March 4, 2010

True Love and Fairy Tales - Part Two

True Love and Fairy Tales
by Gypsy Thornton

(Part Two of Two)
Read Part One

So, I can hear you wondering, if Cinderella isn’t a fairy tale about true love, then what fairy tales are? There are many. They’re just not the ones most people think of when you say romantic fairy tale. It all has to do with the image people have of ‘true love’.

The idea of ‘true love’ today seems to be mixed up with what is romantic (I’m talking beyond sending flowers here) and before you protest that they should be part of the same thing, bear with me a minute as I break something down.

I’m going to go ahead and blame the Pre-Raphaelites for getting us all focused on this idea of what ‘real romance’ is about first.

  • Note: This isn’t about the Pre-Raphaelite’s aesthetics which I adore. (Even my house ‘outs’ me as a total Pre-Raphaelite fan.) It’s the pop-cultural impressions of romance and the Middle Ages that developed as a result of their beautiful work that are the problem. Rather than launch into a history lesson check out the references listed below the article for more Pre-Raphaelite info. Now back to the fun stuff - and dragons.

The idea of romance being about chivalry, rescue and great proclamations of love under difficult circumstances is actually attached to legends – you know, the whole knight and lady thing. It’s all about love against the odds (including dragons) but the thing is, in the case of many of the great myths and legends, the odds are usually the winners.

  • In other words, all these romantic tales end in big time tragedy (i.e. death). The lovers get a nice story but happily-ever-after is rarely part of the equation. Think about all those great paintings and tapestries – ain’t a whole lot of happy faces in that bunch. Longing? Check. Unrequited love? Check. Eternal torch holding? Check. Tears, death, suicide? Check, check and double check (thank you, Romeo and Juliet).

Kinda removes the ‘happily’ part and just leaves the ‘ever after’, doesn’t it? What the Pre-Raphaelites did was to make all that sadness and ick look incredibly gorgeous.

The tendency to pair ‘I’d do anything for you’ (including ‘I’d rather die a horrible messy death rather than be without you’) with happily-ever-after (a.k.a.: you and me, happy, hot and heavy for ever until we die together in old age holding hands) is easier to understand once you realize the Pre-Raphaelites, and the golden age illustrators who came after them, loved fairy tales too.

  • And they weren’t glossing over the tough stuff. They embraced it. All those tragic otherworldly beings (girl gives up her entire existence, including voice and fishtail, for a guy who doesn’t love her) and strange connections between lovers (guy finds out his hottie is really a fox/cat or has a weird thing where she refuses to speak and sneaks off to graveyards in the middle of the night) are perfect subjects for poignant paintings and illustrations in which sad things are made beautiful. Heck, they even made death look lovely but we all know that’s unrealistic. Bodies decay and dead arms can’t hug back (sparkly vampires don’t count here sorry).

Fairy tale love is also about overcoming obstacles BUT they have a very different way of going about it – something that gives the guy and girl a much higher chance of getting to their happily ever after. (I’ll come back and explain just what those ‘something’s are in just a minute.) While fairy tales are inherently optimistic in their conclusions the most fascinating scenes for an artist to portray are either the magical ones or the ‘big emotion’ moments. In other words, Pre-Raphaelites liked painting the tough stuff and making it look good.

Oh there are plenty of horrible deaths and disappointed lovers too but overall the bulk of the tales do, for the most part, end well – albeit bearing some heavy scars showing the battle it took to get there.

And beautiful. And much better than our humdrum existences. And did I mention beautiful?

  • The hair alone should be a dead giveaway. Fact: No one walks through a life or death trial - or the middle ages - and comes out with locks looking like the girls in those paintings had without a shampoo sponsor. Nobody. (OK, maybe Rapunzel, but I guarantee most people wouldn’t trade their story for hers, despite gaining that great hair.)

Have fairy tales illustrated by these sensibilities at the same time as they’re sent to the corner of the nursery and told to play it safe (eg. Red Riding Hood gets rescued via huntsman instead of being eaten, or worse) and presto! Happily-ever-after is looking awfully like the great romances -- except these heroes and heroines get to live. Happily.

TV, film and popular media further helped the breakdown of the stories into sound-bytes and iconic images until what most people really knew about the stories were diluted summaries. Fairy tales are even thought to have a standard formula now:

Take one girl having a tough time --> add chivalrous guy arriving on scene (white horse optional) --> cue rescue (therefore it must be love) --> evil is conquered (witch/dragon/nasty-something dies or put where it can never harm the couple again) = happily ever after (scar and blemish free, of course.)

The problem with this is that it leads to completely unrealistic expectations for happily ever after. Let’s break down the classic girl-rescued-from-tower story, Rapunzel, to see true love at work, because, yes: this IS a true love fairy tale. It just doesn’t happen like most people think.

The first thing to make clear is that this girl wasn’t ‘rescued’ at all.

