for the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical
references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations
which appear on the Twelve Dancing Princesses Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated
Twelve Dancing Princesses to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.
I have included the Grimms' notes to the tale as translated by Margaret Hunt followed by SurLaLune's textual annotations.
The Grimms' Notes For the Tale
From Münster. The incident of the soldier fastening a sponge beneath his chin into which he lets the sleeping-drink run down, is taken from another story from Paderborn, which has also the following variations. There are only three princesses whose shoes are every morning found in holes. Whosover can discover the cause of this, is to have the youngest to wife, but if he is not able to find it out, must lose his life. Twelve have been hanged already, when the soldier presents himself as the thirteenth. At night he steals through the secret passage after them (he has not yet got the cloak which makes him invisible). The three maidens walk till they come to a lake where three tall giants are standing, each of whom takes one of the maidens on his back, and carries her through the lake to a castle of copper. The soldier is not able to follow them, but he perceives a lion and a fox with a cloak and a pair of boots, which have the property of carrying any one who wears them whithersoever he wishes to be. The two are quarrelling as to which of them shall have the magic possessions, on which he says, "Go thirty paces away from me, and then begin to run, and the one who is first here again shall have them." They are hardly gone before he puts on the boots, throws the cloak around himself, and wishes to be with the three princesses. Without being seen he seats himself by the eldest, and eats everything just as she is putting it into her mouth. After they have eaten, the dance begins, and they dance until their shoes are in holes, and then the giants carry them back again across the lake. He wishes himself in his bed so that they may seem to find him fast asleep. On the second night all happens just the same, only the castle is silver, and the soldier sits down beside the second; on the third night, the castle is golden, and he sits by the third, his promised bride. On the third day, the soldier discloses all these things to the King, and receives the youngest of the sisters in marriage, and after the King's death inherits the kingdom. A third story from Hesse contains much that is characteristic. A King's daughter dances twelve pairs of shoes into holes every night, and every morning a shoemaker has to come and measure her for twelve pairs of new ones, which are sent to her at night; and in order to do this, he has to keep twelve apprentices. No one knows how the shoes are worn into holes at night, but one evening, when the youngest apprentice is taking the shoes to her and the maiden happens not to be in her apartment, he thinks, "I will discover how the shoes are worn out," and gets under her bed. At eleven o'clock at night, the trap-door opens, and eleven princesses come up who kiss each other, put on the new shoes, and then descend together. The apprentice, who can make himself invisible, follows; they come to a lake where a boatman takes them into his boat. He complains that it is heavier than usual. The twelve maidens say, "Oh, indeed we have brought nothing with us: no handkerchief and no little parcel." They land, and go into twelve different gardens, one of which belongs to each of them, and there they pluck the most beautiful flowers, with which they adorn themselves. And now they go to a castle where twelve princes receive them, and dance with them; all are merry but one princess, who is melancholy (it seems as if she had seen the handsome apprentice and had fallen in love with him). They go home again, because their shoes are worn out. When they are once more up above, they throw the shoes out of the window, where a whole heap of shoes are already lying. The apprentice steals away, and next morning his master goes to measure the princess for new ones, but she is still in bed, and bids him come later. When he returns, she says she will have no more shoes; she only requires one pair, and he is to send them to her by his youngest apprentice. The latter, however, says, "I will not go; it is the turn of the eldest." The eldest dresses himself smartly and goes, but she will not have him; but will have the youngest. Again he says, "I will not go until it is my turn." So the second goes, and the third, and all of them one after the other until she has sent away the eleventh as well. Then the youngest says, "If I am to go, I will go just as I am, and will put on no better clothes." When he gets there, she throws her arms round his neck, and says, "Thou hast delivered me from the eleven who have had me in their power, and have so tormented me; I love thee with all my heart, and thou shalt be my husband." Compare the note to The Golden Mountain (No. 92) for the dispute about the magic possessions. For failure in the performance of the appointed tasks being followed by the punishment of death, see The Riddle (No. 22) and The Six Servants (No. 134). This story is also known in Poland (see further on). In Hungarian, see Stier, p. 51.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.
