The king also noted the poacher's very ugly visage and took pity on him: this poor guy would probably die a virgin with a mug like that. So, with a typical (if that can be the word) Roald Dahl twist, the king made a very unusual proclamation -- from that day forward, Hengist has royal permission to ravish any women in the kingdom, with no caveats, and, yes, that even included the princess.
From there, the story continues along paths you may not expect.
The second tale, "The Princess Mammalia," features an ordinary princess who, on her seventeenth birthday, underwent a miraculous change:
"A magical transformation had taken place overnight and the dumpy little Princess had become a dazzling beauty. I use the word 'dazzling' in its purest and most literal sense, for such a blaze of glory, such a scintillation of stars, such a blinding beauty shone forth from her countenance that when she went downstairs to open her presents an hour later, those who gazed upon her at close quarters had to screw up their eyes for fear the brilliance of it all might damages their retinas."
Such overwhelming beauty has its drawbacks, as Dahl gleefully goes on to show. And isn't Mammalia a delightfully sexist name for such a beauty?
Two tales that only Roald Dahl could tell, full of wit and weirdness and joy. For fans of this wonderful author, this book is a must.