Stories & Princesses — A look at how successful stories survive and change through time
I’ve used Twitter to cover a bit about stories and how they get both used and weaponised, especially against minority and marginalised groups. However, because of the nature of what I do, I ended up covering things in terms of very specific areas and then widened out to a more general view of stories, their power, and how they end up influencing us, often without us realising it.
This is an article that looks at memes, stories, and how both propagate themselves both sideways across communities, as well as down through time, provided that either are successful.
So let’s start with memes. We all know what a meme is, right?
Well actually, most of us kind of do and don’t at the same time. For most of us the term meme means a saying, picture, or gif that is either used to emphasise a point associated with that meme, or is used to create variations on that meme designed to be as funny as possible, and often very situational. The latter tend to be crazes, things like the Gru’s Plan meme or the Is this a Pigeon meme explode for a while, and then all but die away.
But why is that. What makes some memes hang around in one recognisable format, whereas other memes spawn a myriad of variations, but don’t hang around?
Well, it’s because what we tend to think of as memes are in fact stories, albeit micro-stories, built on top of what an actual meme is.
So what is a meme?
A meme’s just an idea. It can anything. A social touchstone, a bit of knowledge, a saying, anything that’s an idea is a meme. Successful memes “breed”. They get passed around communities, and between communities, and get handed down as well until they become so successful they can end up overriding the actual information they’re based on. Take, for instance, the quote “Luke, I am your father”. Most people are aware of this quote, but it’s not the actual quote from the movie. In fact it’s a meme, and one that’s so successful that not only has it managed to survive the passage of time, it’s also managed to supplant the actual quote in the public conscience.
Now let’s marry this to the idea of stories. Stories are built upon memes, especially the type of meme that is known as a trope. In turn stories hold those memes in the public conscience, but can also end up spawning new memes. And then, in turn, both sets of memes, if they are successful and survive, get used in a new generation of stories.
And this means that successful stories end up propagating themselves, somewhat like flowering plants. A story grows from a seed, matures, flowers, produces more seeds, which then go on to grow more of the same plant.
So let’s have a look at this in action, and let’s do this by starting with a meme.
“Your Princess Is In Another Castle”
A micro-story that’s so successful it became a meme. And an example of a meme that’s so successful it’s overtaken the original quote it’s spawned from (“But our Princess is in another castle!”)
The Princess Is In Another Castle
Oh, not the thing about being in another castle. That part’s self-explanatory. But why is it that Princesses in stories keep on being held prisoner in castles? I mean, when we think about it, we kind of expect Princesses to be in castles. That’s the whole deal. We all know that Princesses live in castles, even if they don’t really, so why do they keep on being held prisoner there?
The Princess Is In The Castle — A metaphor for how duty, tradition, and arbitrary taboos and prohibitions keep Princesses trapped within a role they may not wish to follow, a metaphor to explain how they don’t have freedom?
Well yes, that is a given, but Princes, for all that the fairy tales have otherwise, are generally just as trapped by duty. So why is it Princesses trapped in castles as a story and not Princes?
Misogyny? Again, yes, but it doesn’t fully explain why it’s Princesses that become the focus of these stories, rather than other female characters.
After all, Princesses grow up to be Queens who are as equally trapped, and although there are stories that start with Queens trapped in castles, the reasons given for why they are trapped are very different to Princess stories, and the stories themselves are very different. Think Lancelot, think affairs, think tragedy. Those are the kind of stories that feature Queens.
Which leads us back to the original point. Why Princesses?
Well, this is a story about how stories self-propagate, so let’s look at that.
(CW: Assault, Injury, Sexual Assault, Rape. Because the original fairy tales were never really designed for children, and are noticeably dark and rather horrific things in the eyes of a modern audience)
The Princess Is In The Castle — “Rapunzel”
Published by the Grimm brothers in 1812, adapted from a fairy tale published in 1790, which in turn was based on a story published in 1698. which in turn was based on a story published in 1634.
Stories, all the way down.
In all its variations Rapunzel is a story that’s about 385 years old.
