The Heroines Who Wear the Crown: Princess Protagonists in Modern Fantasy

Explore the evolution of princess protagonists in fantasy literature, from damsels in distress to empowered heroines with depth, agency, and nuance. Dive into their captivating tales.

From magical kingdoms to epic quests, princess protagonists have long captivated readers of fantasy literature.

While early fantasy works often portrayed princesses as damsels in distress or prizes to be won, modern takes on the archetype have brought nuance, depth and agency to these royal heroines.

 Let’s explore some of the most influential princess protagonists in contemporary fantasy novels and what makes them so impactful.

A Leader of Legends: Eilonwy in The Chronicles of Prydain

Though Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain often takes a lighthearted tone, the series broaches serious themes of war, death and finding inner strength. At its heart is Princess Eilonwy, a headstrong young girl grappling with her magical gifts and her role in saving the mythical land of Prydain. Far from a passive damsel, Eilonwy shows courage and cleverness from the start, often rescuing the hero rather than waiting to be rescued. Her matter-of-fact personality and dry wit add humor to the epic journey. Eilonwy emerges a wise, powerful leader who chooses duty over love – a subversion of classic princess tropes.

The Girl Who Would Be Queen: Aerin in The Hero and the Crown

Aerin, the heroine of Robin McKinley’s acclaimed novel The Hero and the Crown, is a fascinating study in duality. As the ignored daughter of the king, she is no one’s idea of a princess, much less a future queen. Shy and bookish, she seems an unlikely hero. Yet through grit and ingenuity, Aerin overcomes deadly dragons and becomes a battle-tested warrior. She claims both her magical heritage and her rightful place on the throne, proving that a princess’s power lies within. McKinley crafts a psychologically complex, inspiring character who finds greatness by being wholly herself.

The Princess as Warrior: Angharad in The Green Rider

Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series whisks readers away to an enchanted world on the brink of war. Standing strong against looming darkness is Princess Angharad, heir to the empire. Though a skilled fighter, Angharad’s true power lies in uniting allies toward a common cause. Her keen sense of diplomacy complements her warrior skills, showing that mind and muscle can partner in a strong leader. Angharad must navigate complex family dynamics and political intrigues while staying true to her principles of loyalty and justice. She proves a princess can fight battles both on the battlefield and in the cutthroat royal court.

Princess of Shadow: Elisa in The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns follows Princess Elisa, who must shed her insecurities to embrace her destiny as a prophesized ruler. Marked by a magical stone in her navel, Elisa is blessed – or cursed – with an ancient power, and hunted by dark forces who want to control it. Though born a princess, Elisa begins an unlikely hero, overweight and uncertain. Through painful growth and loss, she taps into her hidden strengths to claim her birthright and stand against evil. Elisa’s transformation inspires readers to look beyond the surface and find the spirit of the warrior princess within.

The Princess and the Commoner: Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones’ fantastical Howl’s Moving Castle stars Sophie, the eldest of three sisters doomed to fail in her fairy tale world. When she’s turned into an old crone by a jealous witch, plucky Sophie refuses to accept her fate. She bargains her way into an apprenticeship with the wizard Howl and finds magic, adventure and even true love. Sophie uses wit and indignation to become a powerful sorceress in her own right, proving that destiny is what you make it. Though a commoner, she ultimately wins over Howl, resolving the tension between princess and peasant that permeates fairy tales.

The Warrior Heir: Princess Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons

In Patricia C. Wrede’s endearing Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Princess Cimorene bucks tradition by running away to become a dragon’s princess. Cimorene’s practicality, competence and no-nonsense attitude make her an untraditional yet beloved heroine. She slays stereotypes of princesses as demure and passive.

The Clever Spy: Princess Irene in The Princess and the Goblin

In George MacDonald’s classic The Princess and the Goblin, young Princess Irene displays courage and wit. When her kingdom is threatened by sinister goblins, Irene devises clever traps and strategies to defeat them. She proves you can fight evil with intelligence just as well as strength.

The Beast Charmer: Beauty in Robin McKinley’s Beauty

Robin McKinley puts a fresh spin on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast in her novel Beauty. As the title character, Beauty must navigate her shifting feelings for the Beast while defending her kingdom from political unrest. Her empathy and inner strength enable her to gently tame the Beast and restore peace.

The Summoner: Aru Shah in Aru Shah and the End of Time

In Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series, 12-year-old Aru Shah can summon ancient Hindu gods and goddesses. When she accidentally sparks the evil god of time, Aru must undertake a dangerous journey to turn back the clock. Smart and brave, Aru proves you don’t need a crown to be a hero.

The Reluctant Ruler: Sophos in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series

Sophos is an unlikely king – timid and bookish, he’s more scholar than ruler. Yet in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books, Sophos displays quiet strength and care for his people. Though he never expected the crown, Sophos grows into a just, compassionate leader.

