Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dressing Up Like a Princess

My eight year old woke up yesterday wanting to see pictures of the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton. She especially wanted to know...did the bride have a train? (And how!) And so it goes, another day with imaginations captured by the world of princesses.

Yesterday my friend Don posted some musings about why even independent Americans are so highly fascinated with royal goings-on. Among other ideas, he posited one that I particularly like...human beings love to watch things like royal weddings because we deeply long for a king. In other words, at least some of our love of pageantry and fairy-tale stems from deep spiritual longing.

As a reader and writer of such tales, this is something I've suspected for a long time. It made me think again of George MacDonald's wonderful words at the beginning of The Princess and the Goblin:

THERE was once a little princess who—

"But Mr. Author, why do you always write about princesses?"

"Because every little girl is a princess."

"You will make them vain if you tell them that."

"Not if they understand what I mean."

"Then what do you mean?"

"What do you mean by a princess?"

"The daughter of a king."

"Very well, then every little girl is a princess, and there would be no need to say anything about it, except that she is always in danger of forgetting her rank, and behaving as if she had grown out of the mud. I have seen little princesses behave like children of thieves and lying beggars, and that is why they need to be told they are princesses. And that is why when I tell a story of this kind, I like to tell it about a princess. Then I can say better what I mean, because I can then give her every beautiful thing I want her to have."

"Please go on."


We are, each and every one of us, made by a king. And not just any king, but the King of the universe, the King of love, who longs to adopt us and make us children and heirs in his royal family. Doesn't that take your breath?

I confess this has been on my mind again this week because we're in the midst of a family re-read of A Little Princess. When we traveled last weekend, I let the sweet girl choose which books she'd like us to take for reading in the car, and this is one she especially wanted again. It's my favorite (by far) of Frances Hodgson Burnett's books, and I love to read it aloud. And despite some moments of old-fashioned sentimentality that ring a bit oddly to our contemporary ears, or maybe because of them, there are moments in the story that move me to tears. When Sara is banished to the lonely attic and finds her life degraded and impoverished, it is by continuing to imagine that she is a princess that she finds the strength to be brave, kind, and generous, even to those who treat her terribly.

It reminds me of how C.S. Lewis encourages us to "pretend" to be what we're not -- not hypocritically, but as practice to become what we most want and long to be. He calls it "dressing up as Christ." As he writes in Mere Christianity:

Why? What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grownups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.


Anonymous said...

I have always loved reading about Sara in A Little Princess - not least because she knew that being a princess did not mean automatic privilege and fame, but that a true princess has more self-control, more kindness, more graciousness, more of all the good but hard qualities that are so essential. The "every little girl is a princess" idea is one that Disney and others have subverted to mean that every little girl deserves to be spoiled and pampered. Burnett and MacDonald (and Lewis and Tolkein and many others) understood it to be completely opposite, and I am with them!

Erin said...

Very well put. You know, I'm not sure I ever read The Little Princess. I know I read The Secret Garden, but I've seen two adaptations of The Little Princess, and I think I never read the book. I need to do that. I never read Princess and the Goblin either, and I definitely should; I've seen an animated version, and it was pretty bad, so I know I haven't gotten the appreciation out of that one that I should.

The wedding also made me think of the beginning of Deathly Hallows, how there's so much turmoil in the world, and it just seems to be especially heartening for everyone to take a moment to appreciate something so beautiful. And you could just tell that William and Kate really care about each other...

Beth said...

Elouise, hear hear! Burnett, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien...they are all seem to get to the spiritual heart of the matter (albeit in somewhat different ways).

I am of two minds (or more) about Disney. I'm not thrilled about their marketing pushes, and I've got issues with most of the films starring princesses too (different reasons for different ones) but I also find beauty in some of the movies, and think their themes worth talking about with my daughter. My favorite by far is Beauty and the Beast -- in Belle we have a heroine (not a princess, by the way...though she does end up marrying a prince!) whose graciousness shines through her most consistent character trait -- sacrificial love. That kind of love gives her eyes that see past the superficial to the heart, another great fairy-tale theme!

Beth said...

Erin, you would love the book. I've only seen on film adaptation (done in the 90s, I think?) which was lovely in some respects but went pretty wide of the mark in others. But it's a gorgeous book in every way, one I love reading aloud. (I hope to review it, of course, but my TBR -- as in "to be reviewed" -- list, is about a mile long now!)

I've only read a few of the MacDonald princess books, but I've thoroughly enjoyed what I've read and would like to read them all.

It's funny that you mentioned Deathly Hallows in connection with the royal wedding. I don't think I can be the only person whose first thought, upon seeing the sunshine yellow ensemble that Queen Elizabeth sported for the occasion, was to think "Oh! She wore sun colors...just like Luna!" ;-)

Beth said...

Yikes...typos in both responses. Sorry, ladies. :) My inner editor couldn't help but apologize!

Erin said...

While the whole Disney princess marketing machine is a little excessive, I basically think that they are a pretty good bunch. They're mostly kind and sweet, and increasingly spunky in recent years. Of course, Belle is definitely a cut above the rest.

I did feel like there were a lot of echoes of her in Rapunzel, who also sees good in society's rejects and who is willing to give up her freedom to save someone she cares about. (And Flynn's sacrificial gesture is even more powerful; it's nice that they both end up exhibiting real growth and genuine selfless love.)

I really do need to read some MacDonald. I've only read bits and pieces here and there, though I sort of feel like I'm much more familiar with him than I actually am because he's such a giant in Christian fantasy circles.

Yay for Queen Elizabeth and Luna sharing a taste in wedding attire!