Before I start, thanks to everybody who came to a tour event. I was so happy to meet you!
On April 4, 2010, Guinevere Amoureaux wrote, I have a problem with revamping fairy tales. I always ask myself “why” and “how come” but I never find anything. Then, when I read a retold fairy tale, I say, “Oh yeah! Why didn’t I think of that?” And then, when the book THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS, a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” came out and I saw it at the library, I nearly boiled over. All day I was saying to myself, “Why didn’t I think about that?” I could have JUST asked, “WHY did the princesses dance every night?” Could you give me a bit of advice on this topic?
I’ve been fascinated by “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” too. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre I was really trying to tell the tale of the twelve, but I couldn’t get it. After I read your question, I looked The Thirteenth Princess up online, although I confess I haven’t read it. When the review said that there were twelve princesses because the king kept trying for a son, my reaction was exactly the same as yours: Why didn’t I think of that?
Let me go through my process with this story as an example. Here’s the tale, lifted (legally) from this URL at Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Dancing_Princesses:
Twelve princesses slept in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors were securely locked, but in the morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night.
The king, perplexed, promised his kingdom and a daughter to any man who could discover the princesses’ secret within three days and three nights, but those who failed within the set time limit would be put to death.
An old soldier returned from war came to the king’s call after several princes had failed in the endeavor to discover the princesses’ secret. Whilst traveling through a wood he came upon an old woman, who gave him an invisibility cloak and told him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who would come to him in the evening, and to pretend to be fast asleep after the princess left.
The soldier was well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess came to his chamber and offered him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman’s advice, threw it away secretly and began to snore very loudly as if asleep.
The princesses, sure that the soldier was asleep, dressed themselves in fine clothes and escaped from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, donned his invisibility cloak and followed them down. He trod on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry to her sisters that all was not right was rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway led them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, broke off a twig of each as evidence. They walked on until they came upon a great lake. Twelve boats with twelve princes in them were waiting. Each princess went into one, and the soldier stepped into the same boat as the youngest. The young prince in the boat rowed slowly, unaware that the soldier was causing the boat to be heavy. The youngest princess complained that the prince was not rowing fast enough, not knowing the soldier was in the boat. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away.
The princesses danced until their shoes were worn through and they were obliged to leave. This strange adventure went on the second and third nights, and everything happened just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carried away a golden cup as a token of where he had been. When it came time for him to declare the princesses’ secret, he went before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and told the king all he had seen. The princesses saw there was no use to deny the truth, and confessed. The soldier chose the eldest princess as his bride for he was not a very young man, and was made the king’s heir.
The version I know ends intriguingly by saying that a day was added to the princes’ enchantment for every night they danced with the princesses.
There are oodles of mysteries in this tale in addition to the puzzle about the quantity of princesses. When I read it or any fairy tale, I question everything. That’s what I’d like you to do right now. Write a list of questions or mysteries, aspects of this story that seem unresolved. Try to come up with at least eight. My questions are below, but don’t look. STOP READING AND WRITE.
I thought of continuing in a separate post, but that seemed untrusting. Here are my questions:
1. Why do the princesses share a bedroom in an enormous castle?
2. Why is the king locking them in at night?
3. Why aren’t evening entertainments held right there at the castle?
4. If he cares so much about the dancing slippers, why doesn’t the king deprive his daughters of them at night and let them walk barefoot to the privy?
5. Why does he kill the unsuccessful suitors?
6. Why three days and nights for the trial rather than one or twenty-five or any other number?
7. Generally, what’s up with this crazy king?
8. Why does the old woman help the soldier?
9. Who is she?
10. What is she doing with a cloak of invisibility?
11. Why are the princesses willing to let young men die rather than reveal the secret of their dancing slippers?
12. Why do they dance with the princes? How did it begin?
13. Why three groves of trees, and why are their leaves made of precious metals and jewels? (This is my favorite part of the story.)
14. Is this enchanted world of the trees, the lake, and the castle underground?
15. Why are the princes there?
16. What does the soldier think of all this?
You may have come up with different questions than mine, maybe more, maybe fewer. There’s no right or wrong number or right or wrong question.
So that’s my approach with fairy tales. Questions jump out at me, and I make up answers. I follow the answers to more questions and more answers, and eventually a story emerges.
When I attempted to turn “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” into a novel, I began by eliminating nine princesses, because three main characters seemed interesting and twelve impossible for me and the reader to keep straight. Then I decided that the old woman was a sorcerer in disguise and that the king was consumed by grief for his dead wife, and I had an idea that the groves of trees somehow represented the seasons. (I loved that idea.)
I got stuck in several places. Even if the old woman was a sorcerer, I didn’t know why he/she wanted the princes discovered and why she chose the soldier, and I couldn’t figure out why they were enchanted and what their enchantment was. At one point I decided that they might be specters, which seemed promising.
The obstacle I couldn’t get around was the princesses. They seemed the obvious choices for heroines, but I hated them for allowing all those suitors to die. Eventually I let the enchanted princes and the soldier go and lopped off one princess. The sorcerer, who had been malevolent at the beginning, turned into kindly Rhys.
This wasn’t easy. I was despairing when I couldn’t figure out the original, beloved fairy tale. My story emerged slowly, and I no longer remember how I came to it. The moral is, though, that the fairy tale is a jumping off point. It doesn’t matter if you stick with it. What’s important – the only important thing – is writing a story, which is bound to be your own, even if you hew closely to a known tale. You’ll put something of yourself into it.
I’ve been thinking about “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” again. I may have a new approach that will allow me to write it. But if not and it veers off again and I get another different story, I’ll just throw up my hands and celebrate.
Here’s a prompt: The craziest fairy tale I know of is “Lovely Ilonka,” which you can find in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. The Lang books (each named after a different color, and the series contains the well-known tales and many lesser-known ones) may be in your library, and they’ve all been digitized, so you can get them for free online. Please don’t read the abridged version in Wikipedia, because you won’t see the full wackiness. Read the fairy tale, ask yourself questions about it, develop your own interpretation, and see where you wind up. Have fun, and save what you write!