Friday, February 6, 2015

Fairy Tale Romance

Probably the biggest problem people find with fairy tales is that promise of a "fairy tale romance"-the love at first sight and implied message that if you find romance, your life will be complete and all your problems over. I myself don't like the idea of love at first sight (one of the reasons I love "Beauty and the Beast" so much). And while fairy tales involve incredibly dark, scary, traumatic experiences for the main characters, it's true that they never include breakups. Conflicts often start at home with parents and siblings and end by entering into a new family situation-as husband and wife.
Eleanor Vere Boyle, "Beauty and the Beast"

But a huge reason for this is simply: fairy tales come out of a time in history where there was no dating. Marriages were largely arranged for much of human history, sometimes as business transactions, often just out of necessity so that the people could help each other out in all the work it took to feed and clothe themselves. People got married much younger, meaning there wasn't this time of limbo in which people could dream and wonder about what their spouse might be like; their options were much more limited in small rural communities. In the 1700s the idea of individuals choosing their own marriage partner began to take hold, but even then dating looked a lot different-gentlemen callers would woo a lady in her own home, under the supervision of a chaperone. Dating as we know it today-two young people going out on their own, potentially to see if they are compatible for marriage but sometimes just for fun and to enjoy each other's company, has really only been around for about 100 years.

So fairy tales don't reflect our current issues involved with dating; breakups and heartbreak, the stresses of figuring out what to look for and expect out of a partner, because they couldn't. However, although many fairy tales end with a marriage that leads to the cliche "happily ever after," many fairy tales also reveal some of the problems that can happen within a marriage.

Arthur Rackham

In "The Fisherman and His Wife," an unhappy wife is never content with their current situations. Her demands on her husband and the magical fish he found become too much.
Carolyn Emerick

In the line of Selkie tales, magical sea creatures who turn into women are tricked into becoming wives of the men who hide their selkie skin. While they may appear to live happily for a time, the Selkies long for their true home (sometimes their original husbands,) and as soon as they find their skins, they leave their mortal husbands and go back to the sea.
A. H. Watson

In Rumpelstiltskin, we see a marriage that was based off of a father's deception. As a result, the nameless bride must labor under the threat of death from her husband. She was naturally distraught and only escaped that harsh punishment by a strange little man who manipulated her into promising to give him her first child.
Walter Crane

How about the parents from Rapunzel? The mother was overdramatic and demanding about her pregnancy cravings-"if I don't get some rampion to eat...I know I shall die." Her husband then agreed to give the witch the child he and his wife longed for so much, so you know there was lots of marital strife in their house when the mother found out.
Edmund Dulac

That couple as well as many others-such as the parents in Sleeping Beauty-begin their tale unhappy because they are childless ("so sorry that it cannot be expressed"). Then they have to deal with the stress of having a death curse put on their only child. Although their marriage itself may have been healthy, their married life was far from perfect.
Jessie Wilcox Smith

How about the wife from Hansel and Gretel who convinces her husband to abandon their children in the woods? And the host of fairy tales featuring domineering wives who abuse the children in their care, Cinderella, Snow White, Wild Swans, and Juniper Tree-the husbands, when present, are weak enough to be overpowered while his wife takes over and tries everything in her power to get rid of his children.
Kay Nielsen

What about East of the Sun, West of the Moon? The wife soon became sorrowful because she was left completely alone all day and ended up looking at her husband at night when she wasn't supposed to. He was taken from her, and she had to go on a long, arduous journey and win him back from another woman.
Hermann Vogel

Then of course, Bluebeard is the ultimate example of a warning about the potential dangers found within a marriage. It can be read on a more symbolic level as well as literal-sometimes the person you are dating has figurative skeletons in his (or her) closet. As much as you can, make sure that your partner is totally trustworthy before you marry.

So although many tales end with a marriage and a "happily ever after" (although there are many different ways to end a fairy tale), that turns out to be simply a convenient way to wrap up a story. If we look at fairy tale as a generational pattern-that the children, who usually enter adulthood by the end of their story, will end up being the parents who later traumatize their own children in some way-we see that fairy tales actually paint a fairly bleak picture of marriage. Can you think of any fairy tale characters who have been married for any length of time and live an idyllic life?

We seem to have the idea that "happily ever after" means "perfect in any way with no struggles at all." How did we get to that conclusion? A perfect life is not attainable for anyone, no matter if you're single or in a relationship. But finding happiness and joy, despite your struggles, is possible and it's worth hoping for and working towards.


