This is Tales for Willful Readers , a monthly column by Cate Fricke on the lasting power of folk and fairy tales, how they have influenced us individually and collectively, and the lessons they offer for modern life.
My husband and I have been together for nine years; we’ve heard all of each other’s stories, more than a few times over. But recently we did an exercise where we each wrote down on paper three things that we have never told the other person, and likely never would. We folded the papers up and exchanged them, but did not open or read them.
Holding the paper scrawled with stories that I would never hear, buzzing with curiosity about someone I know so well, was both exciting and bittersweet. Knowing my husband’s secrets was completely beside the point. The point, at least for me, was the vulnerability, the feeling of curiosity itself, and the recognition that we do not need to fully know our partners to love them—in fact, that not fully knowing them may be what keeps the love light flickering.
Illustration by Walter Crane, 1911 / image via NYPL
One of the most recognizable fairy tales in the Western canon is undoubtedly “Sleeping Beauty,” originally called so by Charles Perrault, and then called “Brier Rose” by the Grimms. A beautiful princess is cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel. Once she does, she and all the inhabitants of the castle around her, from maidservant to hen, fall into a sleep that lasts one hundred years, only to be broken by the arrival of a prince. Disney’s take on the tale placed much emphasis on “true love’s kiss” as the spell-breaking element, an invented turn of phrase that exists nowhere in written versions. The meeting in the woods between Aurora and Prince Phillip is a devised flourish, as is Snow White’s flirtatious duet with her prince at the beginning of her animated Disney film, and any number of pre-ball conversations between Cinderella and her eventual groom in the many live-action film versions of her tale.
It seems obvious to me that, despite “true love’s kiss” being a modern invention, modern audiences find the idea of “true love” contained in a single first impression—the sight of the beloved at a party or sleeping on a golden bed—troubling, or at least hard to believe, which is why filmmakers feel the need to flesh out these relationships out just a tad. Yet while the three tales I’ve just mentioned are usually the first ones that we think of when the words “fairy tale romance” are mentioned, there exist countless fairy tales from many different cultures that feature couples with truly strong, loving bonds that are based not on a random meeting or on physical beauty, but on endured trials and determination.
In a Scottish tale called “The Hoodie-Crow,” three farmer’s daughters sit by a stream cleaning their clothes when a crow arrives and asks the eldest daughter if she will marry him. “Indeed, I won’t wed thee,” she answers, “for an ugly brute is the hoodie.” The second sister responds the same, but the third accepts his offer: “Indeed, I will wed thee; a pretty creature is the hoodie.”
Once they wed, the crow asks his bride whether she would rather he be a bird by night and a man by day, or the other way around. The bride, to whom this option is a pleasant surprise, chooses to have her husband as a man by day and a crow by night, and they live that way very happily . . . for a time. When their three children are taken from them and the husband is spirited away by magical forces, the bride must endure an arduous journey disguised as a blacksmith to find her unique beloved and restore their family.
Illustration by H. J. Ford from ‘The Lilac Fairy Book,’ edited by Andrew Lang. Published in 1910 by Longmans, Green, and Co.
“The Hoodie-Crow” belongs to the type of tales categorized as “the search for the lost husband.” A more famous example of this tale type is the Norwegian fairy tale “East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon,” a beautiful story in which a youngest daughter weds a terrifying bear only to discover that he is a handsome, enchanted young man who casts off his bear pelt in the dark hours of night. A cousin to “Beauty and the Beast,” this tale type has firm roots in Greek mythology, with the story of Cupid and Psyche.
Both Psyche and the Norwegian heroine break a promise to their bridegroom when they light a candle in order to see their husband’s human form, thus chasing him off and beginning a quest that will take them to the ends of the earth, often in some kind of disguise, to find him again. Some brides wear horseshoes and men’s clothing, some brides wear seven-league boots; some ride on the coattails of violent winds and accept gifts from the moon; some encounter their lost children living in strange forest huts. Whatever trials the brides and their bridegrooms endure, their tales end with a happy reunion brought about by cunning and persistence, when the brides force their husbands to recognize them through the veils of spells under which they’ve been cast, and successfully guide them home.
For several months now, I’ve tried to befriend the crows that live in my neighborhood by tossing peanuts out into my yard each morning. So far, only the blue jays have been brave enough to swoop down—which they do, in surprisingly gratifying flurries—but the crows remain aloof, occasionally circling the yard and cawing down at me with caution.
A friend asked me what I would do once the crows decided they could trust me. “Teach them to steal things for me,” I joked. “Jewels. Babies.”
