This section of my thesis tells the story of Princess Alexis, who you’ll meet below. I wanted to create my own fairy tale that uses the tropes of the genre to comment on themes of modernity and democracy. In later chapters, she meets Rumplestiltskin, a vegetarian dragon, and goes to America. Adventures ensue.
Be sure to hover over and read the footnotes — there’s a lot to them.
Here’s the first chapter.
But the world is full of zanies and fools
Who don’t believe in sensible rules
And won’t believe what sensible people say.
And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, Impossible things are happening every day.
(Roger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella)
Chapter 1: The Ordinary World
ONCE UPON A TIME…
after tree by tree had been ripped out of the forest, after tall steel skyscrapers had been installed in their place, and after cell phone rings drowned out the chirping of birds, there was a princess.
She was a princess in the modern world, a princess who was beautiful and kind like all of the rest in a world that was dynamic and dramatic and industrial like it had never been before. Her name was Alexis. This is her story.
Her story is a story like all of those other stories with kings and queens and magic and fairy godmothers and a dragon and a quest, and yet it is not like those stories at all: most don’t have a narrator that provides a play-by-play analysis of the story in its use of political and literary theory.
Of those in the kingdom who can read, few have read this; but among those who have, the reactions are mixed. Some consider it a fairy tale about fairy tales; others reject that description, complaining, “It’s too long and detailed to be a real fairy tale!” and instead say it’s a novella that happens to discuss the theory of fairy tales and politics more than your average fiction piece would.
Others simply refuse to consider it a work of fiction at all. “Look at how many footnotes it has, for God’s sake,” they complain. “And academic references! What ordinary story makes academic references? This must be a thesis or some type of scholarly work. Send it to the academy.” But Alexis was no ordinary princess and, as logic would have us follow, her story is also far from ordinary.
She had beautiful long blonde hair and green eyes as any traditional White Anglo-Saxon Protestant princess would, but she also had a strong nose that dominated most of her face and a strange raised freckle on the back of her neck. The castle doctor had told her it wasn’t cancerous, but she was still concerned and examined it carefully every morning with a system of mirrors she had positioned at just the right angles.
She suspected her left leg was shorter than the other and had demanded all of her left shoes be made with a small heel to correct for this. She kept her fairy godmother busy with requests for health tonics and healing potions, and she annoyed the castle chefs with the picky eating habits she maintained out of concern that she might discover she were deathly allergic to nuts. Her father would laugh at her and offer the services of his poison taster, and she would sigh and remind him that it only mattered if peanuts or walnuts or almonds were poisonous to her.
Her tutor often said she was a hypochondriac, a germaphobe, too concerned with her health—“We’ll all die someday, princess; there’s no avoiding it.”—but she thought he was being ridiculous. She was just cautious. And prudent. And responsible. You had to be, in the world today. It’s a dangerous place. This makes her trip to America all the more ironic.
But first, more backstory. More stage setting. Alexis had a mother, the queen; a father, the king; a brother, the prince; and a puppy. Her parents had wonderful intentions, but were not the best rulers. Her father was a people pleaser, which was a terrible quality to have as a leader with no checks on his power, and her mother, being a woman, had no official political power.
So as king, Alexis’s father could do whatever he wanted; as a people pleaser, something he never wanted to do was to offend his advisors. They were his friends, and he would support all of their ideas, whether or not they made sense. He was considerate of their feelings, but this was not considerate to the kingdom. The queen had her reservations about the quality of the king’s advisors and read him Machiavellian warnings, but he brushed them aside and returned to the conference room.
It usually went something like this: at one week’s meeting, an advisor would propose a new tax on milk. “Great idea!” the king would smile, clapping him on the shoulder, and it would become effective immediately. The next week, a different advisor would come up to the king: “I know you thought the milk tax was good, but imagine if we taxed bread.” After all, their kingdom’s bakers were well known for their sourdough. “Brilliant, my friend, brilliant!” the king would boom, and last week’s tax would be repealed in favor of the new one. And so on.
The kingdom’s accountants, understandably, despised her father and, had ruined countless sheets of parchment as their scribbled out past calculations pooled into puddles of ink. They had finally invested in pencils to make their ledgers neater. The kingdom’s economists shook their heads sadly with each new change, lamenting the loss of economic stability and the profits that would accompany such stability.
