Fernán Caballero was the pen name of Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber y Ruiz de Larrea (1796–1877). In 1811, she published the short fable “The Hump,” which is a take on the fairy tale trope of a king promising to give half his kingdom away to anyone who would marry his stubborn daughter.
What struck me in reading this story is the oddity of the trope. Sure, monarchs would marry their children (or themselves) off to make alliances with other monarchs, but part of this trope is that it is so random. Marrying the princess off to whoever could slay a dragon or whatever may demonstrate that the individual is skilled in combat, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to the skills to rule a kingdom.
In “The Hump,” the king determines to marry his daughter off to whomever can say what materials she used to have a tambourine made. Even less of an indicator of ability to rule a kingdom, although perhaps useful if the king is more interested in marrying his daughter off to a musician.
This type of story is often a fable, providing a moral about behavior, however in this particular case, the princess’s behavior isn’t punished in the long run, instead resulting in a happily ever after. Not for all the characters, but certainly the princess.
In this story, the princess was on her way to Mass when she was accosted by a beggar. She brushed him off and he flicked a flea at her. The princess took the flea and fattened it up, eventually having its skin turned into the tambourine in question. Princes, kings, and commoners failed to identify the material until the princess spotted a prince and fell in love with him. She tried to tell him what the tambourine was made of, but he failed to hear her. The beggar did, though, and used the knowledge to win her hand.
Had the story stopped there, Caballero would have provided a moral to her fable that was in keeping with tradition. However, half the story remained to be told.
After being exiled by her father (who cleverly only promised marriage, not half his kingdom), with her beggar husband, the princess managed to rid herself of him, but at the expense of gaining his hump (it is a fable, laws of physics and logic need not apply, accept things as they are). The hump mimics her speech, so she pretends to be a mute.
Upon finding the lands where the prince she fell in love (or at least lust) with, she gets hired as a mute, hunchbacked maid (but she’s happy just to be near him). He, however, needs to be married off to a suitable princess, which she no longer is. However, everything ends happily ever after for the princess and the prince, although, in a clever aside that really nails the story, not for the narrator.
Caballero is aware of the traditions with which she is playing and clearly savors turning them upside down. She also is happy to break the fourth wall at the very end, reaching out directly to the audience in a manner that makes this a clever and appealing story.
The version I read appeared in The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and translated into English from Spanish by Marian and James Womack.
Steven H Silver is a twenty-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for eight years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference six times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.