The first word a baby folklorist learns is “version.” If there isn’t more than one version of a folktale then it probably isn’t a folktale. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” has a comfortable number of variants, dispersed from Russia, across Europe, to Scotland.
Also, like all true folktales, “The Twelve” does change color like a chameleon as it scampers from the forests of one ethnic area to another. I’m going to follow this critter as it makes it way from Germany to Ireland and France.
In the German flora the tale takes on the title, “The Worn-out Dancing Shoes,” appearing in the Grimms’ collection. The protagonist is an old soldier, who is aided by a magical helper, the iconic Old-woman-in-the-wood, who gives him good advice and a cloak of invisibility. Thus armed, he presents himself to the king in an attempt to find out how the king’s daughters dance their shoes to pieces while asleep in their beds. The reward is to marry one of the princesses. Failure at the task means death.
The old woman had advised him not to drink the drugged wine offered by the heartless princesses, a drink that led to the deaths of the other suitors. The old soldier pretended to drink the wine, and, feigning sleep, observes the princesses descending into the underworld. Donning the magic cloak, he follows them through groves of silver trees, golden trees and diamond trees to a lake where twelve princes wait to row them across to an island castle to dance away the night. For three nights the soldier follows, watches, and collects tokens to prove his story. Upon his revealing the truth to the king, the spell is broken; the princes who waylaid the princesses are punished for the same number of days they danced with their partners; and, interestingly, referring to his own age, The soldier marries the eldest daughter, even though he followed the youngest during his invisibility.
With a clap of my hands, the chameleon darts off into the Scottish foliage. Here the story is called “Katie Crackernut,” as collected by Andrew Lang. In this version, the same story motif as the Grimm version is identifiable, only turned upside down. The protagonist is a princess fleeing her parents’ home with her stepsister in tow, the latter of whom has acquired a sheep’s head in lieu of her own, through the machinations of the protagonist’s own mother. Seeking shelter in another castle, Katie finds there a dying prince, one of the two sons of the king and queen. Inexplicably, anyone who watches over the prince at night disappears.
The king offers a peck of silver to anyone who will stay with the prince. Katie volunteers and at midnight the prince rises and rides off. Katie gets on behind him, collecting nuts from trees as they pass by. At a green hill, they enter the fairy world, where Katie hides and watches the fairies dance the prince into exhaustion until dawn.
For the second night Katie demands a peck of gold to watch over the prince. That night she learns that a wand a baby fairy is carrying about can be used to cure her stepsister. She lures the baby fairy with the nuts and gets the wand.
Now Katie asks to marry the prince, if she will stay a third night. During that night’s dancing she overhears that the birdie the baby is carrying around can be used to cure the prince. The fairy kid never stood a chance. Katie plucks and cooks the birdie, which the prince greatly desires to eat. On the third bite the spell is broken. The prince and Katie are married in a double wedding, along with the prince’s spare brother and the stepsister.
Another clap of my hands and off goes the chameleon to France. I am using Andrew Lang’s translation, which is called “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Now the protagonist is a young gardener, who brings bouquets of flowers to the princesses, falling in love with the youngest. His magical helper appears as the lady in the golden dress, who gives him two laurel bushes that can grant him wishes.
He first wishes for invisibility, allowing him to overhear the princesses, learn their secret, and follow them to the underworld dance. He reveals to the youngest that he knows their secret. The sisters decide to enchant him with a wine philtre, as they did the fifty princes who came to solve the riddle and instead became their dance partners.
Although he knows all this, he goes to the laurels and wishes for princely clothing to attend the dance. Offered the wine potion, he is about to drink, when the youngest stops him, declaring her love for him. He tosses the potion aside and drops to his knees, proposing marriage. The other dance partners do the same, the spell now broken. Before the dance castle collapses, they have to get themselves and the extra princes back across the lake, not bothering to beg the question who were the original dance partners that started the whole thing off? It gets terrible messy and illogical, but then it’s French.
My chameleon is looking at me with his rotating eyes. I’m rolling my eyes too. These tales are all the same story, but then they are not.
In the Grimm version the old soldier is rather calculating; comes out on top, besting the cold-hearted princesses; and takes the hand of the eldest princess, the very same who offered him the drugged wine. I wish him luck.
The Scottish version brings to the fore the strong, resourceful Gaelic woman, who needs no magical helpers, and solves everyone’s dilemmas by keeping her head (unlike her stepsister) in the face of magic and fairies.
The French version—romantic through and through, if not very tidy.
Hey, what happened to my chameleon? Did he disappear or just…
Fairy Tale of the Month: Sept 2011 Twelve Dancing Princesses – Part Two
In fairy tales, dancing ranges from Cinderella acquiring magnificent gowns to attend the royal ball and win the heart of the prince, to Snow White’s stepmother/witch-queen forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead. Other examples of dance in fairy tales include the seven kids dancing around their mother goat after the wolf has drowned, and Rumpelstilskin dancing around his fire when he inadvertently reveals his name.
Dancing, as recreation, is a common activity, if maligned by Christian Fundamentalists. That it enters into fairy tales is unavoidable given the number of tales that end with a wedding. But when we come to “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and its variants, such as “Katie Crackernut,” the dance takes on another level of significance.
