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“How Were You Cured If None of the Others Were?”: Transcending Bodies in The Two Princesses of Bamarre and the COVID-19 Pandemic (2022 Walden Prize Winner)

Allyson Wierenga • Texas A&M University

Larry King: Do you think about walking?

Christopher Reeve: Oh, absolutely. You know, as a matter of fact, in my dreams – I have never been disabled in my dreams, so my subconscious insists that I am whole, and I follow my subconscious.

—Larry King Live, May 6, 1998 1

In addition to his starring role in 1978’s Superman, Christopher Reeve was perhaps equally well known for his disability activism after he became paralyzed in 1995 from an equestrian accident. In the epigraph above, which is a segment from a 1998 interview between Larry King and Reeve on Larry King Live, Reeve notes how, in his dreams, he distances himself from his disabled body by seeing himself as “whole,” his way of saying “non-disabled.” By noting “I follow my subconscious,” Reeve reveals that he also chooses to distance himself from his body while awake. Reeve’s desire to mentally distance himself from his disabled body is unsurprising given his passion for curing spinal cord injuries. After his accident, Reeve tirelessly advocated for stem cell research that he believed could potentially cure him and others of paralysis. This cure would allow Reeve to finally “transcend” his disabled body by making him able to walk again. The belief that the “impaired” body needs to be transcended, whether through the “mind and spirit” or a cure, is a common trope when discussing disability and illness. Indeed, writing about Reeve and stem cell research debates, Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell note that “the dominant representation of disability here was the cultural myth of disability as tragedy, requiring cure at all cost.” 2

As numerous scholars have pointed out, this “cultural myth” manifests not only in real life, but in countless fictional narratives about disability and illness. For example, in Disability Rhetoric, Jay Dolmage writes about the “kill-or-cure” myth/trope, which goes hand-in-hand with the myth of “disability as tragedy, requiring cure” since it represents disabled and ill characters as needing to transcend their bodies either through death or cure “by the end of any movie or novel in which they appear.” 3 The cure-as-necessity trope also appears in numerous works of children’s literature; for example, as Lois Keith notes, through the character Colin Craven in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. 4 Still, while there are multiple analyses about disabled characters needing and receiving cures to transcend their physical bodies in children’s literature, comparatively few examine how this trope manifests in books about characters experiencing terminal illness. One example of a children’s book that employs this trope in relation to terminal illness is Gail Carson Levine’s children’s fantasy novel The Two Princesses of Bamarre. In this middle-grade book, one of the “two princesses,” Princess Meryl, contracts a terminal illness called the Gray Death. Her sister, Princess Addie, sets out to find the cure, which has been prophesied about but never discovered. Although Addie finds the cure, it is too late to heal Meryl, since she, like several infected others, is moments from death. However, instead of dying as the others do, Meryl is given the option to become a fairy, to which she agrees. In being transformed into a fairy, and thus, in a way, “cured” of the Gray Death, Meryl can also be said to transcend her human body and assume a more spirit-like existence. Especially of note, though, is the fact that Meryl’s status as a princess seems to be what procures her “cure.” In addition to the cure, Meryl and Addie’s class status also allows them to distance themselves from the Gray Death––or, more broadly, the human, infected body––throughout the text. This distancing establishes a world in which high socioeconomic status is necessary to avoid death.

Using The Two Princesses of Bamarre’s portrayal of the Gray Death as a case study, this paper explores how the trope of transcending the terminally ill body, especially through magical/miracle cure, manifests in twenty-first century children’s literature. I argue Meryl’s fairy “cure” and the princesses’ consistent and intentional distancing from the infected human body reveal a desire to transcend both the human body and, by extension, the human world. Since the princesses harbor this desire, and since readers are supposed to identify with and root for these characters, I propose the book imagines even the uninfected human body and world as entities of low socioeconomic status. Angharad Beckett and their coauthors identify two major reasons literary miracle “cures” like Meryl’s are potentially problematic and meaningful to study:

Miracle cures may encourage non-disabled children not to take disability sufficiently seriously or not to engage with the long-term nature/consequences of disability. Further, by focusing upon the ‘impaired body’ and how this is magically ‘fixed,’ miracle cures distract from the attitudinal and structural barriers that disable people—locating the problem, again, entirely within the body of the individual. 5

In sum, “miracle cures” might distort how real children understand disability. These cures also place “blame” for disability on disabled persons rather than drawing attention to how society excludes and discriminates them.

