In the Grimm’s fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a worried king sets the princes of his kingdom the challenge to solve the mystery of his 12 exhausted daughters – they sleep all day and every morning their shoes are found by their beds worn through.
If the prince succeeds, he will claim the hand of the princess of his choice and the king’s crown when he dies. If he fails, the prince will die.
After a succession of princes are foiled by the princesses and lose their heads, a returned soldier, guided by the help of an older woman he meets in the woods, solves the mystery. He discovers the 12 daughters entering an underground kingdom where they spend their nights dancing with 12 magical princes until their shoes are worn through. The soldier chooses the oldest daughter to marry. The dancing ends. Everyone lives happily every after.
This tale always seemed to me to be one of the more mysterious of the fairy tales. It has no obvious moral: don’t dance all night in underground kingdoms, unless you want to end up married to a returned older soldier? If you’re an adventure-seeking young prince, don’t take on mysterious challenges without the help of an old woman in a forest?
Yet its power to captivate persists. It’s one of my daughters’ favourite fairy stories – the princesses flying down the hidden staircase to the midnight kingdom, the lake that must be crossed, the sheer number of princesses (not one, or two but 12) and the illicit, night-long, enchanted dancing.
Perhaps it is the power of the magic itself. Tolkien described this as “faerie”: the realm of magic and otherness that defines every great fairy tale. It is a magic that,
cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable though not imperceptible.
And so perhaps in seeking to interrogate what the power of this tale is, I am missing its point.
Still, recently, on a very long plane ride, I watched the Turkish film Mustang (2015), directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, and suddenly The Twelve Dancing Princesses began to make sense.
I was first struck by Mustang’s similarity to The Virgin Suicides. In both stories, five beautiful sisters, on the threshold of womanhood, are imprisoned by their families.
I was then struck by the similarity of both films to The Twelve Dancing Princesses: the surplus of teen sisters on the threshold of womanhood; the overly long hair; the overly long, entwined limbs; the trance-like desire for freedom and the perceived mortal and moral danger of this desire to the world around them.
At the heart of all three stories is the captivating, bewitching power of liminal female sexuality. And the containment of this power.
The Virgin Suicides is Sophia Coppola’s 1999 adaptation of a Jeffrey Eugenides novel. It is a story of the five doomed Lisbon sisters living in suburban America, told from the point of view of a group of young men who knew the girls but could never understand the mystery of their lives, or their deaths. It is a strange and mysterious story - it collides a beautiful evocation of sisterhood and teenage sexuality with the tragedy of suicide.
This preoccupation with the relationship of female sexuality to death is an enduring one. In one of the oldest Greco-Roman myths, the beautiful Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility and the harvest, is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. The only god who will help the heartbroken Demeter is Hecate, goddess of magic and the moon: she tells Demeter that Hades has abducted Persephone. Demeter curses the earth to wither and die. Zeus and Demeter strike a deal and Hades agrees to release Persephone for eight months of the year. Demeter and Persephone are reconciled at Eleusia and Hecate becomes her guide. Fertility and her daughter, now cast with the shadow of death, are reconciled at a site of profound mystery.
Mustang is a story that has death in it, but is most definitely about life. In this film, there is little sense of mystery: the trance-like, Air soundtrack-ed doom of the five sisters in The Virgin Suicides is grounded in dirt, seawater and football matches.
Under a hot Turkish sun, we watch five longhaired, languid sisters imprisoned for reckless carousing with young boys by their strict uncle. Their punishment is early marriage.
But this time, the youngest sister, unlike The Virgin Suicide’s unhappy Cecilia whose suicide triggers her sisters’ deaths, is a survivor, an escapee. And what does she long for, what is the key to her transition from wild girl into woman? It is knowledge. She seeks and finds refuge in the house of a former schoolteacher in Ankara.
As I sat hunched in my small corner of the Airbus, I thought about my daughters, their overlong hair and the buried message of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
Bruno Bettelheim holds in The Uses of Enchantment that fairy stories prepare our children for the psychological and physical hurdles of life – from the danger of the wolf-filled forest to the unreliability of poor, hungry parents.
Was The Twelve Dancing Princesses somehow instilling my daughters with worrying subliminal psychic messages about their sexuality, or was the element that transfixed them simply the idea of 12 princess sisters dancing in a magical kingdom night after night?
In Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, he identifies the recurring story patterns that have shaped who we are, born of ancient ritual and deep-seated human needs. But he also talks about how new ways of life have shaped and re-shaped these stories, because the soil that created the old stories, is different from the soil that creates these new ones.
Mustang, The Virgin Suicides and The Twelve Dancing Princesses were grown from very different soil. While all three celebrate the wild abandon of a young woman’s nascent sexuality, Mustang angrily and noisily reminds us that the destination for a young woman with overly long hair doesn’t have to be death or marriage: but a good education.