8 Metaphors of Hope: Princes and Alyssa Cole's A Princess in Theory

This chapter contains “spoilers” for Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory so if you’d like to read the novel before continuing, here are details about where to buy it. For those who don’t mind spoilers, or who’ve read the book and would appreciate a quick refresher, I’ve included a plot summary here.


In this chapter and the next I will look at some of the most common narratives of hope in romance. Both involve some kind of salvation, but whereas the narratives discussed in the next chapter refer to devils and the damned, the focus of this chapter, the Cinderella narrative, involves salvation by means of a prince, and thus expresses hopes which, at least initially, appear less theological in nature. According to Jan Cohn, the majority of romance is, basically, a Cinderella story,

the story of how a modern young woman succeeds in marrying a handsome, desirable, and wealthy man. Put more simply, it tells the story of how the heroine simply succeeds, for in conventional, which is to say politically conservative, terms, her only possible success in our society comes in marrying happily and marrying well. Put more polemically, popular romance tells the story of how the heroine gains access to money—to power—in patriarchal society. (3)

This “handsome, desirable, and wealthy man” has often been referred to, metaphorically, as a “prince,” who

can be flawed, but he can't be fatally flawed, and in some way he must offer the heroine something of great value, usually something that will increase her power. So while romance heroes don’t have to be handsome, they do usually have to be strong or admired in their communities (status) or wealthy or successful or all of the above so that by offering the heroine marriage, public confirmation of unconditional love within the sanctions of society, they increase her security. (Crusie Smith 1999, 55)

The many lesbian romances which have incorporated “iconic images and characterizations” (Betz 107) from Xena, Warrior Princess demonstrate that a romance “prince” does not have to be male, and other romances could be listed which demonstrate that the person to whom the “prince” offers wealth and security does not have to be female. What is consistent is that the nature of the hopes embedded in the “prince” remain associated with security and social status. Marc Zvi Brettler, however, cautions that “Religious notions must be understood within specific systems, and rites or institutions ‘shared’ by different religions might actually have very different meanings or functions” (16), and it is therefore worth noting that different authors, and different princes, will no doubt represent different understandings of “wealth,” “security,” and “social status.”

In what follows, I limit my analysis to the prince in Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory (2018). Thabiso Moshoeshoe, its princely protagonist, is not simply a metaphorical prince: he is an actual prince, albeit of the admittedly fictional state of Thesolo. However, regardless of the skill and detail with which he is written, and even regardless of the realism with which certain aspects of his character are rendered, an element of his princely status remains metaphorical, because of what his title represents. It leads his people to expect him to be “both provider and protector” and “more like a mythical prince than a flesh and blood one” (28). In this he resembles the kings of ancient Israel, whose “populace [...] wanted a king who possessed certain qualities such as longevity, wisdom, wealth and strength, since such a king would foster social stability. No historical king possessed all of these qualities” and yet “the qualities of long life, wisdom, wealth, strength, majesty and beauty are typically applied to human kings” (Brettler 51). In other words, their king was both a real, fallible, potentially weak and frail person and also the national figurehead who is ascribed “longevity, wisdom, wealth and strength” along with his crown. The same gap between the real and the metaphorical prince is evident in Thabiso.

What underlies the romance narratives of marriage to a prince is, “coded and cautious, [...] an outlaw world where the forbidden is allowed, a magical world where the impossible occurs” (Cohn 7). Therefore, when a prince is functioning as a metaphor, “popular perceptions [...] are more important than the historical realities. This may be illustrated by analogy—to understand the metaphor ‘man is a wolf’ we must study popular perceptions of wolves rather than their ‘real’, biological behavior” (Brettler 25). The hopes embodied by the romance prince owe far more to fairy tales than they do to any real, historical prince and that is certainly true of A Princess in Theory, which includes one metafictional moment in which Thabiso recognises that the story of his lost betrothed “had become his own personal fairy tale, or like the Mills & Boons romances he’d sneaked from the queen’s library as a teen” (Cole 31), and another in which Naledi, the heroine, thinks that the way Thabiso looks at her

was the look on Charming’s face when Sleeping Beauty’s eyes fluttered open. The expression of awe that Eric sported when he woke to find Ariel cradling him on the beach. It was the look that she thought only existed in Disney cartoons because it seemed so highly improbable that anyone would ever look at her that way. (88)

The fact that romance has recourse to “the impossible” is not, however, an indication that its authors are unaware of reality. Alyssa Cole, the author whose novel is the focus of this chapter, has demonstrated her knowledge of harsh realities repeatedly in romances which, in her own words, include “some form of activism or involvement with the government or with programs to better the community” (Green). Moreover, the incredulity with which Naledi responds to the initial overtures from Prince Thabiso are an acknowledgement that the events depicted are not going to be entirely realistic: in the real world Naledi would be correct in assuming that personalised emails purporting to be from an African prince, asking the recipient to “please send the following verifications of identity: a scan of your license, passport, or other form of ID; up to date medical records” (Cole 1), are indeed the work of “a scammer” (3). Nonetheless, as we saw in the previous chapter with regards to the association between the imagination and the ecstatic mode, authors may feel there are certain ideas and emotions which are better expressed through extravagantly unrealistic plots or character types.

Cole is, moreover, well aware that fictional princesses are considered by many to be “a tool of the patriarchy [...] an outmoded concept designed to keep girls from reaching their true potential” (Cole 2018a) by encouraging them down the “politically conservative” trajectory outlined by Cohn. It is clearly true that if the “prince” is read very literally, he could be understood as a suggestion to young women readers that the solution to all their problems is marriage to a wealthy man. However, Cole herself interprets him rather differently:

it annoyed and perplexed me when I saw the sudden rejection of the pop culture princess phenomenon. It seemed to me that (mostly) white women, who’d grown tired of the fantasy that was at its base — the idea they could be given their wildest dreams and a crown to boot — had made a unilateral decision that this wasn’t what women needed, without considering the malnourished fantasies of millions of black and brown girls. (2018a)

The particular meanings of Thabiso’s metaphorical princely nature are most clearly indicated by an honorific which Cole created specifically for him: His Royal Highness Prince Thabiso Moshoeshoe of Thesolo is the “Bringer of Light and Love” (2018, 206). This is a title applied to him regardless of whether or not, in any particular instance, he is actually bringing light and love to a situation, because it indicates the benefits which he, as a princely metaphor, is expected to bring to others.