One of the most overused tropes in young adult fantasy is the lost princess/queen trope. And yet, no matter how many times I read it, I never get sick of it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the lasting impression Anastasia, one of my childhood favorites, left on me. Maybe it’s part of that deep down desire that anyone— even someone like me— could turn out to be something special. Ultimately, I suppose it doesn’t matter. I just love this trope.
Granted, I’ve gotten better at spotting it. Or, at least, I think I would be. I didn’t see it coming in The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. I was blindsided in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. I was thrown for a loop in Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch (which I actually didn’t finish but looked up spoilers for, so I still count it). But I think I’d see it coming now. Maybe. Perhaps I’ll just be perpetually shocked by this borderline clichéd plot twist.
As I proposed, however, I think the reason I love this trope so much is because it gives a supposedly ordinary girl a chance to rise up and be somebody. No, discovering you’re royalty is not the only way this can be achieved. It’s just the one that appeals the most to a girl raised on Disney princess films.
That said, the lost princess/queen trope adds a new layer of responsibility and power to said protagonist plucked from obscurity. It’s the classic Cinderella tale— an ordinary, but big-hearted girl becomes a princess. However, instead of this being because she marries a prince, it’s because it’s part of who she is and now she must rise to the occasion. It requires her to make a choice— either step up and take her place or leave it all behind. It gives her more agency and impact on her own story. The protagonist discovering she’s a princess or queen and accepting that mantel allows her to accomplish her goals on a much larger scale.
Furthermore, there are several ways this story can come to fruition— or at least begin. The protagonist’s true royal identity could be a huge revelation for her. This is what happens to Cinder in The Lunar Chronicles. She is floored to discover that, not only is she Lunar, but she is the lost princess Selene Blackburn. This gives her a chance to either save her people (despite her lack of attachment) or (perhaps understandably) decide Queen Levana and her ilk are someone else’s problem. Her decision says more about the kind of person she is because she owes no loyalty to the people of Luna or the Earthens who have discriminated against her because she is a cyborg.
On the other side of that coin, there’s the protagonist who knows her true identity but is running from it. For this story, look no farther than Celaena Sardothien in Throne of Glass. Celaena has always known she is really Aelin Galathynius, but she has run in fear from that identity due to the horrors of her past and her doubt for the future. Thus, her decision to reclaim her true identity has far different implications. It’s not just about saving her people— it’s about accepting herself. Whether or not this was done effectively (and I personally believe it was not) is another matter entirely. That is still the story set up by Celaena always knowing she’s the lost queen.
In a somewhat similar vein, sometimes the lost queen is lost only to her people. This is the case in The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Kelsea Raleigh Glynn is hidden away for her own safety, so she can return when she is grown and able to properly govern. As far as the people of the Tearling know for those nineteen years, however, she is not coming back. Meanwhile, Kelsea is raised by foster parents and educated on Tearling policy and effective ruling. Upon her return, she must prove she is the real Kelsea Raleigh Glynn before she can resume the throne.
This setup creates yet more variation on the kinds of stories that can be told using this trope. Kelsea is allowed a true childhood, but is also prepared for the day she’ll reclaim her true identity. It focuses her story on the kind of ruler she’ll be. She’s full aware of who she is and is trained with the expectation that she will eventually return to her people. Thus, she is neither blindsided nor unprepared. As I said, she is a lost queen only in the sense that she was lost to her people. And yet, she still has to rise to the occasion.
While many people list this trope as one they don’t want to see again for a long time, I will never be sick of it. I’ll take it in any incarnation it wants to come and I’ll enjoy it every step of the way. Well, as long as the rest of the story is good. Because if not… then never mind.