The story of a girl who, before she was born, is promised to a witch and is promptly locked alone in a tower in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere.
The Princess Is In The Castle, or at least, the tower part of a castle.
And there she is found by a wandering Prince who begs her to let down her hair so he can climb up to her. Where they spend the night together (at least in this case some elements of consent can be seen, although given the captive nature of Rapunzel one wonders just how consensual it really could be).
And so the Prince returns over several nights (apparently never having thought of commissioning a ladder or suchlike to be built) and continues to spend that time with Rapunzel, planning a way to escape.
Until Rapunzel gives the game away to the witch who visits her during the day, by unwittingly giving away that she’s pregnant.
The witch cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and then hides Rapunzel well away from the tower. The next time the Prince comes to the tower the witch fools him into climbing the tresses of hair before letting him drop.
The Prince lands in a bush of thorns that blind him, condemning the Prince to wander the wastelands of the country before he stumbles upon Rapunzel, who in the meantime has given birth to twins. Her tears cure his sight, he takes her back to his castle where she marries him and becomes a Princess.
Ring the bells; Much celebration; Happily Ever After; etc, etc.
The Princess Is In The Castle, having been rescued from a castle.
The Princess Is In The Castle — “Sleeping Beauty”
As with Rapunzel, a story that has grown from variation to variation and, in its earliest known form, about 689 years old.
A princess, cursed to die should she prick her finger on a certain item (in later versions a spindle, in earlier a splinter of flax), is courted by a man. Her father, seeking to prove the worth of the suitor sends him off on a task to prove his worthiness and, whilst he is gone, the Princess pricks her finger, drawing into it a splinter of flax, and falls into a deathly sleep that she cannot awaken from. Her “suitor”, having returned from his quest, rapes her to impregnate her with twins, so that when they are born, one may draw the splinter from the Princess’ finger to awaken her.
There is a second part to the story, although they are almost certainly separate fairy tales that have hammered together. The suitor, having decided to not hang around, leaves the Princess to awaken by herself to find she has twins and a population that seeks to kill her for, well, having twins out of wedlock (yeah, none of this stuff made it into the Disney cut, but does tell you something about just how the worst aspects of stories also hang around to continue to infect society, especially the idea that victim blaming is a perfectly acceptable response to tragic circumstance when it’s anything but). However the Princess and her children escape death by being hidden away.
The Princess Is In The Castle, and through circumstances that she has absolutely no control over remains trapped, this time by a society that has shunned her as a consequence for other people’s actions.
The Princess is in another castle — “ Šāhnāmah”
A Persian story dating back about 1042 years, the story of Rūdāba, the mythological princess in the epic poem Šāhnāmah. This story is, in all likely hood, the inspiration for the story of Rapunzel.
Rūdāba, the daughter of Mehrab Kaboli and Sindukht, and whose name means “she of the River Water” (that’s going to become important in the next set of stories), lives within a palace from where stories of her great beauty spread across the land…until it reached the ears of Zāl, an Iranian King.
Entranced by what he hears Zāl sends word directly to Rūdāba stating his desire to meet her privately. Rūdāba, after consulting with her ladies-in-waiting, agrees to this meeting but, trapped by tradition and prohibition, is unable to go anywhere to meet Zāl.
So it is that Zāl goes to the palace walls to find a way to reach Rūdāba by climbing to the summit of the palace so they can pursue their courtship on the roof (fans of Guy Gavriel Kay and the Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy will recognise the shape of this story).
However, this is a palace, designed to be impervious to invaders, and the walls are far too sheer to climb, and so Rūdāba lets down her tresses to Zāl so he may climb them. And so there they sit upon the roof, in defiance of the demands of Islamic tradition but fully in keeping with the norms of Iranian culture at the time (a disconnect between the impracticality of pointless tradition and the practicality of having to deal with reality that the author was very keen to point out in the epic of Šāhnāmah) and between them fully pursue their courtship until both are satisfied with the decisions they arrive at (it’s interesting to note just how much agency the author grants both people in this story at this point. Note the contrast with the two later fairy tales above).
