My younger daughter’s current favorite book is the Usborne Illustrated Stories of Princes and Princesses. We are big fans of the Illuustrated Stories series in general because of their gorgeous illustrations and ability to take well known stories and bring them to younger audiences at an age appropriate level (Shakespeare for an 8 year old!). What sets this particular book apart is the fact that it brings forth many lesser known fairy tales from a variety of cultures and it is a book focusing on princesses, but without that common thread of princess needs saving from prince.
E found this book in our catalog and started begging for it, so of course I bought it, since I’m a sucker for that desire. We were quickly surprised by the content of the stories. Many are well known tales like Cinderella, The Princess and the Pea, Sleeping Beauty, and the Frog Prince. But then there are stories that have never made their way into my fairy tale loving family – The Princess and the Glass Hill, Princess Nobody, and the Seven Ravens, for example. Each story is beautifully told with illustrations and an easy to read font.
As E and I started reading a number of them together we were taken by the fact that in many of the stories, the princess was strong, intelligent, and helped save the prince. One such story was The Grateful Prince. Turns out that this is an Estonian fairy tale where a King thinks he outsmarts an old man in the forest, by trading a peasant baby girl for his own newborn son. The son, however, learns of the deception and has so much guilt that he goes to rescue the girl. The old man takes him deep underground to a magical realm where he does find the girl, but she winds up saving him. This is a wonderful turn on the traditional story of hero and heroine reuniting and saving each other.
Another where the princess saves the prince is in The Seven Ravens, where a princess saves her brothers who had been turned into ravens while trying to get cold water to save her years earlier. In the original Grimms brothers’ story the girl was not a princess, but it was a nice tale to have included in this collection and showing the power of love between siblings.
A similar tale that surprised me and teaches a wonderful lesson is The Ugly Prince, originally published as Riquet with the Tuft by Charles Perrault. While I don’t love the concept of judging people by their outward appearances, this story highlights that in order to show how little it actually means. An ugly prince is born who is witty and charming. The fairies cannot change his appearance, but say that whoever he loves will be as witty and charming as he. In the next kingdom over are two fraternal twins born one beautiful, one less so. Their fairy godmother “evens things up” by giving one wit and charm to match her sister’s beauty and the other’s gift is that whoever she falls in love with will become as beautiful as you. The beautiful princess struggles from feeling uninteresting and lonely until she meets the prince. Of course it all works out in the end, but what Usborne does is include the line “You might wonder whether it really was fairy magic that made the princess clever and the prince handsome, or whether it was simply power oof love. Only the fairy godmothers would know.”
On a final note, when E was reading the book to herself one afternoon, she started reading the section about the stories in the back of the book. It concisely tells a bit about the history of folk-tales and how they were initially all orally passed down until the 18th and 19th centuries when people in various countries started to collect them and publish the tales. The book then explains which folk-tales were written down by the most prominent authors and what countries the other tales originated from. I’m thrilled to find tales from throughout Europe and Asia in this book. And given my love of discovering all versions of classic tales, the book includes the Cinderella story that we commonly think of, but also includes Rhodopsis and the Rose-red Slippers, the oldest known version of Cinderella from Ancient Egypt (for additional Cinderella versions check out my posts here and here.)