Two Clever Princesses, Two Feminist Fairy Tales: The Clever Princess vs Princess Arete

By: Patricia C. Baxter February 24, 20230 Comments
Screenshot from the film Princess Arete. A young princess sits at a table in front of a tapestry depicting knights marching up to a princess in a tower

There has been much thought and discussion on what does, and does not, constitute a “feminist” story: whether it includes any tale with a proactive woman or girl protagonist, a story where characters of any gender can participate in the narrative fully, or a world that depicts non-patriarchal societies and systems. There are many nuances to consider, and there is no one “proper” way to tell a story with feminist themes and intent—different writers will approach feminist topics in different ways across times, genres, and mediums. Shifts in tone and mood can also transform the context of a story and allow it to engage with its feminist themes in different, but still equally meaningful, ways.  

The 2001 anime film, Princess Arete, is a loose adaptation of Diana Coles’ short story “The Clever Princess”. Both stories follow a young princess named Arete, who has lived in a castle her entire life and has next to no experience interacting with the outside world, and yet has grown up to be an extremely clever girl—to the chagrin of her father and prospective suitors. Later, a powerful wizard named Boax comes to the castle to claim Arete’s hand in marriage, which the king readily agrees to.  

Illustration from The Clever Princess of Arete riding on her horse

What they don’t know is that Boax marries Arete because it was foretold that she would be the cause of his demise; he, therefore, wishes to make the princess suffer and ensure his morbid fate will not come to pass. Of course, Arete, the titular clever princess that she is, is much smarter and braver than Boax anticipated. With the help and kindness of several different people, Arete is able to overcome various obstacles and wins back her freedom. While both the book and the film follow this general plotline, the two pieces of media approach the narrative in vastly different ways.

Diana Coles’ short story is a comedic satire, which follows the traditional story beats of fairy tales while also providing tongue-in-cheek jabs at sexism and patriarchal figures. Throughout the narrative, several male characters try to demonstrate their talents and “natural superiority” as men over Arete, but at each point, Arete either outwits them or surpasses them in ways they did not anticipate. This demonstrates how ridiculous it is to assume that one gender is “naturally” better than another.  

Illustration from The Clever Princess showing a crotchety wizard in a robe and pointy hat, surrounded by spellbooks with funny names

In addition to a cheeky narrator, the short story is interspersed with cartoony illustrations by Ros Asquith, which further highlights the ridiculousness of the narrative. One drawing depicts Boax and his assistant Grovel surrounded by numerous jars of ingredients with labels like “Fresh Bones” and “Old Bones” and books with punny author names like Bella Donna and B.L. Zibub. Tongue-in-cheek narration and silly illustrations make The Clever Princess a chuckle-worthy romp for those who enjoy a humorous fairytale story.

The film Princess Arete, in contrast, approaches the story as a serious fantasy drama. Typically relying on darker color palettes and featuring a limited soundtrack, the film can be downright somber to watch at times. Arete’s situation, and the threats she encounters, are portrayed as legitimate obstacles, and the patriarchal forces in her narrative hold power and are not afraid to use it against her. Unlike her book counterpart whose “only real danger…was the danger of being bored”, the men Arete encounter use their positions within a patriarchal system to control her or put her at risk, like her father the king who uses the guards to physically prevent her from leaving the castle. Here, a fractured fairy tale has become a fantasy epic, centered on the life of one specific individual. 

Screenshot from the film Princess Arete. Arete stands in front of a gathered crowd of men, all taller than her and throwing her into shadow. Subtitle text reads: "Everybody has an identity, even the young apprentices."

Rather than representing and critiquing gender inequality through cheeky satire, the film takes a more direct approach. When comparing the short story and the adaptation, the question might arise: does this take away from or add to the themes of the original? The answer is not so clean-cut. Both interpretations of Arete’s tale are valuable works rich with feminist themes, and looking at the different ways the different versions play them out gives insight into the potential strengths that different tones and narrative structures can hold.

As well as shifting the genre, this drastic change in tone between the two works also impacts how the various characters behave and interact with each other within their respective narratives. Arete is vastly different when comparing her two characterizations. In the book, Arete is a very confident person who is well aware of her skills and capabilities, leading her to execute several successful plans to complete her quests. She does not hesitate to say what she feels, whether expressing her delight at seeing grass snakes or getting into arguments with men who wanted her to demurely react to their opinions.

Screenshot from Princess Arete. Arete sits sadly at a table, lit only by candlelight. Subtitle text reads: "I can only ever experience the world through books."

The film version of Arete does not have this level of self-confidence, as living an isolated life in her castle tower has made it difficult for her to converse with other people and fully articulate herself without fear of reprisal. Instead, she only interacts with the rest of humanity through brief conversations with her ladies-in-waiting, reading books, watching the activities of the kingdom’s citizens from her tower window, and brief clandestine trips to the town. She also feels that she has not been able to achieve as many great things as other people, commonly questioning whether she can achieve great things with her own two hands.  

And yet, in the film’s opening half-hour, we observe that Arete is extremely capable, navigating long-forgotten passageways to exit and enter her tower unnoticed and bringing a heavy tome up to her bedroom despite various obstacles. In short, Arete’s role and treatment as a princess have resulted in her being objectified to the point that it has her questioning her humanity and self-worth.

