Monday, February 11, 2008

HEA? No Way, José!

I have been spending a lot of time lately on blogs and forums for romance novels, and I find it often mentioned, as we all no doubt have already noticed, that they frequently take their themes from fairy tales--Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast being probably the most frequent inspirations. But it is my theory that there are three stories which, as given, CANNOT POSSIBLY have a Happy Ever After ending. I intend to discuss them, and you can, too. In order to keep people reading, I'm going to do it as a series.

1. Rumpelstiltskin

We all know the story, but here's a refresher, with helpful notes:
Whether the instigator of the spinning challenge is a boastful miller, a boastful miller's daughter, or an embarrassed miller lying about his lazy daughter's domestic skills, the rest of the setup is the same: the king puts her in ever-larger rooms full of straw, telling her to spin gold or die; the little man helps her, demanding her first-born as payment; she marries the king, the little man demands the baby, the name-guessing game, and the end of Rumpelstiltskin. A regular fairy tale, right?

No. Consider that from the very beginning, the king threatens her with death, not because she's done something wrong but if she can't do something that no one else can do, either. And he marries her only because of the gold, not for love or her virtue or her beauty or any similar traditional fairy-tale motive.

This is NOT the recipe for Happy-Ever-After. She must be scared spitless of him. Even after marriage, she must dread the moment when he says, "Darling, we're running short of gold again...." Even in the version where she's lazy, she'd have to be dead stupid not to see that it's NOT good to be the Queen when the King is a homicidal miser.

I have seen a few versions in which there is a believable happy ending. Vivian Vande Velde has a whole volume of Rumpelstiltskin stories with various takes on the tale. The happy endings I've seen all, without exception, involve changing the premises of the story in some way. The most common is to have the Rumpelstiltskin figure turn out to be an elven prince in disguise, or a magician of some sort, and the girl dumps the King and goes off with him instead. In a few, she just runs off before she can be forced to marry the King. Sometimes it turns out he was under an evil spell and didn't want to kill her at all. And in one of Vande Velde's, the test was made up by the king to scare off females pursuing him and never intended to be used at all.

The only bridegroom I can think of that's worse than this is Scheherazade's, who is already a serial killer by the time she marries him.

I have a definite bias towards stories with a moral, where virtue is rewarded and evil soundly punished--or at least reformed. There is no moral here at all--the girl does nothing to deserve to become Queen, and the King is not reformed or in any way made to feel that his death threats were wrong. In many fairy tales there is a fairy or animal helper, who rewards the protagonist for his or her kindness in rescuing or in some other way helping it--the bird caught in a snare, the ants whose anthill is about to be flooded, and so on. Sometimes they simply appear because of her goodness, or because of some supernatural protector, like the animals in the various versions of Cinderella. The moral here is that goodness is rewarded by goodness. Rumpelstiltskin is not a kindly helper but has his own agenda: getting hold of the baby prince. And the Queen, once she knows she'll win the guessing game, toys with him by guessing wrong at first. Rumpelstiltskin/Tom Tit Tot is often interpreted as a demonic creature, not a real dwarf in the sense of an earth elemental type or a different species, like Snow White's dwarves. Nobody in this story comes off well, and the baby will probably grow up to be Jack the Ripper, like Prince Albert Victor.

So, have you seen, or can you imagine, any played-straight version of Rumpelstiltskin that has a believable happy ending?


Anonymous said...

Well, Eleanor Farjeon's novelised pantomime 'The Silver Curlew', which mixes the rhyme of the man in the moon (who came down too soon) with Tom Tit Tot, has a happy ending.

But Doll (the queen) isn't the heroine, and Nollekins (the king) is of distinctly subnormal intelligence (although so is Doll, really, even if she is rather pleasant).

But it's a fantastic version of the story, with several levels of romance, and it does have a happy ending.


Looking at the story, though, I'm not so sure the king has to be seen as an insane tyrant, actually.

Many versions I've read can be interpreted as follows.

The king is initially responding to a report that there is a miller's daughter who is essentially committing either treason or tax evasion. Either she's insanely wealthy, but not paying taxes, or she's lying in such a way as to cause real political trouble. A king whose subject can spin gold should be wealthy, yet he has no extra money. How is he to defend the kingdom, which will be under threat if neighbours believe the rumour? She's a serious hazard.