“The Twelve” and its variants share some common features:
1. The number three plays its strong, traditional role. The protagonist follows the dancers for three nights. In most versions three groves of trees appear. In some versions there are three princesses.
2. The dance takes place at night.
3. Always, if the dancers are female, there are shoes involved. (There is a correlation between women and shoes. In one of the variants the protagonist is an apprentice cobbler. Only in “Katie Crackernut,” where the dancer is male, does the story not talk about his shoes.)
4. The most striking parallel, the element that pulls us into the story, is that the dance takes place in the underworld.
That the dance may have dire consequences is clearest in “Katie Crackernut.” The fairies are dancing the prince to exhaustion, toward his death, under the green hill. In a Portuguese version, three sisters are dancing in hell every night. In a witches’ coven they dance with the devil, and let’s keep in mind a witches’ coven is made up of twelve women (twelve witches and the devil, making thirteen, thought to be a parody of Jesus and the twelve apostles). In the most familiar story line of “The Twelve,” the princesses come to no harm; it is the suitors who pay the price by beheading, disappearing or becoming enchanted themselves. Hmmm. Perhaps the Southern Baptists are right about what dancing can lead to.
The element common to all these tales that I have not yet mentioned is the spell. In every case the dancers are under a spell. In every case the spell is broken by the hero. Who cast the spell? Why was it cast? When was it cast? The tales will not tell us. The tales do not know. In “Katie Crackernut” we are left to assume that the fairies have waylaid a hapless being, ensnared by them for their own entertainment, as they are wont to do. But with the twelve princesses, I have the sense the spell, the dance, has been going on forever. Regardless of the story’s end, for me, they are still dancing, under us, in a castle filled with light and music, not thinking, as they dance, of consequences.
Fairy Tale of the Month: Sept 2011 Twelve Dancing Princesses – Part Three
One of my “hats” is that of an unpublished young adult fantasy writer. My critique groups tell me my story lacks tension. They inform me that genre readers (fantasy, mystery, crime) expect tension—that ever since the rise of melodrama as a story structure, the public has valued escalating tension. I observe that, with the advent of movies, devices such as car chases and cliff-hangers generate enough tension to attract viewers like crows around shiny objects. The action/adventure genre verges on needing plot and storyline only to string together the action.
The attention now paid to escalating tension postdates the development of fairy tales. When last did you come across one with a cliff-hanger? OK, Disney inserted a few in the reworking of those classics, but those are modern adaptations (violations?).
Does that mean there is no tension in those tales? I am going to argue in the next couple of paragraphs that there is tension, but, like many elements in fairy tales, it is subliminal and coded. The tension in fairy tales is created quietly and subtly through the story’s progression.
In “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” after entering the underground, the old soldier follows the princesses as they progress through three groves. The first is a grove of trees with silver leaves and branches. The soldier breaks off a twig as a token, causing an unnaturally loud noise, which alarms the youngest princess; but the impatient eldest sister explains away the disturbance. They proceed into a second grove, this with trees made of gold—another token, another noise, another excuse. The third grove is of diamonds, and the pattern is repeated.
On first reading, that there might be tension here never crossed by mind. I suspected that silver, gold, and diamonds held some arcane, mystical, symbolic meaning, understood in olden days by the listener. Today, if I were to say “Moe, Larry and Curly,” you would think “Three Stooges.” Back then, if I were to say “silver, gold and diamonds,” they would think—what?
I went looking for the “what.” I didn’t find it. Yes, all the precious metals have been assigned symbolic meanings and curative powers, etc. But none formed a triad of cabalistic or alchemistic significance. What I found was another story: “The Three Kingdoms—The Copper, The Silver, and The Golden.” This long Russian tale, collected by Jeremiah Curtain, throws in a diamond castle near the end for good measure. The progress of the hero starts at the Copper Castle, traveling to the next more valuable castle, all guarded by serpents, until he reaches the diamond castle, guarded by six-headed serpents, where the climax of the story occurs. That there might be tension here still did not occur to me. It is still, in my mind, all about the precious metals.
However, Jeremiah Curtain also wrote “Myths and Folktales of Ireland,” in which he collected “The Shee an Gannon and the Gruagach Gaire.” In part of that tale, the young Shee an Gannon battles three giants in turn. He throws down the stone wall surrounding the first giant’s apple trees and helps himself. The first giant comes crashing through the woods and a terrible struggle follows. Shee an Gannon is victorious, and the next day throws down the wall of the second, larger, giant brother, followed by an even more desperate fight. Shee an Gannon’s victory over the third and largest giant is a near thing, but he has now proven himself, and the story moves on to the next scene. There are no copper, silver, gold or diamond anythings in this tale, but the progression through larger and stronger is not unlike the progression toward more valuable and precious.
It’s not the underlying symbolism, but rather the increase in value, or the increase in size, or the increase in violence that is the device. These are the markers that inform the listener that the tension in the story is rising. These are not the same markers as in melodrama, where the rise in tension is blatantly described. The fairy tales use the progression of story elements to suggest tension.
As the old soldier passes through the groves, he is getting deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the underground world, drawing closer to the heart of the story, the castle of dancing and its music. His progress is a cue to the listeners to co-create the story’s tension for themselves.