  1. I think you mentioned in one post about your interpretation of "happily ever after" as people "going on to have many adventures" even after the end, and I love that interpretation!

    My current thought is that fairy tales in general are meant to show the main story's conflict, so we sort of assume that the "happily ever after" means that nothing relevant happened to the couple-who-got-together that the reader really needs to know. In the end, there's only so much a reader can take before they want to hear another story, after all.

    Hmmm, you bring up an interesting point about marriages portrayed in fairy tales. I know a few tales in which a person has to save a spouse from kidnapping, but even then there's conflict. But at least the couple is assumed to be a happy one in spite of that conflict.

    There are so many things I could talk about when it comes to fairy tale romances, so I'd rather ask a question: do you know of any fairy tales where they DO seem to stress on compatibility between people in love? Or, if not older fairy tales, when do you think we brought that idea into our modern day interpretation? The first ones that come to my mind are the modern Disney ones (aka The Little Mermaid, BATB) but even then I think they also put more stress on the conflict than the compatibility between the romantic couple.

    1. I like your thought on the story needing to end somewhere, it's true, it can't just go on and on.

      And I really can't think of any fairy tales that stress compatibility, at least as we understand it today. Again, historically, people assumed that compatibility had more to do with coming from the same social status. The French writers started emphasizing love more, but that compatibility was linked to finding each other attractive. Even Beauty and the Beast was more about the importance of finding someone who was kind and trustworthy over looks or money, but that's probably the closest.

      Even our modern notions of compatibility are sometimes a little seems like now the emphasis is all on finding two people who just have a lot of things in common. And while it's important to have common ground on the most important issues, no couple will be identical (or should be) and it's better to find someone who is willing to compromise with you when you do disagree.

    2. There is a whole tale type of ugly (or transformed) person has to be accepted before they're transformed back to their true selves (sometimes with some twists). The Frog King and the female Russian version are about this, as is Tatterhood in many ways. There's also the fairy tale about an ugly but smart prince who is gifted with conferring intelligence on his chosen bride (Ricky with the Tuft). There are quite a few variations on these themes and are, I think to do with finding out about the nature of the person before marriage is offered/agreed to. It's sort of weird that these tales are the most popular ones today actually but Cinderella in many variations shows girl using her wits and a prince looking for a certain "type" (not a girl who fits a shoe necessarily). Even in the versions that seem most ancestral to Perrault's version, you see Cinderella as figuring out how to restore her station to nobility and the key indicators for the Pince that "she's the one" are to do with the fact that she shows those signs (wit, refinement - which is often shown by the foot shape - lack of commoner flat feet!). I think we've watered things down a lot so it's become more superficial than most retellings intended (though Basile's Prince is so completely lovestruck it's on the ridiculous side).
      Did that help at all? Probably not.. lol

    3. When you put it that way, I do see it, although part of me also interprets it as those stories saying, "If you're going to get married, these are the qualities that need to be in a person." Nothing wrong with that (and in fact it's good to have), but you hardly see anything about "compatibility" or two people learning to click with one another. I agree that BATB comes close, but even then the compatibility glossed over.

      In a way, I guess that maybe it isn't a fairy tale's role to explain compatibility, just based on how many we see that don't. Or, if they do, we can consider that a more modern-day interpretation.

      There's this one story I read recently ("The Armless Girl") where a man marries this awful, awful woman who constantly causes pain to the main character (his sister), so you're point carries over even with married couples in tales.

  2. Speaking of selkies, there's a new movie made by the same person who made the Secret of Kells movie and it's called Song of the Sea and it's a fairy tale about a selkie and the animation is beautiful.

    1. Ooh yes I read about that on Once Upon a Blog, have you seen it?

    2. No, not yet, just the trailers, but I really want to see it.

  3. This is my first time to your blog and I am really amazed. Thanks for taking time to explore myth and tales more in depth.
    I am a marriage therapist and am currently working on a book about the false myth of marriage being the end all be all (happily ever after). I had the thought of having a fairy tale or myth begin each chapter as a way for the reader to better engage with the material. Do you, or any of your readers, have any suggestions as to what tales exemplify marriage as a process? Beauty and the Beast is one I am considering, as well as a few others I saw you mentioned in this post. Any and all suggestions are appreciated!

    1. This sounds like an amazing project! Would you mind if I put this request in a current blog post so other readers will see and have a chance to respond?