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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Finding Happily Ever After

by Paula Davidoff

       “…and they lived happily ever after.”
No matter how often I say those words as I move from classroom to classroom through a school day, they make me feel, well, happy. Other traditional endings to folk and fairy tales are clever or amusing but, for me, “happily ever after” is the most satisfying. It puts the world back into balance.
Except when it doesn’t.

Recently, in a high school where Gerry Fierst and I are teaching a long-term Storytelling Arts residency, I told the Grimm’s Allerleirauh to an eleventh grade English literature class. The story is a tale of the Arne-Thompson grouping 510B, unnatural love. The classroom teacher and I choose it because we thought a discussion about it would deepen students’ understanding of events in the novel they were reading for class.

I had been telling stories in this classroom since the beginning of the year and, on this day when I stood up to tell, students quickly settled in to listen. The opening of the story is familiar: a king’s beloved queen becomes ill. But it quickly moves into murkier territory. Before she dies, the queen makes her husband promise to remarry only if he can find another wife as beautiful as she. He promises, and years later, realizes that the only woman who meets his dead wife’s criterion is their daughter. So he decides to marry her.

At this moment in my telling, students woke from their listening trances with a collective groan. Questions came quickly.
“He wants to marry his daughter?”
“That’s disgusting!”
“Yes,” I confirmed, “and all of the king’s advisors reacted to his proposal exactly like you are. Listen.”
The students settled down and I continued.

When the king declared his intention to marry his daughter, everyone in the castle was aghast. The princess, especially shocked and disgusted, was not in a position to flat out refuse her father’s wish. So she agreed to marry him if he could accomplish four seemingly impossible tasks, the last of which was the gift of  “a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur and hair joined together. One of every kind of animal in your kingdom must give a bit of his skin for it.” 

The king accomplished all of the tasks and, when he presented his daughter with the cloak of many furs, she realized that she must take more drastic measures to protect herself. To this end, she left the castle and, wrapped in the cloak of many furs, journeyed past the borders of her father’s kingdom. Here she was discovered by the huntsmen of another king. Because she was covered by her cloak, the men mistook her for a strange animal and, at their king’s command took her to his castle where, when they realized that she was, at least, part human, she was put to work in the kitchen. 

In her new home, the princess was given the name Allerleirauh, or “All kinds of furs.” She was given the lowliest tasks in the kitchen and was forced to sleep in a small, dark closet. Eventually, her luck began to change when she contrived an opportunity to attend the king’s ball. She went dressed in a gorgeous gown so no one recognized the half-wild scullery maid who went about clad in a patchwork of furs. After the party, the cook ordered Allerleirauh to make a bread soup for the king. When it was ready to be served, Allerleirauh dropped a golden charm into the bowl. The king discovered the charm, asked the cook who made the soup, and demanded that the girl be sent to his chambers. When she arrived, he asked, “Who are you?”  And she replied, “I am an orphan; my parents are dead. And I am good for nothing but to have boots thrown at my head.”

There are two more nights of dancing in the story and this routine is repeated on each of them, three times in all. On the last night, the king discovers Allerleirauh’s true identity and she becomes his wife.

Once the princess left her father’s castle and the story got back into conventional “Cinderella” mode, students relaxed. They listened intently. I saw smiles of anticipation on the faces of several girls as the end of the story approached, bringing the inevitable reveal of the princess’s true identity and her marriage to the king. I sympathized with their pleasure when I gave the fairy tale couple the ritual blessing of “happily ever after,” but this time, I was not satisfied by the words. For this heroine, they didn’t ring true.

Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike. That may be true in some world, but in the world of fairy tales, I think that every happily-ever-after family is happy in its own way. Allerleirauh’s response to the king’s question about her identity can surely be interpreted to reveal the self-blame that is often felt by victims of incest. The trauma inflicted by her father’s desire led her to transform herself into a sexless, not quite human, being. The story doesn’t give us a timeline. We don’t know how long she worked in the kitchen, scouring pots and raking ashes every day and crawling into her closet each night, before she remembered that she had another identity. But her response to the king shows that, in spite of her courage to dress and dance like her former self, she had not completely overcome her shame.

Many fairy tale protagonists endure trauma: the loss of a loved one, parental abuse or rejection, narrow escapes from death. Some, like the sister in Grimm’s Seven Ravens or the youngest brother in The Wild Swans, still bear the physical scars of their trial at the end of the story. Yet, the stories end with the prediction that they will be happy. And we believe that they will; I believe that they will. Because the stories also give evidence of the characters’ strength, courage, and willingness to overcome the obstacles they encounter.

When Allerleirauh remembered that she was a princess, she dressed herself for the balls in gowns given to her by her father, gowns made of miraculous cloth she had thought he could never procure. Each dress shone like sunlight, glowed like the moon, or sparkled like stars. Like the light of recollection that was beginning to awaken in her heart, the gowns were unavoidably connected to the darkness in her past. Nevertheless, she used them to get on with her life.

I think that in a sequel to Allerleirauh, we would see that the princess did get on, but that her life was conditioned by her suffering. She may feel the experiences made her stronger or more empathetic to the effects of suffering in others, but they also made her sadder. She will remember her own father as she watches her husband interact with their children; she will wonder how different her own childhood might have been had she not been denied a mother’s love; and she will relive her days in the scullery whenever she visits the castle kitchen. But these thoughts may also help her treasure her children, appreciate her husband, and be kinder, even to the scullion.

And, like her fairy tale brothers and sisters, she will find her own way to happily ever after.

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