1. King: While not always a king, the father is usually royal or a nobleman of some rank in the European versions of the tale (AT 306). In some French versions, he is a duke. See Andrew Lang's The Twelve Dancing Princesses for a considerably more detailed version of the tale.
In a creative modern interpretation, Brothers of the Knight by Debbie Allen, the king is a preacher who forbids his sons to dance. The sons sneak out each night to dance anyway.
2.Twelve daughters: This tale appears in many cultures with varying numbers of princesses. Most often, the tale includes one, three or twelve princesses. Some tales involve one princess who wears out multiple pairs of shoes--sometimes a dozen--in one night. In one Haitian tale, the princess has worn out 500 pairs of shoes, although not in one night. To read about oher versions of the tale, visit the Tales Similar to Twelve Dancing Princesses page. Return to place in story.
3.Each one more beautiful than the other: In romantic fairy tale fashion, the princesses are physically beautiful. However, their beauty appears to be their birthright and not a representation of good virtue in this tale. The princesses show no remorse for their involvement in the mystery and the deaths of the suitors. Return to place in story.
4.They all slept together in one chamber, in which their beds stood side by side: Companionship, safety, warmth and convenience are often achieved by housing children in one bedroom.
On a completely unrelated note, this image always reminds me of one of my favorite books as a child, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans in 1939:
"In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls
in two straight lines.
"In two straight lines
they broke their bread
and brushed their teeth
and went to bed."
5.Locked the door, and bolted it: Locked door mysteries have long been part of popular tales, perhaps growing in popularity with the development of the mystery genre. In modern mystery fiction, a locked door mystery is a frequently used plot device.
6.Their shoes were worn out with dancing: In times past, wealthy women's dancing shoes were usually made of silk, satin, soft leather, or other delicate materials. The shoes would quickly wear thin with much use.
Today, perhaps the most famous types of dancing shoes are ballet slippers and toe shoes. According to the New York City Ballet: "Toe shoes have a very short life. In performance, the pressure from jumping, spinning, and balancing causes toe shoes to soften and flatten. A pair of shoes can be worn out in a single performance. Toe shoes cost $60 dollars a pair and the New York City Ballet goes through 12,000 pairs a year, for a total of $720,000 a year!" (http://www.nycballet.com/programs/ballet.html)
7.Choose one of them for his wife and be King after his death: This is a common reward in fairy tales for solving a problem or mystery for a king or other nobleman. The Brave Little Tailor is another tale available on SurLaLune with a similar reward: a daughter to wife and half the kingdom. Return to place in story.
8.Three days and nights: The number and/or pattern of three often appears in fairy tales to provide rhythm and suspense. The pattern adds drama and suspense while making the story easy to remember and follow. The third event often signals a change and/or ending for the listener/reader. A third time also disallows coincidence such as two repetitive events would suggest.
The reasons and theories behind three's popularity are numerous and diverse. The number has been considered powerful across history in different cultures and religions, but not all of them. Christians have the Trinity, the Chinese have the Great Triad (man, heaven, earth), and the Buddhists have the Triple Jewel (Buddha, Dharma, Sanga). The Greeks had the Three Fates. Pythagoras considered three to be the perfect number because it represented everything: the beginning, middle, and end. Some cultures have different powerful numbers, often favoring seven, four and twelve. Return to place in story.
9.King's son: In romantic fairy tales, a prince is often expected to rescue a damsel in distress and make her his wife. Here one imagines a younger son, not the crown prince, risking his life to rescue a princess and marry her since his life is forfeit if he fails. Some versions of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty use the motif of a prince as rescuer. While princes are expected to rescue damsels in distress, they sometimes fail in fairy tales in which the underdog, a poor and humble man of low birth, usually triumphs at the task instead.
