Literature: The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Arriving for the dance

"The Twelve Dancing Princesses" (or "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes" or "The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces", original: "Die zertanzten Schuhe") is a German fairy tale originally published by The Brothers Grimm in Children's and Household Tales as tale number 133. Charles Deulin collected another, French version in his Contes du Roi Cambinus (1874), which Andrew Lang included in The Red Fairy Book and Alexander Afanasyev collected a Russian variant, "The Secret Ball", in Narodnye Russkie Skazki. Joseph Jacobs collected a Gender Flip, "Kate Crackernuts".

The plot follows twelve princesses who slept in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors were securely locked, but in the morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king promised his kingdom and a daughter to any man who could discover the princesses' secret within three days and three nights, but those who failed within the set time limit would be put to death.

An old soldier came to try his hand at the task, following many who had failed. Whilst traveling through a wood he came upon an old woman, who gave him an invisibility cloak and told him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who would come to him in the evening, and to pretend to be fast asleep after the princess left. He followed the advice, only pretending to drink the wine given to him by a princess after reaching the castle, and pretending to fall asleep.

The princesses, sure that the soldier was asleep, dressed themselves in fine clothes and escaped from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, donned his invisibility cloak and followed them down. The passageway led them to three groves of trees: one of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier broke off a twig from each as evidence. They walked on until they came upon a great lake, and twelve boats with twelve princes in them ferried them to the other side, the soldier hiding in the boat of the youngest princess. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away until their shoes were worn and they needed to leave.

This continued a second and third night and on the third night the soldier carried away a golden cup as a token of where he had been. When it came time for him to declare the princesses' secret, he went before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and told the king all he had seen. The princesses saw there was no use to deny the truth, and confessed. The soldier took the eldest princess as his bride and was made the king's heir.

The story has been adapted several times to that of television and movie format, as well as used as the inspiration for some novels and parts of stories such as Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry.

Tropes in "The Twelve Dancing Princesses":

  • Big Fancy Castle: Where the dance is held.
  • Composite Character: The Faerie Tale Theatre version knocks it down to six princesses instead of twelve.
  • Dances and Balls
  • Discreet Drink Disposal: A standard part of the story, which often has the soldier pour the drugged drink the princess offers him into a hidden sponge. In Robin McKinley's adaptation of the story in The Door in the Hedge, he pours the drugged wine into the thick, luxurious cloaks he's been given to wear.
  • Everything's Better with Princesses
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: In some versions of the story, the men that the princesses dance with at the ball are under a spell. When the princesses are exposed, they suddenly remember who they are. Additionally the original has the king say that anyone who fails to find out what his daughters are up to will be executed - and the princesses still try to drug the soldier, knowing he'll be killed.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings
  • Missing Mom: The Faerie Tale Theatre adaptation says that the princesses' mother passed away.
  • Mysterious Benefactor: The old woman who gives the soldier the invisibility cloak and some valuable advice. McKinley's version implies that she's actually the oldest princess in disguise, but never confirms.
  • Nameless Narrative: None of the characters have names.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Few versions of the story give much attention to the motives or feelings of the princesses. In some versions, they are stated to be under a spell, but more often they're implied to be willing participants in the nights of dancing, and how they feel about the soldier revealing the truth and getting to choose one of them to marry is rarely addressed. Then there's the case in the original that if anyone attempts to figure out the truth and fails, they are executed. So the princesses don't seem to mind innocent people being put to death, as long as they can continue their dancing.
  • Rags to Royalty: The protagonist is a soldier who becomes king.
  • Rule of Three: Three nights following the princesses, three groves of magical trees, and the princesses themselves and their dance partners also number in a multiple of three.
  • Slipping a Mickey
  • Standard Hero Reward: Although subverted in some versions - where the soldier declares that he doesn't want to marry any of the daughters.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Averted, a rare example for the oldest sister to be chosen as the hero's bride — in some versions. Sometimes he chooses the youngest princess, whom he followed closely throughout the adventure; sometimes he declares he doesn't want any wife so untrustworthy.