There’s one bedtime story on my daughter’s reading shelf that I absolutely hate. Usually I try to kind of hide it back behind the other books, or pretend that it’s written in Chinese so that I don’t have to read it, but there was one night about a week ago where she insisted and I had to read it.
It’s basically a pared down exemplar of the paradigmatic modern fairy-tale. The Princess is ruthlessly unhappy, her father doesn’t know what to do, so he sets up a message in the town-square with the usual deal: hand of the Princess and half the Kingdom to the the man who can make the Princess happy. Naturally three suitors try, naturally the first two suitors are rich, self-absorbed wankers who fail to even reach the Princess. Naturally the third one is a poor boy who has loved the Princess from afar, and he succeeds because he brings her the One Thing that can make her happy. True Love.
Aw. It’s so cute it makes me want to gnaw my arm off.
But in this case, instead of making snarky comments (“And they all lived happily ever after – well, happily for the next year or so at least. Until the Princess developed gout and the neighbouring Kingdom declared war. The End.”) I decided to ask my daughter some questions. “Is that really true?” I said. “Is the only way of being happy to find your One True Love?”
My kids are used to the fact that more or less any life event could turn into an opportunity to get Socratized, so she cocked her head to one side and shrugged and said. “I guess so.”
“Okay,” I said. “So you’re not happy then, I take it?”
She laughed as though I was being patently silly. “No Mommy! I’m happy.” Big smile to illustrate her point.
“But how can that be?” I asked in mock-astonishment. “Have you found your True Love?”
“Oh. So maybe True Love is not the only thing that can make people happy.”
She thought about this for a moment, stuck her little fists into her hips and said “Hmph! It’s a lying book!”
Our conversation, at that point, meandered into various other things that make people happy: the love of parents, the love of siblings, friendship, God, art, and so on.
The thing is, this story articulates, in very simple form, a really common cultural myth. The first suitor brings money. Money can’t make you happy. The second suitor brings fame. Fame can’t make you happy. But the third suitor, he brings Romance. And Romance is the one thing that will complete you and bring you perfect happiness. Forever.
The problem being, of course, that romance has just as much capacity to become an unfulfilling idol as money or fame. All three represent genuine human needs, and all three have the capacity to become a morbid obsession.
In the case of money, obviously having access to the good things of the Earth is, well, good. In contemporary society money is the means by which we are able to access the things that we need. Greed will not make a person happy, and money is not enough, but there’s a reason why we consider poverty to be a state of suffering that we have an obligation to alleviate in others.
Same deal with fame, or renown. The acknowledgement of other human beings, their acceptance and praise, the ability to do something well and have our skills be recognized – these things all do actually contribute to human happiness. But again, it’s easy for the desire for acclamation to be corrupted by vanity and pride.
Within the cultural lexicon represented by our fairy-tales, however, the potential idolatry of romance is routinely ignored. We even take old fairy-tales that dealt with this problem in a complex way, and we alter them so that they promote a simplistic narrative of romantic love over all.
The most obvious example is The Little Mermaid, which in its original form is a haunting cautionary tale in which romantic love demands the renunciation of the Mermaid’s own identity – and then delivers only heartbreak. Anderson offers a moral vision of redemption through sacrificial love as the only means of escaping from the ultimately horrific demands of erotic obsession. So of course Disney turned it into a maudlin celebration of the narcissistic pursuit of a romantic idol in which it’s ultimately heroic to disobey your father, violate the laws of nature, and resort to the dark arts in the pursuit of juvenile romantic fantasies.
Similarly, if you look at the Brother Grimm’s version of Cinderella, there are some strange details that lend a kind of ambivalence to the text. Cinderella doesn’t immediately fall head over heels for the prince at the ball, nor is she forced to leave early because her dress will turn back into rags. Instead, she flees from the prince three times after dancing with him all night. We’re not really told why she runs away, but the story is kind of not about that – in fact, it’s not really focused on the romance at all. The heart of the story is the moral conflict between Cinderella and her stepmother/stepsisters. So instead of telling us at the end that Cinderella and the Prince lived happily ever after, the Grimms tell us that pigeons came and pecked the eyes out of the two stepsisters, “And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”
In fact, most of Grimm’s tales end with the punishment of the wicked, not with the eternal happiness of the couple. Snow White for example, ends with a pair of iron shoes being prepared for the evil queen in the furnace. “And she was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell down dead.”
Of course there are exceptions – Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel do actually end with variations on “they lived happily ever after” – but there isn’t the same relentless hammering on a single theme. And there’s much more recognition of the potential for the suitor to turn out to be a bloodthirsty maniac, rather than a perfect dream-puff. (I’m still holding my breath for the Disney adaptation of The Robber Bridegroom.)
It’s not so much that the happily-ever-after tales of True Love are, as Barbara put it, “lying books” but rather that when a single narrative like this is relentlessly advanced within a culture the stories end up telling a lie – in this case, the lie that romantic love is the be all and end all of human existence, that it is the precondition of happiness, and that it is able to provide forever-after all that is a needful for a life to be complete.
Picture credit: pixabay