May 23rd, 2014
In many beloved fairy tales, a girl or boy is discovered to be more than their appearances suggest. Cinderella, for instance, although a royal child in most versions, becomes a scullery maid because she is de-classed by her step-family. In Donkeyskin, a daughter escapes the lust of her father the king by wearing an animal’s skin. In both these stories, the heroine is eventually recognized and elevated to her true status by a prince; her value is recognized.
The real goal of such fairy tales can be explained as how to steadfastly stick to your own values and by doing so reveal your worth. It’s not so much the words “prince” or “princess” that appeal to us; it’s the implicit recognition of inner worth that is symbolized by social status.
Of course their value as girls is to be faithful, to endure, to steadfastly maintain their part of the social order.
And that’s why Twelve Dancing Princesses appeals to me—because in this story, they don’t.
These princesses have a secret world—sex, obviously, because the door to the world is beneath their beds and because they wear out their shoes (a metaphor for vaginas). But clearly that underworld also indicates freedom. They are away from their father’s rule; they have found their own realm. It’s a threat to society! How will anyone know who the children belong to if girls make their own way in the world?
In most fairy tales, it’s the hero or heroine who gets supernatural help to overcome tests and trials. But in this case, the supposed “savior” is the destroyer. He has served his country and is a wounded soldier, which is itself interesting. He is not royal; he is not even young or physically alluring. Instead, he is a reminder of public duty, and as such is appropriate for putting the girls in their proper place. He will be raised to royalty if and only if he can restore the king’s rule.
The solider does in fact find out their secret, which is that they “dance” when they shouldn’t. The revelation here will be of their sins and thus it’s the reverse of the normal story arc. The sisters have to have their hidden life taken from them. They have to lose their personal kingdom or the stiff structure of society will fray. The fairy tale is on the father’s side.
But I am on their side. In my own version of the tale, I changed the outcome to suit them and not their father. Let them have their joy. Yes, it’s true that they get into trouble in my story when trying to pretend to be sons rather than daughters—but that’s because they copy the patterns of men they’ve seen. In a different world, they might have had more fun with it. But it’s the daughters, again, who oust the fake brothers from what looks alarmingly like a matriarchy in the making. There’s no way to have a secret world within a restricted society without having the determination and courage to make it all work. It’s not a golden goose, it’s not a magic bean. It’s hard work and imagination.
So I remade the kingdom. Why not?
Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in over 70 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies. She has published four novels and two story collections with university and small presses, and her last collection was chosen for Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2013 list. She has received an O. Henry award, been shortlisted for a Pushcart prize, for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. Permuted Press just published her novel, Glorious Plague, about a beautiful apocalypse.