“To find the moral, the message, the meaning of a folktale, to describe its ‘uses,’…is a risky business; it is like stating the meaning of a fish, the uses of a cat. The thing you are talking about is alive. It changes and is never quite what you thought it was, or ought to be.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin
post by Graziella Matty (twitter)
Despite their very specific origins, fairy tales are often presented and consumed in ways that make them seem universal. Fairy tales greet us when we are young, introduced as something old, something enduring. They arrive without context, unauthored, as if they simply always existed. Their nebulous framing appeals to our desire to connect with tradition, to see the world as a comprehensible ordered place. We believe these stories to be somehow constant, that they contain some truth or message proven useful by the test of time.
Le Guin’s point about the slippery nature of the folk tale also applies to the audience of the folk tale—what they understood, what meanings they took from the stories they heard. Speculating on that is also a risky business. Little girls still find princesses fascinating, as I did when I was a little girl. It’s important to keep in mind that even though princesses from popular traditional fairy tale sources tend to fit a certain mold (young, beautiful, kind, and passive) doesn’t necessarily mean that the little girls playing at princess aren’t subverting or playing with those categories themselves. But creating new fairy tales that present a broader more active role for princesses is also crucial, and that is what Child of Light does so beautifully.
Child of Light uses and subverts traditional fairy tale motifs, creating a world based on different assumptions and allowing for new possibilities. That video games—a medium characterized by hyper-masculine musclebound heroes and relentlessly sexualized images of women—produced one of the most positive empowering fairy tales about little girls to date is a fantastic surprise. Aurora is a little girl, a princess, and the hero of our story. She jumps out of the massive lacuna in positive and powerful depictions of girls or women as if it were nothing, as if she were inevitable. She’s the most natural thing in the world – a little girl hero, a tiny female savior who decides to bring back the light.
The Sleeping Princess and Princess Culture
The landscape of Child of Light, Lemuria, is cobbled together from allusions to many different fairy tales, employing familiar motifs from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and beyond, but not in such a way as to trigger recognition as one particular story. As her name suggests, Aurora is an allusion to a classic fairy tale motif – that of the sleeping princess. The sleeping princess shows up in a loose nebula of folk stories and literary fairy tales – from Basile’s Little Slave Girl and Sun, Moon and Talia in the early 1600s to the later stories by Grimm and Perrault which made their way into the Disney adaptations of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The traditional sleeping princess story is a tale of beauty and equanimity. The princesses are usually victims of tragic injustice, often perpetrated by a powerful older woman, and must wait patiently to be vindicated. Female passivity is romanticized in these stories: the princess must sleep, and must be so unbearably beautiful as she sleeps that a prince will come to wake her, in one way or another.
The essential passivity of the sleeping princess has been the subject of a lot of modern consternation, and Disney has sought to make their princesses less passive over the years. All Official Disney Princesses have been soundly awake since Sleeping Beauty in 1959. Despite this move toward princesses who display more agency, the phenomenon of princess culture, with its emphasis on beauty, glitter, and little else, has led to a lot of spilled ink asking what exactly Disney is teaching little girls. The sea of backpacks and lunch boxes featuring Official Disney Princesses tend to gloss over any particulars of character, and the Official Disney Princess line includes historical figures who are demonstrably not princesses, and yet they are, Officially.
So what does princess mean? What does it mean to play at being a princess? Are princesses the tools of clever marketers, co-opting girls interests and calcifying harmful traditional gender norms, or is the distrust of princess culture a toxic knee-jerk assumption that the patently feminine is frivolous? These questions have been asked and answered and asked again. The process is important, but it can feel a little like chasing your own tail.
