Occasionally, I find myself suffering from what I call “brave princess fatigue,” a condition caused by reading book after book about princesses who are not in need of some sort of rescue—heaven forbid!—but are, rather, hardy warriors themselves. I weary of these stories not because I object to brave princesses (in truth, I quite like them when they’re written well). What I’m grumbling about here is the princess whose moment of growth comes when she realizes that she’d always had the strength she needed—surprise!—within her the whole time.

But The Two Princesses of Bamarre came well before our current Brave Princesses. Written in 2001 by Gail Carson Levine (of Ella Enchanted fame), this book offers a nuanced look at what is—and isn’t—true courage, as shown through the lives of princesses Meryl, who is bold and fearless and anything but a damsel in distress, and Addie, who is timid and shy and relies on her sister for protection. Meryl intends to set out on a quest to discover a cure for the Gray Death that (if you’ll pardon the pun) plagues the kingdom of Bamarre, but when Meryl herself falls sick with the Gray Death, Addie is left to figure out what to do.

Addie’s path forward isn’t a straight one. It rises and falls and is punctuated with obstacles that force her to confront her own fears and insecurities again and again. She doesn’t discover, in a lightbulb moment, that she’s had the strength she needed within herself all along—instead, it grows in her as she suffers and struggles to save her sister. She also receives unexpected help from those around her and, in her moments of utter weakness, from a mysterious, un-seeable stranger. Addie is refined through her quest to save her sister, becoming both courageous as well as vulnerable (because aren’t we all vulnerable when we love others?). And while things end beautifully, they do not end predictably.

Had this story been about Meryl, already strong and courageous, setting out to save a kingdom, I think it could have been yet another Brave Princess story. But because Levine dug deeper, she gave us a richer, more beautiful book about a princess who knows she isn’t brave and who battles her fear the whole way, showing us that sometimes courage isn’t about who rides out boldly but about who rides out in humility, aware of her weakness, on behalf of those she loves.


The Two Princesses of Bamarre
Gail Carson Levine (2001)