Some spoilers ahead.
Why did I not remember the beautiful subversion of gender stereotypes in Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons when I was seeking a paper topic two summers ago?
Having reread this book after I couldn’t tell you how many years, I’m so glad that our local librarian placed this series into my hands when I was a young girl, and I hope that librarians, booksellers, teachers and parents are still putting it into the hands of young girls today.
Cimorene is easily bored by her proper princess lessons and sets up lessons for herself in fencing, magic, Latin, and cooking, each class ending when her parents find out about the infraction. Knowing not what else to do with their daughter, the king and queen determine to marry her to a prince who boasts of battlefield prowess but displays little of this or any other admirable quality.
Cimorene takes the advice of a frog and finds herself in a cave full of dragons for whom she volunteers to act as a princess. While her cherries jubilee and title greatly help her secure the position, the dragon Kazul is also glad of her ability to translate Latin. Cimorene’s princess duties are mostly cleaning and organizing, stereotypically feminine activities, but with Kazul’s encouragement and knowledge and her own cleverness and initiative, Cimorene ultimately becomes a hero, saving a prince and at least one princess while wielding buckets of soapy water.
Her guides in this new life are also wise women. There’s not a wise man in sight (yet), and sadly all of the villains are male.
Cimorene doesn’t spurn the entirety of her femininity even as she seeks masculine lessons and freedom, still engaging in such “feminine” work as cleaning, organizing, and cooking, choosing as her ultimate weapon a bucket of soapy water rather than the magic sword she briefly wields. She never reneges the title of Princess. She is not marked by her impressive physical prowess. She does not have to be masculinized to become the hero, and I think it’s important that such role models be presented to our children.
Now, it might be that I am forcing some meaning where Wrede never intended it. Because Cimorene does remain so feminine in her heroic role, it is possible that Cimorene’s true complaint about being a proper princess is less about the gender role forced upon her and more about the entitlement that others think ought to prevent her partaking in lessons that prepare her for a role as a household servant or advisor. While cooking, cleaning, and organizing are all stereotyped feminine roles, they are also those assigned to a lower class than Princess.
But the dragons’ traditions makes me think that Wrede meant to comment on gender more than social roles. The dragons always have a King and Queen (sadly, Kazul complains that the “feminine” role of Queen is dreadfully boring, an unnecessary slight perhaps or meant to align with Cimorene’s court experience), but these roles are not gender specific. Kazul, a female dragon, wins the title of King for the remainder of the series.
Dragons are also able to choose their gender and this choice alters their physical makeup. There’s much that could be explored there, but it is mentioned only once briefly in the novel.
Wrede, Patricia C. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book One: Dealing with Dragons. San Diego: Jane Yolen-Harcourt Brace, 1990.
This review is not endorsed by Patricia C. Wrede, Jane Yolen, Jane Yolen Books, or Harcourt Brace & Company. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.
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