Child of Light breaks free of this conversation in significant ways. Aurora both broadens the possibilities for what princess can mean, and actively resists easy categorization. She questions the meaning of princess, and her own status as such. As she quests through the fairy tale world of Lemuria she continually corrects those who call her ‘princess,’ insisting that they call her ‘Aurora’ instead. During these scenes she takes off her crown to show that the word “Faux” is clearly stamped on it, and yet she always puts her crown right back on her head. This destabilization of traditional fairy tale meanings and expectations is repeated throughout the game by mixing and blurring and redefining elements from classical fairy tales and Disney. In order to get a better sense of how this is accomplished we can look to how Child of Light transforms some specific motifs, and how it leaves some traditional themes completely in the dust.
Sleep, Beauty, and the Sun and Moon
Aurora begins her tale a sleeping princess – she goes to sleep on the night of her father’s wedding, and the next morning she is found “cold as snow.” Just like the legion of her sleeping princess predecessors, nobody can wake Aurora. Starkly unlike those other princesses, she immediately tries to wake herself. She runs and shouts, calling for her father and commanding the nightmare to disperse. Aurora discovers she is not dreaming, but has been transported to Lemuria and she promptly begins her heroic quest by pulling a legendary sword from a stone. She is not passive, even in sleep.
Aurora’s agency makes way for the most significant divergence from the traditional sleeping princess story: the otherwise universal obsession with the beauty of the princess is not relevant to Child of Light. In the traditional sleeping princess story beauty is more than just a central theme, it’s what drives the action. Sometimes it’s the source of the princess’s trouble, and it is always the reason for her salvation.
In the Sleeping Beauty stories of Perrault and Grimm1 the princess, cursed to an enchanted sleep, must wait for a hero taken with her beauty to fight his way through the thorns that enclose her sleeping body to awake her with a kiss. In Basile’s Sun, Moon and Talia a king is so overcome by the beauty of the sleeping Talia that he carries her to a bed and rapes her. Talia awakes to discover she has given birth to twins, whom she names Sun and Moon. In Child of Light, the Sun and Moon are transformed into a monumental task for Aurora to complete. She must retrieve the sun and moon from darkness to save the kingdom of Lemuria. It is Aurora herself who must fight through a forest of thorns in order to proceed on her quest.
In the Snow White family of tales2 the princess’s beauty draws the ire of a jealous mother/stepmother, and it’s pity for her beauty that keeps the huntsman from carrying out her execution. Child of Light engages with the pervasive evil stepmother theme, but alters it so the stepmother is not consumed with jealousy for Aurora’s beauty, but with her own desire for power and the sole right to rule.3 Aurora’s stepmother does not try to poison her with an apple, but Aurora does accept an apple elsewhere, in a challenge to prove her skill in negotiation and trade. These changes are not subtle, they work to create a different kind of tale with a different kind of message. A message ultimately of action and perseverance rather than passivity and forbearance.
Video Games and Women Who Kick Ass
Combat is a feature of the game and Aurora proves herself capable there as she does in these other areas like negotiation and leadership. Child of Light reimagines the Arthurian Sword in the Stone as that of a historical figure, Matilda of Canossa, a medieval queen and general.4 Aurora pulls Mathildis’s sword from the stone, but she does not simply transmute from a little girl into an ultra-powerful, full-grown warrior, and that too is important. Aurora is a hero but Child of Light is not a power fantasy, she is not Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake or even Samus Aran. When Aurora defeats a monster she raises her sword in triumph for an instant, and then it slowly falls behind her, its weight almost taking her to the ground with it. This gesture, in one simple animation, expresses the complexities and unique strength that Aurora embodies. She is small, but she still fights. She is using a tool built for someone else, someone bigger, someone older, someone stronger, someone who might wield it with no struggle, but she is still a leader. She does not have inhuman strength, she does not have the ability to crush skulls or chainsaw monsters in half, but she still wins.
