The concept of the princess has become problematic over time. I was never the kind of little girl who dreamed of becoming one – I hated dresses and the concept of romance and while watching Disney movies, I preferred to rout for the background talking animals rather than the person in the big frock. Even if you grew up without my hang-ups, it can still seem foolish to tell young women that one day their prince will come when it Still, there is no denying that the idea of the princess is a powerful one and that there is an awful more to being one that simply being married to a prince. The princess character has evolved over time but is she even still someone we aspire to be?
When I sat down to think about the fictional princesses who I found the most memorable, not all of these ladies were likable, not all of their tales end happily. To be a princess is less fun than I had thought, but yet it does not seem to be a state of affairs that one can escape. Other than birth, what is it that truly makes someone a princess?
The Princess and the Pea
Hans Christian Andersen’s story is probably the best known of all princess stories. Here we have a canny queen who is determined that her son should marry a princess. She invites several to visit and then in the middle of the night, a very bedraggled young woman in rags arrives who insists that she too is a princess. The ladies all go to bed but the newcomer insists that there is something beneath her mattress that feels like a boulder. New mattresses are added, more quilts and more eiderdowns until the bed sits forty feet high but still the girl can get no rest. Investigation reveals that the queen had placed a pea beneath the bed of all of her guests and that in recognising it was there, the newcomer proved herself the only true princess among the bunch. What does this teach us, that princesses are extra-specially sensitive? That they feel pain more than the average mortal?
Princess and the Swineherd, Hans Christian Andersen
There are a few versions of this tale but the Hans Christian Andersen version takes a darker twist. The princess in this tale is proud, too proud to accept the gift of a nightingale and a rose from a poor prince who had wished to wed her. He then dresses as a swineherd and comes to live in the palace, but he brings with him a musical pot. Not recognising him, the princess gives him ten kisses in exchange for the pot, and then one hundred kisses for a musical rattle which he makes next. Disgusted with her behaviour, her father the King casts her out of the palace while the swineherd goes back to being a prince, having decided that the princess was unworthy of him. Similar versions such as King Thrushbeard allow for a reunion between the two but Andersen is clear that the princess finishes up left alone and friendless, her future uncertain. Here it seems clear that the princess is a tool rather than a person with autonomy, chattel to be passed between men.
Princess of the Wild Swans, Hans Christian Andersen
Princess Elisa and her eleven brothers have the misfortune to get a witch for a stepmother (but isn’t that always the way) who then proceeds to turn them all into swans. She runs into bother though with Elisa who is too good to be turned so the stepmother banishes her instead and the swan brothers fly her to safety. Princess Elisa finds a sorceress who explains that the swan enchantment can be lifted if Elisa makes nettle shirts for each of her brothers, although she must not speak at any point while she does so or her brothers will all die. Of course all of this gets rather complex since people start to wonder a bit about the silent girl who keeps knitting with nettles. With even the king who had hoped to marry her believing Elisa to be a witch, she is just at the point of being burned at the stake when her brothers swoop down and she is able to throw the shirts at them, with the youngest brother left with one swan wing as his shirt was incomplete. Here the princess is self-sacrificing and noble of heart, gaining her reward as a return to royal status.
The Goose Girl, The Brothers Grimm
As a child, I used to really wonder about the princess in this story. I try to have more sympathy now – first time away from home, your servant goes full on nuts and steals your identity, it’s got to be rough for someone who has spent their whole life wrapped in cotton wool. And then the impostor lady kills the princess’ talking horse! Of course, things turn around for her because the local King recognises her royal blood and manages to find a way for the traumatised young girl to confess what has happened. Given that a princess is supposed to live a gilded life, they do seem to have a knack of finding trouble, and then for being utterly unprepared for it when it comes their way.
Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Brothers Grimm
Another very strange story – women have a tendency to not come off very well in stories told by the Brothers Grimm. While some versions of the story have the twelve princesses being under an enchantment and distressed to be unable to account for their own whereabouts during the night, in the original telling, the girls are rebellious and remorseless. There are variations as to whether those who have tried and failed to discover their secret were executed by the king for their failure or were lured into the enchanted world in which the princesses dance but either way, their old lives are lost. The princesses are caught by the end of the story and locked up as punishment in another story which emphasises that not all princesses know their place.
The Infanta – The Birthday of the Infanta, Oscar Wilde
This is probably the ultimate for me on this list – this story destroys me every time. Oscar Wilde here has a dwarf sold by his father to the palace for the young princess’ amusement. The dwarf however has never seen his own reflection and does not realise that he is a figure of mockery – until he stops by a mirror, realises that the Infanta does not love him and dies of a broken heart. The Infanta’s words close the story, “In future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts”, telling us a great deal of what Wilde thought of the nobility. This princess is a creature to be truly feared.
