Saturday, January 10, 2009

Her Princess (Dealing with Dragons)

I recently reread one of my favorite books when I was younger: Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, a no-nonsense fantasy novel about a princess who rejects her life, which has been severely restricted through sexist expectations, by running away. It’s a progressive story succeeding through compelling narrative and humorous references and parody of several fairy tales, often poking fun at the illogical nature of some of them. Much of the humor involves giving common sense to the mechanics of the magical world, somewhat similar to the brand of humor employed in Harry Potter, but with a certain mundane flair. I read it over and over when I was a young kid, but then didn’t touch it for years. Reading it now, I notice with some amusement that the book contains elements that seem reminiscent of the more sexual Dominance/submission genre.

The gist of the story is that Princess Cimorene has grown bored to death living her life as princess, in which propriety keeps her from doing the more interesting things princes are allowed to do. Getting forced to marry Prince Therandil, a nonintellectual egomaniac, is the last straw. She takes the advice of a talking frog (who learned English from an enchanted prince he knew) and runs away following specific directions to avoid magical ambushes and eventually arriving in a cave where there are people the frog thought could help her with her situation.
The people turn out to be dragons, one of whom wanting to eat her. Cimorene, thinking fast, recalls that dragons may sometimes kidnap princesses to keep as servants and volunteers for the position. The dragons are fairly stunned by this and rather put off by the notion of keeping an “improper princess”, but nice female dragon Kazul decides to accept the arrangement. Cimorene is given a nice place to stay in Kazul’s caves, and in exchange she cleans and cooks for the dragon.
Let’s review. Cimorene has volunteered for a servant’s position that is otherwise obtained involuntarily (i.e. a dragon would kidnap a princess and force her to serve them). In my book, that’s called bondage. Because the word’s traditional, non-kink meaning has generally been lost, I’ll post a definition:
bond – age [bon-dij]
1. slavery or involuntary servitude; serfdom
2. the state of being bound by or subjected to some external power or control.
3. the state or practice of being physically restrained, as by being tied up, chained, or put in handcuffs, for sexual gratification.
4. Early English Law. personal subjection to the control of a superior; villeinage.
bondage. (n.d.). Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved January 10, 2009, from website:
Right. Involuntary servitude and the state of being subjected to an external power/control sums up the role of the dragon’s princess nicely. The only reason it doesn’t qualify for slavery is that slavery refers specifically to treating individuals as property in the capitalistic sort of way. Despite their practice of hoarding treasure, the dragons don’t seem to engage in any monetary system and prefer more of a Want. Take. Have. philosophy, which is what leads them to kidnap the princesses in the first place.
So, Cimorene makes what is probably the first princess in history to actually volunteer for this role that places her in a state of bondage, submissive to her dragon keeper. And she is in a submissive sort of role. Sure the whole deal of being a dragon’s princess is portrayed as very empowering and enabling her to transcend the sexist restrictions placed on her by her parents, but there is a very definite hierarchy between her and Kazul. Presumably, her freedoms are all privileges that Kazul can take away at the slightest whim.
Knight: “Speaking of dragons, where’s yours?”
Cimorene: “Kazul’s not
my dragon. I’m her princess. You’ll never have any luck dealing with dragons if you don’t get these things straight.”
Fortunately, Kazul is a kind and reasonable dragon. She is very nice and doesn’t ever treat Cimorene in a condescending and/or abusive manner. Given Cimorene’s status as a volunteer, one can easily imagine Kazul letting her go should the arrangement not work out to Cimorene’s liking.
However, there are a few other dragons’ princesses in the cave system who are less willing to be there. Although their meeting with Cimorene is comically depicted as a high-class social gathering, it is made clear that they were carried off against their will. Each of the princesses who are there involuntarily introduce themselves as “captive of the dread dragon [name]”, whereas Cimorene sticks to the more simplistic and neutral “princess of the dragon Kazul”.
Cimorene personally sees her job as very freeing. From her perspective, she has escaped the oppressive world in which she is expected to be demure and ditsy, and entered the magical world in which females are allowed to be powerful and independent. She views the various knights and prince who come to rescue her as troublesome figures who want to interrupt her work to drag her back to the suffocating patriarchal society from which she escaped in the first place, and sends Prince Therandil away to rescue one of the dragons’ princesses who insists on being “proper”: stuck-up and snooty Princess Keredwel, who couldn’t imagine escaping without being rescued and forced to walk all the way home.
The book is, on the whole, very progressive in its characters and narrative. Dealing with Dragons promotes healthy gender roles in which girls are encouraged to be intelligent, self-reliant and bold. The dragon society is a very gender-equal one, in which the leadership positions of King and Queen of the Dragons are entirely without gender bias. Indeed, male and female dragons alike may claim either role and under the same terms without the necessitation of marriage between them. In addition, dragon biology has the interesting trait of prepubescent asexuality until the young dragon decides which sex it wants to be. (Hmm, interesting fanfiction could be written about that.)
I have highlighted a few facts that seem oddly D/s-friendly, but these make up only a small part of the overall story. It is likely that the author would take offense at my comparison, but I do think it worthy of note. Seriously, if at any point in the book the term “dragon’s princess” were to be replaced with, say, “dragon’s slave”, the D/s element would so fit – not just because of the inclusion of “slave” in there, but because the appropriate structure is already in place.
I may not read the book as often as I once did, but I still hold it and its sequels in high regard. I believe its message to be very progressive and not anti-feminist in any way. The story is a spoof on the classic story of a princess captured by a “dread” dragon, who is then rescued by a handsome prince who she marries. Here, the princess wants nothing to do with the prince, volunteers to be the dragon’s “captive”, and ends up becoming the hero of her own adventure to keep evil wizards from taking over the dragon people. The D/s-friendly facets are my interpretation of certain plot elements that are amusingly unusual, but ultimately of no consequence. I would certainly recommend the book, in any case.

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