Folktales are fictional, formulaic stories that circulate in oral and written traditions. Long before Game of Thrones, such tales offered similarly entertaining and even macabre plots to delight, amaze, moralize, and pass the time before widespread literacy and media.
We know folktales are untrue. We know that “once upon a time” never really happened, that Cinderella wasn’t a real person, and that if a horse or donkey starts talking to you, you have bigger problems than whatever quest it’s about to help you on.
So why do we keep retelling them?
And moreover, why do we keep telling stories like “Beauty and the Beast” that feature a human and a non-human falling in love and getting married?
Hold on a second: In the classic French fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”—first penned by Madame Villeneuve in 1740, and condensed into the version made popular by Disney by Madame Beaumont in 1756—Beauty doesn’t literally marry the Beast. He transforms first—though in the older versions, he asks her every night to marry him or sleep with him.
But this tale has relatives. Lots of them. Ones in which beauties literally marry beasts. And it doesn’t always go so well.
In “King Pig,” written by Italian author Gianfrancesco Straparola in the 1550s, a queen gives birth to a son who has been enchanted by fairies to take the shape of a pig until he is wed three times. His first wife snubs his filthy animal form in bed and plots to kill him. He kills her first, striking her with his sharp hooves. The same thing happens with the second wife, though the third embraces him and is eventually rewarded with a handsome (and human) husband.
There are animal brides, as well. While the Grimms’ version of “The Frog King” is perhaps better known than tales of frog wives, they do exist. Russian versions of the tale feature a youngest son, a prince, who must wed a frog. She is an enchanted princess but doesn’t reveal this until he is thoroughly humiliated by his older brothers.
The pattern seems to be that when a man weds a beast, he is at risk of being shamed, but when a woman weds a beast, she is at risk of being killed. Sound familiar?
I am reminded of the quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
In European folk and fairy tales, enchanted women tend to be frogs or cats, as in the eloquent tale “The White Cat” by French writer Madame d’Aulnoy. Enchanted men are fearsome beasts (and occasionally frogs), as with the giant white bear in the Norwegian tale “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” or with the wyvern (a dragon-like creature) in the Danish tale “King Wivern.”
These kinds of stories go far beyond Europe. Animal marriage is a global motif, if not a universal one. As is the case with all folklore, the tropes get rearranged in endless variations that resonate with the values of the people telling the tales.
There are plenty of Japanese folktales about animal spouses (it rarely goes well, though snake brides are very considerate when they inevitably leave, as they pluck out their eyeballs for their infants to suckle on), and there are a lot of Chinese legends about ghost marriages leading to wealth for whichever human is lucky enough to marry into a rich family whose deceased offspring went out and got married anyway. These tales do not involve disenchantment and a happily-ever-after—not for the non-human spouse, anyway.
Globally, the pattern tends to be one of discord: Whatever gender the non-human partner is, they are not meant for this world, nor this spouse, unless there can be a permanent transformation (usually enacted by women’s emotional, domestic, or sexual labor).
Is this an early version of “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus?” I’m less inclined to view these tales as prescriptive and essentialist—describing inborn or fixed traits assigned to each gender—than as symbolic ways of debating the merits of gender and marriage. Because folk and fairy tales contain fantastical motifs, not every element tracks to reality. But the magical stuff, from talking animals to flying carpets, is there for a reason. Perhaps the reason is to give a metaphorical veil to difficult social topics, ones that are not always safe to discuss openly or critically.
In Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat,” after the white cat has aided a prince in obtaining magical items on his quest, she makes him promise to do whatever she asks of him next. He swears it. She asks him to cut off her head and tail and throw them into the fire. He resists at first, then does so. Suddenly, the cat is transformed back into a beautiful woman, a princess who had been enchanted by malicious fairies.
To women, these tales say: expect violence in your marriage. You may even be asking for it.
To men, these tales say: a woman’s love will transform you.
Folklore both reflects and shapes culture; tuning into what folk and fairy tales have to say about marriage can clue us into provocative as well as unsavory ideas floating around our society. From there, it’s up to us to decide whether to invite the beast into our bedrooms, or maybe ask for some couples counseling first.
For an accessible introduction to fairy tales, see Dr. Jorgensen’s new book Fairy Tales 101