There was once a king who ruled his subjects through terror and intimidation. His cruelty was so deeply ingrained in his nature that his very face was frozen into a terrible rictus of disdainful pride that instilled fear and dismay in everyone he met. But he didn’t care, because those were exactly the emotions he wished to inspire.
But there came a time when from a distance he saw the beautiful princess of a neighboring kingdom, and for the first time of his life, he felt incomplete. He inquired, and learned that she was as lovely of character as she was of appearance. He longed to make her acquaintance and court her, but he knew that his terrible face would frighten her, and he would never have the chance of winning her love.
As his only resort, he sought out a local witch, and ordered her to fashion him a magic mask that would hide his true face, and instead show one of benevolence. When he tried the mask on, he could barely recognize himself in the mirror. Instead of arrogance, the mask showed an expression of humility; instead of cruelty, the mask showed kindness; instead of avarice, the mask showed generosity. When he smirked with gloating delight at the deceptiveness of the mask, the mirror showed back a gentle look of calm reassurance.
With confidence in the mask, he arranged to make the acquaintance of the beautiful princess.
The courtship took root, but the king quickly realized that in order for it to flourish, his behavior would have to support the illusion of the mask. Gritting his teeth – A friendly smile, through the mask! – he began playing the part of the benevolent ruler. And over time, he played the part well. The laws of the land came to manifest justice, instead of tyranny. His people, at first wary, gradually turned to him for help and understanding. Neighboring kingdoms, once exploited, now found in his a cooperative ally. Most of all, perhaps, a feeling of general goodwill and peace spread over his country.
At long last, the king proposed marriage, and the princess accepted. But on the eve of their wedding, the king, moved by a strange urging of conscience that he had never before experienced, confessed to the princess what he had done, that ever since their first acquaintance he had been wearing a magical mask that disguised his true appearance. Before they could marry, he needed to show her his true face.
“Of course,” she said. “But do not worry. I love your heart, whatever your face. Let me remove the mask.”
And when she had done so, she studied him for a moment, and then said, with a quizzical smile, “My darling, you look exactly the same as the first day we met.”