And so Zāl writes to Rūdāba’s father, explaining all that has happened, and seeking permission to marry Rūdāba. And, given the courtship is complete and Rūdāba is happy with what is proposed, permission is given and the marriage takes place.
Ring the bells; Happily Ever After; The Conqueror of the World is born; etc, etc.
The Princess Is In The Castle, originally trapped by tradition and prohibition, but is able to work around them to pursue her own courtship and so, but her own standards, wins her own freedom, although others may not see it that way.
The Princess Is In The Castle — “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”
An ancient Chinese folk tale whose earliest known reference is over 2600 years ago, and the story is certainly older than that. The story is so common that it spawned separate, but very close, stories and celebrations, amongst them; The Qiqiao or Qixi Festival in China, Chilseok in Korea, and Tanabata in Japan.
The one I know best is Tanabata, so that’s the variation of the The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl folk tale that you’re going to get to hear.
Orihime (the Weaving Princess and the star Vega), daughter of Tentei (the Sky King, which is one way of saying the King of everything, or the universe), sits at the window of a palace by the vast river, Amanogawa (the Milky Way) weaving clothes.
However, trapped in the palace, and doing nothing but weave clothes, Orihime falls into despair at never being able to meet somebody to fall in love with. Her father, concerned about his daughter, or at least the very lucrative clothing trade he had going on (you’ll see what I mean in a little bit), arranges for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi (the cowherder and the star Altair) who lives and worked on the other side of the vast river.
And as such things happen in these stories the two met, fell in love, and married, all in short order. And, as also happens when two people who were trapped taste freedom for the first time they both said of their old lives, “Bugger this for a game of soldiers”, with Orihime giving up weaving cloth and Hikoboshi abandoning the herd so they could both spend time *ahem* enjoying each other’s company.
But Tentei, growing wrath with the loss of earnings from the clothing line he’d set up, and fed up with cattle wandering all over his flower beds and crushing his kiku (chrysanthemums) [I would point out that the clothing line thing and kiku are my own variation on a variation, but it does fit in because Tentei is an utter git in this story] forcibly separates the two lovers, keeping Orihime in the palace, and banishing Hikoboshi back to the other side of the Amanogawa.
Orihime once more falls to despair and Tentei, realising he’s not going to get his clothing line back by acting like this, or possibly being moved by his daughter’s tears, allows Orihime and Hikoboshi to meet once a year. But the first time they try to meet they find there is no way across the river.
Orihime cries so much that a flock of magpies, taking pity on her, made a bridge so she could cross and so, every year, and only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (although these days it tends to be the seventh calendar month), and as long as it doesn’t rain to keep the magpies away, Orihime meets Hikoboshi by crossing the Milky Way.
The Princess Is In The Castle, trapped, and then allowed to taste freedom, only to be trapped again and given only the briefest taste of freedom with promise that she can only have more if she promises to behave. It’s a story designed to promote the virtues of filial piety and ignoring what you want in favour of following the orders of another.
To modern eyes, not a particularly nice story at all.
The Princess Is In The Castle — “Persephone”
A story dating back at least 3400 years. And again, not a particularly pleasant story if you know the details.
Persephone, the Maiden, daughter of Zeus and Demeter is abducted by Zeus’ elder brother Hades (with the permission of Zeus which is the kind of detail that makes an awful story worse) and is forced by Hades into marriage and into becoming Queen of the Underworld.
Her mother, Demeter, torn to grief over the loss of her daughter, but not knowing what has become of her, blights the earth so nothing will grow as she searches for Persephone.
Eventually Hellos the sun, who sees all, tells Demeter what happened to her daughter and Zeus, who has mightily hacked off both the people and the other gods by causing famine through his actions, forces Hades to return Persephone to the surface.
Hades, who thinks of Persephone as little more than his possession and yet is also unable to disobey the word of Zeus, hatches a plan to force Persephone to stay with him, feeding her the seeds of a pomegranate.
Hermes, having been sent by the other gods, arrives to bring Persophone back from the underworld but it’s already too late. Having tasted of the Underworld Persephone is bound to it, and is forced to return to it, one month for each pomegranate seed she ate. In the older stories it was for three months, in later stories six.
