Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday! By popular vote, we are looking at another retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The timing couldn’t be better because this month marks the one year anniversary of this feature, and the first book I posted on was also a retelling of this tale.
My Rating: 3 stars
Warning: Contains spoilers
As a Retelling:
As with the majority of this tale’s retellings, The Firethorn Crown focuses on the eldest princess, Lily. This is common because in the Grimms’ version of the tale–which is the best known–the soldier marries the eldest. This is also the case with many variations, though in some it is the youngest instead. Also following the German version, Lily’s love interest, Eben, is a former soldier. Unlike in the various variations, Eben does not come into the picture after the princesses begin their nightly dancing. He is their guard and has known them for years, which provides a strong relationship between him and Lily from the beginning of the book.
Also like the German version and the majority of other variations, Doué’s princesses dance in an underground realm. However, the entrance the realm is in a different location than it is in most of the tales. Usually the entrance is in the princesses’ bedroom, often beneath the bed of the eldest sister. We can find this not just in the Grimms’ tale, but also in French, Russian, Romanian, and Danish variants, among others. The entrance to Doué’s underground realm, called the undergarden, is in a hedge maze in the royal garden. Most people avoid the maze since it’s dark and creepy, but the princesses enjoy playing in there. They discover the undergarden while running through the maze trying to avoid Lord Runson, an unwanted suitor of Lily’s. When they return each night, they have to sneak out of their room and into the garden. There are a few variants that involve the princesses leaving their rooms to attend the balls, usually by flight. In a Russian version called “Elena the Wise” the girls turn into doves while in the Hungarian “The Hell-Bent Misses” they fly on brooms. The way the princesses in this book sneak out is more similar to how the final suitors in most of the tales follow them: they turn invisible. Generally the suitor uses a magical article of clothing, such as a cloak or a cap, but in some versions he uses a flower from a magical plant. Doué’s princesses gain the ability to become invisible when holding hands during their first trip to the undergarden. They use this along with a series of distractions to get by the guards at their door.
Doué borrows the concept of a curse causing the princesses to dance from the French and Romanian tales. Most versions of this story are vague even by fairy tale standards, which allows her to create her own backstory behind the curse. Her villain is Tharius, a sorcerer prince cursed to live in the undergarden. He can only leave if someone willingly marries him, rather in the style of “Beauty and the Beast.” When Lily and her sisters enter the undergarden, he tricks them and lays a curse of his own to force them back each night so he can court Lily. The girls can’t speak about the curse, providing a reason for them to keep everything a secret, and Lily can’t speak at all outside of the undergarden. This does not come from any version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” that I know of, but it does have an origin in fairy tales such as “The Six Swans.” Lily can only break the curse by declaring her love and having it returned.
While Doué does use a lot from the original stories, she also makes a number of changes. The most interesting to me is the inclusion of the princesses’ mother. In every version of the tale, their mother is either dead or not mentioned at all. Every retelling I’ve encountered other than this has followed suit and killed her off, sometimes incorporating it into the plot, as in Princess of the Midnight Ball and Entwined. Not only is she alive in The Firethorn Crown, she is also a large presence throughout the story. In fact, it is her, not the king, who declares that anyone who solves the princesses’ mystery can marry one of them. This is done in a moment of anger, and she ultimately doesn’t mean it. However, it is said in front of witnesses, so she cannot redact it. In the original tale, depending on how you choose to read it, the king can be seen as anything from well-meaning yet overprotective to an overbearing patriarchal figure trying to control his daughters’ autonomy. Switching the father for the mother is a fascinating choice and is probably the most unique aspect of the book as a retelling. Perhaps Doué felt a story of tension between mother and daughter would resonate more with a modern, teenage audience. Whatever her reasoning, I liked the change!
This leads to another notable change: neither Eben nor anyone else stays in the princesses’ quarters to find out their secret. This plot point is featured in almost every version of the fairy tale, and I was surprised to see it left out here. I’m not sure why Doué didn’t use it, but it could be because the timeline is condensed. In the fairy tale, we get the impression that the princesses have been wearing their shoes out night after night for months, if not years. This provides enough time for each suitor to try and fail for three nights. The Firethorn Crown takes place over the course of a few days, which obviously isn’t enough time for any of that to happen. Another reason may be the issue of how creepy it is to let random men sleep in the princesses’ quarters. It’s kind of hard to swallow from a modern perspective. Even Eben, who is close with the girls, does not stay in their rooms. He doesn’t even follow them without their knowledge. When he goes to the undergarden, they actually bring him along so he can help. The condensed timeline also causes one last change: the princesses don’t go through nearly as many shoes. By my count, they only wear out two pairs each. After the first pairs get ruined, one of the girls places an order for the new ones. These get worn out quickly as well, but they never get more. Their mother finds out about the new shoes and becomes furious. It is at this point that she makes the declaration about marrying one of them to whoever solves the mystery.
This is a solid retelling of the tale and an overall enjoyable read. I cared about Lily and Eben, and I thought Doué handled the relationship well. I was rooting for them the whole time. And I always appreciate when there isn’t insta-love. Tharius is also an intriguing villain. He’s manipulative to the point where I wasn’t even sure if he was the villain for a while. And even once I was sure, I still felt bad for him. His actions are deplorable, but I understood his reasons. I love finding a villain with a good, and even sympathetic, motive.
Even though I liked the book, there were several problems that kept my rating from being higher. The first is a problem that plagues most retellings of this story: the characterization of the princesses suffers due to the number of them. The only one I felt I knew was Lily; the rest I couldn’t even really tell apart. I talked about this same issue in my post on Princess of the Midnight Ball and in my (really old) review of Entwined (which you can read here). I remain convinced that the only way to solve this is to cut out some princesses, as Juliet Marillier does in Wildwood Dancing. Not all variants of this tale use twelve girls; there are Hungarian, Russian, and Czech versions that feature three and Danish and Portuguese versions that only have one.
My other big problem is the lack of explanation we get for some characters’ motivations and backstories. The queen’s motivations in particular confused me. We are told early on that the king has allowed Lily to take her time choosing a husband. He is mostly absent during the story, and it seems that as soon as he’s gone the queen starts pushing Lily to make a choice. She nags her about supposedly leading Lord Runson on and sets up private outings with a visiting prince. When Lily isn’t speaking due to the curse, the queen gives her a deadline in order to force her into making a choice. We’re never given a reason for any of this, so she just ends up seeming like a controlling jerk. I was also left with a lot of questions regarding the relationship between Lily and Lord Runson. At some point before the start of the story, the two were good friends. However, some kind of betrayal occurred and caused Lily to hate him. We never get any other information on this backstory, and I really want to know. Since he is a major part of the story, it felt like it should have been explained more.
Other Reading Recommendations:
The starred titles are ones I have read myself. The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books. To keep the list from getting too long, I’m limiting it to four that I’ve read and four that I haven’t.
Other Retellings of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”:
- Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier*
- Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George*
- Entwined by Heather Dixon*
- The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley*
- The Night Dance by Suzanne Weyn
- House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
- The Midnight Dancers by Regina Doman
- The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
More Retellings by Lea Doué:
- The Midsummer Captives
- The Red Dragon Girl
- The Moonflower Dance
- Red Orchid
- Mirrors and Pearls
About the Fairy Tale:
- Twelve Dancing Princesses Tales from Around the World by Heidi Anne Heiner*