I’m still knee-deep in researching 19th-century Bavaria. It’s a little disconcerting when inside your head, you’re surrounded by ladies in towering hairdos or spaniel curls, wearing great big swoopy gowns; gentlemen in top hats and tail coats; steam trains and horse carriages – and then you look up, and the realities of 21st-century life are staring you in the face. The writer’s dichotomy…
But anyway, there was something I ran across in the course of my research rabbit-trailings. Have you ever wondered why there is such a proliferation of princes and princesses in fairy tales? I have. But I think I may have found the answer.
One of the things that I was looking up was the German titles of nobility, and to my surprise I found that “prince” is ranked below “duke”. In the English system, “prince” is the highest title you can possibly hold, short of “king” or “queen”, and princes and princesses are in quite short supply. As far as I can see, only the immediate offspring of the monarch get that title, and even then it seems to be restricted to the male line. According to Wikipedia, there’s all of seventeen British princes and princesses living today; and the list of all princes and princesses since 1714 is short enough to fit inside two Wikipedia articles (here and here).
In the German system, on the other hand, “prince” or “princess” doesn’t necessarily denote “child of king”. Yes, it does mean that, too, but it can also be a translation of “Fürst”, which is a lower-ranking title of ruling nobility than “Herzog”, i.e. “duke”. So a “prince” can be a ruler of a – wait for it – principality, a small realm that doesn’t qualify as a kingdom, so its ruler isn’t a “king”. Germany, up until 1871, was a patchwork of those small principalities and duchies (unlike England, which has been one large kingdom for more than a thousand years). Add to that the fact that among the German nobility, all children get the title – not just the eldest son – and you have more counts, baronesses, marchionesses, grand dukes and what-have-you than you can shake a stick at. And yes, princes and princesses too.
So, seeing that most of the well-known fairy tales of the Western tradition originate in mainland Europe, that would explain why we can have so many princes and princesses wandering in and out of fairy land. They were pretty normal, as far as blue-bloods go. And even when they were rulers, they didn’t necessarily reign over vast island nations like Our Gracious and Noble Queen, but maybe just a little postage-stamp realm, next door to another equally minute patch of principality.
That’s how you can get princes like the one from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Swine Herd”: “Once there was a poor Prince. He had a kingdom; it was very tiny. Still it was large enough to marry upon…” In fact, his kingdom is so tiny, at the end of the story “the Prince went home to his kingdom, and shut and barred the door.” That ending always tickled my fancy as a child – a kingdom so small, you can shut the door on it (and leave the bratty, stuck-up princess outside, as she deserves).
So there’s one mystery solved. You might get a prince – there’s enough of them around – but his kingdom could be kind of tiny. However, if you’re proper princess material, you won’t mind that. At least so long as there’s no peas under the mattress.
Life, the Universe, Princes and Princesses. Mine’s the one in the blue tunic, thank you.
If anyone doubts that the “Cinderella” story is a perennial favourite, they have obviously not been attending a movie theatre in the last week since the release of the live-action film. We went on Tuesday evening, the first cheap Tuesday after the movie came out, and the theatre was packed – the show must have been nearly sold out.
One of the things I loved about it was the demographic of the audience. Sure, there were lots of families with young children. But the middle of the front row was occupied by a group of half a dozen seniors, and they were by no means the only grey heads unaccompanied by grandchildren there. We originally sat at the end of a row beside two more empty seats; we gave up our spots and moved to a different row so a foursome of young adults – again, no children in sight – could sit together. The full age range of viewers was represented in that theatre. There was noise, bustling, rustling, chattering – and then the film started to roll, and it got quiet. A little voice somewhere in the front of the theatre piped up “It’s Cinderella!”
And so it was. This movie is a beautifully quintessential rendition of the Cinderella story, a straight-up, classic fairy tale version. No attempts here to modernise, to give tragic backstories to the villains to make them into non-villains, to make Cinderella into a 21st-century feminist icon, to subvert the base story into a lesson in, umm, the moral-du-jour. I found that aspect of the film quite refreshing – it’s a fairy tale. The characters are as flat as they are in the printed versions. Cinderella is sweet, beautiful and picked-on; the stepmother and -sisters are mean bullies; the prince is charming; the fairy godmother is magical. That flatness, what the folklorist Max Lüthi calls depthlessness, is one of the key characteristics of folktales, and Sir Kenneth Branagh did a fantastic job making a film that retains this one-dimensionality while harnessing the full empowering force of this tale.
