Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dancing with the Stars

I talk about the Twelve Dancing Princesses quite a bit on this blog. What I haven't yet confessed is that I have a real soft spot for the story, quite beyond the wish-fulfillment fantasy of being a princess who gets to wear spiffy new shoes and dance with a prince every night.

The Soldier, Clive Hicks Jenkins
The unnamed soldier who drives the story is my favorite fairy tale hero. Only the Beast rivals him in my affections. Prince Charming and all his ilk can scram. Give me a tricksy thinker any day of the week.

Why the soldier? Why a nameless late-arrival in a lesser-known fairy tale? Why a guy Disney hasn't supplied with a swoony animated face? Partly for the same reason that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale: the complexity of his character, hinted at subtly but in every version I've ever heard. And partly because he's just awesome.

The fairy tale canon is stuffed to overflowing with heroes who are heroic because it's what they're supposed to do. Why does Cinderella's prince scour the kingdom for the girl with the tiny feet? Why does Sleeping Beauty's prince brave a gruesome death to save a girl he's never even seen? Why does Aladdin do anything? Because they're heroes. They know what's expected of them just like we do. They read their script, and they're going to perform the hell out of it, and no one needs to ask any questions.

The soldier is different. He's got motivation. He's a commoner who sees a chance to rise in the world - a near-impossible thing, given his position in a society hierarchical enough for the Princesses' father to permit only princes to investigate his daughters. Sometimes I've seen him played or written as wounded, which means his only form of income is gone. In the more draconian versions, where failed candidates get executed, the soldier is literally on his last chance. Solving the Princesses' mystery is the only path to survival open to him.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Anne Anderson
Be honest: in his situation, you'd allow yourself some time to panic, hyperventilate, engage in self-doubt, etc., yes? (I would, too. It's okay.) But this is where the soldier earns his stripes as a hero. He doesn't do any of that. He gets to the palace, persuades the king to let him have a go, and becomes goal-oriented like you wouldn't believe. He's three steps ahead of everyone, including the clever Eldest Princess who's been running circles around the rest of the palace chumps. After successfully tracking the Princesses on the very first night, instead of spilling the beans in a fit of glee, he has the sense to take all his allotted time to gather a whole mess of irrefutable proof. And during the day, he deploys his champion poker face to keep the Princesses from being suspicious, while probably courting them into the bargain (now that he knows he's going to win).

I don't care what you say. He is the textbook definition of cool.

Granted, if all we ever saw him do was track a bunch of girls through the woods at night, I'd be more concerned. But the very first time we meet him, we receive ample proof of his awesomeness. Remember, he's extremely down on his luck. No profession, no money, no prospect of long life and happiness. And yet he shares his lunch with a poor woman who has even less than he does. Was anyone surprised when she turned out to be one of those good witches who crisscrosses Fairy Tale Land rewarding good guys? Those characters exist for people like the soldier: unassuming decent people who just need one push in the right direction to turn their lives around.

Plus, there's that hilarious ending to one of the variants where, given his choice of bride among the Princesses, the soldier picks the Eldest Princess because neither of them are spring chickens and will suit each other best. Clever, pragmatic, and snarky? Sign me up! (Confession: I always think he marries the Eldest Princess anyway, regardless of their ages. The Youngest Princess - who, let's face it, is the only other real option - does nothing but squeal when he steps on her dress. The Eldest Princess is almost as smart and cunning as the soldier himself. They would suit each other best.)

There's just no one quite like him. For wit, quick thinking, sense, and goodness, no hero rivals the soldier. He's a self-made man in a universe that thrives on the status quo. He relies on his own talents and ambition - and of course, the charm that makes people like me fall head over heels for him. He is the complete package, and part of the fun of reading his story is learning just how much he deserves the good fortune that he earns.

1 comment:

  1. Ever wonder if the title "12 Dancing Princesses" was a typo and that it should really be 2 dancing princesses? Because according to everything I've heard about this story, the other 10 princesses so absolutely nothing. Like "11 little girls not named Madeline" nothing. Wouldn't it just make more sense for there to be two princesses? Or one?

    Great blog, though.

    Also, not the first time I've heard that women/girls like projects. Always trying to "fix" things.