Stephen King, eat your heart out
Stephen King’s long-running The Dark Tower series is equal parts Arthurian legend, part spaghetti Western, part science-fantasy, and part metafictional madness. What began as a 19-year-old boy’s attempt at creating his own Lord of the Rings turned into the hub of a shared universe for his many stories.
It may come as a surprise, then, to know that its equal on the screen isn’t necessarily the recent film adaptation, but rather a ballet-themed magical girl anime directed by the character designer for Magic Users’ Club. And with a name like Princess Tutu, you may not be expecting much in the way of action or drama. But our heroine’s toe shoes have barely hit the ground before the story is cracked wide open, with author intervention and rebellious characters for days.
That’s all well and good, but how serious am I when I say that Princess Tutu is our Dark Tower for the small screen? Damn serious is the answer—I don’t joke about magical girls or Stephen King.
A Crossroads for Storybook Characters
The Dark Tower series gathers much of its fan following from its status as a nexus for King’s other works. Read through the entirety of the series and you’ll encounter Father Callahan of Salem’s Lot, Ted Brautigan of Hearts in Atlantis, and Randall Flagg of pretty much everything else.
While Princess Tutu doesn’t tie into other creations by its staff, much of its cast consists of fictional characters from within the world of the series. Duck, a.k.a. Princess Tutu, is one herself, as is passive prettyboy Mytho.
With episodes inspired by classical music and ballet, we also run into characters from or inspired by stories from our own world. Ghostly lover Giselle makes an appearance, as does Beethoven’s heroic knight Egmont.
It’s also not hard to believe that Princess Tutu and her foil, Princess Kraehe, are new iterations of Odette and Odile from Swan Lake. Their respective costumes are largely based on the traditional outfits for the dual ballet role.
Writers suffer for their art, some more than others. In his book Song of Susannah, Stephen King becomes more connected than ever to the heroes of the Dark Tower series, even meeting some of them face-to-face at one point.
In the world of Princess Tutu, though, the author is far more direct. Fantasy author and all-around weird old dude Drosselmeyer is a constant presence in the life of Duck. He has no problem explaining his special brand of madness to her, either—he tortures his characters, like her and Mytho, because it’s fun and will make for a dramatic story. You know, typical writer stuff—kill your darlings and all that.
Drosselmeyer is more than just a crazy old author with a dangerous love of Break the Cutie plots and Duck Amuck, though. He’s got a history of his own, and it seems the events of Princess Tutu aren’t the first time his larger-than-life stories have made trouble.
Saving the World Is Just a Side Quest
Gunslinger Roland Deschain holds the fate of the multiverse in the palm of his one remaining good hand in King’s series, but all he wants to do is go see a tower. If he happens to help people and save all of existence along the way, that’s nice, I guess.
While Duck is not nearly so blasé about the fate of the world, she is similarly single-minded when it comes to her role as Princess Tutu. Granted, her role in the story as presented to her by Drosselmeyer is pretty straightforward—collect the shattered pieces of Mytho’s heart and return his memories to him, and also try not to blurt out that she’s in love with him or she’ll disappear in a flash of light.
There’s a lot on the table, though. Mytho isn’t just a fellow student at ballet, school: he’s a literal fairy tale prince, tasked with saving the world from a giant demon raven. It may seem straightfoward—Duck restores his heart, he regains his memories and fights the Raven—but it’s a little more complex than that.
For the majority of the series, everything Duck does is for love of Mytho. Every good story has character development, though—so, unlike Roland, she does eventually grasp just how essential her role is to the world around her, and not just to her personal bubble.
Author Kurt Vonnegut once expounded upon his relative powerlessness over his characters when writing books like Slaughterhouse-Five: “It wasn’t as though I was connected to them by steel wires. It was more as though I was connected to them by stale rubber bands.”
Though not stated in so many words, Stephen King makes similar feelings known about his Dark Tower cast. In one scene, King is hypnotized so that he will retain a connection to them at all times, and write about them even when he’s working on other stories. The metaphor is not subtle: the characters are in control.
It’s not uncommon for a character’s creations to seem to exert themselves as real people, going against a writer’s plans even as their story is being written. In the case of Princess Tutu, though, the situation is taken a step further—what happens when a character has had enough? You may think torturing them in the name of an exciting scene is a good idea, but what if they fight back?
At one point a character even fights fire with fire, picking up a pen and taking over their story in a very literal sense. By then, it’s long past being a case of how the characters feel about their own fates—they’re in full takeover mode.
Thanks to HIDIVE, the metafictional goodness that is Princess Tutu is now available to watch in its entirety. And while Duck may not remember the face of her father, she’s more than proven herself to be a worthy successor to King’s legendary Gunslinger—at least when it comes to taking control of her own story.