Once upon a time there was a storyteller who made his living telling stories as he traveled about the land, starting each one with “once upon a time”. He grew tired of his own stories–even the new ones, since they were always to the formula preferred by the crowds, and never quite new, and one day decided to invent one that seemed more classically tragic and highflown. He told his usual story up to a point: of a young, very good prince, hiding from usurpers, in this case traveling with a kindly mountebank who sold snake oil and the like; as usual villains in the crowd recognized the young prince, and besought their master, King Climp, the Prince’s uncle, who bade them waylay the prince and quietly kill him.
The storyteller’s listeners grew round eyed and rapt, as he went on. The villains captured the young prince, and took him to the river to drown him; here, in the story, is normally where the prince tricked the villainous henchmen with a tale of a secret potion that could turn stone into gold. He told the story, they agreed to release him if he showed them the trick, and he used a sleight of hand that substituted a painted gold rock for a river rock. Thinking they no longer needed the evil King, they rode off–and the young prince encountered a girl, and it was love at first sight. Whereupon the evil King rode up, to check on his feckless henchmen. At this point the girl usually tricked the king–so that the Prince captured the false sovereign and was able to take his place. However, this time, in the new version, King Climp turned to the girl and said, “You have done well, Ariadne. You have delayed him. I knew those bumpkins would fail me.” The girl threw him a kiss–and laughed at the prince. The prince in a fury stabbed her…but as she died she revealed that she had been about to kill the King so she and the prince could be together. Weeping, the Prince bent over her–and was stabbed in the back by the wicked false King. The End.
The storyteller halted his tale. The listeners were silent, gape mouthed. Then they howled and mobbed him, tying him up and carrying him off to a hilltop. There they put a rope, dangling from a tree, tightly round his neck, and set him on a horse, crying out, “How dare you harm the good prince! How dare you break our hearts with this black tale!”
“But wait!” the storyteller cried out desperately. “That wasn’t the end! For the Prince was not dead…nor was the girl! The Prince…ah…let me see…he, ah, crawled away, and just as the King was to finish him off, the girl, who was wounded but also not dead, tripped the evil one…so that he fell…upon the Prince’s knife! They both survived and reigned as the kindest king and queen in all the land!”
The storyteller’s listeners clapped enthusiastically, startling the horse, so that it ran away. The crowd watched in astonishment as the now-dangling storyteller choked in the noose. Two of them tried to climb up and cut him loose but it was too late.
“Well,” said the town’s mayor, as they all turned away, “at least the story had a happy ending.”