Saturday, May 18, 2019

StorySpotting: The Lady and the Tiger (Riverdale)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

(Let's be real, people, Riverdale is not a good show, but it's kind of perfect for background noise when you are working on a crafting project. Or is it just me?)

Where was the story spotted?

Riverdale, season 3, episode 19 (Fear the Reaper)

What happens?

Jughead gets caught up in playing G&G, a fictional, 80s "Satanic panic" version of Dungeons & Dragons (don't even get me started on this). Jug sets out to rescue his kidnapped little sister, but in order to do so, he has to play the game, as per the orders of an unhinged Game Master. At one point, the GM takes Jughead to an abandoned scrap yard, where he is faced with two large metal ice boxes. The GM asks him if he is familiar with the story of The Lady and the Tiger, and then explains it for us: "Behind one of these doors is your sister, behind the other is your doom." Jug, being ever the smart person, opens both, and both are empty. Then he gets immediately locked into one of them, but that's another story.

What's the story?

Well, the story is actually titled "The Lady, or the Tiger?", and it's not a folktale, although at this point it is so well known it might as well be. It was written by American author Frank R. Stockton, and originally published in 1882. It involves a barbaric kingdom, where justice is done on criminals by a strange tradition: They are thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one door, there is a savage tiger, behind the other, there is a beautiful lady. The tiger eats the criminal (obviously), the lady marries him (we are assuming all criminals are male here, or the kingdom has a very progressive view on marriage), thus proving by pure luck that he is innocent.
In the story, the daughter of the king falls in love with a commoner, and when her father finds out, the young man is sent into the arena. The princess, however, finds out which door is which, and lets her lover know that she will subtly indicate which door he should open. The question, however, is this: Would the barbarian princess rather watch her lover die by tiger, or watch him get married to another woman? Which door will she point at?
The story is a dilemma tale - it doesn't have an ending. The question is put to the audience. When I tell this story (it works great with teenagers), it usually leads to long debates about what the princess would choose, the nature of love and jealousy, and a million and one solutions to get out of the choice. I usually learn a lot, laugh a lot, and marvel a lot at the abundance of creativity that this story sparks in audiences.


Riverdale kind of butchered the original idea, because it became a game of simple Russian roulette with no stakes, instead of an emotional dilemma.


  1. I've never seen Riverdale. I have heard of the lady or the tiger. I don't think I ever knew the moral dilemma part.

  2. I’ve only heard of the one where you get the two guards who can answer one question. One always lies, the other always tells the truth, so you ask, “Which door would the other guard advise me to open?” and take the other door. But I think I’m vaguely recalling Lady or Tiger... I haven’t seen Riverdale, though my niece tells me the actor playing Archie was the white boyfriend of the African American heroine of The Hate U Give...

  3. The story was so incredibly popular and famous that it overshadowed all Stockton's other work, and he could never live up to its success again, which drove him nuts, poor guy. But he wrote a lot of charming tales. I wrote a blog post about his other stories: Fantasy Tales of Frank R. Stockton, in case you're curious.