A constantly shifting tax code confused the peasants as well: conniving tax collectors would conveniently forget to tell them that an earlier tax had been repealed and would keep the now surplus money for themselves. The king would have been furious had he known, for he abhorred cheating of any kind, but he was far too busy with cabinet meetings and attending to his personal interests to keep an eye on his unscrupulous public servants.
Alexis’s parents were often critiqued for their lack of scruples, anyway. The king and his advisors spent so much time thinking of new tax plans that what to do with the new money was never fully considered—instead, it went straight to the castle’s wallet. Rather than attend to the peasants’ concerns or focus on improving the kingdom’s infrastructure, the tax money was spent on what the king and queen considered most worthwhile: art. They commissioned pieces from painters and sculptors around the kingdom on a regular basis, with new royal portraits produced every year. (The walls of one castle hallway were lined with frame after frame of Alexis growing older. She stayed far away from that hallway.)
To make matters worse, rather than display the portable pieces where the peasants could admire their tax dollars at work, the art remained in their own gallery inside the castle walls. Sometimes Alexis’s parents would invite neighboring royalty for art shows, where they’d serve cheese and wine and those great fig and olive crackers. It was good for foreign relations to host these events, her father would tell her, brandishing his cup of wine and spraying cracker crumbs as he spoke.
“We’re building social capital and good will!” he’d say. “You’re less likely to attack a castle that houses beautiful art and beautiful people,” he’d say, with a wink. “And beautiful food! Get me more wine.”
Of the gallery’s visitors, some were more important than others. The king and queen of next-door Armegny were frequent visitors, reliable trade partners, and had spearheaded the development of an inter-kingdom system of roads that had connected markets that were multiple leagues away. They would always lend Alexis’s parents a metaphorical cup of sugar if it were needed.21
But the kingdoms who enjoyed the most power were those whose rulers were backed by stories. Fairy tales. Cinderella had visited their art gallery, once. She looked it up and down, sniffed haughtily, and left without even bothering to stay for the food. Her glass slippers had left scratches in the castle floor.
Alexis’s parents were powerful because the law said so. Fairy tale figures were powerful because they were respected, loved, and idolized by the people. Having the support of the law is one thing; having the support of those you are ruling is something else entirely.22 And Cinderella had both.
So far, Cinderella’s time on the throne had been completely peaceful and prosperous. The peasants of her kingdom worshipped her. They envied her. They wanted to be her—she had been one of them and made it out, all the way out, to the very top for Cinderella’s wealth extended beyond money. Of course she was rich enough after marrying Prince Charming, and the tax dollars of the Charming kingdom frequently financed the cushioned insoles for her glass slippers. But she reaped other rewards. Merchants would give her free goods—“This dress is just the right color for you, Your Highness”—and she would become a walking advertisement for their store. As her closet grew bigger, so did the merchants’ wallets: every product she touched turned to gold.
Alexis loved reading Cinderella’s biographies. She would marvel at the descriptions of Cinderella’s chores—scrubbing the floors on your hands and knees? How humiliating!—and grimaced when she read Cinderella’s stepsisters’ eyes were poked out by birds, feeling simultaneous delight and disgust with a twinge of sympathy. Through the books of the castle’s library, she met other fairy tale princesses, like Rapunzel and Snow White, who lived in nearby kingdoms. (She wouldn’t meet them in person anytime soon—she wasn’t allowed to leave the castle until she was married.)
Conversely, her brother, though two years younger, frequently accompanied her father on diplomatic trips, and would excitedly return with stories of beautiful forests, delicious taverns, and daring encounters with robbers and bandits. He had met all of the princesses Alexis read about in the name of diplomacy, for he would inherit the throne.
That fact had never bothered Alexis before she read these stories—she hadn’t known any differently. She had been reading about Cinderella’s foreign policy decisions one day when her brother and father had returned from a trip. As her brother recounted to her the details of the places they’d seen and how kind Snow White had been to him, his father grew misty eyed and smiled at him. “You’ll make a great king, my boy,” he had said, and then their eyes grew wide in confusion as Alexis angrily threw her book against the wall in an attempt to dispose of the wave of jealousy that had suddenly crashed over her. Why was her country the only one in which women were expected to simply sit around? She didn’t know the answer, and didn’t know what to do, so she excused herself and returned to the library.
