So, I’ve already reviewed one of my retellings for this project, but it occurs to me that I should discuss the original Grimm’s fairytale itself. So, here goes:
The general story, in summary, involves twelve problematic princesses, each prettier than the last, who sleep in twelve beds in the same room. Each night, their long-suffering – and confused – father, the king, locks them into their room. Each morning, their dancing shoes are found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king, perplexed, promises his kingdom and the opportunity to wed the daughter of his choosing to any man who can discover the secret within three days and three nights. While this sounds like a potentially good deal, there is a downside: those who fail within the set time limit will be put to death.
An old soldier returned from war comes to the king’s call after several princes’ have failed in the attempt. While traveling he comes upon an old woman, who gives him an enchanted cloak that he can use to observe them unawares and tells him not to eat or drink anything given to him in the evening by any of the princesses and to pretend to be asleep until after they leave.
The soldier is kindly received at the palace just as the others had been and, in the evening, the eldest princess comes to his chamber and offers him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman’s advice, pours the wine into a sponge that he has tied around his neck, and pretends to fall asleep. I have attempted to picture how this would work without being observed, and have failed. Nonetheless, this whole sponge trick seems to be an important part of the tale.
The twelve princesses, believing that the soldier is asleep, dress themselves in beautiful dancing gowns and escape from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, puts on his magic cloak and follows them. The passageway leads them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of glittering diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, breaks off a twig of each as evidence, which causes a loud cracking sound that the princesses ignore. They walk on until they come upon a great clear lake, and twelve boats appear with the twelve princesses are waiting. Each princess gets into a boat, and the soldier steps into the same boat as the twelfth and youngest princess. On the other side of the lake stands a beautiful castle, into which all the princesses go and dance the night away.
The twelve princesses happily dance all night until their shoes are worn through and they have to return home. When it comes time for him to declare the princesses’ secret, he goes before the king with the three branches and a golden cup which he has stolen, and tells the king all he has seen. The princesses know that there is no use in denying the truth, and confess. The soldier chooses the first and eldest princess as his bride for he is not a very young man, and is made the King’s heir.
So, there you go. A couple of thoughts:
First of all, for people who haven’t studied folklore, it might come as a surprise to learn that there is a classification system for fairy tales called the Aarne-Thompson Classification System. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is classified as fairy-tale 306, in the “supernatural opponents” category. Other well known “supernatural opponents” fairy-tales include Rapunzel, Bluebeard, and Little Red Riding Hood.
In addition, the original tales have varying levels of murderousness. In the bowdlerized versions, the poor princes are merely banished or disappeared, rather than actually beheaded. However, it is important to note that, at least in the Grimm’s version, the princesses are complicit in the demise of the princes. They are prepared to allow them to be killed before revealing their secret.
I also love the part where the old soldier chooses the oldest princess. Way to go for the age appropriate one, instead of the more youthful one. Thank you, Grimm Brothers, for acknowledging the superiority of the mature princess.
Finally, as is often the case with fairy tales, there are multiple versions from many different cultures, from France to India. The one with the best name is Scottish, and is called Katie Crackernuts. Which is hilarious.
This fairy tale has always appealed to me. I don’t know if it is the strongly visual nature of the story, with the gorgeous dresses and dancing slippers, and the groves of trees, or what, but I remember reading this one in my original Grimm’s fairy tale book as an adolescent. Not surprisingly, every dance I have ever attended has failed miserably to live up to the standard set by the Brothers Grimm.