The suitors are also dramatically different between the two works. The book’s suitors are mostly self-important buffoons who enjoy the sound of their own voices. The most danger they present to Arete is boring her to sleep. The story even has one of suitors get transformed into a frog and eaten by the princess’s companion, the littlest snake, in one of the book’s grimmer jokes. The film, however, presents these suitors not as bumbling princes but decently competent knights who have traveled the land to gather magical artifacts so they might be deemed worthy of earning Arete’s hand in marriage.  

Screenshot from Princess Arete. Cast in shadow, a suitor bends on one knee and looks up at Arete. Subtitle text reads: "My feelings for you have been growing ever stronger".

The true purpose of these quests is not a test of “worthiness”, but rather a way for the kingdom to obtain magical artifacts they can then resell to rich collectors, thereby maintaining the kingdom’s wealth. As Arete astutely deduces, both she and her suitors are mere pawns who serve as a means to an end. But what is most striking about the knights is that the film portrays them as dangerous in a manner many people of marginalized gender, especially feminine-presenting individuals, are sadly too familiar with. 

In one scene a knight named Dullabore scales the castle tower, not unlike many other fairy tale heroes of the past, and enters Arete’s bedroom. This is not presented in a way that is commonly depicted in popular media. There is no music or joyful exclamations of adoration from Arete; it is an unromanticized scene of an adult man entering a girl’s room without her consent. Thankfully, Dullabore does not assault or touch Arete, but the intrusion in her room is a form of violence in itself, and another of the film’s direct examples of how patriarchal forces have negatively impacted Arete’s life. 

Illustration from The Clever Princess depicting two friendly figures: a tall, spindly witch and a stout, smiling cook. A ribbon runs underneath them bearing the text "The new rulers of Arete's realm"

Despite the major differences in tone and scope between the book and the film, they still share two key feminist themes: showcasing the importance of women supporting each other and valuing “feminine” coded skills that are often dismissed within a patriarchal context. In both versions of the story, Arete’s two greatest allies are women: an unnamed witch and the cook Ample. Both of these characters prove to be skilled in their respective fields and provide Arete with much-needed support after she is captured by Boax.  

The witch gives Arete a magic ring that is capable of granting three wishes, which proves to be useful in helping her escape. Ample assists Arete by providing her with filling meals, in contrast to the disgusting meals she prepares for Boax and Grovel, and pleasant conversation to make sure the girl does not become lonely or lose hope. Through their acts of kindness, Arete can overcome all the challenges she experiences, demonstrating the various forms of strength women can have, and the importance of collaboration between people facing the same oppressive system.

Screencap from Princess Arete. Arete is embraced by another, taller woman, the two of them looking out over a wide valley.

The book and film both demonstrate the value of “feminine” coded skills, with these being key tools in Arete regaining her freedom. In the book, Arete uses her three wishes to obtain various items to help her pass the time while being locked in Boax’s dungeon.  She wishes for paints, a sewing kit, and ink and paper. With each wish, Arete can make herself more comfortable and is even able, with the assistance of Ample, to share her creations with the local villagers, further strengthening her connection to them and their respect for her. While she did not necessarily need the ring’s magic to escape or overcome her trials, the trust she was able to gain by using her skills to help and support others was more important.  

In the film, Arete uses two of her three wishes on painting her room and summoning sewing equipment and is tempted to wish for pen and paper to write stories like her book counterpart. At first, these wishes seem like a waste, but this changes once Arete sheds the curse restricting her agency. She creates a disguise using the paints and thread to deceive Boax, and while she does not write a story on paper, the tale she mentally constructs is ultimately what frees her mind. Both the book and the film simultaneously showcase the value of “feminine” skills and the importance of the arts, as they allow us to connect with others and are important forms of self-expression.

Illustration from The Clever Princess depicting Arete's three gifts: sewing supplies, paints, and an ink pen

With all these differences between the original short story and its film adaptation, it can be quite tempting to ask which version of the story is the “better” one; the short and humorous fairy tale or the longer and somber fantasy film. In my opinion, there is no correct answer to this question, as there is value in both “The Clever Princess” and Princess Arete’s interpretation of Arete’s story. “The Clever Princess” may be a humorous story, but it does not dismiss the experiences of those negatively impacted by patriarchal forces. Instead, it provides the reader with the ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of the idea that cisgender men are “naturally superior” and feel empowered by reading about a character undaunted by the obstacles before her. Plus, its accessible writing style makes it easier for readers who are either young or young at heart to enjoy.  

Princess Arete may be a dark fantasy epic, but this does not mean that it is a hopeless tale of woe. Rather, it is a story of a girl discovering her inner strength with the help of other women, and overcoming challenges that once seemed impossible to her. The overall message of the film is that life is worth living, and we can all do what we can to change things for the better. For those who have grown up feeling disempowered for any number of reasons, watching Arete regain her agency and freedom feels extremely rewarding.

Screencap from Princess Arete, showing Arete examining a sewing needle

Overall, “The Clever Princess” and Princess Arete are two very different interpretations of a feminist fairy tale. Their approaches to Arete’s journey toward independence from patriarchal forces manifest differently, but the core message on the importance of hope and valuing the skills of women ring true. Whether through laughter or silent contemplation, we can consider the world we inhabit, and ask ourselves important questions about how we want to move forward, and what tools we can use to get there.

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