Imagine, for a moment, that night after night you are doomed to trace a long spiraling staircase deep within the earth. Once at its base, your travels are still not done: you must walk though glittering “woods”—not living trees, but creations of bright gems and metals—and sail across an underground lake, where, on the other side, you must dance and dance and dance, until near dawn, when you can finally return to your own bedchamber and collapse next to your sisters, your shoes in tatters. Fortunately, you are a princess, with seemingly no responsibilities, who can sleep until noon if not later, and equally fortunately you have the money to buy new shoes every day—and cobblers apparently eager to make them. Still, this never varies, night after night.
Would you try to fight this enchantment, or casually arrange for the deaths of the princes who came to save you?
In the version collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their 1812 Household Tales, the princesses choose the second.
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” begins with a mystery: how, exactly, are twelve princesses managing to dance through twelve pairs of shoes each and every night, given that they are all locked into a single bedchamber by the king himself every night? Also a mystery: why the king started locking them into this chamber to begin with, and why all twelve of these presumably wealthy princesses are all sharing the same room instead of, say, at least three separate rooms. Or four. Everyone who has had to share a room with a sibling can immediately sympathize with this problem.
Both the story and the king are only interested in the first mystery, however—presumably because, even after saving at least some money by shoving the twelve princesses into one room, the footwear bills are starting to add up. Incidentally, as far as I can tell, no one ever raises questions about just how well made these shoes were to begin with, though I have to assume that after a few months of this, someone in the royal household decided to just buy cheaper shoes to begin with. No reason to spend a lot of money on shoes that are going to be ruined anyway. At least they don’t seem to be made of fragile glass, to confuse my fairy tales for a moment.
Anyway. The king decides to promise a princess and the kingdom to anyone who can figure out what, exactly, is happening to the princesses. If these hopefuls can’t find the truth within three nights, however, they will be beheaded. The usual sort of random princes on the loose try their luck, fall asleep, and are beheaded—without mercy, the story adds, somewhat unnecessarily.
Incredibly enough, these ongoing executions of presumably foreign princes don’t seem to bother any of the foreign kingdoms. Possibly a few kings felt this was a convenient way of getting rid of some extra heirs or troublesome princes, though the story never mentions this. Instead, it introduces a badly wounded soldier, who apparently has not been able to find another job, and is now desperate enough to start joking about maybe taking up the king’s challenge. A helpful old woman warns him not to drink the wine served by the princesses and gives him a cloak of invisibility. Off he heads to the castle, where the oldest princess takes one look at him and decides to drug him—the same way she’s drugged each and every other man who has attempted to discover the truth.
And let me just say: you go, girl. Ok, sure, by drugging these guys you are kinda condemning them to execution, which basically means being an accessory to murder, instead of—I dunno—telling your father to invest money in better shoes or something, or, better yet, explain the whole “Look, we weren’t exactly excited about getting locked up, so we found a way to get to an enchanted kingdom and dance all night, and can I just add, before you get too upset, that we did happen to find some princes down there so we’ve saved you a lot of time and aggravation on the husband-hunting front? You’re welcome.” On the other hand, by drugging these guys, you’re choosing enchantment over the mundane, not to mention seizing what control you can in a life where, despite your royal birth, you are locked into a room every night. If I can’t exactly applaud having young men killed off just so you can dance—well. I can at least applaud your effort to take at least some control over your lives.
Though that said, as we soon learn, all of the princesses have drunk the wine and eaten the food of an enchanted realm, so it’s possible that they are all acting under an enchantment, and I’m giving them way too much credit here for thinking they have any control or choice at all. In which case, well, princesses, yay on the finding a way to escape your locked room, minus several points for getting yourselves trapped along the way, not to mention various princes killed.
Anyway, the soldier, having tricked the princesses into believing he’s drunk the drugged wine, follows them down a long flight of stairs to their enchanted underground realm. Somewhat surprisingly, he decides to wait two more nights before telling the king the truth—possibly to give the princesses two more nights in that underground realm, possibly to give himself two more nights in that underground realm. And then, ending not just enchantment, but any hint of romance, he announces that since he’s not getting any younger, he’ll marry the eldest princess.
As an older child continually irritated by all of the nice things that happened in fairy tales to youngest children, and never the oldest ones, though, I must say that I greatly appreciated this touch.
As always, I am left with many questions: What happened to the poor cobblers who were making the shoes after this? Were they able to make up for their lost revenue, or was at least one princess kind enough to continue her daily shoe purchases? Even under an enchantment, how, exactly, can the oldest princess mistake a broken twig for a gunshot? Did any of the relatives of the executed princes seek revenge for their murders? And perhaps most importantly: how well is this marriage going to go, given that the eldest princess was more than willing to let this soldier die as long as that meant she could continue to dance in shadowed realms every night?
