This week’s fairy tale is one from the Grimm canon, but I’m taking this version from Su Blackwell’s 2012 collection The Fairytale Princess because the paper art illustrations inside it are what fairy godmothers probably do in their spare time.
The story begins with a king who, despite presumably living in a moderately roomy palace, crams all twelve of his fully-grown daughters into the same bedroom every night and expects there will be no rebellion. He bolts their door every night from the outside (no trust issues there at all) but somehow by morning, every morning, the girls have worn their shoes to shreds.
Reasonably enough, they won’t tell him what they’re doing. Being a very typical fairy tale king, he doesn’t try family counselling or invest in a better shoemaker – no, he sends out a proclamation to the entire male population of his land, announcing that any man who can discover where his daughters dance every night will be able to choose their bride from the twelve and one day rule the kingdom. He doesn’t have to wait long for applicants. Prince after prince comes to try his luck, but mysteriously none can stay awake through the night. All, at the end of their allotted three days, are banished for their failure.
Eleven princes have tried and failed to solve the mystery by the time an injured soldier passes through on his way home from the battlefield. When stopped by an old woman and asked where he is going, he jokes that he’ll be the next to try his luck with the princesses. The old woman, though, takes him seriously, and is of course not all she seems. She knows All The Secrets. “You must not drink the wine the princesses bring you, but pretend to be asleep,” she tells him, and gives him a cloak that will turn him invisible. The soldier doesn’t look a gift horse in the mouth; he runs straight to the palace and is soon seated outside the princesses’ room. Like all the others before him, he is offered wine, but remembers the old lady’s advice and only pretends to drink.
But the youngest princess is uneasy. She senses instinctively that something is about to go wrong. The eldest overrules her, insisting that the soldier must be asleep. She knocks on her bed, which sinks away to reveal a secret tunnel. As the girls descend, the cloaked soldier follows, accidentally treading on the youngest sister’s gown – alarmed, she cries out, but everybody ignores her again and they all continue down. At the end of the tunnel is a forest of silver and gold trees. The soldier breaks off a few branches to take to the king as tokens of his tale’s veracity; the youngest princess is the only one who notices the sound of snapping wood, and I think we’ve already established that no one in the family pays the least attention to anything she says.
The princesses and their unseen observer come to the shore of a lake on which twelve princes wait in rowing boats to take them across. The soldier hitches a lift with, wouldn’t you just know it, the youngest princess. At least her prince notices there’s something wrong too, but neither suspect the extra weight belongs to a man in an invisibility cloak.
On the other side of the lake is a castle. There the twelve princesses dance the night away until their shoes are in tatters, and when at last they return to their chamber to sleep they see the soldier apparently asleep outside the door, just as they left him. For two more days, the soldier ‘sleeps’ and they dance. On the morning of the fourth day, however, the soldier takes his tokens to the king and tells him the whole story. The princesses’ secret is exchanged for his choice of bride and the promise of the crown.
In a turnaround from the usual fairy tale practice, he chooses the eldest. “Because she is clever and beautiful,” he says, very gallantly. They are married happily enough and the soldier does indeed inherit the throne when the old king dies. As for what happens to the tunnel, and to the other sisters, that is not revealed. At the very least, I hope they got rooms of their own.
I have read four retellings of this fairy tale which paint the hidden kingdom and the night-time dancing as sinister, but I have never seen it that way. To me it is a bid for freedom from a controlling father who, in some less sanitary versions, is quite happy to chop off the heads of unsuccessful suitors. It’s nice that the man who uncovers their secret means them no actual malice and chooses a bride with whom he’s at least pretty compatible, but I’m desperately sad for those girls who lost their secret escape – particularly the youngest, who saw the end coming and was ignored. I’d like to think that one day she found another way in.