Thursday, October 9, 2008

Of Princesses, Queens, and Other Quite Ordinary Things

When I was a girl, like many little girls, I was captivated by princesses. 

I read voraciously, anything I could, but if the book had a princess in it, I'd read it at least a dozen times. I read the George MacDonald princess series--The Princess and the Curdie, The Princess and the Goblin, etc.--, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson tales, but my favorites were from the fairy books. 

In the late 19th century, a fellow named Andrew Lang started editing books of fairy tales, starting with The Blue Fairy Book and continuing the volumes across a spectrum of rainbow colors. My mother had several of these as a girl, and two of hers--The Crimson Fairy Book and The Violet Fairy Book, hardback with a cover in that color--survived her childhood and made it into mine. The fact that these books had been Mommy's when she had (astoundingly) been a little girl like me, was special enough to ensure my interest, but the books would have caught my fancy on their own. Each book was filled with twisting fairy tales I'd never heard or read--many of which I still have not found anywhere else. They were full of majesty and beauty, with pages of exquisite pen-and-ink or full-color plate drawings of the lovely princesses, handsome princes, magic goats, sprightly mischief-makers and crooked old hags from the woods that populated the tales. 

Not all, but most of these tales had princesses in them, and who wouldn't want to be them? To be a princess was to have been born into wealth and inevitable beauty, kindness and charm, grace and the ability to dance all night in magic slippers with the handsome princes who came from faraway lands to bid for your hand in marriage after only seeing your reflection once in an enchanted forest pond. There was a certain pattern to these tales. Younger princes and princesses were always the most clever, most handsome or beautiful, the ones who never missed an opportunity to succeed or to get a cryptic riddle right. The youngest princess, the loveliest of them all, was always the one the protagonist picked. 

Feeding into my princess obsession, was a) Princess Diana, who married Prince Charles in a giant ceremony I got to stay home from school and watch when I was about 8 and b) around the same time, my dad and uncles wrote and produced a small musical about a kingdom in a faraway land where the enticing lead actress with the beautiful voice played a princess! Needless to say, I needed no encouragement, and for the next few years I happily sang the catchy tunes from their play off key to anyone who would humor me and made up countless tales set in that realm with many more happy endings of my own. 

That Halloween, I got to use some of the leftover costume remnants from the production to make a bona fide princess costume--a ruffly pink dressing gown of my mother's hemmed and pinned to fit me plus a genuine, conical PRINCESS HAT, made of gauze-covered poster board with a translucent pink flourish of fabric trailing from its peak. I felt prettier that night than I've probable ever felt, before or since.

Then one day, when I was about 11 and starting to outgrow my enchantment with princesses (having by that time a new baby sister who I was sure was destined to be prettier, kinder, and altogether more wonderful than me in every way probably deflated some of the mythology's appeal, as well), my mother bought me a new book, The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye. 

From the start, this book was different. It made me laugh out loud by subverting all the preposterous princess premises I'd read all my life. This Princess Amelia Somethingorother Somethingorother Somethingorotherevengrander, had been cursed shortly after birth by an old 3rd-cousin crone from the woods who felt slighted by not being invited to her christening and cursed the beautiful baby princess to be (gasp) ordinary! Instantly, the roses fade from the child's cheeks, the sparkle disappears from her eyes, her golden locks start becoming a sort of mousy brown color and her cherubic temperament erupts into a prolonged wail of angry baby noises.

I friggin' loved it.

As she grows older, Princess Amy (she needed an ordinary name, after all) is unremarkable in every way. Her sisters are older, beautiful, serene embodiments of royal blood, whereas she is more of a curious tomboy, running through the forests, making friends with the citizenry and displaying something heretofore unseen in my stories--a personality of her own. Of course, she goes on to have a compelling tale and narrative arc, a life lived to the fullest; it is just outside of the bounds of traditional fairy telling. 

As I grew up, I thought about that book often. It still holds a place of honor in my home, nestled amongst my Narnia books, Fairy books, and other childhood favorites atop a bookcase in my office. Of all of them, it's probably the one I would not want to replace, though it's less valuable than some. 

Then when I was in college, a friend who I did not yet know very well flattered me by calling me, out of the blue, The Queen of All That is Good. He probably called many a girl that in his day, but it worked on me. It was such a ludicrous thing to call me, with all of my overwhelming self-esteem issues. I beamed at him, laughed it off, and secretly treasured it in my heart. Over the years as we became better and better friends, it remained his pet name for me, and I never grew tired of it.

I was trying to think up a catchy title for this blog my sister (who, true to form, grew up to be prettier, wittier, kinder and more wonderful than me in every way--and I love her for it) has been badgering me to start. Part of me balks at the very idea of a blog--who would want to read what I would write? What do I have to write about? Who do I think I am? But immediately, I thought about calling it The Ordinary Princess. 

That wouldn't work. First of all, that name was taken, and second, it didn't fit. "Princess" still connotes a certain girly, rhinestony pinkness that just isn't me, even with the qualifying modifier attached. 

No, I'm all grown up now, or at least twenty-five years further down that path than when I was 10. I would have to be a queen. Queens have a certain imperiousness I'm not sure I feel, but my sister and brother tell me I'm quite bossy, so maybe that works. I hope I can be one of the wise queens, not the evil queens who try to have the pretty young princesses beheaded or turned into soup.

But what to be queen of? All That is Good sounds just a bit too much responsibility, and a bit conceited as well. That's not me. I'm just queen of my own small little life, such as it is. 

When I was a child, my parents told me over and over that I was special, that I could do anything I wanted, that I was sure to do great things in life. Maybe I will. Maybe I won't. One of the harder realizations I had growing up was that my life was actually only as extraordinary as I made it; the magic isn't built in, the citizenry doesn't automatically recognize my eminence (there's a design flaw there, I think). Honestly, there have been times a-plenty that I've been ashamed not to have done more with my life, not to have gone on to the academic heights, fame, wealth, and international success some of my high school and college friends have found (including, notably, the one who dubbed me Queen of All That is Good). There have been other times that I have felt proud of what I have been able to accomplish, becoming the person I am, overcoming a few hurdles and outsmarting a few tricky old crones from the woods along the way. 

I'm not done yet, though, so we'll just have to see where my story goes next. 

Meanwhile, I started thinking about those fairy tales. I live in a small, usually messy rent house in the second-largest town in Arkansas. It's no castle, but it's cozy. My treasures aren't golden balls or enchanted talking fish or a cave full of gems. They are the simple, ordinary joys that make up my days: my deeply colorful and entertaining family, my supportive friends who make me laugh, work that pays a few bills and is occasionally if not always fascinating, pets that are as companionable as any pets that ever were, my relative health and the prospect of spending many long years ahead with the love of my life, my sometimes-jolly and sometimes curmudgeonly husband, who is my best friend day in and day out and the sweet king of my heart. 

So I guess I'm the queen of these few things, these quiet pleasures that are unique only the extraordinary happiness they bring me. It's of them that I'll try to write here in this blog, those ordinary things that make up my days. And maybe as I write about my unremarkable life, I'll find a bit of magic along the way. 

Perhaps someday I'll discover there really is no difference between All That is Ordinary and All That is Good. Perhaps it's all just life, and that in itself, is all the good any princess could desire. 


Laura said...

awwww. you're a good queen.

Anonymous said...

you ARE a good queen, and you were a good princess, and you're a good writer, and i love you tons no matter what.