The White Deer, often called a novella, is a fairy tale. It takes place “once upon a time” in the kingdom of King Clode, which is distinguished by the fact that it contains an enchanted forest. The widower king and his three sons, Thag, Gallow, and Jorn, fill their bachelor lives with hunting and sport. The youngest son, Jorn, is sensitive and poetic as well as athletic and graceful. Although he rides along on the hunts, he avoids killing animals. Nevertheless, the hunters regularly deplete the area so completely that they must endure long periods of enforced idleness to await replenishment of the game. During such periods, Jorn flourishes, but the others pine and mope.
The adventure is set during one of these times of scarce game. A wizard comes to Clode’s court and tells the story of a white deer in the magic forest. Clode avoids this forest because the last time he hunted there, he and his father and brothers chased a swift and beautiful deer that, when they were about to kill it, trans-formed into a princess. Clode then had to return her to her father, undergo perilous labors in competition with his brothers, and then marry the princess when he won the competition. His brothers never returned from their quests. He would prefer to avoid a repetition of these events, but the wizard’s description of the white deer and his challenging of the hunters’ prowess prove to be irresistible temptations. Father and sons pursue the white deer in the magic forest and, just as before, when they have her cornered, she turns into a beautiful princess.
This time, the spell proves troubling, for the princess does not know her name and cannot remember her past. Still, she sets the three sons perilous labors and awaits the result. Meanwhile, Clode’s strange and ridiculous staff discovers that she may be a deer by nature and that she can become a princess if she is loved by a prince; otherwise, she will turn back into a deer again. The princes all are successful in their labors and return simultaneously. Thag and Gallow, however, are unwilling to declare love for her, especially after they learn that she may be a deer. Jorn, however, loves her and says so. This declaration breaks the spell. She is revealed to be Rosanore of Northland, cursed along with her brother, Tel, by a jealous woman who had wanted to marry her father. Tel has been present at Clode’s court, in the form of Quondo, a dwarf who knows but cannot tell about the spell. The story ends with the beginning of the journey to Northland for the marriage and with an account of the jealous woman’s punishment.
The world of this tale is fantastic in virtually every detail. The narrator says that on certain April days, when near sounds seem distant and distant sounds near and when smoke goes down instead of up, one may find a way to the enchanted forest. However, it was "once upon a time" that Clode was king there. Most of the tale takes place in Clode's castle, which contains an unusual group of retainers, but few women. Clode's kingdom is a hunter's paradise, except that periodically the king and his sons deplete the game and must wait about three years before they can hunt again. During this period, the kingdom is like a waste land, going through a long winter. The hunt for the white deer takes place during one of these periods, and the tale ends with spring's return and the promise of new richness. Another aspect of the setting is revealed during the elder sons' quests. They enter two different worlds. Thag finds a world of dangers and obstacles where courage is the main virtue. Gallow enters a bureaucracy, where cunning, wealth, and the power to bribe, lead to success.
Thurber manipulates the simple forms of fairy tales, with their conventional characters, frequent three-part structures, and love-quest plots, to produce a richly entertaining story with a serious moral intention.
Like "Snow-White" and "The Sleeping Beauty," The White Deer tells how a handsome prince breaks the...
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