But you probably just want me to get down to it and tell you what I thought. Well, here it is: I loved it. This is hands-down my favourite “Cinderella” movie yet. The visuals and special effects are stunning. The way the film plays with colour is especially striking – in fact, I wonder if they cast Richard Madden as the Prince purely for the way his brilliantly blue eyes match Cinderella’s gown. Every pretty girl ought to have a prince with matching eyes to accessorize with. (To which my daughter commented: “Good thing Cinderella doesn’t have a penchant for wearing red.”) The visuals, the acting, the storytelling, the sheer fairy-tale-ism of it all – it’s a wonderful movie.
Speaking of acting, one pleasant surprise was Sir Derek Jacobi in the role of the Prince’s father (or, I should say, one of the pleasures of the movie; it wasn’t really a surprise, this being a Branagh film). Now, this is a Disney movie, and as such, gives more than a nod to the 1950 animated version (more on that in a minute). But the King, whom the older movie portrays as nothing more than an old-fashioned buffoon obsessed with getting grandchildren, is a changed character here. Oh, Derek Jacobi would be more than capable of bringing a comic role like that to the screen. But the King he plays in this film is a very different character, and in fact (SPOILER ALERT!), the scene of him lying in his great big bed dying, with his grown son curled up against his chest begging him not to go, is one of the most touching parts of the movie.
Dying parents do feature rather prominently in this version of the story. Having Cinderella’s mother die is, of course, a prerequisite to the whole plot. But like in almost all other film versions (and as opposed to the written tales), her father is killed off as well (today’s society can’t deal with the idea that he might still be around but perhaps doesn’t actually care that his second wife abuses his daughter); and then here we have the new twist of a deep, loving relationship between the Prince and the King, only to give the latter a death scene, too. All of those scenes are played very sensitively and deeply emotional, with beautiful acting on everyone’s part. However, because of this I’d be cautious about taking really sensitive young children to see the movie – I know I would have found those aspects of the story quite disturbing when I was little (yes, I hated Bambi, too). (Note: if your kid is okay with watching The Lion King, they can probably handle this. If not, I’d wait for it to come out on DVD so you can fast-forward.)
However, this is “Cinderella”, and we all know how this story goes. The Ball!! The Fairy Godmother!! The Gown!! The Prince!! The Slipper!! Oh, yes, this movie delivers on that – does it ever! It’s every fairy tale fantasy brought to life on the big screen in glorious oversized colour. The slipper alone is a dazzling piece of facetted crystal, and in spite of appearances, as the Fairy Godmother says, “You’ll find it’s really comfortable!”
Said Fairy Godmother is wonderful, as was fully to be expected – she is played by Helena Bonham Carter. The transformation scenes of pumpkin and mice and lizards to coach and horses and footmen are the most hilarious parts of the whole movie. Fairy Godmother isn’t the brightest – the pumpkin in question is inside a greenhouse, and she decides that that’s a perfectly adequate location for casting the spell to change it into a coach. Let’s just say that, contrary to expectations, getting the finished product out the door actually isn’t a problem.
I enjoyed this movie on so many levels, not the least of which is that it makes quite a few references to the various versions of the “Cinderella” story. The main source text, as I mentioned before, is (of course) the 1950 Disney cartoon, which in turn is based on the Perrault version of the written tale. However, there is also a reference to the Grimm’s tale (Cinderella asks her father to bring her back a branch from a tree), to the Czech/German cult classic film Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, to Gail Carson Levine’s book Ella Enchanted… Perhaps I’m reading those references into the film and they are actually unintentional, but as a bona fide fairy tale nerd who just wrote a Master’s Thesis on this very thing I enjoyed spotting them.
I could go on and on about this – I haven’t even mentioned some of the other fabulous characters, such as Cate Blanchett’s deliciously wicked stepmother, or the gorgeous score (it’s by Patrick Doyle. Patrick Doyle, people! Branagh’s Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing! The Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility!). But I think it’s time to stop gushing – I think you get the picture. The motion picture, no less. If you want to immerse yourself in one wonderful fairy tale experience, get thee to a cinema.
Life, the Universe, and Cinderella. Now I want to go watch it again.