- Each chapter title is one of the stages of the Hero’s Journey, the ‘monomyth’ narrative pattern outlined by Joseph Campbell. This story uses the sequences and structures he defines in order to comment on and critique them. (back to text)
- “Once upon a time is said to take us to somewhere else. Somewhere abstract, ambiguous, nameless, and timeless. Though associated with the old, classic fairy tales and medieval Europe, “once upon the Middle Ages” isn’t entirely accurate (and doesn’t have the same flair to it, anyway). The anonymity the phrase conveys makes it more universal: this is a story about America in the 21st century, or maybe it’s a story that could be about America but could also be about Germany or China or Chile or somewhere… elsewhere. “We are everywhere, or nowhere, never somewhere. A fairy tale is universal, not local” (Langrish, 2).
“The purpose of the formula ‘Once upon a time’ is to take us out of our present place and time into that imaginary realm where the story is to unfold and to introduce us to the central figure with whom we are to identify,” writes Christopher Booker (17). Once upon a time tells us we’re about to hear a story.” (back to text)
- How do we define “modern”—is it referring to the 20th century? Post-Industrialism? Contemporary times? Philosopher Marshall Berman describes in his book All That is Solid Melts into Air: To be modern is to “find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” To be modern is “to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.” “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction.”” (15)
But modern is also, using the colloquial understanding, simply the present. The now. So, this story is set in the 21st century.” (back to text)
- As in, de Tocqueville. She’s read Democracy in America. (back to text)
- “In aristocracies, readers are difficult and few; in democracies it is less hard to please them and their number is enormous. Hence the result is that in aristocratic peoples, one may hope to succeed only with immense efforts, and these efforts, which can give much glory, can never procure much money; whereas in democratic nations a writer can flatter himself that he may get a mediocre renown and a great fortune cheaply.” This is my goal. (DiA, p. 450) (back to text)
- “The literary fairy tale, descending from the oral tradition, is sparse and concise. Thus a story as lengthy and complex as this is, by definition, not a fairy tale—and yet, it employs the same structures and characters and tropes as the tales do. See footnote 8.” (Back to text)
- One that is being submitted as an undergraduate thesis. (back to text)
- With this description, we’ve already surpassed a typical trademark of fairytale land: ambiguity. Oftentimes in the traditional stories, we’ll encounter characters who are so vague they could be anybody (which is the point!*). In some of the less popular stories, for example, many characters don’t even have names. They’re just “The Strange Musician” or “The Fisherman and His Wife” or “The Lazy Spinning Woman.”
Those who have names aren’t necessarily more noteworthy. Little Red Riding Hood is a small girl with a red jacket. How many of those do you know? Lots of girls have long blonde hair like Rapunzel, and it couldn’t have been very difficult to find a pale girl with dark hair who resembled Snow White in 19th century Germany, where her story originated. Here, Alexis has suspicious freckles and a big nose! She’s paranoid about germs! These are still common traits (except for the germs, maybe), but they make her a more complex and defined character than you’d find in a fairy tale. She is becoming a person, rather than a stereotype. Mixing simple with complex (and pointing them out to you, the reader) is a way of paying homage to the genre, while still building a novel. Compromises!* This is an idea Scott McCloud describes in his Understanding Comics. When stories or characters are simplified, they’re sometimes described as “cartoons,” and “the more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe.” (31) A simple happy face likeJcan virtually be any person’s face in the world; a detailed drawing of Michael Jackson’s face is only Michael Jackson’s face. When we feel we can identify with the character, it becomes easier and we are more likely to participate in and feel involved in the story. “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled…an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it!” (36) And this speaks to the democratic nature of these stories: this “universal access” system of simplicity and ambiguity means the “we” here can be anybody. (back to text)
- Remember Berman: The modern world “threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” And yet, the modern world gives us the possibility of overcoming this destruction, encouraging us to master nature. “We work frantically to control our futures by preserving our bodies from the nature which is out to kill us,” writes Peter Lawler. He then looks to Jean Baudrillard: “We Americans work against “that death tow which no one can any longer give a meaning, but everyone knows has at all times to be prevented.” We refuse to let the necessity of death—or anything else—define us. Death has become a disease to be cured through medical technology and scientific personal discipline” (6). (back to text)