In a related tale, Katie Crackernuts, the rescuer is a heroine named for the title. She solves the mystery of a prince's mysterious ailment and nightly journeys to a mysterious dance inside a green hill. After three midnight excursions, she rescues the prince and ends up marrying him. Return to place in story.
10.A room adjoining the princesses' sleeping-chamber: Despite the presence of twelve princesses to serve as chaperones for each other, the suitors are expected to sleep in a room separate from the princesses since they are maidens and must maintain their virtuous reputations, especially prior to marriage. Return to place in story.
11.His head was struck off without mercy: Beheading was a common form of execution in times past, especially in France where the guillotine was invented and frequently used. Axes and swords were the most commonly used instruments for beheading.
In other versions of the tale, the failed suitors are hung. Other versions do not describe the method of execution. Return to place in story.
12.All forfeited their lives: Death is often the punishment for failure in a task or quest in traditional folklore. Not even a noble birth spares a failure from death, especially in this tale. Perhaps the rationale is that one must be willing to risk death to win the princess bride and the kingdom.
According to the Opies: "The do-or-die terms offered to candidates for a princess's hand are not uncommon in popular literature, but Victorian editors found their harshness unacceptable. In the age of self help, it was not thinkable that those who strove and failed should be worse off than those who had never striven" (Opie 1974, 188). The deaths were either glossed over or completely omitted as a result.
In some versions, the questing princes become enchanted like the princesses, but they remain in the underground world waiting for the princesses to return each night. In other versions, the punishment for failure is not death, but humiliation. The suitors leave the castle sitting backwards on a donkey, holding its tail in both hands while people in the streets mock them. Return to place in story.
13.Poor soldier, who had a wound: This character is the protagonist of the story although he enters the tale rather late in many versions. A well-known French version, popularized in English by Andrew Lang, gives the character a first name, Michael. The character is often a soldier in European versions, but is a cow-boy in the Lang version. In other versions, he is one of the cobblers who makes the new shoes for the princess(es) or a gardener for the King. He is rarely someone of rank or power. An exception is the Russian tale, "The Secret Ball,"in which the hero is a needy nobleman with few financial assets. Return to place in story.
14.Old woman: In the French version provided by Andrew Lang, the helper is "a beautiful lady, dressed in a robe of cloth of gold" who appears to the hero in a dream. Although she is usually a woman, no further explanation for the helper is given. In some versions with a strong Catholic influence, the woman may be the Virgin Mary or another saint. The hero often shares part of his meager meal with her, a common fairy tale motif for testing the worthiness of a protagonist. Return to place in story.
15.You must not drink the wine: This prohibition is not given with a teetotaler sensibility, although such a theme has been interpreted in rare criticisms of the tale. Wine has had a long history of consumption in Europe and thus appears in many of its fairy tales. In this tale, wine is used to drug the suitors. Wine itself causes sleepiness and with an added drug (virtually tasteless in wine) would insure that the suitors sleep through the night without solving the mystery.
"In the Medieval period, wine was still considered to be a staple of everyday diet. This was due to the fact that most of Europe lacked a reliable source of drinking water. The 17th century saw a brief decline of the wine industry. The politics and religious propaganda did little to promote the consumption of wine for pleasure. Wine also had to face the rival of a clean and readily available supply of drinking water. Wine was no longer needed as a major part of the daily diet" (History-of-Wine.com). You can read more about the history of wine at the History of Wine website at http://www.history-of-wine.com. Return to place in story.
16.You will be invisible: Invisibility cloaks are common items in fairy tales and folklore. In Andrew Lang's French version, the hero obtains a white flower that makes him invisible when it is placed in his button-hole.
More recently, invisibility cloaks have appeared in popular literature, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Return to place in story.
18.He was as well received as the others, and royal garments were put upon him: In the proverb that clothes make the man, the soldier is given nice clothing to replace the rags he first appears wearing. This is an honor to his quest and for his service. Being allowed to wear royal clothing is often a distinct honor. In times past, only royalty was allowed to wear certain items or colors by royal decree. Return to place in story.