These same stakes are also present when incurable illnesses like the Gray Death are depicted as having miracle cures. I would also add that when miracle cures become tangled with socioeconomic status, as Meryl’s does, the “problem” becomes located not only within the body of the individual, but in that individual’s socioeconomic status. To demonstrate how locating the “problem” of serious illness within socioeconomic status has real-life consequences, I connect ideas from The Two Princesses of Bamarre to issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, namely the “white flight” out of New York City during the height of the pandemic and COVID-19 “miracle cures.” Since there are no children of reading age who have not been affected by COVID-19, this scholarly approach encourages us to consider how children’s perceptions of illness and cure may have been shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and how such perceptions may affect how they read texts about serious illness like The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

“Illness,” Jay Dolmage writes, “is most often narrated clearly in the direction of either kill-or-cure.” 6 As I argue above, to die or be cured of an illness also suggests an eventual “escape” from or transcendence of the “impaired” body. If one dies, one leaves the body behind in the mortal world. If one is cured, one lives in the mortal world in a non-impaired body. As a text that makes the Gray Death its primary antagonist, The Two Princesses of Bamarre engages this trope from the beginning. On the first page of the novel, Addie, the book’s narrator, says, “Bamarre needed a hero more than ever. The monsters were slaughtering hundreds of Bamarrians every year, and the Gray Death carried away even more.” 7 By being introduced to the illness so soon and being told how calamitous it is for the books’ characters, readers suspect that the Gray Death will affect the main characters in some dramatic fashion, whether through death or cure. Cure seems more likely when, a few pages later, Addie tells readers, “We knew that a cure would be found one day. A specter had prophesied it, and the prophecies of specters always came true. The cure would be found when cowards found courage and rain fell over all Bamarre.” 8 That the cure exists but has yet to be found sets the stage for the novel’s plot. Though the kingdom of Bamarre has continually had its people “carried away” by the Gray Death, things will not always be this way: health will be restored.

In the same chapter in which the Gray Death is introduced, readers learn about Addie’s and Meryl’s complicated history with the illness. One of the many Bamarrians to die of the Gray Death was their own mother, Queen Daria. However, rather than dwelling on the tragedy of losing their mother in this way, Addie recalls how she and Meryl created a Gray Death “game” that they enjoyed playing as young children. In their game, Addie would act out the illness’s three stages: weakness, slumber, and fever. At the same time, Meryl would pretend to battle other things, like monsters. The game would always end the same way, with Meryl finding the cure and Addie being healed. 9 Transcendence from the infected body is thus certainly a theme in the Gray Death “game.” That the ending is always happy and involving a cure suggests that, to these girls, to transcend the Gray Death through cure is the only imaginable outcome for them if they were to contract the illness. That Addie and Meryl are princesses is also significant here. By always acting out the Gray Death in relation to its cure, they suggest that dying from the illness is something that others do—presumably those of lower socioeconomic classes—but something princesses can remain distanced from. In fact, while playing, Addie tells Meryl, “If I ever really caught the Gray Death […] even if you hadn’t found the cure yet, I wouldn’t die.” 10 When Meryl asks her why, Addie declares, “Because I wouldn’t give in to it. When the disease made me feel tired, I wouldn’t act tired. When it made me want to sleep, I’d stay awake. If the fever still came, I’d run up and down to keep myself warm. By refusing to do the Gray Death’s bidding, I’d chase the illness away.” 11 By claiming that she wouldn’t “give in” to the Gray Death by “refusing to do [its] bidding,” Addie suggests she can control the illness by sheer will. Her belief mimics the nineteenth-century idea, outlined by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor, that “disease […] is a product of will.” 12 Quoting Arthur Schopenhauer, Sontag writes, “Recovery from a disease depends on the healthy will assuming ‘dictatorial power in order to subsume the rebellious forces’ of the sick will.” 13 If recovery from illness relies on one’s “healthy will” subverting one’s “sick will,” then disease becomes a matter of mental affliction rather than physical degeneration.

