10 Fairy Tale Princesses Whose Stories Are Way More Hardcore Than You Realized
Fairy tales often get a bad rap, but fairy tale princesses get the worst rap of them all. Perhaps, though, the reputation is unfairly earned — because although they’re often thought of as “damsels in distress,” fairy tale princesses are actually incredibly badass. In fact, even some of the most maligned princesses are tougher than most people think.
When you go back and look at the tales themselves — particularly the oldest versions of them — it becomes clear that the princesses that feature so prominently in them often withstand trials that the average person would probably have some trouble handling. I mean, think about it: What would you do if you were locked in a tower by a witch or an ogress with no means of escape? Honestly, I would probably just sigh and ask my captor to at least bring me a Kindle and maybe a Netflix subscription the next time she came to visit.
But these folktale and literary princesses? They’re not content to just let things lie. Sometimes, they show their badassery through deeds of derring-do; indeed, “Rapunzel’s” inspiration is something of an action hero. Other times, it’s their smarts at play as they match wits with their antagonists — and win. Sometimes, we see their strength in how they refuse to accept the status quo, while other times, we see it in their fortitude and in the way they support the people they love. And sometimes, they straight-up subvert familiar tropes.
There’s more than one way to be a badass — and these 10 fictional royals demonstrate them all.
“Rapunzel’s” roots lie in the Italian story of “Petrosinella,” which was written by Giambattista Basile and published in 1634 — and honestly, I prefer Basile's tale. Like Rapunzel, Petrosinella is kidnapped by a false parent and imprisoned in a tower; however, Petrosinella actually plans and executes her own escape.
After eavesdropping on the ogress imprisoning her and hearing that said ogress has three magical acorns hidden in the rafters of the tower, Petrosinella gets brainstorming. She tells her princely lover to bring a length of rope with him the next time he visits; then she drugs the ogress, steals the acorns, and escapes out the window thanks to the rope furnished by the prince. Then, when the ogress wakes and takes after them, Petrosinella holds her off by throwing the acorns at her: A dog emerges from the first one and charges the ogress down; a lion comes out of the second; and finally, a wolf comes out of the last one, who eats the ogress up. Free at least, Petrosinella and the prince head home to his kingdom and happily marry.
While it’s true that the prince certainly helps out, Petrosinella is the mastermind; she basically rescues herself. That’s rad.
2The 12 Dancing Princesses
“The 12 Dancing Princesses,” which exists in many forms, but is probably best known for its appearance in the Brothers Grimm’s 1812 collection Household Tales, has always been one of my favorites — largely because the princesses are so wonderfully transgressive. Their father locks them in their room night after night, so they find a way to escape and party instead; Dad also keeps trying to arrange marriages for them that they don’t want, so they find a way to make those arrangements fail; they are given few, if any, choices about how they live their own lives, so they find a way to create new choices and options so they can live life by their own rules. I mean, sure, it’s not great that they essentially orchestrate each of their hapless suitors’ deaths; however, as Mari Ness wrote over at Tor.com in 2017, “If I can’t exactly applaud having young men killed off just so you can dance — well. I can at least applaud your effort to take at least some control over your lives.” Hear, hear.
In the Chinese folktale that bears her name, Princess Kwan-Yin (or Guanyin) starts by rejecting the narrative set forth for her by her father and ends up becoming the Goddess of Mercy at the end of the story. Her father had determined with no input from her that, of all her sisters, she's going to be his heir and her husband the next king — but she has no desire to be queen and doesn’t want to get married, so she runs away on the day her arranged marriage is meant to take place and joins a convent instead. (Did I mention that she’s incredibly well read? Because she is. That’s what she wants to do with her life: Spend it studying. A woman after my own heart.)
She’s mistreated by the nuns, but she carries out her duties without complaint and aids whoever — and whatever — she can; her wise nature and essential goodness shines through at every turn. As a result, after her father raids the convent to return her home by force, divine intervention summoned by Kwan-Yin’s goodness saves the nuns — and then, when she’s sentenced to death by her father for disobeying him, a further instance of divine intervention saves her and transforms her into the Goddess of Mercy.
There’s a lot I appreciate about this story: Kwan-Yin not only bucks tradition by refusing to become queen or marry someone she doesn’t want to, but also actively works to escape the narrative her father keeps trying to thrust upon her. It's almost reminiscent of "The 12 Dancing Princesses" in that respect, with a bit of "Cinderella" thrown in for good measure.