- Berman references Kierkegaard who said that the “deepest modern seriousness must express itself through irony.” (back to text)
- “True to fairy tale form and McCloud’s cartoons, they will remain nameless; this ensures your ability to insert yourself into the situation—you, at some point and in some capacity at least, had parents—and thus to empathize with Alexis—you understand what it’s like to have parents. Again, ambiguity creates a democratic spirit.” (back to text)
- “But she constantly offered him advice from whichever book she was reading that week. She took refuge in the castle’s library—as did Alexis.” (back to text)
- “From The Prince: “The first estimate of [a prince’s] intelligence will be based upon the character of the men he keeps about him. If they are capable and loyal, he will be reputed wise, for he will have demonstrated that he knows how to recognize their ability and keep them loyal to him. If they are otherwise, he will be judged unfavorably, for the first mistake a ruler can make lies in the selection of his ministers” (86).” (back to text)
- “Except in backgammon, which he did frequently and unabashedly.” (back to text)
- “Complaints of troll bridges had risen dramatically in the past few years, horses frequently lost shoes in the roads’ potholes, and many had claimed that they spotted a pair of nasty sea monsters in the lagoon, to name just a few issues.” (back to text)
- “You can think of them as a Medici family of sorts, for while the Medicis were of course much better at running their empire, both Alexis’s parents and the Medicis were strong patrons of the arts.” (back to text)
- ““You read Bowling Alone just one time,” Alexis’s mother would think to herself and roll her eyes, but smile.” (back to text)
- “It’s said that Hitler specified that Florence’s Ponte Vecchio was not to be bombed because of its beauty. However, Hitler’s generosity only went so far: Ponte Vecchio was the only of Florence’s bridges to not be destroyed in World War 2.” (back to text)
- “Germany—but jumbling the name is an easy way of creating a fictional representation of the country. It also helps, in the same spirit of ambiguity, to obscure the reference. It reminds us that we are not discussing the real country which has a chancellor and the Autobahn; instead we are discussing its fictional equivalent.
Marina Warner explains that “Fairy tales report from imaginary territory—a magical elsewhere of possibility; a hero or heroine or sometimes both are faced with ordeals, terrors, and disaster in a world that, while it bears some resemblance to the ordinary conditions of human existence, mostly diverges form it in the way it works, taking the protagonists—and us, the readers—to another place where wonders are commonplace and desires are fulfilled (xxiii).” (back to text)
- “They were good friends as well, and often sent barrels of their brewers’ finest ale as holiday presents. Their ale festivals were known all throughout the land.” (back to text)
- “And “‘A fairy tale,’ Angela Carter remarked, ‘is a story in which one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar’” (Warner, 77). Warner uses this in discussing the relatively modest concerns and desires within fairy tales—just enough food, enough wealth, enough love.” (back to text)
- ““Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves in the seas, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable,” says the king in The Little Prince.” (back to text)
- “However, that was a polarizing element of her charm. Some loved her more for it— “She was just like us! If she could do it, so could we!”—and some resented her for it— “What made her so special? Why aren’t I rich yet? Where’s my fairy godmother?”” (back to text)
- “Not literally, though there were rumors she was related to King Midas. That was the only way some could comprehend the massive wealth she’d acquired practically overnight. The truth simply didn’t make sense to them.” (back to text)
- “Okay, so: in the Grimms’ story, the stepsisters’ eyes are poked out by birds. In Perrault’s telling, Cinderella is “no less good than beautiful” and she gives them lodgings at the castle and matches them with two lords. This is because Perrault was telling his story to the aristocrats of the court—and he “was quick to present his tale as mere sornettes (trifles)—while the Grimms wrote for the German people (Warner, 102).” (back to text)
- “The bad character, the source of evil, is punished for their crimes! Great! But they are still people and are still feeling pain. Ouch. And imagine all the blood—it’s a gory situation. Fairy tales present us with deceptively complicated situations: the characters are flat and one-dimensional, so it seems the solutions must be similarly simple.” (back to text)
- “Through literature we can meet anyone from anywhere; we can travel to places both real and imagined. Storytelling is a powerful tool for creating empathy.” (back to text)