Though mentally distanced from the severity of the Gray Death, the sisters’ physical distance to it shrinks when their servant Trina contracts the illness. As Trina moves through the illness’ stages, Addie attempts to cure her by invoking the memory of her dead mother, Queen Daria, to inspire Trina to “fight” the illness inwardly. Addie tells Trina, that, in a dream, her mother “said […] she could have cured herself if she’d struggled.” 14 Trina doesn’t seem to take Addie’s hint, so Addie adds, “Don’t let the disease stop you.” 15 Addie’s theory of “struggling” seems to echo the modern war/survivor metaphor often used when people are experiencing illnesses such as cancer. Similarly, Trina is encouraged by Addie to fight against the Gray Death, the apparent enemy trying to “stop” her. To Addie, the Gray Death is not a real threat, but rather a hurdle to be overcome. While it is suggested that Trina may try Addie’s plan to will herself to live, she is unsuccessful and dies three days later. That Addie tries to influence Trina’s actions by saying that her own mother, the queen, “could have cured herself” immediately prior to Trina’s failed attempt at surviving further distances the royal family from illness. Additionally, since Trina is a working-class woman, her death appears, at least thematically, to link low socioeconomic status with both the Gray Death and death itself.

Still, Addie and Meryl are forced to reckon with the Gray Death directly when Meryl contracts the illness. As a princess, Meryl’s contraction of the same illness that killed her servant represents the “idea of a plague as a great equalizer, affecting rich and poor, worldly and devout,” a concept described by Priscilla Wald as “a regular theme in the literature” of epidemics/plagues. 16 Addie tries to give Meryl the same advice that she gave Trina: to struggle against the Gray Death. However, when Meryl continues to weaken, Addie wonders “if fighting the Gray Death was weakening her, or if she’d be even weaker if she weren’t fighting. Or if the Gray Death was in charge, and nothing else mattered.” 17 In this moment, readers see Addie finally recognize that the Gray Death may not be something one can successfully “fight” with one’s will or relegate to (less privileged) others. As a result of this reckoning, and desperate to at least try to save her sister, Addie decides to find the cure alone, just as Meryl would do during their Gray Death “game.”

Since much of the book focuses on Addie’s quest for the cure, there can be little surprise for readers when she finds it. A dragon named Vollys tells Addie the cure comes from a magical waterfall in a place called the Aisnan Valley. Though Addie and Meryl reach this location, they are attacked by mythical creatures. When Addie is attacked by an ogre, instead of running to get the cure, Meryl turns back to save her. Addie faints during this encounter and wakes up in what she learns is a fairy castle. There, she’s informed that, due to her bravery and a magical rain, Bamarre was cured from the Gray Death. Nevertheless, Meryl notes that “The rain cured everyone who had the Gray Death—except one or two who were moments from death, as I was.” 18 These others, Meryl tells Addie, died. However, since Meryl is standing before her, noticeably healthy, it seems that she did not die, but was cured. Thus, Addie asks her sister, “How were you cured if none of the others were?” 19 Later, in response, Meryl tells Addie, “The fairies couldn’t cure me, Addie. I was too near death. So they offered me a way to live, a different way. It was a great honor. They offered to transform me into a fairy, and I said yes.” 20 While Meryl’s story about being “honored” by the fairies explains why she is standing in front of Addie in full, immortal health, it doesn’t explain why she, and none of the other dying, was transformed. Furthermore, Meryl is not the first human to become a fairy. Indeed, she tells Addie, “Several other fairies used to be human.” 21 However, the only other human-turned-fairy introduced in the book is Drualt, the legendary hero of Bamarre. Though Drualt is not a king, his role as the mythological savior of the land elevates him to at least metaphorical kingship in Bamarre. Given Drualt and Meryl’s privileged status, it seems that, to escape death through transformation into a fairy, one must be in an elevated social status compared to others. Since those who transcend the infected human body and escape death are, seemingly, people of high socioeconomic status, then, having the Gray Death and dying from it in the human world are, by extension, connected to low socioeconomic status.