He has to come down fairly heavy on that sort of thing, and be seen to do so. (Also, consider that she's probably breaking something akin to medieval sumptuary laws by claiming to be insanely wealthy if she's not. It's quite possible there are laws in existence about this sort of thing that predate his reign. He may not have been aware of them until the case came up.)

Most versions are consistent in saying that while it's her family who brag, the king is told it's she who has done so.

Sadly for him, he meets her after having publicly committed to his chosen course of action. And he falls in love on sight (not something I can imagine doing, but there's plenty of evidence that some people do develop infatuations that fast).

Note that this is all happening in a medieval setting, where a king who gives his subject a chance to prove she's not lying is really being pretty fair. The death penalty isn't for failing to do the impossible; it's for spreading civil unrest or tax evasion (essentially theft from the crown). Hanging a hungry man for stealing a loaf of bread was once not considered overly extreme. Why should killing a well fed woman for theft be out of the ballpark?

He's devastated. He does everything he can think of, but he's publicly promised to make an example of her. He can't just change the law because he's in love; that would be bad for the whole kingdom, not just him and her.

He visits her in her condemned cell, telling her everything (weak, but even Peter Wimsey seems not to be able to avoid stressing the woman he loves when she's condemned to death).

Being a very principled young woman, she respects his position. She thinks it's terrible that her family's stupid boasts have put her in this situation, but she can see the king's dilemma (at this point, I think versions that suggest the family has been misunderstood when they were using metaphors fall down and versions that have the family genuinely boasting in a vain way stand up better, because surely he could simply stand up in court and say 'She never said it, she can't do it, and it's ridiculous!'). She doesn't want her father to die (because she's a good daughter), so she doesn't say 'But it was Dad who boasted, not me!'

She admires the king for his willingness to put the law before his own feelings.

When she pulls the rabbit out of the hat, the king may very well realise that she's done a one-off with some sort of trick, but he's so relieved that justice can be seen to have been done that he doesn't question closely, for fear he'd have to put her right back in the condemned cell.

Does that version make you feel any better?

-- Maire

talpianna said...

Actually, no. It's much too contrived. Have you seen an anthology called TWICE UPON A TIME, edited by Denise Little? There's a story there in which the medieval equivalent of the IRS comes down on the miller. Another story has the Giant's widow suing Jack for wrongful death and loss of consortium.

In SEARCHING FOR DRAGONS, the second of Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, we meet Rumpelstiltskin (who prefers to be known as Herman) busy raising all the children that the parents were either uninterested in saving or were too stupid to understand the obvious clues he left. I've got an idea for a story in which the parents let the dwarf keep the firstborn because she's a girl, and she grows up and learns to spin gold herself, winding up in a much nicer kingdom with a Grand Duke.

Anonymous said...

But it's not a contrived version! It's what I get out of most versions.

Girl is good at spinning (or very lazy).

Family boast that she's fantastic, so good that she spins gold.

King hears.

Girl is told: spin or die for your lies.

Girl weeps, sells firstborn, gets spun gold, marries king, etc.

I've just always assumed that since it's always in a fairly ye-olde-tyme type environment, higher penalties would attach to what is clearly either spreading of rumours that could cause serious problems (would you want neighbouring kingdoms assuming yours was ridiculously wealthy if you weren't?) or was failing to pay taxes than would apply today.

What's the contrivance?

talpianna said...

Well, for one, in those days if you failed to pay your taxes, they cut off various portions of your anatomy, so things wouldn't get that far...

Anonymous said...

Did they? In this case it's pretty clear that they're going to kill her. After all, it's a very big tax evasion.

talpianna said...

You don't think Miller & Co. might get off when they find no trace of gold? Especially after a few sessions with the Iron Maiden and the rack?

My main problem with your version is that you attribute to the king all those redeeming emotions and motivations for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

Laura Vivanco said...

It's been a long time since I read this fairytale, but I was under the delusion that the spinning heroine marries a prince. So if she marries the king's son, would that make the story OK?

And I've just found that version at Wikipedia so it's maybe not just my mind playing tricks on me. In this version it's the two fathers who cause problems, but the young couple are blameless and so live happily ever after.

talpianna said...

