Fairy Tale Architecture: The Light Princess

The brother-sister duo of writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer curate a series in which diverse architects explore the intimate relationship between the domestic structure of fairy tales and the imaginative realm of architecture.

All drawings and animations by Bernheimer Architecture with Christiana MacGregor and Amanda Park.
All drawings and animations by Bernheimer Architecture with Christiana MacGregor and Amanda Park.

Fairy tales have transfixed readers for thousands of years, and for many reasons; one of the most compelling is the promise of a magical home. How many architects, young and old, have been inspired by a hero who must imagine new realms and new spaces — new ways of being in this strange world? Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming.

— Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer

The Light Princess

The main character of George MacDonald’s 1864 literary novel Adela Cathcart is an adolescent girl receiving homeopathic treatment for an illness of the spirit. As part of her cure, some friends and family are formed into a Society of Storytellers; it is their sympathetic narration that comprises the bulk of the novel. Three of their stories are fairy tales, including “The Light Princess,” which features a young woman in late adolescence whose mental predicament, on the surface of things, appears to be the opposite of Adela’s existential depression: she has been cursed by a vindictive elder with a lack of seriousness. And not just metaphorically: “Deprived … of all her gravity,” in the storyteller’s words, the princess is unmoored — literally. Sometimes, she is tethered to castle grounds with a rope, simply to keep her from drifting up into the air.

The princess’s father, the king, summons two philosophers who try to cure her: Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck. Neither can help, and still worse, their attempts to resolve her condition are life-threatening. Then, for some reason, the king thinks it would be humorous to toss his daughter into the lake — and what do you know! The water gives her some weight, and she can float, though there’s no change to her delighted condition; and from then on, the princess spends her days in the lake. “The passion of her life was to get into the water,” the narrator tells us. “Summer and winter it was all the same, only she could not stay quite so long in the water when they had to break the ice to let her in.”

The princess is in the lake for a long time when, at last, a prince arrives. The prince falls in love with the princess, but his passion angers the witch who had cursed her at birth, and in retaliation she drains the lake. At which point nature fares poorly; at the bottom of the drained lake, there appears a sign inscribed with gold letters: LOVE CAN FILL THE DEEPEST GRAVE. The princess loses her weightiness, and once again she’s at risk of zooming out past the reach of oxygen, into the stars.

The next part is even stranger. The prince installs himself at the bottom of the lake, stoppering, with his body, the hole in the earth into which the water was draining. Slowly, the water rises, and the lake fills and fills, and eventually only the prince’s head is above water. The prince sings love songs to the princess, and as he sings, she tends to him. The aesthetics and ethics of this experience are transformative. The spell is broken. The princess weeps. Her tears drown the witch. The young woman, now “grave,” is soon married to the prince. Because, in essence, they have saved one another, there’s a wonderful egalitarianism to the denouement. Like many fairy tales, “The Light Princess” is less a love-and-marriage story than a deceptively simple psychological thriller with excellent special effects and a non-conformist heroine.

That’s the tale-within-a-tale that was told to Adela Cathcart a century and a half ago. Since then, “The Light Princess” has been published often as a stand-alone story, in one version illustrated by Maurice Sendak, in another praised by W. H. Auden, in yet another adapted into a musical by Tori Amos about “unfocused desires, the search for numbness and nullity that leads to binge drinking, passing out, self-harm, even death.” 1 These themes are not a far cry from MacDonald’s original tale about the series of narrative treatments that seek to revive a girl on the brink of hopelessness. MacDonald was very interested in the talking cure — psychoanalysis, in fact, owes much to fairy tales — and he brings great sensitivity to his adolescent characters, especially young women, who are enduring a soul-crisis.

