Wednesday, June 20

Grimmoire 52: King Thrushbeard

Alternately known as Princess Comeuppance.

Another story of another snotty little princess who learns her lesson the hard way. You would think that with so many stories of snotty princesses that girls wouldn't be so actively engaged in separating their parents from their disposable income. What's that you say? Oh, right: the Disney Factor. I keep forgetting.

So the princess is walking the line, inspecting all the fine kingworthy husband that have offered to take her off her father's hands. With each she finds fault, usually with a curt little rhyme or insult to match. With one particular fellow she uses his pointy chin in comparison with a bird, a thrush, and thus King Thrushbeard is nicknamed.

Dad's had enough, and he tells the princess she'll be married off to the next beggar in the street he comes across. Sure enough, a beggar comes along, singing for coins in the square. Papa makes a show of allowing the beggar to "win" his daughter in recognition of his talents and, snip-snap, it is done. The princess is wed to the beggar.

As the beggar takes her home they pass first a great forest, then a great meadow, then a great city. She inquires as to their owner and the beggar snorts that they belong to the unfortunate who was once nicknamed King Thrushbeard. When they arrive at the beggar's stoop hovel the princess cringes. Where are the servants, the fine foods, where is her cushy former life? Gone.

The live on what meager provisions they have but eventually the princess need to find work. Her hands are too soft for basket weaving, she's useless spinning wool, eventually the beggar secures fine earthenware for her to sell in the town market. Things seem well but then one day a hussar rides in on his horse and tramples the pottery to shreds. She returns home in tears, upbraided for setting up shop in a place in town where the pottery was likely to be smashed. Nothing left to do but sell her out to the court of King Thrushbeard as a scullery maid.

Trying to make the best of the situation the princess sews jars into her skirt that she may steal off with scraps to feed her and her beggar husband, all the while trying to keep her head down for fear of being noticed by the king as that snotty princess she once was. One day her pockets come undone, spilling scraps and soup everywhere. The people of the court laugh but not the king, who walks over to her and reveals that he is also the beggar she has been married to all this time. All of the work and humiliation he has doled out was to put her in her place. Now she would take her proper place in the palace alongside the king.

And there was much rejoicing.

I used to like this story quite a lot when I first came across it twenty years ago or so but now not so much. In the end the princess still gets to be a queen and her hardships are nothing compared to those who live them with no hope of promotion. Being royalty, and children aspiring to be royalty, leaves a sour taste in my mouth and no lessons hard-come-by could change that. I don't care for it in boys either, though it's much harder to see in our society because it takes so many forms: professional athletes and CEO's being the most obvious versions. You can rake me over the coals for this but I don't see much difference between a girl wanting to be a princess (or a pop star) and a boy wanting to be a professional baseball player (or pop star). Say what you will about the athletes and their talent versus a girl lucking into royalty but recognize that the odds of becoming the top of anything require a determination that leaves 99% of the population in the dust and is done for purely selfish reasons.

True, occasionally a Princess Diana comes along and parlays that power and charisma into causes for humanity but how many girls who want to be princesses, and don't become princesses, behave as she did? Ask a girl in love with Disney princesses what it means to be a princess and you'll hear a lot about pretty dresses and fancy balls and very little about land mines and Darfur. I know I'm well off topic here, I'm just saying.

Thrushbeard doesn't come off so rosy here either. He's willing to act the fool (or in this case the beggar) to win a wife by stealth and then shame and humiliate her until she is as submissive and supine as a willow twig in his hand. He has used his boyhood ambitions to take what's his, to win by subversion, to cheat if necessary, and has for his reward total control. Sit on a playground for a few hours and watch boys playing together. Locate the alpha male in the group and see what sort of control games are played. That's Young Thrushbeard.

I don't know that we can really escape all these little gender roles and power plays until the society on the whole makes some large fundamental changes. The amount of airtime a Paris Hilton receives, or the fact that weekend box office grosses for new movies (as opposed to whether the films are any good, or culturally significant) is considered "news" only tips the iceberg. We could probably wrap this up with "art only mirrors, it doesn't shape society" little note but that's tired. Money rules, Thrushbeard had it, the princess wanted it and paid the price to get it, and they're both happy in the end.

Isn't that all that matters?
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