Thursday, February 11, 2016

Folklore Thursday: All the Dancing Princesses are dead

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I have been doing some background research for my upcoming folktale collection; among other things, this week it involved reading all the Hungarian versions of the Twelve Dancing Princesses folktale type (ATU 306) that I could get my grabby little hands on. It has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and I love the international collection for it, but this time I was specifically interested in how Hungarian folk storytellers through the ages have interpreted it.
TL; DR: Horribly.

Contrary to the popular Grimm version, Hungarian dancing princesses can number anywhere from 1 to 12; most often there are 3 of them, and in many cases they shred more than one (6-12) pairs of slippers each night. The male protagonist is most often a shepherd or swineherd boy, although the occasional former soldier also appears.
Here is the rundown of how most Hungarian versions go:

1a. The king executes anyone who cannot solve the mystery of the disappearing princesses and shredded shoes. 99 people already have their heads on pikes by the time the protagonist comes along.
1b. The princesses are (all or mostly) evil, and they poison anyone who tries to spy on them.

2. The princesses most often sneak out with older witches, evil fairies, or the Devil himself.

3. They also often dance on razor blades, thus shredding their shoes.

4. There are several versions where (some or all of) the princesses already have children in the Other World, or are pregnant - underlining the assumption that "dancing" is not the only thing they do on their illicit nightly adventures.

5. Once the truth is revealed, almost all tales end with the princesses being executed - most often burned (in cases of witchcraft), beheaded, or torn apart by oxen. Sometimes their bastard children are dragged along with them as well.
(In the few cases where they survive, they are either imprisoned, exiled, or simply not mentioned at all)

6a. Sometimes the youngest (and purest) princess survives and gets to marry the male protagonist (occasionally against her will),
6b. In a surprising number of cases, the guy refuses to marry a "whore" (kurva) and asks for money instead.

There are only 2 versions that I could find where the little princess is actually in love with the shepherd boy before he solves the mystery.

7. The story type often occurs intertwined with the Princess in the Shroud, where the accused princesses die, turn into man-eating vampires, and have to be "redeemed" by same male protagonist. Marriage, once again, is encouraged by optional (on the guy's side, duh).


Some fairy tale researchers note that "shoes" can be symbolic for sex and sexuality. Add that to the pregnant princesses and the father's (and the male protagonist's) violent judgment, and it is clear what these stories were told about: Girls overstepping their boundaries and "dancing" with men in secret, out of wedlock.

There is also a mythical/religious element to all this - secret trips into the Other World slowly turning from alluring fairy dances to witches' Sabbaths or journeys to Hell, and girls being punished for the mentorship of older, "sinister" female figures in the art of breaking free of the palace at night.

It is important to note that most of the 15+ versions I read were told by male storytellers (the ones that named the teller, anyway), with three exceptions - including the one that will be featured in my book, because she had a wildly different, more empathic, and girl-friendly take on the whole thing.

With that said: This fairy tale is never going to be the same again.


  1. This fairy tale is going to be different for me too. Plus I have a new princess idea peculating. Wow stories truly differ greatly across countries and authors.

  2. really fascinating, thank you for researching and sharing!

  3. Some people say that Rock
    Put the Devil in my soul
    But that's a bunch of s**t
    I just wanna rock 'n' roll!
    I don't want to
    Hang up my rock 'n' roll shoes.

    ('Rock n Roll Shoes' - Chuck Willis (1957), lyrics adapted by Levon Helm & The Band (1974)

  4. To me, the shoes in this story have always been about sex. I was searched long and hard for a version of this story that I felt I could share with kids and also rang true to me. Walter de la Mare's retelling of Princesses is more about heavy-handed parenting than hormones and licentious youth. All these different versions! It's like peeking through a keyhole into ... Into what, I wonder. I am SO looking forward to your book.

  5. For me this tale is about the princesses, yes, but also about the *parents* of teenagers who sneak out at night. In the best known version, it both begins and ends with the king’s dilemma and the resolution for him—not an astonishing transformation, but at least he can quit killing off princes. I am curious to discover how the king/parent fares in the darker versions, so thanks especially for the link to the new Heidi Ann Heimer collection and its intro and some chapters online (and an instant inexpensive Kindle version).
    “Dancing” with someone can also be a metaphor for sex, so we seem to be doubling up on teenagers exploring their carnal appetites.
    Re: the old soldier marrying the youngest princess—which I don’t like (Megan’s telling of the de la Mare version is the most satisfying I’ve ever heard or read), the juxtaposition of your readers’ responses and Heimer’s introduction made me realize that the reason for her as a choice could be in the fact that she is named as the only princess who suspected someone was following them. She warned her sisters twice that there was a noise behind them in the forest and the boat was riding low from extra weight, but they dismissed her evidence. Perhaps that recognition is what “earned” her a return to the stage as bride--Mary Grace