I know, I know — in many ways, “Cinderella,” “Aschenputtel,” and all the other versions of this particular story are some of the most problematic fairy tales of them all. But you know that saying that frequently circulates social media? The one that goes, “Cinderella didn’t ask for a prince. She asked for a dress and a night off”? There’s a lot of truth to that — and, I would argue, it’s here that the heroine of the story really shines.
Cinderella works her butt off. She knows she deserves a night off (since, y’know, she’s literally never had a vacation in her life) — so when she’s denied it by her a-hole employer/terrible, toxic family, she just goes ahead and takes it anyway.
The argument for this one is stronger in the Grimms’ version than it is in the French version by Charles Perrault; in “Aschenputtel,” she’s got much more agency: No fairy godmother appears to magically solve all her problems for her; instead, she’s spent years tending a hazel branch she planted over her mother’s grave, which has resulted in a bird taking up residence in the tree — and when she wants a dress for the ball, she goes to the bird and asks for it directly. Then she gets herself to and from the party on her own steam.
Speaking as someone who has always had trouble convincing myself that it’s OK simply to ask for some time off every now and again, let alone take time off? That’s pretty amazing.
5The Miller’s Daughter in “Rumpelstiltskin”
This woman is surrounded by terrible people, but she beats all of them — not just Rumpelstiltskin himself — at their own game. When her dad lies about her being able to spin straw into gold, he literally gambles her life in order to appear like a Big, Important Person — and she gets out of that pickle with a nice financial cushion underneath her. Her husband, the king, is kind of a jerk — I mean, the marriage is founded on the fact that he almost killed her because of a stunt her dad pulled — but she builds a comfortable life for herself, making the best of her situation. And as for Rumpelstiltskin? He pressures her into a deal she doesn’t really want to make, but to which she sees no alternative; then she solves what he thinks is an impossible riddle, fairly negating the deal.
As Heidi Anne Heiner notes at Sur La Lune Fairy Tales, it’s a big deal that the miller’s daughter manages to get out of the bargain with Rumpelstiltskin. “Giving up a first child in a bargain is not uncommon in fairy tales,” writes Heiner. “Besides ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ the most famous story with similar conditions is ‘Rapunzel.’ Even ‘Beauty and the Beast’ includes the motif of a child given up by a parent.” But — the miller’s daughter succeeds in a way that Rapunzel’s biological mother and Beauty’s father do not: Says Heiner, “Rumpelstiltskin is one of the few tales in which thee bargain will be broken and the birth parent will be able to keep the child.” Well done, miller’s daughter.
6Princess Irene in 'The Princess And The Goblin'
Published in 1876, George MacDonald’s children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin somewhat unexpectedly subverts the damsel in distress trope: At one point, it’s not Irene’s friend, the miner boy Curdie, who has to rescue Irene from the goblins, but rather Irene who rescues Curdie. After he’s imprisoned, she follows a magic thread given to her by her mystical great-great-grandmother to where he’s being held captive; then, once she finds him, she digs him out and frees him. Way to go, Irene!
I actually wasn’t aware there’s a sequel until just now; called The Princess and Curdie, it’s regretfully somewhat more traditional in its character roles: Curdie is the main protagonist, and the story is mostly about him saving the day. Hilariously, the final few lines of the Wiki summary read as follows: “Curdie and Princess Irene are later married and rule the kingdom after the king dies. However, they have no children, and after they both die, the kingdom deteriorates until one day it collapses and has never been spoken of again.”
Something about the way that's phrased strikes me as enormously funny, although I’m not exactly sure why I feel that way.
Possibly I am just a very strange person with a very strange sense of humor.
The Disney version of Beauty and the Beast simplified the tale dramatically, cutting down the family at the center of it to just two people: Belle and her father, Maurice. In the original version of the story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, however, the family is huge: The merchant’s wife is dead, so Mom still isn’t in the picture, but he’s got six kids — three sons and three daughters. As such, the terms of the deal the Beast strikes with the merchant are quite different. Instead of Belle going to the castle herself and being told upon arrival that she’s got to stay there if she wants her father to go free, the merchant is sent home with the instructions that he either convince one of his three daughters to go back in his place, or he return himself within a month’s time.
The merchant plans to go back himself — but after his kids manage to get the whole story out of him, Beauty steps up to the plate of her own free will: “I have indeed caused this misfortune, but who could have guessed that to ask for a rose in the middle of summer would cause so much misery? But as I did the mischief, it is only just that I should suffer for it,” she says. “I will therefore go back with my father to keep his promise.” What’s more, even though her entire family keeps trying to convince her to stay home, she sticks to her guns.
