I oftentimes come to this column with some fantasy book or series from my childhood that changed the way I thought about fairy tales or gender roles or storytelling, and this week is no exception. I’ve been meaning to review this series as a Throwback for ages, but I kept putting it off because I am, if nothing else, lazy, and reading four books for a review is a lot more work than reading one or rewatching a movie. Sitting down to do it, however, ended up being both entertaining and a much easier task than I was expecting.
I first read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles back in grade school, and I’m distinctly sure I read them out of order the first time, because my school library didn’t have the whole series. It wasn’t as confusing as it might have been, since they stand alone reasonably well, buuuut… it would have been nice to get to meet everyone in the right order on the first go-round.
Each book in the series deals with a different adventure affecting a mostly stable cast of characters. In the first book we meet Cimorene, a princess who is dreadfully bored of learning boring protocol and etiquette and so runs away to become a dragon’s princess. (This is usually not a consensual agreement, but Kazul, the dragon who takes her in, is relatively liberal-minded, and likes Cimorene’s spunk.) While working for Kazul, Cimorene helps uncover and thwart a plot by the Society of Wizards to overthrow the dragons’ political system.
The second book focuses on Mendanbar, the King of the Enchanted Forest, who discovers that wizards have been stealing magic from the Forest and sets out to stop them. On the way, he runs into Cimorene; it turns out the wizards have kidnapped Kazul too, and she’s set out to find her. Along the way, they fall in love, and Cimorene resigns her post as Kazul’s princess in order to become Queen of the Enchanted Forest. The third book sees Mendanbar’s powerful magic sword stolen by the selfsame Society of Wizards, and the story follows Morwen, a witch and good friend of Cimorene’s, as the two of them and assorted other companions set off to get it back.
They’re successful, but while they’re gone the wizards cast a sleeping curse on Mendanbar’s castle that can only be broken by his heir. Fortunately, Cimorene’s pregnant already, so an heir’s on the way; unfortunately, she ends up waiting sixteen years for her son Daystar to grow up and quest off to save his dad. Daystar’s quest through the forest to find the castle and master his father’s sword makes up the final book in the quartet.
I remember really enjoying this series the first time I read it, and I did have fun rereading it as well. I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I often review stories that I remember being in some way paradigm-changing for me, and this universe has some interesting ideas about gender that I remembered even when I occasionally forgot what book I’d found them in. Most notably, gender and gender roles among Wrede’s dragons are pretty unique in children’s books—especially children’s books written in the 1980s. The dragons are born without an assigned gender, and don’t choose the gender they want to be until they’ve matured, at which point they also choose a name. This is presented completely matter-of-factly, and no one in the series has a problem addressing dragons respectfully based on age or gender (or lack thereof). Furthermore, at the end of the first book, Kazul is crowned King of the Dragons, despite being female. King and Queen of the Dragons are very different jobs, she explains to Cimorene, so to avoid confusion they always call the ruler the King, regardless of gender. The idea of stripping a gendered title of its gendered connotations in this casual way was totally new to me as a kid, and I remember being fascinated by the possibilities it opened up.
Unfortunately, there are some parts of the series that rubbed me the wrong way. In particular, Cimorene and Mendanbar’s characterization, in both characters’ cases, is entirely centered around their being #notlikeotherprincesses and #notlikeotherkings. Cimorene is just short of scornful of the princesses who are obsessed with marriage and makeup and dancing, and Mendanbar is deeply relieved to see that Cimorene’s not that kind of princess. Meanwhile, Cimorene likes Mendanbar because he isn’t obsessed with gallantry, honor, and chivalric love the way all the knights and princes who are constantly trying to unnecessarily rescue her from Kazul are. In Cimorene’s case, at least, it’s framed as a rebellion against the idea that things that are “not done” by princesses are simply not done, and no further explanation is required to justify their prohibition. If it wasn’t presented hand-in-hand with casting any other sort of princess as vapid and useless, it’d be more progressive. It’s possible that this is just a product of its time, but it’s still important to keep in mind reading it today.
Aside from that, although it’s cool that the books can kind of stand alone, Cimorene is far and above the most interesting character in the stories, and it’s disappointing that she gets increasingly sidelined in favor of other point of view characters and storylines as the books go on. Calling on Dragons, the third book in the series and the one told from Morwen’s point of view, is a small consolation to this, as Morwen is quite a fascinating character herself, but I’d have loved to see more adventures with Cimorene at the head.
All that said, I still definitely recommend this series to new and old readers alike. It’s a fun diversion for however long it takes you to read four 250-page books, and for the most part it plays with tropes and fairy tale storytelling in a different and enjoyable way.