Joshua Kronengold (mneme) wrote,
Joshua Kronengold

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Essay-let: Myths, Fairie Tales, and the Prohibitionary Relationship

There's this thing that shows up in faerie tales. Some of my favorite faerie tales, really. Actually, you can trace its thread from myths through faerie tales, through modern renditions of same, subversion, and probably plenty of modern stories I'm not looking at because I don't have time (not right now, anyway). It goes something like this:

Two people meet, and get together. Maybe they fall in love. Maybe it's an arranged marriage, maybe it's a promise from a person of power [that's kindof an arranged marriage, though], maybe something else. Maybe it's not even a sexual thing at all -- though that's out of scope enough that I'm going to consider it a related category, but out of scope for this essay. But they're together.

Except that there's something wrong -- something you just can't let rest (no story can, nor most humans) -- one of the lovers (usually the man) has a secret. And naturally, there's a prohibition somehow related to the secret -- if the prohibition gets broken, the relationship is doomed.

If you're not familiar with what I mean, lets look at some examples for a moment (I'm aware that there are variations of many of these that alter the endings, but I'll go with the most usual version, or maybe I'll favor one capreciously. Deal.):

Beauty and and the Beast:
New wife is forbidden to look at her husband's face at night. Breach, followed by moral/emotional tests/challenges, followed a restoration of order (of some sort), and a massive improvement in the status quo that would not have occurred without the breach

East of the Sun, West of the Moon:
Multiple breaches -- don't talk to your mother alone, don't look on me at night. The big prohibitive break happens because the bride is afraid that her husband is a monster. The breach avoids an easy restoration of order, but results in a more satisfying (the bad guy gets her comeuppance) one once the resulting (multiple, to mirror the multiple breakages, with tests for both partners, and because East is just that epic) tests/challenges are passed.

Cupid & Psyche
New (mortal) wife is forbidden to look at her (secretly divine) lover/husband's face at night. She fears that he's a monster, and looks (East's opening more or less entirely parallels this story or maybe vice versa; unlike East, the helpers are jealous rather than truly helpful, though). After tests (with mixed results) and some bending on both sides, Psyche is granted immortality/divinity, and rejoins with Cupid as an equal rather than an inferior.

New wife is forbidden to enter a room in her new husband's house. Naturally she does so. And a good thing too, as he actually -is- a monster, who murders his wives. In the tradtional version of this tale, she calls on allies and escapes a horrible fate, her horrible husband finds his comeuppance; happy ending all 'round. You could call this a subversion, as for once, the secret is that the new husband actually is a monster, but I'd guess that it's actually a parallel line.

(Irish mythology) Moral husband is forbidden to boast about his (secretly divine) wife. Unlike all the prohibitions where the men hold secrets, this prohibition actually makes sense, but he does so anyway, resulting in her early birth and tragic departure (or, depending, death), and her putting a great curse on the men of Ulster. Again, unlike the ones where the guys hold secrets, the story would have ended better had the guy done what his wife said--and there are actual reasons in the story to have done so.

Snow Magic
This is AFAIK unique to to the Mercedes Lackey/Leslie Fish song, but it's really interesting anyway (as a subversion, at least). A (human) young man falls into a relationship with a woman who is secretly a magical wolf. Knowing that he is in danger due to her wolven senses, she warns him not to go home one night, but he ignores her and does so anyway -- she takes on her true form and saves him, but then reveals that her ability to become human (or stay with him) was provisional on her not killing a human) The story ends in tragedy. This one is interesting, because while the prohibition on the ignorant partner is sensible, he doesn't actually have the information he needed to make an informed decision -- moreover, the real magical restriction is actually on the secret-holding member of the pairing, not the ignorant one.

Ok, so lets look at some common elements:

1. If someone in your relationship is holding on to a deep dark secret, the relationship is doomed if it doesn't come out. This is wrong! Relationships are supposed to be true meetings of equals, but the secret makes it not a true relationship at all.

2. a) If the secret holder is a guy, he always prohibits you from looking into his secret -- and you should always do so. Secrets in relationships are wrong! Sure, there may be a lot of pain in the meanwhile, and it's -possible- that things would have come out right anyway, but you don't know! Maybe he really -is- a monster in disguise. Get to the root of the matter and you might get some clear communication, some bending on both sides, and hopefully a real relationship by the end of it.
2. b) If the secret holder is a woman, you're doomed (sorry about that. Totally not liking the message here that women keeping secrets is worse than men keeping secrets). But on the bright side, you're not going to go down -just- because the woman is keeping secrets, but also beacuse the guy ignores what is, in fact, sensible advice he has good reason to obey (if not as much reason to obey as he would if his wife weren't hiding the fact that she's some kind of goddess or magical creature). So women are liars, but men are fools. Yay. I don't really like this line of stories much, I'm afraid.

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Tags: fairie tales, mythology
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