The designers of Bernheimer Architecture — assisted in this project by Christiana MacGregor and Amanda Park — found the story fascinating, and their own description of the princess seems to me in tune with MacDonald’s. “She is a liberated, free-thinking woman who shirks convention,” they said, “but while this independence and uniqueness is presented as a curse, we viewed it as something modern— even anachronistic.” And more, they experienced “her literal lightness as a gift, to her and us. As architects, we traffic in gravity — sometimes too ponderously! Our structures are weighted. They are fixed; built in response to the constraints of mass, force, and direction. So we saw the lightness of the princess as integral to her identity. Even as a kind of privilege.”

This architectural interpretation illuminated something I’ve thought about often but never quite been able to articulate about “The Light Princess,” and about what I perceive to be George MacDonald’s feminist sympathies, and the critique of patriarchy that is lurking in his stories. For Bernheimer Architecture’s designers, it was the earthbound ending of the story — what they perceived as the reversion of the princess to the social strictures of her time — that brought disappointment. Her modernity, her individuality, her willingness to pursue her own place, her own destiny — all this seemed to vanish, to dissipate, with the regaining of bodily weight; that love would give her gravitas felt all too predictable.

Can we describe this tale of the mid-19th century as proto-feminist? Maybe even as Victorian cli-fi?

For me, the most interesting aspect of “The Light Princess” is not the love story; what seems far more compelling is the tale that MacDonald is telling about sadness, which is inevitably part of happiness. (This is something many old fairy tales well understand.) The princess experienced happiness when she was weightless, free from conventional responsibilities; but at the same time, she was in mortal danger. It strikes me too that as a survivor of what we would now diagnose as child abuse, her “curse” was not realizing that she was imperiled.

At the point in the story when the prince arrives, the princess has a mind and a soul, and she is able to experience the consequences of human-caused suffering, such as a drought. Is it an exaggeration to describe this tale of the mid-19th century as proto-feminist? Maybe even as Victorian cli-fi? The Light Princess ends the story as not just a wife but also a hero; she has navigated risks to her soul and emerged as triumphantly capable, saving the life of the prince, and her own as well. Bernheimer Architecture’s images fully capture this spirit, I think.

Of course, this is just my interpretation. You will find yours. In “The Fantastic Imagination,” an introduction to his book The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales, MacDonald wrote: “Any key to a work of imagination would be […] absurd. The tale is there not to hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain, is to say, ‘Roses! Boil them, or we won’t have them!’”

— Kate Bernheimer

Three Questions for Bernheimer Architecture from Kate Bernheimer

I find the images of the princess afloat to be haunting and emotional. What were the technical considerations around “point of view,” in terms of the choreography of the character?

We had to consider the question of identity as well as perspective. In the case of the princess, we considered her body position relative to the ground; relative to the story itself, we focused on our own position as delineators. When the princess is viewing her own position within the space of the story, the pieces within her field of view are distorted. At the same time, the illustrations are also from the perspective of the reader seeing the princess floating or tethered.

Notation and measurement (specifically, in the form of a gridded “field” that defines the space of the princess’s lightness) move these drawings from mere illustration into more defined spatial constructs. We counter these “scenes” with a culminating, immersive view that collects the actions of the story — the position of the Princess drawn purely through her own eyes and as a circular, although measured, field.

Were there any specific illustrative challenges that arose from the basic facts of the story — namely, the main character’s lack of gravity in a setting?

Curiously, Albertian one-point perspective (commonly taught as a foundational drawing method in architecture) was of no use to us here: the princess has a mobile station point, and a perpetually changing vanishing point. This culminates in animation, in constant movement. Definitely something we are not taught how to draw — though it’s experienced by anyone who occupies architectural space.

How is this common to anyone in architectural space?

Architecture is nothing without people moving through and around it, defining and re-defining their own place and position.

About the Series

Places’ ongoing series on fairy tale architecture is curated by writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer.

  1. Marina Warner, “Techno-Magic: Cinema and Fairy Tale,” in Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek, editors, Folk and Fairy Tales (Broadview Press, 2011).
Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: The Light Princess,” Places Journal, August 2022. Accessed 08 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/220830

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