The Assassin Who Would Be Queen: Celaena Sardothien in Throne of Glass

Sarah J. Maas’ bestselling Throne of Glass series introduces Celaena Sardothien, a legendary teenage assassin sentenced to toil in the salt mines of Endovier. Offered a chance at freedom if she wins a competition to become the king’s champion, Celaena must summon the strength to once again embrace her deadly talents. Behind her fierce exterior, she hides a painful past and greater destiny as future Queen of Terrasen.

These princess protagonists capture the hearts of fantasy fans by showing courage, intelligence and growth.

While honoured for their royal blood, they rely on their personal strengths—quick wits, martial skill, humility in the face of destiny.

They lead with wisdom and prove girls can be the heroines of their own stories.

Fantasy authors continue to move princess characters to the foreground, making them complex individuals rather than lovely figures in the background.

15 Early Fantasy Reads that Defined the Genre (Before Tolkien)

Uncover the roots of fantasy literature with these 15 early fantasy reads. Journey through time and explore iconic works that shaped the genre, from Le Morte D’Arthur to The Princess and the Goblin. Delve into imaginative worlds and timeless tales that defined fantasy.

As a fantasy reader, you understand the allure of otherworldly realms, magical creatures, and grand adventures.

The genre has evolved over the years, with contemporary authors captivating us with their unique worlds and unforgettable characters.

But it’s also valuable to recognise and explore the roots of fantasy literature to appreciate the genre fully.

This blog post will take you on a journey through time, introducing you to 15 early fantasy reads that have shaped the course of the genre.

Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory

Published in 1485, Le Morte D’Arthur is a compilation of stories and legends about the legendary King Arthur, his knights, and their adventures. The stories are based on earlier legends and texts, and Thomas Malory’s retelling has become one of the most well-known and influential versions of the Arthurian tales.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

A timeless classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) tells the story of a young girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and enters a strange, fantastical world. Lewis Carroll’s imaginative tale is filled with memorable characters and has captured the hearts of readers for generations.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Published in 1726, Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical adventure novel that follows the journeys of Lemuel Gulliver to various fantastical lands. While the story serves as a biting critique of the politics and society of Swift’s time, it also presents readers with an imaginative and engaging exploration of the unknown.

The Vampyre by John William Polidori

The Vampyre (1819) is a short story that is considered the first modern vampire tale. It introduces the character of Lord Ruthven, an aristocratic vampire, and has had a significant impact on the portrayal of vampires in literature and popular culture.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

A groundbreaking work in the genre of Gothic fiction, The Castle of Otranto (1764) is a tale of supernatural events, romance, and suspense. This novel laid the groundwork for many elements of modern fantasy and horror stories.

The World’s Desire by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang

This 1890 novel tells the story of Odysseus, a hero of Greek mythology, in a fantastical setting filled with magic, adventure, and romance. The World’s Desire combines elements of classical mythology and historical fiction to create an engaging and unique fantasy tale.

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

First published in 1912, The Night Land is a futuristic, dark fantasy novel set in a world where the sun has died, and humanity is on the brink of extinction. The story follows the protagonist’s journey through this nightmarish landscape, encountering terrifying creatures and supernatural occurrences.

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell

Jurgen (1919) is a satirical fantasy novel that explores themes of philosophy, religion, and morality. The story follows the titular character, Jurgen, as he embarks on a fantastical journey through various mythological realms.

The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

This 1894 novel is one of the first modern fantasy works and has influenced many authors in the genre. The Wood Beyond the World tells the story of a medieval merchant who embarks on a quest to find a mysterious and magical land.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Published in 1920, A Voyage to Arcturus is a philosophical science fiction novel that combines elements of fantasy and allegory. The story follows the journey of a man named Maskull, who travels to a distant planet to explore its unique cultures and landscapes.

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

This 1922 high fantasy novel follows the adventures of a group of heroes in a world filled with magic and intrigue. The Worm Ouroboros is known for its rich prose, complex characters, and detailed world-building.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

Published in 1924, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a classic fairy tale that explores themes of love, magic, and the nature of reality. This enchanting story has inspired generations of fantasy authors and readers.

The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft

This 1927 novella is a dark fantasy tale set in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The story follows the protagonist, Randolph Carter, as he journeys through the Dreamlands, encountering strange creatures and ancient gods in his quest to find the mysterious city of Kadath.

The Virgin and the Swine by Evangeline Walton

Originally published in 1936, The Virgin and the Swine is a retelling of the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of ancient Celtic myths. Walton’s novel weaves together elements of history, folklore, and fantasy to create a captivating story that has inspired countless modern fantasy works.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

This 1872 children’s fantasy novel tells the story of Princess Irene and the young miner Curdie, who work together to save the kingdom from the menacing goblins that dwell beneath the earth. The Princess and the Goblin is a timeless tale of courage, friendship, and the power of faith.

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

An epic poem written in the 16th century, The Faerie Queene is an allegorical work that combines elements of romance, mythology, and fantasy. The poem follows the adventures of several knights as they embark on quests in the service of the Faerie Queene, representing various virtues and ideals.

These 15 early fantasy reads offer a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the genre and the imaginative worlds that have captivated readers for centuries.

By exploring these timeless tales, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the rich history and enduring appeal of fantasy literature.

What are your favourites?

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