The truth is more enigmatic. I don’t know what kind of reward I might receive for my persistent peanut-tossing, except the warmth of being appreciated and acknowledged by beings that I can never truly understand, and that can never understand me, either. I couldn’t catch one to keep as a pet, nor would I want to; I could not learn what secrets they keep. But each morning I’m out on my deck or at the kitchen window, watching for them to fly over. Sometimes my husband joins me. It’s a kind of romance.
Stories that end in marriage with the infamous line “and they lived happily ever after” make love seem like the answer to a question; the “fix” to a lifetime’s worth of problems. I’ve often made excuses for these tales—marriage was one of the very few ways in which a young woman could escape a situation of abuse or adversity at home, and to tack an advantageous marriage onto the end of a story is just one way to tell your audience that the heroine they’ve come to care about is going to be just fine—less romantic, of course, than “true love,” but somewhat empowering in a certain light.
Tales like “The Hoodie-Crow” and “East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon,” however, are truly about love in a way that “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” can’t hope to be, and much of that has to do with the fact that love is not treated like the key to a final door, but the force that drives you to walk through whatever mysteries might lay beyond. What these stories have in common might read like bullet points in an article about the realities of marriage: the discarding of first impressions, mutual trials and tribulations, changes in character, and determination as the most important factor in preserving or saving a relationship.
Illustration from a scene in ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ by Kay Rasmus Nielsen, 1914 / image via NYPL
These stories also speak to me about how, when you are sharing a life with another person, there is always something new to learn about them, as well as things you will never know. In some cases, the brides are told the backstory of their husbands’ enchantment; in some cases, they aren’t. What matters is not the answer to the question, but that the women make the choice to do whatever it takes to find their loves, proving themselves not only worthy of a full and faithful love, but worth their husbands’ serious consideration as well. These tales could be said to be the most character-driven fairy tales in existence, which to me means that their observations about love and romance are perhaps the truest to life.
To say that I believe in fairy tale romance of this kind is not to dismiss what stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and other more well-known tales have to offer, but to recognize the difference between romantic infatuation and the long, brave process that is true love. While the most famous stories may come with implicit advice such as “nice looks and a good attitude will raise you above your station” (or even “you look really pretty when you’re sleeping”), more esoteric tales contain real lessons: Love is not a one-and-done deal, and what “saving” occurs is not specific to gender. Both parties in a relationship must struggle to show their true selves to their partner, and in doing so they may strengthen the bonds that they’ve already formed.
There’s another, slightly odder fairy tale that I adore, which doesn’t fit with the “lost husband” tales but which still speaks to the same love lessons they contain: In “Jorinda and Joringel” by the Brothers Grimm, a pair of betrothed lovers wander too close to a witch’s castle, and both fall under an enchantment. Jorinda is turned into a bird and kept with other bird-maidens in a tower filled with wicker baskets. Joringel pursues her, but is unable to move due to the protections the witch has placed on her castle. He leaves and spends “a long time” in a neighboring village before finding the solution to his problem. When he finally does, he returns and sets Jorinda and the other maidens free.
Illustration by H. Weim, 1864 / image via NYPL
I like this tale not only because it depicts a couple that is already committed, or because it features my favorite trope, a wickedly creative witch. I like it for its uncanny sense of the inexplicable—for example, the scene in which the pair walks in the woods together on a beautiful afternoon, before their trials begin:
The turtledoves were singing mournfully in the old beech trees, and at times Jorinda wept. Then she sat down in the sunshine and sighed, and Joringel sighed too. They became very sad as if they were doomed to die.
You could say they are feeling the effects of the witch’s spells already, or even, if you wanted to get Freudian about it, that they’ve just experienced le petit mort that comes from losing their virginity to each other. But I prefer to let the mystery be, as the song goes, because their sorrow feels so very familiar. Love is painful and surprisingly sad, and even the happiest of moments may hide important reminders that we cannot own one another, and that a life is not enough time to learn how. What we can do is follow each other, even when our partner turns into a wary bird and flies away.
Love is not born in public encounters or ceremonies, but in the quiet ways that we reveal ourselves; how we notice and love and accept our partners when they take on new, surprising forms. How someone can seem special in ways that only you can appreciate, and yet be a mystery still. There is still a happily ever after in this kind of love, but it is doled out in batches over time, and must be savored when it comes; ideally, together. To have someone who would choose, even when happiness is lean, to search you out in whatever disguise you now hide in, just to say that they recognize you inside of it—that is true fairy tale love.