"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".
Twelve princesses sleep in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors are securely locked, but in the morning their shoes are found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king 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.
After many princes have tried and failed to solve the mystery, an old soldier traveling through a wood meets an old woman who advises him to take on the challenge. She gives him an invisibility cloak and tells him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who will come to him in the evening, and to pretend to sleep after the princess leaves. After reaching the castle, he follows the advice, secretly disposes the wine offered to him by a princess, and pretends to fall asleep.
The princesses, convinced that the soldier is asleep, dress themselves in fine clothes and escape from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier dons his invisibility cloak and follows them down. The passageway leads them to three groves of trees: one of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier breaks off a twig from each as evidence. They walk on until they come upon a lake, and twelve boats with twelve princes in them ferry them to a castle on the other side, with the soldier hiding in the boat of the youngest princess. The princesses enter the castle and dance the night away until their shoes are worn and they need to leave.
This continues a second and third night and on the third night the soldier carries away a precious cup from the underworld castle as evidence of his adventure. When the time comes for him to declare the princesses' secret, he presents the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and tells the king all he has seen. The princesses see there is no use to deny the truth and confess. The soldier takes the eldest princess as his bride and is 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:
- Crystal Landscape: The intrepid soldier surreptitiously follows the titular royalty through three groves of magical trees - one of gold, one of silver, and one of diamonds. The diamond tree grove is a Crystal Landscape.
- 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, whereas in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and Grimms Fairytale Classics he quietly dumps the drink in the soil of the nearest plant.
- Eldritch Location: The magical place where the princesses dance is generally agreed to be in the Land of Faerie, and an interesting note is that while many versions hold the princesses, the princes, or the entire royal family to be under a curse, nobody seems to state who put the curse on them or WHY they would have done it, so there are some heavy Genius Loci implications if you poke at the backstory long enough.
- Gratuitous Princess: While it's not unusual for a fairy tale to have princesses, the story features not two but twelve princesses, all of whom sleep in the same room and are interchangeable. The large number seems to add to the mystery of why they able to disappear each night and dance the night away - it's less plausible that such a large number could sneak away undetected.
- Karma Houdini: 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. In most versions of the story the only consequence they get for their actions is no longer being able to sneak away to dance every night. Some have the hero refuse to take any of them as a wife due to their untrustworthiness, but still nothing more than that.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: The king has 12 daughters.
- 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.
- Old Beggar Test: The hero often but not invariably gets the means to save them by this.
- 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. In some variants, they are wittingly dancing with literal devils; some (but not all) of these variants have the hero refusing to marry any of them.
- The king puts dozens of innocent men to death for failing to discover where his daughters go each night and is arguably the villain of the story, but ends the tale getting what he wanted and suffering no negative consequences. Even adaptations that chastise the princesses for letting the men die rarely extend that to the king who was actually killing them, and unlike them, there's no implication that he was under a spell.
- 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: The princesses would drug any potential suitor so that they'll fall asleep while the princesses go to their dance, and fail the challenge. The Soldier tends to catch on, pretend to drink and then fake falling asleep.
- 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. In versions where the soldier picks the oldest princess, he explains as he is an older man, he didn't want a bride that was so much younger than him.