Though The Two Princesses of Bamarre is fictional, the desire to escape infected bodies illustrated in the text is a real impulse represented in society. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this desire was especially prominent and linked largely to socioeconomic privilege. One notable example is the “white flight” of wealthy people from New York City to second homes outside of the city during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an article for The Atlantic, Talmon Joseph Smith connects this issue to racial inequality. A quote within the article from sociologist Eric Klinenberg reads, “Wealthy white people may be leaving cities for the suburbs, just as they did decades ago […] And the horrible thing for Black and brown urban communities is that they suffer either way.” 22 Furthermore, in their research on racial disparities and COVID-19 in New York City, Shigehiro Oishi and their co-authors concluded that “There were more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in less walkable, poorer, more Black, and more Hispanic neighborhoods” and, “As in previous pandemics, poor and minority–majority neighborhoods were more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19 in New York City.” 23 Thus, not only were many white, wealthy New Yorkers choosing to protect themselves from COVID-19 and place others at risk of illness by fleeing to places outside of New York City, but people in poorer, more diverse neighborhoods were at increased risk of contracting the virus.

As COVID-19’s reach grew in 2020, people also attempted to distance their bodies from the illness by finding “miracle cures” for it. Numerous reports of so-called “cures” to COVID-19 popped up in places like social media before being condemned for the falsity of their claims. Such cases represent worrying connections between illness, cure, and wealth. On one hand, people with enough money were willing to use their wealth to help them procure a cure to COVID-19. On the other hand, others were willing to prosper off people’s desire to stay COVID-free by offering a cure only to those who could afford it. Months after these initial “miracle cures” surfaced, several COVID-19 vaccines were developed by major pharmaceutical companies. These vaccines were offered for free, and, though they do not cure COVID-19, they offer a viable way to protect oneself from the virus. Still, issues of access remain, such as the need to have transportation and time to receive one of these vaccines.

Viewed together, these situations reveal that the ability to transcend illness, whether by physically distancing from others or receiving medication, is often bound up directly with one’s socioeconomic status, career, or access to wealth and power. To have one’s body infected by the illness, then, is seen societally as something that can be avoided or treated only if one has the proper resources. Children growing up during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic may very well absorb such notions, thus even subconsciously associating ill bodies with low socioeconomic status. The texts they read that deal with topics related to illness, such as The Two Princesses of Bamarre, may also naturally invite connections to COVID-19. Indeed, white, upper-class Addie, like many people fleeing the heavily populated, COVID-19 ridden NYC, leaves the castle and travels into less-populated areas, which enables her to procure a cure for her sister and perhaps protect herself from getting sick (the means of getting infected with the illness are not clear in the text). Though Addie doesn’t flee with the purpose of protecting herself from illness, as many of the aforementioned New York “elite” did, her ability to travel is, like these New Yorkers, largely connected to her wealth and privilege: Addie doesn’t have a job or a family to support that might prevent her from traveling. Furthermore, Meryl is literally able to “fly” away from death by being magically transformed into a winged fairy, while others who are dying apparently do not have access to this option.