Curioser and curioser. I looked at the Wikipedia version; indeed, it does have the miller's daughter marry the prince--but I have NEVER seen this elsewhere, and the Wiki article doesn't even mention the alternate version where she marries the king himself. I wonder where they got this version? It does indeed make the HEA possible; but I insist it still obeys my theorem that a major change has to be made to provide a believable HEA.

Wiki also had this: Rumpelstiltskin Syndrome is an analogical reference to the role of the king in the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Common practice in middle-management is to impose unreasonable work demands on subordinates. Upon completion of the task or tasks in question, equal or higher work demands are then imposed; moreover, no credit, acknowledgement, or overt appreciation is demonstrated by way of recognition.

All the Tigress's worst beliefs about management realized!

Anonymous said...

I've never seen the version with the prince. I've only ever seen the king.

talpianna said...

Laura: I just checked the Wiki version again, and it's self- contradictory:

The king was so impressed that he let the miller's daughter marry his son, the prince, but when their first child was born, the dwarf returned to claim his payment: "Now give me what you promised". The queen was frightened and offered him all the wealth she had if she could keep the child.

I was just IMing with a German friend who reminded me of the little song he was overheard singing, about taking the QUEEN's child, in which he mentioned his name.

Heute back ich, morgen brau ich,
übermorgen hol ich der Königin ihr Kind;
ach, wie gut ist daß niemand weiß
daß ich Rumpelstilzchen heiß.

Today I bake, tomorrow I brew
Day after tomorrow I get the Queen's child
Good, nobody knows
That my name is Rumpelstilzchen.

Thanks, Lore, for the research and the translation!

Just one more proof that Wikipedia isn't infallible, as if we needed more!

Laura Vivanco said...

I just checked the Wiki version again, and it's self- contradictory

Yes, I noticed that, and I suspect it's because there was more than one person editing the article.

I had another Google for cases where the girl marries the prince and found this description of a French version of the tale, called Ricdin-Ricdon:

The editors of the Norton volume suggest that "spinner" folktales like Rumpelstiltskin/Ricdin-Ricdon might have been told by groups of women weavers working together. This is one moment where that really seems to click: there is a distinctly feminist warning here -- to women who don't know how to earn your keep, or who aren't smart enough to look after yourselves, watch out!

talpianna said...

That's a really interesting item, Laura. It appears that unlike our story, it's not just waving a wand that makes the HEA take place, or an accidental overhearing of a foolish premature boast; she actually has to grow and change somewhat to get her HEA. Which makes it a moral tale as well.

JT said...


Aliera, the bad knee, fondness for romances, and distinctive sign-on are all hopefully signs that I've come across the Tal I knew on the EL Boards, some years back.

I'm not sure that you remember Samiae/the Buzzard, but should you happen to, this was a small note to say that she certainly remembers you.

talpianna said...

Good heavens, my dearest Buzzard, OF COURSE I remember you. Where have you BEEN??? You have been greatly missed. Write me; I still have the same e-mail address.

Blessed be!

fairyhedgehog said...

I enjoyed reading this and I'm wondering when you're going to post to your blog again. Or are you too busy doing real writing? Unlike those of us who use blogs as an excuse to avoid writing.

talpianna said...

Just lazy.

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm not sure how you'll take this but I've tagged you

Hope you don't mind!

Tacita Sempronia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
writtenwyrdd said...

We need a new post, Tal, and not just a meme, lol. *fingers drumming on the desktop*

Jeb said...

I am totally with you on the improbability of fairy tale happy endings, Tal. One of my children's plays (performed annually in a small town in Saskatchewan for several years) was a re-telling of 'The Princess and the Pea' in which the Princess, after passing the test, revealed that she had no interest in getting married, but was really just on a race with her brother to see which of them could cross two kingdoms without spending any money or trading on their family's status, and she had to be going because otherwise he'd beat her to Manchester. The prince decided that was more fun than marrying young, and went off to try it for himself.

talpianna said...

Well, some fairy tales are more improbable than others, jeb. I'm picking three in which they seem impossible; but others are more believable. I recommend reading Bettelheim's THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT for the underlying meanings of fairy tales--though I don't necessarily buy into all his Freudian schtick.