Princesses in The Underworld

It’s not uncommon for young girls to sneak out of an evening; wait until their parents are asleep, and creep out of the window, or the back door. This must be even more tempting if you lead the sheltered life of a princess. Bored with the luxurious safety of the palace, why not climb through a trapdoor, into a secret passage, and out into the world beyond?

I recently re-read the Twelve Dancing Princesses, a favourite story from my childhood. Within the Brothers Grimm collection, it is one of the less gruesome tales. The hero is unusual, because there is a suggestion that he is injured, or lame. So he is not the typical ‘prince’ figure. He is maybe closer to the idea of Jack the Giant Slayer, or Aladdin, in that he is a disadvantaged commoner, who transforms himself into a hero. There is almost a hint that the disobedient princess is being punished, by being married off to the lame soldier. But the King has promised her hand in marriage to whosoever can solve the mystery of the worn out shoes, so he must keep his word. I like this meritocratic aspect to the story. Even a lame former-soldier can become king if he is wise enough. Of course, he is helped by an old woman, but this too is an important lesson; there are older and wiser people out there who are generous enough to advise, if you are modest enough to ask.

The story still feels very relevant today, I can imagine the young princesses sneaking out of the palace to go to a nightclub, and snapping the heels off their shoes, or spilling drinks on them. The next morning, their father, who paid for the shoes, is angry, but they won’t tell him where they’ve been, and they are too clever to be caught sneaking out.

It has been suggested (Iona and Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales) that the princesses actually enter The Underworld, this might imply that they are going somewhere dangerous, or immoral, or that they are suspended between life and death. Parents always fear for their adolescent children, it is a dangerous age, they enter the world, but are not always ready for it. Is the King trying to protect his daughters from what is out there? I always wondered why there are twelve princesses, the plot structure could work even with just one princess. But maybe it is about a peer group. I have heard that in some versions of the story, the King only has one daughter, but she is joined by several other princesses, and they all head off to the ball. Are these other girls a bad influence on her? Are they the unsuitable friends who drag you away from your childhood? Maybe the King marries her off to the boring cripple because he would rather she were safe.

Like many fairytale heroines, the princesses dress up for their outing to the ball. What do you wear for a journey into The Underworld?

Perhaps it is like the opera Orpheus in the Underworld, as much as we are supposed to avoid it, The Underworld is tempting because it is more lively and fun. It draws in the little princesses, and then they are saved by the under-appreciated hero.


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