the princess in the tower, the dragon wrapped about it, the knight below.

June 18, 2012

believe me or not, when I first came up with this topic I didn’t intend it to be a springboard for feminist discussion. It seems an obvious conclusion, I suppose, but even now, looking at it, an essay about gender roles or the powerlessness of females is not the thing I automatically reach for. I s’pose that’s because essays don’t come naturally to me; I don’t think in essays. Or about them. I was an awful student.

What comes first for me is story.

I look at the princess, the dragon and the knight, and I see story. why is the princess there? who is the knight? why is there a dragon? how does the tower feel about all of this? and what does it all mean, anyway?


I have a confession to make: the first time I came up with that scenario- princess, tower, dragon, knight– it was a few years ago in conversation with Mel. I said, princess, tower, dragon, knight. which one are you and which one do you want to be?

The gender of the princess, the tower, the dragon or the knight played no part in my thinking at all. Instead, what I was thinking of was power, and powerlessness, and identity and self-identification. Folktales, myths and fairytales have been as influential in my life as the living stories of my friends and family and the overarching narrative of a redeeming God; they have been, for me, metaphors for understanding and exploring the world around me. Parables, perhaps. So in a way I suppose I was exploring an idea in a language I felt at home in.

Mel said princess, and knight.
I said tower, and dragon.


I don’t want to spend most of this post justifying my inclusion of this into the list of topics. But I saw it as a story, an image, a picture, and I wanted to see what people made of it. I didn’t see it as a thing to be argued and made into an essay. But others do, which is certainly something they make of it, so. Fair. It’ll be interesting to see what other conclusions are reached and by what avenues as more people blog.


If I look at this as less a story and more a way of exploring and explaining an idea, the conclusion I come to always is one about power. The princess, traditionally, has none; she is at the mercy of the wills of the other three, unless she happens to be a resourceful person. The tower is also, in a sense, powerless; it is a prison not by any choice of its own and it has no ability to move or change the nature of the situation. The knight has personal agency and the ability to make things different, though with sizeable risks involved; the dragon I’ve always seen as most in-control of the entire scenario. I’ve always wanted to be the dragon.

On that point, as a complete aside: why is the dragon always seen as evil? The dragon could have a perfectly logical and ethical explanation for being there; it is as much a player in this game as the others are, and yet it is always seen as an obstacle. The princess could have been rescued by the dragon and the knight could be a misogynist bastard come to take her back into perpetual semi-slavery. The princess could be terribly evil and the dragon could have chosen, very nobly, to spend its time guarding the world from such perils. It could even be a world where humans are kept as pets in much the way we keep gerbils, and the dragon is merely patting its pet gerbil in an affectionate manner until interrupted by a rogue hamster wearing a tin can and mounted on an albino guinea pig. Dragons are underestimated in traditional tellings of fairytales, I tell you. And don’t even get me started on towers.


I keep coming back to this story. It has a certain specialness for me, the way someone returns to a gold mine that they’ve only just scratched at. I’ve used it before as a metaphor for examining my own personal level of control or lack of it in any given situation, and I think it’s possible to examine the levels of others in their situations too. Power and agency are such important things in people’s heads.

I believe, for example, that a large part of depression is a learned helplessness; the feeling that you’re trapped and incapable of rescuing yourself and that in the end, all you can do is sleep and wait for someone else to come along and pick you up out of there and miraculously change it all around. I have been a princess a significant amount of my thinking life, despite pretending I wasn’t. I’ve also occasionally been a tower. I’ve only recently started putting on armour, but now new problems spring up: when you wield a sword, you also gain the ability to actively hurt other people, and when you wear armour, you have to learn when to take it off and when not to. And don’t dragons have a form of armour, too? And does this mean that I’m likely to try and rescue others? Should I really be saving others from dragons? Haven’t we already discussed the dragon as not-an-aggressor? What happened to empowering others? Should I give strange princesses armour? What is armour? And have I even rescued myself?

Metaphors are, like all things, flawed. But often and still I find them better translations for the things that happen inside people’s heads, despite all their drawbacks, because the insides of people’s heads aren’t neat lists and logical esplanades and impeccable rows of inventoried shelving. In fact, I think they’re usually stories.

3 Responses to “the princess in the tower, the dragon wrapped about it, the knight below.”

  1. I remember this. Did I say I was the princess and wanted to be the knight? Because I think I actually see myself as both.

  2. Polly Says:

    o Val….. sorry, it was a nice topic – even fun once I started writing… I didn’t mean to offend you!
    Ok I see the tower as the oppressive systems of capitalism and inequality. The princess is trapped by the system and is suffering. The dragon too is trapped, chained…the dragon is suffering but we don’t know it yet. The dragon’s pools of wealth and success show that it’s winning in the system…it’s the richest in the tower but it’s still trapped by it. I see myself as the knight but knight school doesn’t teach anything the tower is dense stone and the dragon’s fire is hot and I can’t rescue anyone.

  3. Frith Says:

    It’s an intersting fairy-tale element because it’s been so interpreted from this way and that way that I almost distrust it when it comes up! it’s as if we cant any longer go ‘there’s a princess in a tower and she’s going to be rescued from the evil dragon’. But then again, is that a bad thing? Sometimes. How simple and confusing.

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