***NOTE: this post will be a little bit of a spoiler for the book Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. The post will discuss the first two chapters. SO if you do not mind a very little spoilage, read on! ****
Throughout most of my youth and young adulthood, I was a reading fanatic. Any fantasy, sci-fi or fiction book I could get my hands on were devoured by my need to escape into another world and for a little bit of time, become a character on a space ship or a detective on the streets of London. My favorite books had female protagonists and authors such as Tamara Pierce, Robin McKinley, Diane Duane, Phillip Pullman, Holly Black, and many others, were the ones who introduced me to the basis of my feminist belief that women are as kickass, powerful, and moving as men. One particular book whose character fit these characteristics was Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons, written by Patricia C. Wrede.
If you have not read this book, it is worth putting Hunger Games on the back burner and hitting up Amazon for a copy. The book takes place in Linderwall, “a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.” Cimorene, pronounced Sim-or-een, is the youngest daughter of seven of the King of Linderwall. She is a wonderfully witty, intelligent princess who practices practicality and resourcefulness in all of her adventures. Skillful at the basics in swordsmanship, magic and Latin, she is especially known for her cherry jubilee and her knack for knowing when something is out of whack. As can be surmised, in a kingdom where “knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show…and the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child,” Cimorene not only did not fit in, she actively fought against the expectations her position as princess dictated in a kingdom as loosey-goosey as Linderwall. Think a boa on ‘roids.
After several thwarted attempts to change her prescribed life within her role as a princess, the first act of resistance that Cimorene takes outside of that role is running away. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything, all this information can be found on the back cover. In running away, Cimorene is showing her refusal to stay with the status quo, where princesses wed noble princes, dance, sew, and flutter their eyelashes. While in the castle, she could find people to help her break the law, for example by teaching her Latin. However, once the “law” was re-established, for example when her father caught her doing these unladylike activities, all support she had was lost. Changing the dominant narrative and the status quo as a society or community understands and accepts it is no easy task. That which has been a tradition is protected not only by the people who follow that tradition, but also by the laws/rules – both official and unspoken – and the necessity to “keep order.” This argument has been used countless times by leaders who do not want to give up their power, or conservatives who do not want to see their world ripped apart by change and progress. Cimorene is an example, to both adults who have re-read it for the 7th time or a child who is wandering through the book aisle, that sometimes change cannot occur without a dramatic action. And for a princess, running away is as dramatic as it gets.
Cimorene decides to run away to a dragon’s den, in order to become the Princess of one of the dragons. When she arrives there, she is faced with the possiblility of being eaten if she cannot convince the dragons to take her on. Traditionally, in most fairytales and folk stories, dragons can only be bested by brute force – a magic sword in the hand of a daring prince. However, Wrede presents us with a very different image, a self-exiled princess using her wits to not only get a new position or job in her society, but also proving that not everything done traditionally is right. In the workplace, many people, but especially women, are subjected to the question of whether they should ask for a salary increase or wait to be acknowledged. I took a class regarding this in college, and I remember my teacher showing how women, in most situations, got the short straw time and time again because of biased salary and employment policies. Women face a catch 22, to be aggressive “like a man” may result in them being viewed as bitchy, but if they are demure, women face being stinted on everything. While there is no one solution to this predicament, Cimorene shows us that bringing one’s skills to the table and not lowering oneself in order to be accepted, is as effective as a metaphorical “magical sword.”
One argument against the idea that Cimorene is a fairytale feminist is that she goes from a being a princess to a house-maid. As a dragon’s princess, Cimorene acts as an in-house servant, cooking, cleaning and any other errand that her dragon asks of her. However, while this may be an indication that woman can only go from one traditional role to another, I believe otherwise. Think of it in this way, Cimorene may be going into a traditionally feminine role, but it is a role that has been shut off from her due to her rank. By pursing what she wants, which is a position working for a dragon, she is defying the norm of woman in her class, and entering the workforce, as many women have had to do, the classical case being during World Wars I and II. Women should have the social and professional mobility that is due their existence; this is not a privilege that should be given to people who are pursuing careers outside of the traditional. Cimorene, by becoming a dragon’s princess, demonstrates that it is the act of and ability to purse one’s dream, not always the dream itself, that is the mark of progress for women.
Cimorene faces many other challenges in her new position as a dragon’s princess. In each one, she breaks down bias and stamps on social norms, demonstrating that a princess – a woman – is more than how good her curtsy is. I highly recommend Dealing with Dragons as not only an introduction to feminism for young readers (the book is appropriate for children age 10 and up), but also as a humorous fairytale novel for any age. Happy reading!