There was once a king and his queen who lived happily together. The queen was the most beautiful woman in the world, with golden hair that trailed behind her as she walked. She was so beautiful, in fact, that the king grew jealous and decided to keep her hidden from sight so that she could not be tempted to unfaithfulness. So he banished her to a den under the kitchens, and ordered that she was to dirty her hands and face with soot and wear nothing but rags and the skin of a donkey. The only indulgence he allowed her was her gold wedding band.
For months she toiled away in the kitchens, preparing food for the king and his courtiers. The donkey hide draper over her body like a pungent cloak, but she did not take it off for it was her only warmth in the cold winter. Annoyed and embarrassed at her refusal to remove the offending hide, the servants came to call her Donkeyskin.
One night there was to be a ball, and the king ordered that the queen attend as his partner. For the occasion she wore a dress as bright as the sun, and cleaned and combed her golden hair. Everyone marveled at the beauty of the servant-queen, and the king danced with only her all night. Alas, seeing his wife so beautifully arrayed only strengthened his jealousy, and he banished her once more to the den under the kitchens.
The queen grew more and more desperate to escape her condition, and decided to prove her faithfulness and purity to the king. So she worked ever harder, making soups and cakes for her husband, shining his boots and mending his clothing.
Donkeyskins, will you ever go to bed? the servants asked her late at night, while she worked by the light of a tallow candle.
There is still work to be done. I will go to bed when the king wishes it, she would reply.
There came another ball, and this time again the king ordered that his wife was to attend so that he may behold her in all her grace. So the queen dressed in a gown as silver as the moon, and combed and braided her hair, and wore pearls at her wrists. Again the king danced with only her, but again he banished her to the den under the kitchen once the music had faded away.
The third time there was to be a ball, the queen thought it her last chance to prove herself to the king. She ordered the best seamstresses in the kingdom make a dress the colour of day, made in shimmery blue silk and embroidered with the silver and yellow of clouds. Once dressed, she cut her long golden hair in a show of chastity, and wove with it a belt to wear at her hips.
Many courtiers cried at the loss of the queen’s beautiful hair, but the king only grew angry and refused to dance with her.
You are no wife to me, he said. Your beauty was for me alone and now you have robbed it from the world.
Without a word, the queen bowed and left the ballroom. The golden garland that had once rested upon her head brushed against the floor as she walked, and in the crowd a woman wailed.
Once in her little den, the queen removed her dress the colour of day and put back her rags, dirtied her face and hands and placed the smelly donkey skin on her back. She then went to the kitchen to prepare the king’s supper, and in his soup she dropped her golden wedding band.
You are no husband to me, she said then what she had wanted to say in the ballroom, when she had understood that the king would never change his mind. I have given you my beauty willingly and now I take it back. And she fled the palace without another word, taking with her the dresses the colours of the sun, moon and day, and the belt made from her golden hair.
She ran and walked through roads and woods, crossing streams and erasing her tracks with the scent of the donkey hide on her back. It was not long until she heard the baying of her husband’s hounds on her trail, but through cunning and hope she evaded them for many days and nights.
Finally she came upon another kingdom, and was brought to their ruler in his gleaming palace.
Who are you? the king asked.
They call me Donkeyskin, my lord.
From where do you come?
I come from under the earth and below the fires. Thrice have I worn the sky and danced with a cunning devil, only to escape him.
Then you must be a witch. But you are the image of my dead bride, and she was the most virtuous woman in the world.
No witch am I, my lord, and no bride either. But I wish to live among your court, if you would allow it.
I do, said the king, for witch or no, you are a great beauty and a cunning mind, to escape such a devil.
In thanks, the former queen laid the donkey skin at the king’s feet and tied her rope of golden hair to its neck. Immediately the donkey rose to its feet, well and alive again through the gratitude and power of the one who now bore its name. To the surprise and delight of all, the donkey was discovered to leave golden crowns in its litter every morning, and the kingdom grew richer with its coming.
As for the former queen, her golden hair grew back and trailed once more behind her as she walked, and she wore the dresses of the sun, the moon and the day when she walked among the other courtiers, and she was respected and revered throughout the kingdom for her beauty and gifts. But her heart was forever hardened, and she refused to marry again for the remainder of her days.