Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, even Princess Fiona from Shrek–what do they all have in common besides animated films? They’re all the missing princess. Each one of them is locked in a tower or trapped in a spell or confined by life circumstances that should prevent them from achieving their ultimate potential while consequently helping the older competition (stepmothers and mothers-in-law) succeed in evil. The idea of the fairy princess is pretty stocky when it comes to characters, but I think the lost princess is could be more. So I pose this question: is she a literary trope or a reflection on the secret state of women?
What’s got me exploring this archetype is none other than the archetype master, Disney. My sister and I rented Tangled from the Blockbuster Express on Sunday night so that I could finally see it. Yes, Disney’s Rapunzel falls into the lost princess archetype (she is, after all, the kingdom’s lost princess), but within that, she was the most human character I’ve seen Disney do since Lilo in Lilo & Stitch.
Rapunzel’s humanity is fantastic, believable, and real to a point that she actually seems like a person I know. Is it a coincidence that the girl Rapunzel reminds me of has two feet of blond hair? Maybe, but it’s not coincidence that the two share a desire for a bigger life. She is, for me, the most connectable of the Disney Princess pantheon.
What I liked most about Tangled was the treatment of Rapunzel’s relationship to Mother Gothel, the loathely lady who kidnaps/adopts Rapunzel to use the child’s magic hair’s ability to restore youth. It’s not 100% typical evil stepmom motif. For much of the film, it seems as if Gothel actually does love Rapunzel, and Rapunzel definitely loves her mother (until the climax, of course, when everything is revealed). Rapunzel’s struggle with herself after leaving the tower and with Gothel is human to a tee.
But at the same time, there is something magical and magnificent in Rapunzel, and she just knows it. She knows that the lights are meant for her, she knows that she’s meant to have something bigger than her tower, she knows that she has a destiny. Her dreams guide her to a family, a kingdom, and a true love. Despite what she’s been hearing about herself for her entire life, Rapunzel feels something inside of herself that is grand. And at the end of the movie, she finds out that she is indeed the lost princess of the kingdom. Even though she was always told she was nothing.
Which reminds me of Anastasia, in which a young orphan meets up with some con artists to pretend to be the lost princess Anastasia of Russia. Anya, who can’t remember her childhood, learns along the way to Paris about the missing princess, triggering her memories. Of course, Anya is Anastasia after all. The worthless orphan girl is the lost princess.
Cinderella. Beautiful orphan abused by stepmother. She falls in love with the prince, and he with her during the course of the ball, which she attends by means of magic. Upon exiting the ball, she leaves a shoe, and the prince uses it to find her. When he does, he marries his lost princess.
Snow White. Beautiful orphan princess abused by stepmother the Queen. Flees to forest after murder attempt and lives in hiding with the dwarves. Eats poisoned apple and falls into a magical sleep, keeping her effectively in stasis. Eventually rescued by the prince, who has been searching for the lost princess for some time.
Sleeping Beauty. Princess Aurora is blessed and cursed by fairies so that she will be beautiful, talented, but prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep on her sixteenth birthday, only to be awakened by true love’s kiss. Hidden from the kingdom and given the name Briar Rose, she is raised as a peasant girl by the good fairies, falls in love with Philip (the prince to whom she is unknowingly betrothed), then pricks her finger and falls asleep. Philip fights through traps set by Maleficent to rescue his lost princess.
Are you sensing a theme here?
I struggle a lot when I watch romantic fairy tales because they stir up a longing within me for something bigger; they make me want to see more, do more, be more. They make me want to fall in love in a ‘before-it’s-too-late’ kind of way. I empathize with the characters and see myself in them. All good movies do that. All good art does that. If you don’t feel it in something, you’re missing out on one of the greatest beauties in life.
But I’m not the only girl who’ll watch a princess movie and get misty-eyed and heartsick over it. There’s something core and fundamental behind the idea of a lost or missing princess in the kingdom, especially in the stories where the princess doesn’t know her origins (Rapunzel, Anastasia, Briar Rose), and that’s the sense that anyone could be the princess. Anastasia plays into that–people are constantly trying to convince Dowager Empress Marie that they are the missing princess, but there’s only one real Anastasia.
It’s not just Disney movies, either. Marie de France wrote “Le Fresne” about twins separated at birth. One abandoned sister becomes a knight’s lover, but his vassals want him to marry a woman of noble birth (his lady friend was raised as an orphan in an abbey). He agrees to marry the other sister, which leads to his lover reuniting with her true parents, receiving her rights as their daughter, and finally being able to marry her beloved knight. Le Fresne is the lost princess. That story hails from the 1100s.
We are made for something greater. Each and every one of these stories features a unique lost princess. Others may fake it or end up wicked stepmothers, but I believe that these fairy tales continue to ring true and affect the female soul is because we are all lost princesses with our own magical talents. Rapunzel has glowing hair that heals wounds and restores youth; I can take ordinary words and arrange to create a world of beauty or mystery or pain that can cause people to laugh, cry, become angry, and think. My older sister can take a room full of teenagers who are naturally filled with self-loathing and give them confidence by making them feel loved. It’s all magic, and we all have the potential for it.
Unfortunately for us, being the lost princess in our world is much more spiritual than it is physical. Most of our searches for self will end without improved socio-economic status and without true love’s kiss waking us from a deathly slumber. In the films, with outer healing comes inner healing, but in our world, inner healing is necessary, if ugly, precedent to outer healing. The lost princess is lost because she does not know herself, because we do not acknowledge our talents and potential to be creatures of grace and beauty.
The realization of ourselves does not need to come on the lips of a hero (though I admit, sometimes I feel like that would be nice). Rapunzel realizes who she is by herself, and that is when she becomes strong, not when she’s riding in the boat with Flynn. Anastasia’s memories alone reveal that she is the princess, not Dmitri’s attempts to teach her how to act like one. Though they do have help, they figure it out themselves. There is something in the fiber of their beings that screams the truth. I believe that we, too, have that fiber. We have that potential.
We are all a lost princess at heart. The key is to remember it in time to live a powerfully beautiful life.