Once upon a time there lived a king and a queen who were very rich and had everything they wanted, except for one thing — they had no children. The queen wept day and night, unable to think about anything else.
One day, though, their wish was granted and they had a child. This was an unusual child, though, for it did not look like a human but like a little donkey.
When the mother saw her baby, she began to cry bitterly. She said she would far rather have had no child at all than have a donkey. She wanted to throw it into the water so the fish could eat it. But the king said, “No, God has sent him, and he shall be my son and heir. After my death, he shall sit on the royal throne and wear my crown.”
So, the donkey was spared. As he grew, his ears grew high and straight. He was a cheerful sort, often jumping about and playing. He especially liked music. He went to a famous musician and said, “Teach me your art so I may play the lute as well as you do.”
“Oh,” answered the musician, “that would be very hard for you because your fingers are not quite suited to it. They are far too big. I am afraid the strings would not last.”
But the donkey wouldn't take no for an answer. He was determined to play the lute. And since he was willing to work hard and practice every day, he learned to play as well as the master himself.
One day the young donkey was out walking and came to a well. He looked into it and in the mirror-clear water saw his reflection. He was so upset that he went out into the wide world, taking with him only one faithful companion. They traveled up and down, and at last they came to a kingdom where an old king reigned. The king had an incredibly beautiful daughter.
The donkey knocked at the gate. When the gate was not opened, he sat down, took out his lute, and played it in the most delightful manner with his two front feet. The gatekeeper opened his eyes, gasped, and ran to the king, saying, “Outside by the gate sits a young donkey that plays the lute as well as an experienced master.”
“Then let the musician come to me,” said the king. But when the donkey came in, everyone began to laugh at the lute-player. Later the donkey was asked to sit down and eat with the servants, but he said, “I am no common stable-donkey. I am a noble one.”
Then the servants said, “If that is what you are, seat yourself with the soldiers.”
“No,” said he, “I will sit by the king.”
The king smiled and said good-humoredly, “It shall be as you like. How does my daughter please you?”
The donkey turned his head toward her and said, “I like her above measure. I have never yet seen anyone so beautiful.”
“Well, then, you shall sit next to her too,” said the king.
“That is exactly what I wish,” said the donkey and placed himself by her side. He ate and drank and used good manners. When the donkey had stayed a long time, he thought, “What good does all this do me? I shall still have to go home again.” He let his head hang sadly and went to the king and told him he was going home.
But the king had grown fond of him. He said, “Why are you sad? I will give you what you want. Do you want gold?”
“No,” said the donkey.
“Do you want jewels and fancy clothes?”
“Do you wish for half my kingdom.”
“Then,” said the king, “would you like to marry my daughter?”
“Yes,” said the donkey, “I would like that.”
So a splendid wedding was held. In the evening, before the bride and bridegroom were led into their bedroom, the king ordered a servant to hide himself in the chamber and report back on how the donkey behaved toward his daughter.
When the newlyweds were finally inside their room, the bridegroom bolted the door, looked around, and — as he believed that they were quite alone — suddenly threw off his donkey's skin. He stood before his bride in the form of a handsome royal youth.
“Now,” he said, “you see who I am and that I am not unworthy of you.”
Then the bride was glad and kissed him, and loved him.
In the morning, he put on his donkey's skin again. Soon he saw the old king.
“Oh,” cried the king, “so the little donkey is already up. But surely you are sad,” he said to his daughter, “that you don't have a proper man for your husband.”
“Oh, no, dear Father, I love him as if he were the most handsome man in the world.”
The king was surprised until the servant who had concealed himself came and revealed everything to him.
The king said, “That cannot be true.”
“Then watch yourself the next night, and you will see it with your own eyes. If you were to take his skin away and throw it into the fire, he would be forced to show his true form.”
“Your advice is good,” said the king. That night the king stole into their room. When he got to the bed, he saw by the light of the moon a noble-looking youth lying there, and the skin stretched out on the ground. So the king took the skin away. He had a great fire started outside and he threw the skin into it, remaining by the fire until the skin had burned to ash. But since the king was anxious to know how the young man would behave when he found out, he stayed awake the whole night and watched.
When the youth woke up and went to put on his skin, he could not find it anywhere. He was alarmed and decided to escape. But when he got outside, there stood the king, who said, “My son, where are you running to? Stay here. You are such a handsome man; you shall not go away from me. I will now give you half my kingdom, and after my death you shall have the whole of it.”
And so the young man stayed, and they all lived in splendor and happiness.