Did the familiar children’s fairytales of today exist in the ancient world? Were there ancient Cinderellas, Twelve Dancing Princesses, Sleeping Beauties and Pusses in Boots?
The answer: Maybe.
In FAIRYTALE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, Graham Anderson gives a scholarly account of the parallels between ancient myth and fairy tale.
Let us take the tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. The King, their father, discovers one day that their slippers are worn to pieces, as if they have been dancing all night. He invites the young men of the kingdom to find out. The successful candidate will marry the eldest princess. But if they fail, the penalty is death.
The one who eventually succeeds follows the princesses through a trap door, and down down to a forest, where they pass through a grove of jeweled trees to a lake, where twelve boats are waiting. Each princess is rowed across the lake by a waiting prince, and they arrive at a castle where a ball is being held. There, they dance the night away, returning just before dawn.
The illustrations usually show pretty young people dressed either in the fashions of the fifteenth century – with those tall conical head-dresses and floating veils – or in the fashions of the eighteenth, with those enormous hair styles, and flouncy dresses.
In any event, the whole thing has a medieval European feel to it. So how could it possibly be connected to an ancient Empire of the Middle East?
The first clue is the jeweled trees, a feature of an ancient tale about Gilgamesh, that also occurs between a dark tunnel and a lake of death.
The second clue is the lake that they are rowed across, which is very reminiscent of the River Styx, and it’s shadowy boatmen Charon who rows the souls of the recent dead across it.
Then there is the Aeneid, where Aeneus has to pluck the Golden Bough to follow the aged Sibyl across the Styx. Once there, he finds lost women who are dead heroines.
The princesses have to descend downwards to get to their destination, which is reminiscent of the capture of Persephone by Pluto.
Lastly, those slippers. Were those princesses merely dancing courtly dances at a ball, or were they in the grip of some uncontrollable frenzy?
If this sort of thing fascinates you, then you should read this book. Graham Anderson is Professor of Classics at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Five stars.