Of course, it cannot be assumed that child readers will automatically make all these connections. However, as Alison Baker points out, children can identify depictions of inequality in the books they read. In a 5-month study, Baker set out to determine whether a class of 10- and 11-year-old children could recognize power imbalances in children’s fantasy texts. She found that this age group, which is situated within the intended readership of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, “[does] perceive power imbalances, including those of social class, in children’s literature.” 24 Thus, though The Two Princesses of Bamarre doesn’t directly interrogate the issue of power imbalances regarding health and privilege, Baker’s study suggests that its child readers can observe them. Adding on the COVID-19 life experience and knowledge related to these topics, it is reasonable to guess that not only can today’s children make connections between books like The Two Princesses of Bamarre and COVID-19, but that such connections are hard to avoid. Thus, the idea that the ill body, which has not yet been transcended through some form of cure, is linked to low socioeconomic status runs the risk of being a pervasive ideology among even society’s youngest. This text’s representation of the Gray Death shows that the ability to receive cure and the assumption that one is owed cure are bound up in the external matters of class and wealth, as well as the ableist logics of cure itself. The linkage of health, cure, and class illustrated here are far from merely fictional, as the escapist behavior and rhetorics of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate. It is likely impossible to think of bodily health without, in some way, touching on questions of wealth and privilege. However, actively seeking out these connections in literature and in life, as well as interrogating their potential rhetorical effects on one’s worldview, is a step towards initiating more equitable experiences in modern healthcare.


Baker, Alison. “Do Children Perceive Social Class in Children’s Fantasy Texts? Initial Findings from Research in a Year 6 Classroom.” Research in Teacher Education 10, no. 1 (May 2020): 23-28.

Beckett, Angharad, Nick Ellison, Sam Barrett, and Sonali Shah. “‘Away with the Fairies?’ Disability within Primary-Age Children’s Literature.” Disability & Society 25, no. 3 (May 2010): 373-386.

Dolmage, Jay. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

Goggin, Gerard and Christopher Newell. “Fame and Disability: Christopher Reeve, Super Crips, and Infamous Celebrity.” M/C Journal 7, no. 5 (Nov. 2004).

Keith, Lois. Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Levine, Gail Carson. The Two Princesses of Bamarre. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Oishi, Shigehiro, Youngjae Cha, and Ulrich Schimmack. “The Social Ecology of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in New York City: The Role of Walkability, Wealth, and Race.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 12, no. 8 (Nov. 2021):1457–1466.

Reeve, Christopher. “Christopher Reeve: ‘I Have Never Been Disabled in My Dreams’.” Larry King Live, CNN. May 6, 1998.

Smith, Talmon Joseph. “We’ve Seen New York’s White Flight Before.” The Atlantic, January 2, 2022.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.


  • Christopher Reeve, interview by Larry King, Larry King Live, CNN, May 6, 1998.
  • Gerrard Goggin and Christopher Newell, “Fame and Disability: Christopher Reeve, Super Crips, and Infamous Celebrity,” M/C Journal 7, no. 5 (2004).
  • Jay Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 39.
  • Lori Keith, Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls (New York: Routledge, 2001), 95-140.
  • Angharad Beckett, et al., “‘Away with the fairies?’ Disability in Primary-Age Children’s Literature,” Disability & Society 25, no. 3 (2010): 380.
  • Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric, 40.
  • Gail Carson Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 1.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 4, italics in original.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 3-4.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 5.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 5.
  • Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 43.
  • Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 43-4.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 10.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 11.
  • Priscilla Wald, Contagious (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 12.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 57.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 211.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 212.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 214.
  • Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, 218.
  • Talmon Joseph Smith, “We’ve Seen New York’s White Flight Before,” The Atlantic, January 2, 2022,
  • Shigehiro Oishi, Youngjae Cha, and Ulrich Schimmack, “The Social Ecology of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in New York City: The Role of Walkability, Wealth, and Race,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 12, no. 8 (2021): 1464.
  • Alison Baker, “Do Children Perceive Social Class in Children’s Fantasy Texts? Initial Findings from Research in a Year 6 Classroom,” Research in Teacher Education 10, no. 1 (2020): 28.