Representing physically strong women who kick ass is important and fun, and video games are a logical place for them to appear since the central mechanic in most games is some form of battle. So we can have Commander Shepherd from Mass Effect making total sense as a military hero: she is strong, and terse, and can save the universe with guns and punching. The fact that the writers wrote the part thinking of a male Shepard in this instance didn’t detract from the character, probably in large part due to Jennifer Hale’s brilliant portrayal of a gruff super-soldier messiah. Super soldiers are going to skew masculine, and seeing kinda butch women kicking ass is pretty much always going down as a positive in my book. However (and I am far from the first person to point this out), there is a real need to broaden our definition of heroism beyond strength in combat. We need heroes who are smart and strategic, heroes who are diplomatic and wise, and we need those attributes to be the locus of their heroism, not incidental to it.
This is precisely why Aurora from Child of Light is a hero who takes us further than commander Shepard. Aurora is a hero who is brave, and kind, and sometimes sad. She uses physical tools to fight, but thats not where her most important strength lies. She is continually tasked with achieving the impossible, but instead of giving into despair she channels her anger or sadness or grief, turning it into the strength that propels her to complete her quest. If you want to see Aurora’s unwavering strength look instead to her leadership and determination, to her bravery, to how she uses her power to help those who are desperate. The very fact that Aurora struggles makes her a more human, more interesting, and indeed more triumphant hero. She is competent and strong in so many other interesting ways beyond her Slash-All attack.
Child of Light is not Saccharine Feel-Goodery.
Determined to give us a better class of hero Child of Light challenges and transforms the assumptions and motifs from traditional fairy tales. But unlike many of the bowdlerized versions of fairy tales for children, it is not afraid to engage with the darker themes that make traditional folk tales so powerful. Aurora’s journey is about loss and pain, struggle and growth, injustice and betrayal. Aurora is tormented by visions of her dying father, and her step-sister leads her through a magic mirror promising that he is waiting for her on the other side. Once she crosses over she discovers that she has been betrayed, that her father will surely die. When Aurora rejoins her companions one of them asks her why she had to leave. She offers the simple, painful truth “sometimes we grow when we are alone.” And indeed, she has transformed and grown. She is now a woman, and can wield her sword without faltering.
Even so, she cannot save everyone. The mature Aurora meets a little girl named Gen, and promises to save her family from an ogre. Aurora defeats the ogre, but discovers that it has already eaten Gen’s family. Aurora helps Gen confront her fear and despair, but instead of offering her only comfort or pity, she offers Gen the opportunity to fight the darkness by her side. Other little girls are thus seen as potential allies, not pitiful creatures to coddle and protect. It is important that little girls are shown to be not only competent, but full beings with anger, pain, and strength. Aurora is special, but that is not the reason she can fight. Other little girls can fight too, and Gen is no meeker than Aurora; they can look to each other for help, and face the darkness together.
Little Girls and Heroes
We often hold little girls up as everything a hero must not be. We are not yet rid of expressions like cry like a little girl, or scream like a little girl, or run like a little girl, as if they were the base unit by which we measure uselessness. Little girls are not a joke, they are not abject losers, they are not incapable foils for masculine competence. Child of Light gives us a hero to reinforce this, a hero who is (and is not) a princess, who is a little girl, who is clever, and stern, and kind. She is strong in many different ways. Aurora does much to destabilize the traditional princess model and the tropes that accompany it, but as long as little girls continue to find princesses fascinating we will continue to ask questions about what princess means. Aurora, forthright yet keen, actually takes the time to answer the question for us:
“Aurora, what’s a princess?”
“That’s simple, the daughter of a queen.”
1. The Beauty Asleep in the Wood and Little Briar Rose
2. The Little Slave Girl, Bella Venezia, Little Snow White and many others
3. The interrelation of beauty and power in traditional fairy tales is immensely complicated and in that context drawing a distinction between the two is impossible. Child of Light choses to eschew the issue of beauty all together, thoroughly decoupling female worth or power from physical beauty
4. The Mathildis Vitae recounts the history of Matilda of Canossa 1046-1115, sole ruler of her kingdom for 30 years, much of which was spent defending the Italian peninsula from invasion