Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why is marriage always the end of the story?

This is exactly the kind of question that usually makes me feel like throwing a classic storyteller’s hissy fit; yet here I am asking it.

People usually think of “all stories” in terms of the classic fairy tale canon, the list of tales solidified by years of telling and re-telling, and also by Disney. You know the ones I am talking about. Even when you are a storyteller with long years of experience, your brain automatically jumps to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Little Red first, just like when someone throws a ball at you and you use your dominant hand to catch it. It’s the way most of us is Western culture are wired when it comes to fairy tales.

Usually, when people ask big general questions like the one above, the Trickster in me jumps up and goes off collecting tales to torpedo it into oblivion. In my philosophy, there is a folktale out there for everything, even the most unlikely of life situations, because stories are a reflection of things people think about often and long. Life-changing events such as birth, death, love, marriage etc. are the most common examples. So, when someone comes up to me and asks “Why is marriage always the end of the story?” my first instinct is to answer: “Not always.”

With that said, the tales most often told do little to nothing to prepare anyone for life after marriage.

Marriage, more often than not, IS the end of the story. It’s the ultimate goal. They won, they got married, they lived happily ever after. Curtain, credits, copyright note, no animals were harmed, and not even a bonus scene in the end for the fans.
What does this tell to children who hear these stories over and over again, I wonder? That marriage equals the end of story, for one. No more dragons, no more adventures, no more exploring the world. The End. Game over. The only thing that comes after is happiness, forever and ever (or, in the case of Hungarian tale ending formulas, happiness until they die.)
But what if they were not happy ever after? Shhh. We don’t talk about that. If you are not happy, you bet on the wrong prince. Or princess. The whole thing is botched from the start. You just gotta wait for the One to show and save you.

Of course, there are folktales that talk about problems within married life. Most of them talk about not having a child. But it is usually the beginning of someone else’s tale (usually the child’s). Some of them, like selkie legends, tell you how you will lose your freedom to a significant other. That is, in the end, just another version of “game over.”

As a storyteller, one has to know the context these tales come from: in terms of marriage and happiness, it was a very different time. The idea that connects romantic love to marriage is a fairly new one, and far from universal even today. The idea of getting married and coming into one’s power is often connected – even the latest progressive Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog, ends with a common girl transformed into a princess through marrying a prince (sorry for the spoliers). Merida, everyone’s new favorite Mary Sue, only gets away without “game over” because she refuses to marry at all.

So, what message are we sending when we solely rely on these stories to determine the “fairy tale canon?” That marriage is a terrible thing? I would argue that not even that. What happens after the fairy tale wedding is a large white spot on our mental map, a “here be dragons” uncharted territory, and folk- and fairy tales that have held our hand through all the adventures of parent-child relationships, brotherhood, sisterhood, coming of age and courtship, stop at the border and toss us forward into oblivion without as much as a hand-drawn road map. Figure it out for yourselves, guys.

I am NOT saying that there are absolutely no folktales about married couples. Actually, there is a LOT of them. I am saying we don’t hear them enough.

Someone should compile a list.

(By the way, the illustration above is from the Persian manuscript of Nizami's Haft Paykar, the tale of the Seven Wise Princesses. The Yellow Princess from Greece tells one of the best marriage-negotiation stories I have ever read. Because Nizami is amazing, that's why.)


  1. This is true - we do not hear them enough. I end my happily ever after stories with a tweaked version - "With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work .. they lived H E A."

  2. Okay, here's one for your list: Clever Manka. The marriage occurs early in the story and begins with attraction, at least on the part of he king. The marriage is good, but at some point the queen crosses the king's line, and he sends her packing. Still her clever self, she finds a way to remind the king of their deeper love, and that is where the happily ever after begins.

  3. I recently added the Grimm's "Mother Holle" to my repertoire, which is tale type 480, and in her book The Golden Ax, Ruth Stotter examines many variants of this tale. In the introduction, she mentions that this tale type rarely ends in marriage.

    You're right that far too often the tales we hear have this syrupy sweet marriage at the end, and there are also many other stories we could choose to tell. Your post gave me an idea though for combining a folktale in which the hero has a series of challenges ending in marriage with a personal story in which I face obstacles but the end goal/result is not marriage but whatever project I was working on - could help demonstrate the symbolic nature of fairytale motifs. Fun things to think about. Thanks for the blog!