The Princess Is In The Castle, the palace of the Underworld, having been abducted, taken there, and then raped by the eldest of three brothers, with the permission of the youngest. Brothers who were never able to see anybody else as anything else but things to be used for their own pleasure. As I said, the darkest aspects of stories spread as well as the best ones, and have a habit of infesting future generations through the promotion of the idea that such behaviour is acceptable.
The Princess Is In The Castle — “Inanna and the Descent into the Underworld”
A story that is the trifling age of at least 4100 years old, and likely to be considerably older than that.
This is the story of Inanna, sister to Ereshkigal and daughter of An but who’s mother is unknown, or daughter of Nanna and Ningal or daughter of Enlil or Enki but who’s mother is once more unknown.
She is the consort to Dumuzid the Shepherd, and is also the consort to a great many other beings.
She is the Sumerian Goddess associated with politics, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, love, war, and justice, and there is some thought that she may have been one of the earlier Goddesses associated with what is now seen as the spheres of being intersex, being trans, and being gender non-conforming.
She certainly predates Asu-shu-namir who is the Akkadian representation of a God directly associated with intersex people and issues, and indirectly with GNC and trans people. Asu-shu-namir’s aspects drew heavily upon much earlier examples of how Inanna is depicted, and so themselves are representative of how stories propagate down through time as new Gods do old jobs.
And it is also the story of Ereshkigal, sister to Inanna, who prior to the beginning of this story, is abducted by Kur the primeval dragon of Sumerian stories and is forced into becoming Ruler of the Underworld against her will, in much the same way Persephone is in the much later Greek myth.
Some time passes, and then the story begins.
Inanna seeks to descend to the underworld, wanting an audience with her sister. But the rules of the underworld are simple — All Who Enter It Are Forbidden To Leave.
So before she starts her journey Inanna asks her servant Ninshubur to beg Enlil, Enki, Nanna, and Anu to rescue her from the underworld should she fail to return. Having done this Inanna garbs herself in clothes and jewellery that represent her power — her domains of influence.
Inanna descends to the underworld and hammers on the door demanding entrance, claiming that she has come to attend the funeral rites of Ereshkigal’s husband, Gugalanna. Ereshkigal, furious at the temerity of her sister, and still seething over the fact that nobody bothered to try rescuing her when she was abducted, agrees to Inanna entering the underworld, but only if when passing each gate of the underwold, Inanna sheds each of the seven pieces of clothes and jewellery she has donned.
And so Inanna arrives in front of her sister naked and powerless.
But Inanna is haughty, one of the more powerful Goddesses, and so forces Ereshkigal from her throne so that Inanna may sit there. And so it was that the seven judges of the underworld did what judges do. They judged her:
“The Anna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook”
Three days and nights pass (also sound familiar? Yep. And it really is contained in the oldest version of this story we know) and Ninshubur, Inanna’s servant, realising that something’s gone wrong given that Inanna has not returned goes to each of the deities mentioned before to beg for their help.
Enlil, Nanna, and An refuse, pointing out that Inanna knew the rules when she descended to the underworld, and it was her own actions that led to her judgement and fate. But Enki, troubled by what has happened, agrees to help, crafting two sexless beings, gala-tura and kur-jara, and instructs them to go to the underworld, there to sprinkle Inanna’s corpse with the food and water of life (magic food of the Gods, forbidden to mortals. Water of the Gods, blessed with the power to restore life. Also sound familiar?)
Gala-tura and kur-jara descend to the underworld where they find Ereshkigal in agony (“she is in agony like a woman giving birth”). Ereshkigal offers them anything, including the life-giving fields of grain and rivers of water, provided they can relieve her of her agony. But gala-tura and kur-jara, having not been instructed to do this, refuse all offers and only demand that they be given Inanna’s corpse until eventually Ereshkigal relents.
