Review: “The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales” by Gail Carson Levine

A writer or avid reader could immediately question the purpose of fairy tales upon perusal, aside from being an age-old form of entertainment.  Can any moral lessons be derived from these stories?  The majority of fairy tales is not only badly written but also lacking any profound metaphors or intelligent messages that can educate or inspire its diverse audience.  However, due to the insightful and trenchant imaginations of numerous authors, there is still hope that rudimentary works of fiction like fairy tales can yet achieve greater literary significance than popularity alone by being revised and expanded with more sophisticated and creatively detailed content.  Gail Carson Levine’s “series”, The Princess Tales, is an excellent example of fairy tale “metamorphosis.”

Although initially published individually, all six retellings of various fairy tales have been compiled into one volume, entitled The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales.  This collection narrates the interrelated short stories in chronological order.  The settings are consistently numerous locations in the magical kingdom of Biddle, which is comparable to a land permanently fixed in the Middle Ages, and the time frame over which The Princess Tales is spread illustrates the history of Biddle’s royal family and its descendants.  The time frame also allows for several generations of Biddle royalty to interact in distinct circumstances with their subjects.  The author takes into account countless human reactions and emotions while exhibiting the reality and severity of human vice to its fullest.  Interchangeably caustic and humorous, each tale focuses on the ridicule and punishment of human offenders and the reward of all characters that are just.

The Fairy’s Mistake is based on Toads and Diamonds, but Levine quickly turns the original tale around by comparing how a reward may be an undeserved punishment and vice versa.  Rosella and Myrtle are twins who look alike but have opposite temperaments.  Ironically, they also land in opposite situations when they encounter the fairy Ethelinda.  Rosella spits out jewels when she speaks as a reward for her kindness to Ethelinda, but this new “gift” only results in more troublesome exploitation of Rosella.  She is domineered by her greedy fiancé Prince Harold, who only proposed to attain Rosella’s jewels, and the inhabitants of his castle, and instead of being happy, Rosella experiences worse treatment than under her mean mother and sister.  On the other hand, Myrtle is punished for her rudeness by the exit of snakes and insects from her mouth every time she talks.  However, Ethelinda did not consider that Myrtle would only become more of an expert at getting what she wants for nothing through her “punishment” by forcing people to give it to her out of fear.  Everyone has to be taught a lesson in manners and self-control before Rosella can put her kindness and jewels to better use.  Even though Myrtle participates in this process, the author remains realistic and shows that Myrtle’s character will never change her avaricious and self-absorbed personality.

The Princess and the Pea and Sleeping Beauty are re-evaluated in The Princess Test and Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, respectively.  In both short stories, stupidity plays a great part in the lives of the main characters.  In The Princess Test, the series of ridiculous tests that are devised for finding a suitable princess bride for Prince Nicholas have nothing to do with selecting a lady with decent habits, a good personality, or normal intelligence, but are only superficial, being mainly concerned with physical beauty.  There is no magic involved, but the helpless and fragile physique of Lorelei and her “evil stepmother,” an envious housekeeper named Trudy, guarantee laughs together with the absurdity of the princess test itself.  Notable eccentricities are the simultaneous usage of double synonyms for every word in King Humphrey’s daily speech.  There is no serious consideration on the part of the fairies when giving gifts in Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep.  Princess Sonora is blessed with six “gifts” and a famous curse at her christening, but each gift, with the exception of the curse, is nonsensical.  Sonora’s brilliance, self-consciousness, and super-human intelligence during her infancy make problems for everyone including her unhappy parents, who wanted a normal daughter.  As Sonora gets older, the circumstances worsen.  While sticking closing to the outline of Sleeping Beauty, Levine makes her own variations to the story by administering a large dose of common sense to her heroine and inserting witty lines with facetious romance.

Sonora is not only fully aware of the curse since she received her fairy gifts, but also prepares for it by stealing a spindle and planning when she will prick her finger, since no age was specified for the event in the curse.  When Sonora is engaged to the boorish and moronic heir to the throne of Kulornia (an adjacent kingdom), her parents realize that there are worse things than an insulted fairy’s curse and accept that there is merit in being overly smart and curious like Sonora and her future “Prince Charming.”  Cinderellis and the Glass Hill centers more on its hero, Cinderellis, than its heroine, Princess Margaret.  Both main characters share the trait of being determined in their pursuits.  Based on The Princess on the Glass Hill, Cinderellis is a talented inventor who longs for the respect and approval of his two older brothers.  Magic affects his life in the form of three enchanted horses and his own magical powders.  The current king of Biddle, Humphrey III, isolates himself from his daughter, Princess Marigold, by frequently going on long quests for exotic magical items or creatures.  He is so ignorant of his daughter’s feelings that he designs a contest for her hand in marriage, i.e. climbing a sleek glass pyramid and retrieving three golden apples.  Marigold’s desire for true love and attention persuades her to even disguise herself as a commoner in order to see who is a real competitor for her and not just interested in the throne of Biddle.  Dramatic irony ensues when Cinderellis and Margaret meet by accident; Cinderellis enters the contest without knowing that Marigold is the princess and Marigold is completely unaware that Cinderellis is a contestant.

Justice is served and pride is humbled in For Biddle’s Sake and The Fairy’s Return.  False accusations, magical mishaps, and sibling rivalry abound as the unknown fairy tale Puddocky is personalized in For Biddle’s Sake.  The fairy Bombina is a vindictive magical being who loves to turn her victims into frogs but whose life is changed with the unexpected adoption of Patsy, a.k.a. Parsley, a peasant girl who loves to eat parsley.  Prince Tansy, of Biddle is always wrongly accused of causing accidents by his brothers Randolph and Rudolph in a three-way fight for their father’s attention.  Therefore, another contest is created to determine Tansy’s innocence and the three princes’ veracity.  Naturally, Parsley and Tansy meet up and Parsley helps Tansy finally defy his brothers and win the throne.  For the first time in The Princess Tales, the heroine receives temporary magical powers that save the storyline.  The Fairy’s Return, a version of The Golden Goose, is whimsical and has expressive humor rather than verbal wit.  The romance between Princess Lark and a baker’s son named Robin ignite King Humphrey V, a.k.a. King “Harrumphey” for his habit of speaking in “harrumphs,” into holding a contest for Lark’s hand in marriage, only this time entry is limited to princes.  Both Lark’s and Robin’s fathers believe firmly in the strict division of the nobility from the plebeians, and it takes the re-appearance of the fairy Ethelinda from The Fairy’s Mistake to reward or punish so that the story can have a happy ending.  Talent is in the eyes of the beholder, which is proven by the flagrant disregard of Robin’s natural talent for telling contrived jokes and the positive fame of his father Jake’s terrible poetry and of his brothers’ comical word inventing “skills.”

All in all, The Princess Tales embody the same theme—magic can be important in the development of a fairy tale, but ultimately, fairy tales are stories that criticize humanity.

Original review: Part 1: Famous and lesser-known fairy tales become satiresPart 2: Famous and lesser-known fairy tales become satiresPart 3: Famous and lesser-known fairy tales become satiresPart 4: Famous and lesser-known fairy tales become satiresPart 5: Famous and lesser-known fairy tales become satires,


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