20.The eldest: With twelve princesses to keep track of, the story rarely focuses on more than the eldest and youngest daughters, the popular heros of fairy tales. Middle children are often ignored in fairy tales. The implication in most of the tales is that the queen mother is dead. If this is the case, the eldest daughter would be the female head of the household and the natural leader of her sisters. Return to place in story.
21.Tied a sponge under his chin: A messy enterprise, no doubt, but apparently effective. In the Russian tale, "The Secret Ball," the hero pours the drink into his bed while his head is turned to the wall. In other versions of the tale, the drink is poured into a potted plant, conveniently nearby. Return to place in story.
22.The twelve princesses heard that, and laughed: The callousness displayed by the princesses is often troubling to many critics and readers. Are the princesses really that cruel or are they under an enchantment? The answer is left for your own interpretation. Return to place in story.
23.Rejoiced at the prospect of the dance: While the princesses may be enchanted, they do not appear to suffer from the enchantment and/or curse. They enjoy their nightly sojourns, actively keeping their secret through treachery and deceit. They do not appear to be tired from their nightly sojourns in which they are active enough to wear out new shoes. Return to place in story.
24.The youngest: In Andrew Lang's French version, the youngest princess receives the name of Lina, the only princess to be named and the one who ultimately marries the hero, not the eldest, such as in this version. The youngest appears silly but also more aware of her surroundings. She is at the back of the line as the youngest and would be most likely to notice the hero's invisible presence.
With twelve princesses to keep track of, the story rarely focuses on more than the eldest and youngest daughters, the popular heros of fairy tales. Middle children are often ignored in fairy tales. Return to place in story.
25.Went to her bed and tapped it: In most versions of the tale, the entrance to the underworld is hidden beneath a bed, usually that of the eldest sister. Return to place in story.
26.They descended through the opening: Hell has long been seen as underground in the earth. In Greek mythology, Hades is the underworld dwelling of the dead, ruled by the god Hades (Lindemans, Pantheon.org). Return to place in story.
27.Avenue of trees: An avenue to trees would be a road with trees bordering each side to provide shelter and a natural boundary to the road. Avenues of trees are popular in landscapes on large estates. Return to place in story.
28.Silver: Note that all three of the materials--silver, gold, and diamonds--are precious materials and limited to wealthier homes, especially during the time period of this tale.
As the journey progresses, each succeeding materials is more precious and valuable than the next. The three materials faintly echo the passing seasons, signifying the passage of life into death. The silver is reminiscent of summer sunlight on foliage, the gold of autumn leaves, and the diamonds of winter's ice on the trees. Return to place in story.
29.I must carry a token away with me: The hero is wise to gather physical evidence of his visit to this other world. In most versions of the tale, the king refuses to believe the tale until he sees the evidence. The princesses also deny the story until they are confronted with the physical evidence gathered by the hero. Today, physical evidence is often required to establish guilt or innocence in a court of law. Return to place in story.
30.A twig: In Greek mythology, living persons who visit Hades, the underworld, need a golden bough obtained from the Cumaean Sibyl in order to return safely to the world of the living (Lindemans, Pantheon.org). Perhaps the tree branch also serves as an unknown token, allowing the hero to pass in and out of the underworld. Return to place in story.
31.Tree cracked with a loud report: Cracking twigs have become a cliche in modern times for revealing the presence of someone who wants to remain hidden. Usually the device reveals the intruder, but this time the princesses appear to believe their eyes and their desires over the evidence of the sound.
A side note: Mark Twain, the American novelist, wrote a humorous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895), that complained about the abundance of twig cracking in James Fenimore Cooper's novels. "Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series." Return to place in story.
32.Gold: Gold, as always, is a beautiful and precious metal and was reserved for the wealthy in past centuries. Gold has often been used for money and jewelry, to represent wealth and power.
33.Diamonds: Jewels represent wealth and femininity. Diamonds are some of the most precious stones and of the highest value.
