The Twelve Dancing Princesses (According to Cassie)
So, basically, there’s a king, and he has twelve daughters. And though they’re all beautiful and presumably proper princesses, there’s a problem. Every night, they are locked into their room, but every morning without fail, somehow, they have each worn through a pair of dancing slippers. Every day they get a new pair, and every night they dance through them.
No one can figure out how this is happening, so the king proposes a contest. Any young man who submits himself will be given three days to solve the mystery. If he succeeds, he gets to choose a daughter to marry. If he fails, he’ll be killed. Let me tell you, this king sure knows a thing or to about asking for help and making friends, folks. We could all learn a lesson.
Somehow, the promise of a princess bride is stronger than the threat of getting your head chopped off, and any number of young princes come to try their hand at solving the mystery. They are each given a bed in a room off the princesses’ nursery, and they each without fail fall asleep every night and see nothing of any dancing. And they are all killed. Seriously, we’re not given a number here, but that’s an awful lot of princes gone, and you’ve got twelve daughters to marry off someday, dude. You’re really kinda screwing yourself over here.
Anyway, eventually a poor soldier comes to the kingdom, and as he’s traveling, he hears of the princesses’ predicament. He encounters an old woman on the road, and when she asks where he is headed, he jokes that he’s going to the palace to solve the mystery so he can become king. Though it was a joke, the woman takes him seriously. She tells him that the mystery can be easily solved if he avoids drinking the wine he is given and takes with him a cloak of invisibility, which she can provide.
With this advice in hand, the young solider decides to go ahead and actually try this, now that he has an advantage, so he presents himself to the king, and is shown to the room off the nursery. That night, the eldest princess gives him a cup of wine, but remember the old woman’s warning, he pretends to drink, but really pours it into a sponge he’s tied around his chin. Which, to me, doesn’t seem like the most inconspicuous plan in the world, but I guess it works because when he pretends to fall asleep, all the girls are convinced.
As soon as he has fallen into “sleep,” the princesses laugh at him and begin to dress in fancy gowns. Only the youngest speaks up, saying that she doesn’t feel good about tonight, that she’s certain some misfortune will befall. But all the others call her a silly goose and tell her that the sleeping potion will work on him as it has worked on all the others.
The eldest princess then reveals the trapdoor beneath her bed, and she leads her sister down beneath the room. As soon as the last princess is through, the soldier jumps up, grabs the invisibility cloak, and follows them. On his way down the stairs, he accidently steps on the hem of the youngest princess, who alerts the others, but again, they just laugh at her, saying she pulled it on a nail.
At the bottom of the stairs lies a forest of silver trees. The solider thinks this might help him prove where the girls go, so he breaks off a twig. The youngest princess hears the snap, and tells her sisters, “Someone just broke a twig, didn’t you hear it?” But again, they all laugh at her, and say it was a gun fired in joy because they got rid of their prince. Which really doesn’t make sense, and I’m starting to think these older girls quite dumb indeed. You’re walking through a forest and you hear a snap, but you’re right, it’s totally more likely that someone fired a gun to celebrate the fact that another prince took a sleeping potion, than that someone following you stepped on a twig. Yeah.
The silver trees give way to gold, and then to diamond, and each time, the soldier breaks off a twig, the youngest daughter hears it, and the rest laugh at her for being foolish. And then they come to a lake where twelve boats with twelve princes wait for the princesses. Invisible, the soldier climbs into the boat with the youngest, because it makes perfect sense to join the most suspicious, and the rower comments that the boat is much heavier tonight than it ever has been, because he’s clearly the soul of tact.
Across the lake lies a beautiful palace, and the girls take their princes and join a night-long dance. The solider watches the whole time, and continues to do things to freak the youngest girl out, like drink her cup of wine when she sets it down, but continuously, her older sisters refuse to listen to her.
When the dance ends, their slippers are worn through, and as soon as the boats have taken them back across the lake, he soldier runs ahead and returns to the nursery before the girls do, pretending to have been sound asleep the whole time.
For some reason, the soldier decides not to tell the king what he saw, but rather watch each night of his three nights because . . . reasons? Anyway, the saga repeats for three nights, and on the final night, the solider takes a cup from the palace, and the next morning, when the king asks if he’s solved the mystery, he says he has, and that the princesses go to an underground palace and dance with twelve princes, and the king says, “Okay, sounds legit.”
To be fair, the soldier offers the twigs and the cup as proof, but . . . really? That’s all the more he has to do? Doesn’t have to show you the trapdoor or anything?
And then, the king brings his daughters before him and asks if the story is true, and despite all the lying they’ve presumably done up to this point, they take one look at the twigs and go, “Oh, I guess we’re caught. Yup. That’s what’s been happening. You got us.” The story doesn’t show this, but I like to imagine that they youngest princess gets to go “I told you so!” to her sisters at least once.
So the king asks the soldier which girl he’d like to marry, and depending on the version you read, he either says he’ll marry the eldest because he’s no longer young, or he asks for the youngest. Personally, I prefer the version where he marries the youngest because, let’s be real, she’s proven herself to be the most observant and intelligent of the twelve. Choosing to marry the eldest really has to be entirely about becoming king, because this girl has shown herself to be conniving and rude, and she wanted you to fail and die.
And . . . that’s it. There’s a wedding and a “happily ever after” ending, but no punishment, no reason for the dancing in the first place, and no argument from the sisters about giving it up.
My thoughts? I do like this story because I feel it has a lot of potential, but I readily admit that the end kinda falls apart a bit. Why were the girls dancing? Why didn’t they care that they had to stop? If they were willing to watch a stream of men die so they can keep dancing, why weren’t they willing to try and lie when confronted with the soldier’s story? He only had a few twigs, and it was the word of twelve against the word of one. Just saying.
So, yeah, there are some issues here, but the core idea of the story is an intriguing one, and like I said, it has a lot of potential.
So what am I looking for in an adaptation?
First of all, firm characterization of the sisters. There are twelve of them. Yes, that’s a lot, and large casts of characters can be difficult to manage in a novel, but if you as an author are choosing this fairy tale in particular, that’s one of the things you have to tackle. You can’t just characterize the oldest and the youngest and let the other ten just kind of be there. Well, okay, you can, but I'm gonna call you out on it.
A reason for the dancing. Seriously. Why are these girls dancing every night? How did it start? When did it start? Why don’t they tell anyone where they’re going, and why are they so willing to give it up in the end? Are the girls spoiled and stifled and looking for adventure? Are they under an enchantment? What’s going on with the dancing?
An explanation for this underground world. It’s mind boggling to me that this king learns there’s some kind of kingdom under his palace, with a palace and princes of his own, and doesn’t feel the need to look into this at all. I’m really not impressed with this guy or his foreign policy.
Round out the rest of the cast. Where did the soldier come from and why does he decide to help the princesses? Why is the king so ridiculously out of touch with pretty much everything? Where is the Queen through all this? Who was that old lady, and how did she know about the sleeping potion? Who are these princes the girls were dancing with and what did they want?
So! The novels this month are:
The Night Dance by Suzanne Weyn
The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell
The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun
The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler
Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
Feel free to read along!