It is a truth universally acknowledged that the fairy tale princesses of Perrault, Anderson, Grimm, etc., were written to be heroines, role models, perfect representations of the perfect woman; an archetype, if you will. Snow White’s habit of lying around in a coffin teaches girls passive acceptance. Sleeping Beauty reminds them that beauty triumphs over any difficulty. And they can clearly see that Prince Charming only marries Cinderella because her self-abasement after the ball is appealing to his male chauvinism. In misreading these fairy tales, modern individuals seek to alter, prune, or explain away the negative elements, reworking the female lead into a strong, independent heroine who will stand for no weakness, no saving prince, and no redemption. But not all princesses were written to be role models, and many of those that were, represented virtues generally overlooked, but by no means outdated, in modern society.
Besides the heroine, there are two other types of Fairy Tale Princesses: the anti-heroine and the victim.
Cinderella is one of the most controversial characters in fairy tale lore. Is she a good woman who exercises virtue, or a passive, weak victim of her abusive family? “If only Perrault wrote Cinderella as a molder of her own future! If only she had defied her oppressors and won respect! Then she would be a proper role model for our daughters.” Thus argue some critics of the tale, but such an argument puts emphasis on the wrong part of the story: on the wrong virtues. Cinderella is much more real and her triumph far more wonderful. Sometimes, we are not masters of our own fate; sometimes, we are trapped in a world beyond our power; and that is Cinderella’s reality. In such an unfair world, despair easily blots out all light, joy, or promise, but not for this Princess. Perrault describes her with a “sweet and gentle nature”, saying that she got this from “her mother, who had been the nicest person in the world.” He says that “the poor girl endured everything patiently, not daring to complain to her father.” Not because she was passive and weak, but because he was. He “would have scolded her, because he was entirely ruled by his wife.” Her actions, then, instead of being weak, are prudent. When the sisters are preparing for the ball, Cinderella offers to help them. This displays the virtue of brotherly love, or liberality, which is remarkable in her situation and shows great maturity of character, “anyone else but Cinderella would have done their hair amiss, but she was good-natured, and she finished them off to perfection.” When they leave, she does something completely human and not at all wrong: she cries. Not in despair or to complain, but from a natural, human heaviness of heart. Finally, Cinderella displays incredible trust in the divine when, over the course of three days, she makes no claim to her magnificence but waits to see how all will come right. Cinderella may not display the typical feminist virtues of action, self-salvation, or emotional strength, but she displays something much greater: trust, patience, and strength of soul.
Snow White, it may surprise you to hear, is not a heroine. She was never meant to be a role model, but to serve as a warning. In the Grimm’s version, wherein she is known as Snow Drop, she is young, innocent, and beautiful, and for this reason must flee for her life. Right from the start, we learn goodness and innocence often lead to oppression. As the story unfolds, the innocent Snow Drop faces cruel reality, evil cloaked in deceitful goodness, and three times she is blind to its tricks. The Dwarfs tell her, “The queen will soon find out where you are, so take care and let no one in.” She tries to rely on her own judgment, disregarding the advice of the seven little men, and all three times, she fails.
- “‘I will let the old lady in, she seems to be a very good sort of body’…Snow-drop did not dream of any mischief; so she stood up before the old woman; but she set to work so nimbly, and pulled the lace so tight, that Snow-drop lost her breath, and fell down as if she were dead.”
- “Snow-drop said, ‘I dare not let anyone in.’ Then the queen said, ‘Only look at my beautiful combs;’ and gave her the poisoned one. And it looked so pretty that she took it up and put it in her hair to try it; but the moment in touched her head the poison was so powerful that she fell down senseless.”
- “‘I dare not let any one in, for the dwarfs have told me not.’… ‘You silly girl!’ answered the other, ‘what are you afraid of? do you think it’s poisoned?’…she had scarcely put the piece into her mouth, when she fell down dead upon the ground.”
As punishment, she falls into a death-like slumber. In a way, she deserves to remain there: she was naive to a fault, and received not only a second chance, but a third, and ignored prudence every time. It is by the mercy of God that she not only receives a fourth chance when the Prince comes along, but a passionate, adoring love. The final lesson, then, from Snow White, is sometimes, through no merit of our own, we get a happy ending.
The last type of Princess is the victim.The victim succumbs not to a witch, or a dragon, or a wicked step-mother, or an evil king, but to something invisible, intangible, powerful. Two examples of such princesses are The Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. The Sleeping Beauty is the victim of fate, and her story asks the question whether we can escape our curses and blessings? Her parents do all they can to save their daughter from her terrible fate, but ultimately there is no salvation. Not, that is, until she has first suffered. Then her salvation finally comes to her in the form of her godmother’s blessing: she is awoken at the end of one hundred years by a gallant prince who risks death for her sake. The final life lesson the story of Sleeping Beauty leaves its reader is the assurance that just because our inescapable fate may lead to years of misery, there is joy at the end.
Rapunzel’s fate, on the other hand, is not external, but self-inflicted. Like Snow White, she is naive. But unlike Snow White, she does not merely make a mistake: she falls into the sin of lust. Both she and the Prince fall victim to sin in this story. The miseries that befall them are in expiation for their failures:
Rapunzel is exiled to a desert to raise her twins conceived in sin, and the prince is blinded (effectually removing the occasion of his sin, sight) and wanders the world alone. This story has been extensively altered from its original version by both the Brothers Grimm and more recent storytellers, but its original conveys the idea best.
Between once upon a time and happily ever after is not always the cute, clear-cut story we pretend it is. Like real life, fairy tales are full of mess, consequences, and human frailty. There are good people, evil people, and then just people, who do their best to be good but sometimes fall low.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. 2010, Puffin Classics, New York.
Perrault, Charles. Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales. 1961, Dodd, Mead and Company, United States of America.