Illustration came from Abbott, Elenore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920.

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is a story collected by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm and included in their Household Tales, first published in 1812.

Twelve princesses, each more beautiful than the last, sleep in twelve beds in the same room; every night their door is securely locked, but in the morning their shoes are found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king, perplexed, promises his kingdom and a daughter to any man who can discover the princesses’ secret within three days and three nights, but those who fail within the set time limit will be put to death. Notice the magical three again. Many princes take up the King’s challenge, but each fails and has his head chopped off.

A poor wounded soldier comes to the palace after several men have failed. While traveling through a wood he meets an old woman, the helper in this fairy tale, who gives him an invisibility cloak and tells him not to drink the wine given to him in the evening and to pretend to be fast asleep until after they leave.

The soldier is well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess comes to his chamber and offers him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman’s advice, has tied a sponge to his chin which soaks up all the wine, and he doesn’t drink a drop. Sounds a little messy. The soldier lies down and pretends to go to sleep, snoring loudly. “The twelve princesses heard that, and laughed, and the eldest said, ‘He, too, might as well have saved his life.'”

The princesses, sure that the soldier is asleep, dress themselves in fine clothes and escape from their room by a trap door beneath the oldest sister’s bed. The soldier, seeing this, dons his invisibility cloak and follows them. He steps on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry of alarm to her sisters is rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway leads them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, breaks off a twig of each as evidence. They walk on until they come upon a great lake. Twelve boats with twelve princes are waiting. Each princess gets into one, and the soldier steps into the same boat as the youngest. The young prince in the boat rows slowly, unaware that the soldier is causing the boat to be heavy. On the other side of the lake stands a castle, into which all the princesses go and dance the night away.

The princesses dance until their shoes are worn through and they are obliged to leave. This strange adventure continues on the second and third nights, and everything happens just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carries away a golden cup as a token of where he has been. When it comes time for him to declare the princesses’ secret, he goes before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and tells the king all he has seen. The princesses know that there is no use in denying the truth, and confess. The soldier chooses the eldest princess as his bride for he is not a very young man, and is made the king’s heir.

But what’s up with the princes in the magic castle. Are the elves of some kind? Or maybe demons who have fallen in love with the girls? After all, they are obviously very rich and the princesses have to go underground to get to the castle. Underground is usually the way to the land of the dead, and then they have to row across a lake, rather reminiscent of the rivers that separate Hades from the land of the living in Greek mythology. And they feed the girls, giving them drinks, tempting them to return every night to the castle and dance. And the princesses themselves don’t seem enchanted. It seems like they love the secrecy, have fun sneaking out and enjoy dancing with the princes. It’s fun.

I think it’s a little disturbing that the princesses know that the suitors have no chance. They are drugging them so that they can’t wake up and discover the truth. They laugh about the fact that these men will be killed as a result. Rather callous young ladies.

You can read the fairy tale several places, including here.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.