Monday, February 21, 2011

Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon"

Originally published in Little Kingdoms (1993). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 76.

"Grapes swell on our slopes, deer graze in the grassy trench between our walls, and in the winding streets, bordered by houses of white-washed wood and clean stone, sunlight and shadow fall equally." So goes the last line of Millhauser's medieval semi-fantasy, reminding the reader that despite the title, the story is not just about a Prince undone by jealousy, a Princess driven to denounce an honest man, the Margrave made to suffer for his unbelievable chastity, or the Dwarf working to serve them all. It's about -- like much of Millhauser's work -- about the story itself, about the meanings locked inside the art of creation.

It's a deconstructed tale, pulled apart into individual sections that range from a paragraph to a few pages, each of which speaks toward the physical (architecture), psychological (motives), and theological (belief). These pieces are the scraps told and retold, as it happens, by the residents of the nearby town, who, in their collective first person "we," offer various versions of the tale, and how it relates to their life. For instance:

If our tales are known among the inhabitants of the castle, may it not come about that they begin to imitate the gestures that give them such pleasure, so that their lives gradually come to resemble the legendary lives we have imagined? To the extent that this is so, our dreams may be said to be our history.

It's a pleasurable enough read, though because it's so aware of the telling, it cuts off its emotions and is unable to connect with the characters. It worries about things like "Is there not a risk that our art lacks mystery?" and so attempts to illustrate fleeting and shifting sensations, knowing all the while that "the grasping hand" cannot "seize the ungraspable." It also might have been better suited for the novel form: by the end, Millhauser's sections grow almost tedious, in that they focus for too long on points -- like the dwarf's growing feelings for the princess, and his choice not to act on them -- that deepen only a single facet of the story. If this were to go whole-hog into fantasy, to be about castles and princesses and court intrigue, all that would work, but because he's running an ambitious second layer, he needs to be even tighter, and ever more cautious of the connections he's making between myths and realities, and dreams and nightmares.

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