In the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (650 B.C.), "the hero Gilgamesh has to make his way through the underworld to the garden of the gods, from which he crosses over the waters of death; and he too finds that the vines and bushes bear jewels instead of fruit" (Opie 1974, 188). The journey and description is described on Tablet 9 (IX) of the epic. You can read a translation of the text on the AncientTexts.org site here or a summary of the text on Washington State University's World Cultures site here. Return to place in story.
34.Great lake: Greek mythology includes the five rivers as the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead (Hades, the underworld, or hell, depending on interpretation). The five rivers are named (1) Acheron: The River of Woe; (2) Cocytus: The River of Lamentation; (3) Phlegethon: The River of Fire; (4) Lethe: The River of Forgetfulness; (5) Styx: The River of Hate. The five rivers together are occasionally regarded as a lake (Lindemans, Pantheon.org). Return to place in story.
35.Twelve little boats: In a version from the Antilles, an eagle flies the princess across the lake to the dancing hall. The eagle is surprised by the extra weight of the invisible hero.
In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of the dead. Charon ferries the souls of the deceased, or shades, across the river Acheron in a boat (Lindemans, Pantheon.org). Return to place in story.
36.Handsome prince: The princesses' dancing partners vary across versions. Sometimes the princes are described as enchanted (along with the princesses), such as in Andrew Lang's French version. Sometimes they are not princes at all, but the undead or demons.
Neil Philip briefly discusses the demons that appear in one version from Cape Verde: "The Cape Verde Islands were a Portuguese territory and this story reveals Portuguese origins by its mention of Catholic icons such as St. Anthony and the Virgin Mary. The princess, who dances with 'devils,' clings to pagan ways; for this reason the boy refuses to marry her" (Philip 1997, 72). Return to place in story.
37.Castle: The princesses most often visit a castle, but sometimes the structure is described as a great hall or similar building. Return to place in story.
39.Kettle-drums: A kettledrum is "a large hemispherical brass or copper percussion instrument with a drumhead that can be tuned by adjusting the tension on it" (WordNet). Today they are more commonly called timpani or tympani. Return to place in story.
40.He drank it up: Here the hero drinks the wine to tease the princesses. In other versions of the tale, such as Andrew Lang's French version, the wine is the source of the princes' enchantment (perhaps the princesses' enchantment, too). The hero threatens to drink it but is stopped by the youngest princess who is in love with him.
In Greek mythology, if one eats or drinks while in Hades, she is forever tied to the place. The most famous example is that of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, who was kidnapped by Hades to be his wife. Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to her mother and the world of the living. Before she left, Hades gave her a pomegranate to eat, "thus she would always be connected to his realm and had to stay there one-third of the year" (Lindemans, Pantheon.org, Persephone). You can read a version of the Persephone myth on SurLaLune at Prosperine. Return to place in story.
41.They danced there till three o'clock in the morning: An exact time for the end of the dancing is not usually provided. In some versions of the tale, the princesses dance until their shoes are worn out and then sit down for a meal with their dance partners before departing. Return to place in story.
42.Watch the wonderful goings on: One senses that the soldier is also drawn to the beauty and magical allure of this underground world, visiting it three times before he must either reveal the secret or die. In Andrew Lang's version, he decides to drink of some wine so he may stay in the underworld and thus dance with the youngest princess whom he now loves. Return to place in story.
43.I am no longer young, so give me the eldest: In Andrew Lang's French version, the hero marries the youngest princess. The soldier's desire to marry the eldest daughter is far from romantic since she is far from sympathetic and even schemes for his death during the tale. In a version from Cape Verde, the hero refuses to marry the princess at all since she has consorted happily with demons. At least this hero is not looking for a May-December romance. Return to place in story.
44.Princes were bewitched for as many days as they had danced nights: In most versions, the princes are seen as victims, too, and sent home after they are disenchanted at the same time as the princesses. In other versions, such as those with demons, the entrance is walled up and no one is able to return to or from the underground world ever again. Return to place in story.