I have to admit: this post is entirely inspired by Frozen, my new favorite movie (I’m a sucker for Pixar movies and pretty girls). The Disney film reminded me of one of my favorite books when I was a child, Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre. The story of Frozen and The Two Princesses of Bamarre are similar: two sisters, heirs to the throne–close friends but dissimilar in temperament. Meryl, the older, is “a concentration of focused energy, brave” while her younger sister Addie is “afraid of almost everything–from monsters to strangers to spiders.” Their kingdom of Bamarre is a land filled with dangers like dragons and gryphons; while Addie longs only for peace and tranquility, it is Meryl who itches for adventure. She wants to leave the palace’s walls and fight to save her land. She wants adventure for the sake of adventure, to prove her worth and her bravery.
Enter the Gray Death, a bubonic plague-like disease that haunts the denizens of Bamarre. It is a quick-acting disease and utterly incurable. Meryl has pledged from a young age that she will find the cure, but it is Meryl, not Addie, who contracts the terminal illness. Terrified for her sister and for herself, Addie finds the bravery within herself to set off on the quest Meryl always said she would take: the quest for the cure. With her ailing sister at home whose life is dwindling quickly, Addie doesn’t have time for fear, and must muster her courage in her search for the cure.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre is an interesting exploration of two kinds of bravery: Meryl’s bravery that seems on display (though no less genuine) and Addie’s bravery, driven by duty and a strong love for her sister. It’s the difference between slaying a sleeping dragon for the sake of it and defending your family against that same dragon’s attack. Sometimes the measure of bravery is in the details of the act, not the act itself. When extreme circumstances arose, Addie’s courage surpassed Meryl’s bravado (albeit her magnanimous bravado). While Meryl has mettle (ha) she also wants glory and honor; Addie just wants to save her sister and her people.
The dynamic between the two sisters and the way this novel explores female power and emotion reminds me of Frozen. There are also aesthetic similarities: Meryl, the fair and stronger, older sister, reminds me of the ice-blonde Elsa, powerful yet conflicted. And freckled Addie reminds me of the quirky and naive Anna, who finds herself in similar extreme circumstances, having to save her sister not only from external enemies but also from herself.
The character of Elsa was most interesting to me for several reasons. Born with the ability to create ice and snow from her touch, Elsa has had to hide her power her entire life to protect those around her. Her father taught her to “conceal it, don’t feel it,” a mantra she has held her entire life. When her powers finally bubble over, Elsa cannot hide her true self anymore and she flees into a mountain, and the song that accompanies is a declaration of independence.
She sings, “be the good girl you always have to be” before declaring that “that perfect girl is gone.” Before, she was buttoned up to the neck with her hair carefully twined into a modest knot; after she lets loose her powers and lets go of her fear, she transforms into a woman who explores her sexuality. She lets her hair down and creates a beautiful, sexy dress for herself–and this is most important–away from the male gaze. Elsa’s predicament–always having to hide her true self and her powers–is an allegory for constraints put on women. Either good girl or bad girl, there is always a right and wrong for women, but away from society, Elsa is free to be powerful and sexy. “No right, no wrong for me,” she sings. “I’m free.” She’s free to be herself and explore her power.
I have to commend Frozen for consciously debunking major fairy-tale tropes. Though not perfect, Frozen mocks several oft-used Disney concepts such as true love’s kiss and love at first sight. Though not earth-shattering, it’s subtly progressive (by Disney standards) and it’s lovely to know that young children will grow up admiring women such as Elsa and Anna, who break the molds. They manage to be strong yet feminine, a departure even from such recent Disney princesses as Merida, an obvious tomboy. It is possible to be feminine, beautiful, powerful, and independent. Princess stories are like that, too: beautiful yet powerful to youngsters, and if I’m any example, the good ones resound for many years to come.