Continuing the Flashback Friday series, this post was originally written in June 2014.
I came across Madame d’Aulnoy’s “Graciosa and Percinet” a few months back, when I was reading Phantastes and looking up the various fairy tales mentioned in the course of the book (it can be found in Andrew Lang’s “The Red Fairy Book” as a free download on ProjectGutenberg).
I had never heard of it, and I found that, unlike most fairy tales, this one has a modern twist. The princess is not a helpless heroine but someone who tries to deal with her problems herself, without the help of others. Though Graciosa is persecuted, she’s unwilling to leave her father and wants to try her best to be reconciled with her stepmother. Though she enjoys the attentions of the fairy prince, she’s concerned that he’ll tire of her once she loves him back (a very relatable worry, and one that even modern YA characters deal with).
Unlike many historical fairy tales, “Graciosa and Percinet” does not hinge upon the giving of wise advice or luck. Animals don’t talk, people don’t suddenly have get pregnant without warning, and the entire situation is more-or-less plausible, save that Percinet has the fairy gift which lets him do magical things. He is a prince of fairies who has loved Graciosa from afar and presents himself to her as a page and protector once her father marries the Duchess Grumbly–after the man rashly promises that his beautiful daughter will be entirely in his new wife’s care in order to gain her considerable fortune.
Graciosa appreciates his concern and is pleased to have gained such a friend, but she’s not willing to trust him entirely (and how many of us would be willing to trust someone we’d never met, as is frequently required in fairy tales?).
Over the course of time, her new stepmother becomes jealous of her and sends her into a forest, where Percinet shows up and takes her to his fairy palace to meet his mother. He wants Graciosa to stay and marry him, but she knows she must go back and see her father. Though the fairy world is delightful, and she has endured nothing but suffering at home, she still wants to go back.
When she returns, her stepmother locks her up and she has to complete impossible tasks, much like the girl in the story of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Each time, Percinet comes to her rescue, though she admits that she doesn’t deserve his help. In the end, she is buried alive, and she recognizes that all this has come about because of her lack of trust. Because she didn’t believe Percinet could truly love he–and love her without tiring of her–she tried to manage things herself and failed. But she didn’t fail because she was weak, or incapable, or fearful, but because she was outnumbered. Her stepmother was just too strong and powerful for her to beat her on her own, and in the end, she comes to see her own weaknesses and inabilities.
Of the fairy tale heroines I’ve encountered, Graciosa is the one I can most relate to. Her concerns are still valid, as we hear over and over how some men do tire of a romance after having achieved all the happiness it has to offer. And her response is something we frequently show in our lives: skepticism. We encounter great, overwhelming grace and love, and we don’t often believe in it. We think it has to be temporary, and we struggle against it, feeling that, if and when the giver knew us better, he’d realize how poorly he’d chosen and move on.
Like Graciosa, we try to manage things ourselves, and our own efforts continually form a barricade between us and the giver as we try to show our worth when all true love ever asks of us is trust. The strange thing is that such grace, such love, is what we ultimately need most–someone who sees us, faults and all, and yet still loves us.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by quicksandala