That’s right. No rescue. She was actually discovered, seduced (or forced to hide her fling) and impregnated (woops!), discovered and banished while her almost-equally naïve prince was tricked into a confrontation with the baddie, thrown from the tower, blinded (“Ow!” doesn’t even begin to cover that) and left to wander (hopefully die, as far as the witch was concerned) in the desert/wilderness. When the two finally get together (there is a good part to this story... eventually anyway) it’s not exactly a Kodak moment.

  • Note: Of course there are some versions in which it doesn’t turn out half so well but I’m concentrating on the better-known tales that get saddled with rosy-eyed labels.

But, but… what about love?

Oh yes – there is love in this tale. However things begin in the tower, and whether or not there was a private wedding up there (complete with tweeting birds officiating), when the blind and wandering prince, in a true pauper state, hears Rapunzel’s voice (MANY months later) he recognizes it (a sign that he loved her) and she, with their toddling twins in tow, welcomingly takes him in her arms and cries tears of healing (literally). After that the restored prince can go back home, taking Rapunzel (& kids), marry her properly and THEN they can live happily ever after.

  • Note: Having to deliver twins in the middle of nowhere would help you grow up in a hurry, no matter how naïve you’d been in the past, and “Ow!” doesn’t begin to cover that either. Which brings me to the next point:

    Did you notice all the blood? Both the Prince (courtesy of the thorns blinding him on being thrown out of the tower) and Rapunzel (birthing babies in the wilderness) had to shed their share. There was rather a lot of it, complete with an indecent amount of gore, which, despite being rather gross is incredibly significant. When you see blood mentioned in fairy tales, take note.

Although this story is largely about parenthood, the good and bad, it’s even more so about maturation and the growth from naive love to true and deep love, both for the Prince and Rapunzel.

  • In other words: The Prince has to grow from puppy-love (or in some versions, complete lust) to being active in helping free the girl he’s come to love (although it doesn’t work) to searching for his girl despite his handicapped condition. Rapunzel has to grow from complete naïveté and being socially and emotionally blind (in the Grimm’s version she accepts the Prince’s proposal of marriage because she reasons she’ll do better with him than with Mother Gothel) to a woman who’s had to learn to stand on her own two feet, care for her children of her own (the Grimm’s text says “just barely managing to survive…”), recognizes her lover (seeing a trend about sight here?) and welcoming him despite his ‘handicapped hobo’ look.

As a result they’re both rewarded. He gets his sight back and regains his status, she gets to be a princess and no longer be alone.

It’s not quite the ‘hottie-of-your dreams with white horse (or Mercedes) swoops you out of hell-hole (however it’s shaped) to hook-up and ride off into the happily-ever-after sunset’ plan. I know, I know, it’s not exactly Manolo Blahnik compatible but it IS True Love. Capital ‘T’, capital ‘L’.

The thing about true love is this: there are many roads to true love and fairy tales reflect this. Sometimes it’s “Hello..” Wham! Love. Other times there isn’t a single, recognizable whiff of it until it’s almost passed you by. (I’d need a whole other article’s worth of space just to take you through a summary of the regularly trodden routes to love in fairy tales so we’re going to have to skip that for today and cut to the chase.) The fact that fairy tales show love in its many (many!) forms isn’t really surprising. What is surprising is the interesting trend that keeps appearing. While men and women usually have different roles (eg. girls have been known to pull a Joan of Arc and wield a sword like a pro but generally aren’t expected to) they each have just as much responsibility in making the relationship work. True love in fairy tales is big on the grit and less on the glam than most pictures show but it’s also more guaranteed when the guys and the girls both do their part.

The thing all love has in common is that you don’t TRULY know it’s ‘the real thing’ until it’s tested. What fairy tales are interested in is finding out how true a couple’s love for each other really is. Why? Because that is where the real magic is.

By Gypsy Thornton
February 2010

Image credits:

Rapunzel by Walter Crane

God Speed by Edmund Blair Leighton

Rapunzel by Emma Florence Harrison

Links to some additional reading on the Pre-Raphaelites:

- On the Pre–Raphaelites and Writers of Fantasy by Terri Windling at the Journal of Mythic Arts, Endicott Studio

- The Fairest of Them All: Fairy Tales and the Pre-Raphaelites by Grace at The Beautiful Necessity


Faerie♥Kat said...

Marvelous analysis; very nicely illuminated and explained. I'm looking forward to more dissertation like this.

Sheryl said...

"...make all that sadness and ick look incredibly gorgeous."
Ha ha ha ha! I love the wording here!

"The hair alone should be a dead giveaway."
Having waist-length (sometimes longer) hair that I constantly need to bind back just to get through a simple day, I find fantasy portrayals of women with beautiful and long hair flowing freely like luxurious cloaks amusing and annoying.

"Because that is where the real magic is."
This strikes me as such an elegant comment, since "fairy tale magic" today seems to mostly conjure pictures of Disney's version of Tinkerbell. :-S