I think the fact that it’s her choice matters. She recognizes that if she hadn’t asked her father for a rose, then he wouldn’t be in this pickle — and for the good of her family, she’s willing to right the wrong that she inadvertently caused. What's more, her father and family don't put any undue pressure on her to take Dad's place; it's totally her call. That says something about her strength of character that doesn’t quite come through in the Disney version of the scenario.
In fact, there are some similarities between Beauty and the next princess on this list, too:
8The Princess In “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon”
Like Beauty, the Princess in “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon” very clearly effs up. True, she’s led a bit astray by some other people (namely her mother) — but the transgression in the story is hers, and when someone else has to pay the price for it, she goes on a quest to right the wrong.
If you’re not familiar with the story (and it would be fair if you’re not; it’s a somewhat obscure Norwegian tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe), it starts — as many fairy tales often do — with a parent trading a child: In this case, a white bear tells a peasant that if he gives him his youngest, prettiest daughter, he’ll bestow untold riches upon the man. The daughter isn’t totally convinced at first, but eventually the bear manages to persuade her to follow him to a beautiful castle. At night, however, the bear is no longer a bear: He turns back into a man and visits her in bed. Because it’s dark, though, she never sees what he actually looks like.
Eventually, she’s allowed to go back home for a visit, whereupon her mother, concerned the white bear/prince is a troll, gives her some candles so she can light the room up when the bear comes to her as a human prince at night. She does so when she gets back to the castle — and it turns out the prince is really hot — but in laying eyes on him, she put a curse into action: Because she saw him in his true form, he now has to go back home to his wicked stepmother, who previously enchanted him to look like a bear, and marry her daughter, a troll princess.
Off he goes to meet his fate — but the girl, recognizing that she’s the one who messed up here, goes after him, finds him, and rescues him. Together, they break the curse for good, free everyone else who has been imprisoned in the troll castle, get married, and live happily ever after. Now that's how you own up to your mistakes instead of letting someone else suffer the consequences for you.
9Elisa In “The Wild Swans”
Here’s another one that has the princess in the role of the rescuer, rather than in the role of the damsel in distress: In “The Wild Swans,” a Hans Christian Andersen tale first published in 1838, a king with 12 children — 11 sons and one daughter — remarries, only to have his second wife, a wicked queen, immediately turn him against his children. She banishes the daughter, Elisa (or Eliza, in some translations), and turns the 11 boys into wild swans.
Elisa puts herself through hell trying to rescue her brothers and return them to their human forms: She gathers stinging nettles and knits them into shirts, blistering her skin badly in the process; she takes a vow of silence, rendering her unable to speak; and although she and a king of another land meet, fall in love, and plan to marry, the king’s archbishop becomes convinced that she’s a witch and puts her on trial — during which she’s unable to defend herself, due to the whole vow of silence thing. She’s sentenced to be burned at the stake.
Throughout all of that, though, she keeps on knitting her nettles, determined to rescue her brothers right up until the moment of her own death — and just as the flames are about to be lit, she finishes the shirts, throws them over the swans, and breaks the curse. The swans turn human, the execution is cancelled, and Elisa and the king finally get married.
Andersen’s characters are often put through extreme tests of endurance — “The Little Mermaid” also suffers a great deal in her efforts to become human — but at least in this case, it pays off. Elisa is a stronger person than I am, that’s for sure.
10Vasilisa The Fair
Writing in the Huffington Post in 2015, folklorist Maria Tatar described the Russian folktale “Vasilisa The Fair” (or “Vasilisa The Beautiful,” as it’s sometimes translated) as a sort of hybrid of “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel.” It’s quite a long tale involving a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, a magical doll, a period spent as a drudge for Baba Yaga, and a skull full of coal that burns the stepmother and stepsisters to ashes (all of which is pretty gnarly, and which Vasilisa pushes through with bravery and panache) — but my favorite part of the story is the end.
After Vasilisa returns home and her stepmother and stepsisters get their just desserts, she goes to live with an old woman, where, in order to keep herself busy, she begins spinning thread and weaving. She becomes so skilled that she basically becomes the tsar’s personal clothier — and when he finally meets her in person, he falls as deeply in love with her as he previously had with the clothing she made.
She essentially works her way up to royalty by being really, really good at her job. How’s that for advancement in the workplace?
Oh, and for the record, these 10 ladies are just scratching the surface of all the ways fairy tale princesses kick butt and take names. So the next time you see a long-haired woman hanging out alone in a tower? Don’t assume she’s waiting for you to rescue her. She might have a plan of her own up her voluminous and satiny sleeve.
Bustle’s Royally Fascinated series is all about owning our obsession with princesses — and exploring why that's an empowering thing.