One of my favorite things about being an adult is rediscovering beloved books and characters from childhood. Now in my 30s, as I’ve read back through some of my favorite YA books I’ve noticed a penchant for a particular sort of female character: girls and women who were not content to work within the confines society (or men) laid out for them, or girls and women who made a difference to the outcome of the story, not just as the arm candy of some dude, but who saved the day themselves, or were necessary components in the shaping or reshaping of the world they inhabited.
This leads me to Dealing with Dragons, the first of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. The kid inside me almost bursts with excitement to introduce you to Cimorene.
Cimorene is a princess, and though she grows up surrounded by all the typical fairytale commodities – a prosperous kingdom, attentive parents, golden-haired sisters, etiquette lessons, a handsome prospective suitor – we know by the end of page one that she hates the whole deal. As her adventures progress and she interacts with talking animals, dubious magic, wizards, a feisty but pragmatic witch, and of course, the titular dragons, a number of qualities stand out about Cimorene that make her unabashedly awesome.
Note: many of these qualities are developed considerably as the book progresses, but a number of them are apparent even within the first chapter or two. I’ve tried to restrict my examples to just these first few chapters to avoid too many spoilers, so you can go out and read this immediately and not have any of the delightful surprises ruined. So, that settled, here’s how to be awesome like Cimorene:
Buck tradition: Wrede doesn’t waste any time introducing us to Cimorene’s problems, and her attempts to solve them. Within the first five pages of the book, she has already established that Cimorene doesn’t fit in with her family or their expectations. Beautiful but too tall, braided black hair instead of golden curls, and a definite prejudice against boring princess lessons, Cimorene tries to work with her situation, but when she can’t stand the tiresome uselessness of a life of embroidery and batting eyelashes, she goes her own way. Literally. Chapter 1 concludes with Cimorene running away to escape from boredom, propriety, and arranged marriage. And of course, as you might guess from the cover illustration above, Cimorene’s relationship with the dragons mentioned in the novel’s title is not your normal “captive princess” situation, but more of a… volunteerism… sort of thing…
But know how to work the system: Cimorene may not like being a princess, but she does understand how being a princess works. When she finds out her parents intend to marry her off, and when her typical method of logical honesty doesn’t work (admission of dislike – both of the prince in question or the institution of marriage itself – is insufficient to convince her royal parentals to reconsider), Cimorene turns to propriety, the very thing she’s been resisting since childhood:
“I won’t marry the prince of Sathem-by-the-Mountains!” Cimorene said desperately. “It isn’t proper.”
“What?” said both her parents together.
“He hasn’t rescued me from a giant or an ogre or freed me from a magic spell,” Cimorene said.
Both her parents looked uncomfortable. (7)
As the story progresses, Cimorene’s ability to work within the system – perhaps not adhering to expectations about herself, but applying courtly expectations to others – tends to benefit her and her new friends against both minor evil and major annoyance.
Try new things: Cimorene is subjected to all the skills a proper princess is supposed to learn – embroidery, dancing, drawing, etiquette – but finds them interminably dull. So she seeks out more interesting pursuits. By age twelve, she has already been forbidden from learning fencing from the castle armsmaster. She then turns to the court magician and learns magic until this, too, is restricted because it is “improper” for a princes. But Cimorene keeps trying: “[t]he same thing happened over the Latin lessons from the court philosopher, the cooking lessons from the castle chef, the economic lessons from the court treasurer, and the juggling lessons from the court minstrel” (4). Despite being cut off from these lessons before she reaches mastery, it is these, not the typical lessons of princess-hood, which most benefit Cimorene later in the story. Her own choices and insistence on pursuing interesting, practical skills guide her through her story and save her – and her friends – from numerous entanglements.
Ask questions: Sometimes asking questions is thought of as a sign of ignorance. Not for Cimorene. Questions are a way of obtaining information, of being prepared before diving into a situation, and, sometimes, of putting off your enemy just long enough to figure out how to beat him/them. It’s a way of collecting and assembling your evidence to lay out a logical argument, even if that argument doesn’t always work. As Cimorene tries to navigate what she is and is not allowed to do as a princess of Linderwall, she relies on questions to help her. In an attempt to defend her desire to keep learning fencing, she asks her father to explain why it is not proper princess behavior:
“It’s… well, it’s simply not done.”
Cimorene considered. “Aren’t I a princess?”
“Yes, of course you are, my dear,” said her father with relief. He had been bracing himself for a storm of tears, which was the way his other daughters reacted to reprimands.
“Well, I fence,” Cimorene said with the air of one delivering an unshakeable argument. “So it is too done by a princess.” (3)
Similarly, as Cimorene deals with her fairy godmother, her prospective suitor(s), and a group of dragons, she uses questions to obtain information, escape uncomfortable situations, and sometimes deflect some inconvenient questions posed by others.
Stand your ground: It’s easy to buckle and accept your situation when it seems like everything is against you. But if you’re awesome like Cimorene, you stand your ground. Don’t like the expectations society has imposed on you? Don’t obey them! Don’t want to get married? Don’t give in! Don’t want to be rescued? Explain yourself until the prospective rescuer goes away:
“Kazul has not enchanted me, and I do not want to be rescued by anybody,” Cimorene said, alarmed by the knight’s sudden enthusiasm. “This place suits me very well. I like polishing swords and cooking cherries jubilee and reading Latin scrolls. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone in Linderwall. They’ve been complaining about my un-princesslike behavior for years.” (26)
Sometimes standing your ground can feel rude or ungrateful, and sometimes it means having to refuse proffered help, like when you’re facing an extremely powerful and possibly nasty wizard who wants to help you across a ledge that has suddenly disappeared. But if you are firm and determined and maintain your stance, you can usually work out your own solution and wind up not owing anyone anything or compromising your position.
But be polite: As Cimorene is challenged throughout the story, she does get frustrated and angry. It’s notable, though, that in most of her interactions she approaches her antagonist with courtesy. That doesn’t mean she’s a pushover – she’s only polite up to a point – but often her insistence on treating the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest and the Mountains of Morning with politeness rather than antagonism results in her getting what she wants after all. After all, treating others with civility often means being treated civilly in return, which means getting your questions answered (see above!), learning new information, and sometimes making unexpected agreements. And, as Cimorene herself mentally notes when deciding whether or not to take advice from a talking frog, just being polite doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being complicit, it means you’re weighing your options and keeping your opponent feeling that, at least on the surface, you’re not quite an adversary… just yet.
Embrace girl power: okay, this got a little long, but I can’t conclude a discussion of Cimorene’s awesomeness without including this one. Cimorene is a strong, spunky, smart character in her own right. Her determination and intellect help her through plenty of sticky situations. But she is aided and guided by a host of other female characters, and the sisterhood she forms with many of the women she encounters does help her persevere. And interestingly – and importantly – not all of these relationships are founded on strength or rebelliousness. Kindness, sweetness, and giggly girlishness plays a role too, and yes, even love. Though of course, as you might have guessed by now of a princess like Cimorene, perhaps not quite in the way you’d expect.
Oh, and here’s the best thing of all: there are three other books in the series, so even after you blow through Dealing with Dragons, the awesome doesn’t have to end just yet.