Sara Crewe – A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
At the other extreme of Victorian literature is Sara Crewe. She is determined to behave at all times as a princess should, no matter what her personal circumstances may be at the time. When she is the rich girl, she is kind to the maidservant Becky and when she is the poor girl, she makes friends with the rat who lives in her room and gives bread to a beggar girl. So many of Burnett’s protagonists are sickly sweet and too pure for plausibility but with Sara Crewe, something different is happening. She is a young girl firmly resolved to be the absolute best version of herself that she can possibly be – she does not look upon the princess state as a route to a husband or riches (I strangely imagine her choosing to remain unmarried when she grows up) but as a path towards nobility of the self.
The Paper Bag Princess
Ah I love this story so much! Princess Elizabeth was going to marry Prince Ronald, who was practically perfect, but then he got kidnapped by a dragon. Although everything she owned had been destroyed, the princess donned a paper bag and set out to rescue her beloved. Alas that when she did so, the prince was unimpressed with her get up and told her to go away and get herself sorted out. Seeing through him at last, Princess Elizabeth ditches him and strikes out on her own. Girl power! The Paper Bag Princess flips the rescue narrative with the girl saving the boy and has set the trend for a number of subsequent stories, such as The Worst Princess (see below), The Tractor Princess and then Babette Cole’s fantastic Princess Smartypants and Prince Cinders.
Princess Buttercup – The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Princess Buttercup was not originally a princess, having grown up on a farm tormenting the farm boy and her eventual love interest Westley. Having believed him dead, she lost all motivation for life and agreed rather vaguely to marry Prince Humperdinck even though it apparently involved three years of princess school. Here though her princessdom is a symbol, with the prince planning to murder her directly after their wedding and then use her death as an excuse to start a war. Buttercup often seems a little inert, with the action of the story happening around her but she is written to be a classic version of a princess with the whole of The Princess Bride a satire on the tropes of fairy-tale. Buttercup is the beautiful princess and you know that she will find her way back to her True Love.
Princess Cimorene – Dragonsbane, Patricia C Wrede
I read Dragonsbane when I was at school and absolutely loved it. It’s still one of my reading goals to track down the end of the series which was unfortunately never published over in the United Kingdom. I’ve spotted a boxed set on Amazon and I’ve a birthday coming up, just saying. Cimorene is facing marriage to someone who she does not particularly care for and who she is aware does not care for her and so she takes the most sensible option available to her – runs away to live with a dragon. Dragons apparently like to keep a captive princess around but Kazul is happy to take Cimorene even on a voluntary basis. Cimerone keeps house (or rather cave) for Kazul and fends off would-be-rescuer princes and generally lives her best life. Written in the 1990s, she represents the first in a wave of fictional princesses who are determined to make their own choices and we can see how the trend made it into the mainstream media via heroines such as Merida in Brave and to a certain extent with Elsa in Frozen. Ripples on a pond.
Mia Thermopolis – The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
I loved this series – I bought one of the books for Cousin the Younger but it was one of those guilty purchases that I later ended up reading myself while staying in her house. Meg Cabot is an unbelievably witty writer. Mia is an ordinary girl going about her life, failing algebra and then getting very upset when she discovers that her mother is in fact dating her algebra teacher. However, unexpected news comes when her father explains that following on from cancer treatment, he will be having no more children and will need her to step up as heir given that he is Prince of Genovia. Mia suddenly gets a bodyguard and has to start Princess Lessons with her terrifying grandmother. The Princess Diaries is a very modern take on princessdom – Mia is analysed on who she is/ should be dating, what she is wearing, who her friends are – and it does not make it sound like a whole lot of fun. What I did enjoy though was the occasional flashes where Mia starts to realise that her role as princess will mean that she needs to take responsibility and step up – not a bad moral within a teen drama novel series.
Daenerys Targaryen – A Song of Ice and Fire/ A Game of Thrones, George R R Martin
Daenerys is not the first warrior princess – we’ve had Boudicca after all – but she again represents a new wave of princesses who will not serve as chesspieces on the matrimonial board. Sold to Khal Drogo to get her brother an army, Daenerys proves herself to be infinitely more fit for leadership than her brother ever was. With him disposed of, Daenerys ceases to be a princess and has to take on her role as the last Targaryen – her television equipment has finally arrived in Westeros but it remains to be seen whether she will ever sit on the Iron Throne. What we respond to is her self-belief, her certainty that she is built to rule – this fantastic poem Khaleesi Says sums up so much of it – to be a princess is to know you have a place in the world and even if it is taken from you, you still have that inside of you. Whether you sit swathed in silk, or run about in rags, if you are a princess then you are one forever more.