Monday, January 22, 2018

From the Archives: The Underground Kingdom

This is the first book I owned in the Surlalune series! My favorite fairy tale other than Beauty and the Beast is the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and it's incredibly hard to find anything written about it, so being able to delve into multiple variants--most of which were completely unfamiliar to me--was like discovering hidden treasure!

One of the things which always fascinated/mystified me about this tale was the nature of the underground kingdom the Princesses travelled to each night-why did it need to be destroyed? Was it evil in any way other than being an inconvenience due to the rate at which the Princesses went through dancing shoes? The Grimm version provides no explanation. Fortunately the variants from around the world did provide some insight.

In  many versions of this tale, the underground kingdom is more specifically defined as hell, or a land of giants, trolls, etc. In Afanasyev's tale from Russia, the Princesses went to the home of the Accursed Tsar.

Some versions explain the nature of the Princess' curse. In Romania, "these Princesses were fore-doomed, and they couldn't marry until someone was found who would guess their doom and make one of them love him. The doom that weighed upond them was a passion for dancing. They were mad on dancing, and so every night they wore out a new pair of white silk slippers each."...later it is implied that another side effect of the curse was that they had icy hearts and were incapable of love, and that the music in the castle was enchanted such that any listener was forced to dance, whether willing or not.

Helen Stratton

A German tale (not the Grimms') describes the spell: the princesses had been dancing for five years. If they had danced one more year, they (the Enchanted Princes, I assume) would have been saved. The other alternative was for the princesses' heads to be cut off, as they were, for denying everything. The exact words say the elder sisters had "allowed" their heads to be cut off, so I guess they sacrificially saved the princes from enchantment? Yet they are still punished and the daughter who confesses rewarded.

Another story from Romania explains that the Princess' dancing partners were the "Emperor's sons who had tried to discover the secret of the Princesses. These latter had enticed them to a midnight expedition, and had given them to drink at table, an enchanted beverage, which had frozen their blood, killed in them every sentiment of love, every rememberance, or worldly desire, leaving them only the ardent pleasure of the dance." Which begs the question...where did the sisters go before there were dancing partners? Much like Bluebeard and the question of what caused him to kill his first wife, before there was a room of dead bodies to discover...
Elenore Abbott

In Hungary, the girls travel by broom to hell, where they dance on a floor full of razors-which explains why these three daughters destroy three hundred pairs of shoes. The girls in this story are rewarded according to their willingness to go-the older two had a lover and a son in hell and were killed, but the youngest was pure because she had no one there. Another very similar tale is found in the Czech Republic.

Yet another Hungarian story describes sisters which spend the night dancing with fairy youths, who are killed (except the youngest) for witchcraft.


For more on the nature of the Underground Kingdom in variants of Twelve Dancing Princesses, there's also a Part II including more tales from around the world!

4 comments:

  1. If you have not read the book already, I would recommend Heather Dixon's "Entwined." It's a pretty book with pretty language and an excellent plot based on the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

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    1. I have read it! I did a brief review on the blog but that was four years ago

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  2. When I was younger, I learned of fairy tales from only two sources, Disney or any Kiddie show. The heroines in those adaptations were depicted as passive, weak, and beautiful damsels in distress with no little to no agency, and waiting only for their prince/male hero to rescue them from the witch or dragon.

    When I become older, and read fairy tales in their dark, older, original versions. I loved how the heroines were stronger than their modern/Disney/Kiddie descendants. The Heroines in the older versions were strong, clever, self-determined, self-motivated, courageous, relied on their cunning wits or sought help from their Mother's Ghost, a Wise Woman, or any Divine/Powerful Feminine figure, even from dark female figures like Baba Yaga (both a wicked witch and a fairy godmother figure). I also liked how even though most fairy tales are female-centered, they were not originally depicting the women as typical jealous cat-fights (which what cause some to consider Disney's Cinderella as anti-feminist). The old fairy tales depicted the heroine not as the ideal woman, but as a strong woman who can endure hardships, while the wicked sister/stepsister(s) fail at hardship due to their spoiled and lazy nature. They were meant to be foils to the heroine. According to Valerie Frankel's From Girl to Goddess; the Heroine's Journey, the Heroine doing chores and difficult tasks is a metaphor for teaching her the hardships of life, and to help her endure the pains of womanhood (menstrual bleeding, childbirth), whereas her foils (the wicked sister/stepsister) fails on becoming a woman because she is pampered, spoiled, lazy, and relies on others to do everything for her.

    The Twelve Dancing Princesses is the least known fairy tale (or the least popular fairy tale) in which I liked how the Princesses had agency and could escape every night from their royal prison (in the versions where they are not enchanted to be cold-hearted but escaping an overbearing, overprotective father for just the night).

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    1. Even though it sometimes drives me crazy that 12 Dancing Princesses is so vague that's really one of the best parts of it-there are so many ways to look at it! Even in the versions where the underground kingdom and the inhabitants there are evil, clearly the most compelling part of the story is the secret kingdom anyway so the moral is kind of ironic. I like that idea of the chores/tasks that females do is really proving that they can handle hardships. Taking care of home and children is no joke!

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