Gala-tura and kur-jara sprinkle Inanna’s corpse with both food and water, restoring her to life. Inanna leaves the underworld, but whilst the rules of the underworld may be bent slightly, they cannot be broken. Demons are sent with her to find another to take Inanna’s place — a life for a life.
The first person the demons try to take is Ninshubur but Inanna stops them, knowing that Ninshubur was both loyal and had mourned for her. The demons then go to Shara who was Inanna’s beautician (no, really), but as with Ninshubur, Inanna knows that Shara is loyal, mourning Inanna while she was gone. Inanna forbids the demons from taking her.
Having been rebuffed twice the demons turn to Lulal, but again Inanna refuses them, forbidding them from taking Lulal because he was also loyal and mourned for Inanna.
So finally the demons come for Dumuzid, the Shepherd God, and one of Inanna’s many husbands. Him they find partying hard with slave-girls, or dressed lavishly and resting under a tree depending on the story variation. Either way it’s fairly clear he didn’t mourn Inanna’s death, and isn’t loyal to her, so Inanna wastes no time in consigning him to her place in the underworld.
The demons waste no time dragging Dumuzid away, although there is another poem, Dumuzid’s Dream, which describes Dumuzid’s attempts to avoid the demons. It doesn’t work. There’s also a follow on poem to Dumuzid’s Dream called, and you’re not going to believe this either, The Return of Dumuzid (sequels are also older than people realise).
This story tells of how Inanna repents and, with the help of Sirtu, Dumuzid’s mother, finds Dumuzid, and arranges for Dumuzid to spend half the year in the underworld with Inanna’s sister Ereshkigal, and half the year with Inanna in the Heavens, with Geshtinanna taking Dumuzid place with Ereshkigal.
If that’s a relationship style that sounds familiar then yes, it can certainly be read that way.
But in this case the takeaway is this;
The Princess Is In The Castle — the palace of the Heavens. She descends to the castle of the underworld, where she is trapped by her sister who was abducted to the castle of the underworld and forced to rule there. Through the efforts of others Inanna is freed but only on condition that another be trapped in her place, but Ereshkigal remains trapped in the castle for all eternity.
The Unbroken Chain Of A Story Line Down Through Time
The Princess Inanna is in the castle
— where she is rescued by a shepherd, even though the shepherd very definitely didn’t volunteer for the job and was forced to be a sacrifice against his will to save the Princess
The Princess Orihime is in the castle
— where she is rescued from her loneliness and despair, albeit briefly, by the cattle herder, Hikoboshi
In both the earlier story of Inanna to the later story of the Weaving Girl it is the heavenly representative of an animal herder that ends up rescuing the Princess one way or another.
The Princess Persephone is in the castle
— where she was dragged there and raped by Hades with the permission of Zeus. It is only her mother’s actions and the outrage of the other Gods that frees her, and even then it is only a temporary escape
Again, in this story the same element from the earlier stories can be seen. The Princess is freed, but the escape is limited in one way or another, and a price has to be paid for that freedom
The Princess Rūdāba is in the castle
— where through her own autonomy she arranges her own escape from loneliness and the impossible-to-meet demands of tradition, and does so to her own satisfaction, and by using her own hair
The Princess Zellandine, a sleeping beauty, is in the castle
— where she is raped by somebody who supposedly loved her, but runs at the first opportunity, and then shunned and nearly killed by her own people for having twins, even after she’s awakened from a deathly sleep
The Princess-to-be Rapunzel, is in the castle
— where she finds comfort with another, only to be punished and banished for it, and for her lover to be blinded and left to wander a blasted wasteland. Eventually it works out, but it does take time
Your princess is in another castle
— because the Princess is always in another castle, and is always trapped in one way or another. Because that’s how the story goes and successful stories are memes. They self-propagate, spreading both sideways across a generation and regions, but also vertically, spawning themselves anew, often as one civilisation collapses and another rises to take its place.
Stories self-propagate. But it’s both the good stuff and the bad stuff. That’s why it’s so important to be careful in crafting a story for others to enjoy. It’s far too easy to be lazy in crafting a story and putting in elements that carry entirely the wrong message to a new set of ears who will then pass that same message on to others.