Altogether, the story is another startling find in Household Tales, which for the most part focused on stories that the Grimms believed reflected the solid German values of hard work, sobriety, modesty and honesty. Admittedly, dancing every night is hard work, and the princesses should be commended for keeping the local cobblers in business, the story does note that not drinking drugged wine greatly increases your chances of discovering an enchanted underworld realm and not getting executed, and the soldier is certainly modest enough—at no point does he claim or even try to claim that he can find out what’s happening to the princesses, and he’s also modest enough to realize that the king is not going to take his word for it, and will demand proof. But still, nothing in this story exactly stands out as an example of the virtues of hard work, sobriety, modesty and honesty.
The motif of the poor yet honest soldier, however, does appear frequently in the Grimms’ tales, at least a part as a reflection of the Napoleonic wars that had ravaged the region just before the brothers began collecting their tales and preparing them for publication. It’s also just one of many fairy tales, both in and outside of the Grimm collections, that contains an almost offhand mention of the death of several princes. A number of princes died trying to reach Sleeping Beauty’s palace, for instance, or while climbing a glass mountain. The only difference: here, the princes are fully aware that if they fail, they will die, and they are given a three day deadline.
The motif of an underground realm filled with trees formed from silver and gold and flowers made of gems is a little less usual in Household Tales, but the idea itself is at least as old as the epic of Gilgamesh, and quite probably older. Exactly where it came from is unclear, but I like to think that it arose from the shadows of caves, and burials, and what we know about gems, silver and gold: for the most part, after all, they come from the ground, and why not from living trees growing diamonds and sapphires, laced with vines of jade? (If this idea made you jump, I must once again repeat: Fairy tales are rarely safe reading for geologists.)
But what makes this tale stand out in Household Tales is its near defiant refusal to provide the princesses with either a happy ending or death, the more usual ending for morally questionable characters in those tales. This is in part created by the story itself: enchanted or not, the princesses have actively conspired to lead various princes and other men to their deaths—to say nothing of completely failing to alert anyone that hey, there’s several enchanted princes dancing under the ground, maybe we should let someone know about this. This makes them less sympathetic—or at least, a touch less innocent—characters than the girls and princesses of other Grimm tales, abandoned or forced to flee their homes through no fault of their own. And thus, arguably, less worthy of the happy ending granted to those heroines.
Not that death feels like quite the right ending either. Because, after all, the entire point of the story is to rescue them (and their shoes) from an underground realm—the sort of realm usually associated with the afterlife, or death.
It may be a bit much to say that the princesses of this particular tale are visiting the lands of the dead each night, however strong that mythic association might be. Rather, they seem to be visiting some in between spot—the very lands of Faerie, caught between the living and the dead—a place also hinted at in very ancient myths, the insubstantial land between life and death. But a place not exactly free from death, either: it is a place, after all, where nothing grows, and nothing changes, until the wounded soldier enters the realm. Sending these princesses to their deaths, then, means sending them back to the very enchantment that kept them dancing—hardly a punishment, let alone a satisfying ending. Allowing them to escape offered the hope, however faint, that yes, death could be escaped as well.
Whether it was the idea of so many destroyed shoes, or the hint that death could, indeed, be escaped, the story seems to have been relatively popular. The Grimms recorded several variations on the story in Germany alone, along with variants on the “how to trick a princess into thinking I’ve chugged down the drugs when I actually didn’t” which does seem to have some practical applications. Some of the tales had three princesses, others twelve; one version has only one princess dancing through twelve pairs of shoes each night. Another version tells of a princess who meets eleven other princesses in her underground dances—a somewhat more realistic variation on the idea of twelve still unmarried princesses all still living at home. In just one contemporary counter example, the very large family of George III—15 children in all—only included six princesses, one already married by the time the first edition of Household Tales reached print. Other real life royal families were considerably smaller, so it is hardly surprising to find versions that reflect that reality.
At least one French writer, Charles Deulin, was both charmed and troubled enough by the Grimms’ retelling to write his own version, published in his short story collection Contes du Roi Cambinus (Tales of King Cambinus) in 1874. Deulin’s tale kept the twelve dancing princesses and the eldest princess as their leader, willing to imprison or kill others as necessary in order to keep travelling to the underworld, but changed the soldier into a more magical figure, Michael the Star Gazer, and added a touch of love between Michael and the youngest princess, an element that allowed the enchantment to be broken not through the truth, but through love. This more unambiguously happy ending was presumably why Andrew Lang chose this version, instead of the one collected by the Grimms, for his 1890 The Red Fairy Book.
But for all of its magic and emphasis on love, this version also contains a surprising amount of snobbery: Michael, an orphaned cow-boy, decides to go after a princess because the maidens in his village are sunburned and have big red hands, which, thanks, Michael. After that, it’s not entirely surprising that the tale also includes a few offhand mentions of black servant boys, trapped in the underground castle, presumably killed when the castle crumbled to the earth once the enchantment had broken. I say “presumably killed” since although Deulin and Lang are careful to confirm that all of the princes and princesses made it out safely, neither mention the servant boys.
Perhaps that, or the length, or the snobbery was why, for once, the version published by Lang did not become the most popular English version of the tale. In this case, it was the version told by the Grimms, which did not promise a happily ever after for the soldier and the woman willing to accede to his death, that ended with the underworld princes remaining under an enchantment, but did offer some hope—however faint—that maybe, with a little magic, death could be escaped.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.