“The Story of the Eldest Princess” is one of the five stories that appeared in A. S. Byatt’s collection The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994). It is an ostensible fairy tale that in fact subverts the assumptions of the genre in sometimes explicit, sometimes subtle ways. One of the consequences of this subversion is self-refl exivity; another is a feminist rewriting of the conventions of the genre. Two other stories in the same collection, “Gode’s Story” and “The Glass Coffin,” first appeared in Byatt’s Booker Prize–winning novel, Possession (1990). With “Dragons’ Breath” and “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” this collection takes a post-Victorian and occasionally postmodern look at the fairy tale.
“The Story of the Eldest Princess” begins with the quintessential fairy-tale opening sentence: “Once upon a time, in a kingdom between the sea and the mountains, between the forest and the desert, there lived a King and a Queen with three daughters” (41). Divested of specifics like time, place, and individual personalities, this incipit is the formula for a typical fairy tale. The plot revolves around a quest, usual in fairy tales. The reason for the quest is self-evidently trivial: The sky has begun to change color. It is no longer blue but green, and the people hold the king and the queen responsible.
The eldest princess, as is the wont in fairy tales, is the first to set off on the quest to bring back the single silver bird that will turn the sky blue. At this point the narrative informs us that the princess is a reader of books and is thus aware of the pattern of fairy-tale narratives. In these tales the eldest princess and the second invariably fail in fulfilling the terms of the quest and are punished for their transgressions, while the third princess succeeds in the quest as well as in redeeming her sisters. The eldest princess wants to reject this predestined role and choose her own destiny. The rest of the story is about the ways in which the eldest princess makes decisions, each time ruling against precedents and sometimes even against counsel, thereby asserting her independence. In the process she strays from the road and into the forest, rescuing a wounded scorpion, a toad, and a cockroach before reaching the haven of the old woman, where they are all healed.
A notable anti-fairy-tale move the princess makes is to reject a potential lover and husband, whom she could perhaps have elevated to the rank of prince. But after his innate cruelty is revealed by the creatures she rescues, the princess rejects marriage, another patriarchal destiny that the conventional fairy tale has determined for its princesses. In the encounter with the toad in another instance, the toad tells the princess that she must not suppose that he will transform into a handsome prince “or any such nonsense” (55). This is a direct allusion to many fairy tales in which the princess kisses the toad and he changes into a charming prince. Needless to state, the princess accepts his terms while helping him.
“The Story of the Eldest Princess” ends with the protagonist finding her destiny in the cottage of the old woman, who applauds the eldest princess’s intelligence in recognizing that she was trapped in a story that she could choose to leave, and who also tells stories to explain the eventual fate of the other two princesses. The quest is fulfilled by the second princess, but its fulfillment is token rather than real: Soon enough people begin to grumble against the blue sky, as they miss the green one that they had become familiar with.
One of the most obvious ways in which “The Story of the Eldest Princess” challenges the genre of the fairy tale is by liberating the central character from her fixed role and by letting her get ahead of the plot. When she thinks, “I am in a pattern I know” (48), the Princess’s knowledge becomes power, and her empowerment is manifested in the way she gives a new life to an old story. “The Story of the Eldest Princess,” especially in its ending, is an affirmation of the idea that stories lead to stories and new stories come out of the old.
Byatt, A. S. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994, 41–72.
———. Possession: A Romance. 1990. London: Vintage,