Once there lived a king and a queen who were rich and had everything that they could wish for, but no children. She complained day and night about this, and said, "I am like a field that nothing will grow in."
Finally God fulfilled her desires, but when the child came to the world it did not look like a human child, but instead it was a young donkey. When the mother saw it she wept and wailed. She would sooner have no child at all than a donkey, and she said that they should throw it into the water and let the fish eat it.
But the king said, "No, God has given him to us. He shall be my son and heir, and following my death he shall sit on the royal throne and wear the royal crown."
Thus they raised the little donkey. He got bigger, and his ears grew up straight and tall. He was a very cheerful sort, jumped about, and played. He was especially fond of music, so he went to a famous minstrel and said, "Teach me to play the lute as well as you do."
"Oh, my little master," answered the minstrel, "that will be difficult for you, because you don't have quite the right fingers; they are too large. And I am afraid that the strings would not hold up."
But no excuse would do. The little donkey insisted on learning to play the lute. He kept at it and practiced hard, and in the end he learned to play just as well as his teacher.
One day while taking a contemplative walk he came to a well, looked into it, and saw his donkey shape in the mirror-like water. This made him so sad that he set forth into the wide world, taking only a single loyal companion with him. They went this way and that way, finally coming to a kingdom where an old king ruled. He had only one daughter, but she was very beautiful.
The little donkey said, "This is where we will stay." He knocked at the gate and called out, "There is a guest out here. Open up and let him in." But they did not open the gate, so he took his lute and began to play it most beautifully with his two front feet.
That opened the gatekeeper's eyes, and he ran to the king, saying, "A little donkey is sitting outside the gate playing the lute as good as an accomplished master."
"Then let the musician in," said the king.
When the little donkey entered, they all began to laugh at the lute player. They sent him below to sit and eat with the servants, but he refused, saying, "I am not a common stall donkey, I am a noble one."
"If that is the case, then you can sit with the soldiers," they said.
"No," he replied, "I want to sit next to the king."
The king laughed and said with good humor, "So be it. If you insist, then just come here to me." Then he asked, "Little donkey, how do you like my daughter?"
The donkey turned his head toward her, looked her over, nodded, and then said, "Beyond all measure. She is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen."
"Then you should sit next to her," said the king.
"It is all right with me," said the little donkey, then took a seat at her side and ate, behaving himself like a real gentleman.
After the noble animal had stayed at the king's court for a good while, he thought to himself, "What is the use? I have to go home again." He sadly bowed his head, went to the king, and asked for his leave.
But the king, who liked him a great deal, said, "Little donkey, what is the matter with you. You look as sour as a vinegar jug. I will give you whatever you ask for. Do you want gold?"
"Do you want precious things and jewelry?"
"Do you want half of my kingdom?"
Then the king said, "If I only knew what would make you happy. Would you like to have my beautiful daughter as your wife?"
"Oh, yes," said the little donkey, and was suddenly happy and content, for that was exactly what he had wanted.
So they had a large and splendid wedding. That evening when the bride and the bridegroom were led into their bedroom, the king wanted to know if the little donkey would behave himself like a gentleman, so he had a servant hide himself there. When the couple was inside, the bridegroom bolted the door shut, looked around, and thinking that they were all alone, he pulled off his donkey skin and stood there as a handsome young man of royalty.
He said, "Now you see who I am, and that I have been worthy of you."
The bride was delighted, kissed him, and loved him with all of her heart. The next morning he jumped up, put his animal skin on again, and no one would have thought what he was like beneath it.
The old king soon came by. "Aha," he said. "The little donkey is awake already!" Then he said to his daughter, "Are you sad that you do not have an ordinary human for a husband?"
"Not at all, father dear. I love him just as much as if he were the handsomest man, and I want to keep him as long as I live."
This surprised the king, but then the servant who had hid himself came and revealed everything to him. The king said, "That cannot be true!"
"Then you keep watch tonight, and you will see it with your own eyes. And do you know what, your majesty? If you take the skin away from him and throw it into the fire, then he will have to show himself in his real form."
"Your advice is good," said the king, and that evening while they slept, he crept into their room, and when he came to their bed, by the light of the moon he saw a proud young man lying there. The skin was lying on the floor. He took it away, had an enormous fire built outside, and had the skin thrown into it. He himself stayed there until it had burned entirely to ashes. He stayed awake and kept watch the entire night, because he wanted to see what the robbed man would do. When the young man awoke at the first light of morning, he got up and wanted to put on the donkey skin, but he could not find it.
Terrified, he spoke with sadness and fear, "I will have to run away."
He left the room, and the king, who was standing there, said, "My son, where are you going in such a hurry? Just what do you have in mind? Stay here. You are such a handsome man. Don't leave me. I will give you half my kingdom for now, and after my death you shall receive the other half."
"I wish a good conclusion for this good beginning," said the young man. "I shall stay here with you."
Then the old man gave him half his kingdom. He died a year later, and then he had the whole kingdom, and after the death of his father, another one as well. And he had a glorious life.
Revised September 25, 2001.