Angela Carter claimed that heroic optimism was an important element in fairy stories, the principle which sustained the idea of a happy ending whatever the odds. The ability of the hero/heroine (protagonist) to remain hopeful while enduring their respective trials and torments impels the reader to continue to hope that the inevitable resolution will be a happy one. In most fairy-tales the happy ending is an essential consequence of the journey, actual and physical, of the protagonist through the tale. Natalie Babbitt defined ‘The Happy Ending’ as:
something which goes much deeper [than a simple ‘happily ever after’], something which turns a story ultimately toward hope rather than resignation…” (Babbitt in Haviland, (1973) p. 158)
As a result of this hope, Babbitt said that
Wilbur can escape an early death, Cinderella can be Queen, Bilbo can outwit the dragon, and the ugly duckling can become a swan. Not without pain, not without violence, not without grief; but in the end, somehow, everything will always by all right.” (Ibid, p. 159)
Apart from a few exceptional tales, the storyteller’s audience (usually young girls), and the text’s readers, are able to anticipate, while enduring the hardships as the protagonist goes through them, the resolution of these difficulties in a positive and happy way – in other words a consolation, for all participants, for the rigours thus endured. Tolkien refers to:
[this] consolation of fairy stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe [eucatastrophe], the sudden joyous ‘turn’ … this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’ or fugitive’. In its fairy-tale – or otherworld-setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of the dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (Tolkien, (1964) p. 60; (1992) p. 175)
The notion that “this joy is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive’ “ leads us back to his idea that the world of ‘faerie’ is ‘otherworld’, or of a secondary world of the author’s devising. The fact that the reader suspends belief in the real world to enter this secondary world does not mean that he/she is running away from the former. After all, upon reaching the conclusion (hopeful happy ending) of the ‘otherworld’ story, the real world must be re-entered. The fact that the reader does so, armed with hope and joy, is a bonus, an advantage for him/her to help deal with the problems encountered there. As Tolkien was a highly religious man, he saw this joy linked to the joy of holy miracles, of faith and belief in the after-life, and the joy he believed would be the reward when finally united with God in Heaven – thus his use of the word ‘evangelium’.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give the child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (Tolkien, (1992) p. 175 – 176)
I have personally experienced this ‘turn’ when reading Tolkien’s own works – a little for THE HOBBIT but many times, very strongly for THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It is a tangible ‘turn’, which no doubt young readers of fairy-tales would experience. My belief that Tolkien is the ultimate authority on fairy-stories was backed up by my research – most reference material I studied quoted the above statement by Tolkien, in part or in full, to illustrate and support their particular theories.
In my selected fairy tales: DONKEY-SKIN (H/O), THE SIX SWANS (H/O), and PRINCE AMILEC (Zipes, pp 48 – 54), there was a point in each story when a joyous ‘turn’ of events occurred – when the story moved from trials and sorrow to happiness and reward for the protagonists.
In DONKEY SKIN, by Perrault, the princess first had to go through the sorrow of leaving her home to escape the incestuous attentions of her father; the trials of wearing the donkey-skin and toiling as a scullion in the kitchen of a farmhouse; and the derision and harassment from the servants; before being eligible for the joy and glory of winning her prince. Of course she required the assistance of her fairy godmother to achieve her escape from home, and the acquisition, not only of the three beautiful gowns (the colour of the sky, the moon, and the sun), but also of the donkey-skin, with which she disguised herself.
Throughout her trials Donkey-Skin did not give up hope of deliverance from her menial situation. This was evident by her ritual cleansing and dressing in her gowns on Sundays, and when having seen the prince from a distance
[she] admired him with a tender look. Thanks to her courage, she realized that she still had the heart of a princess beneath her dirt and rags. ( Ibid, p. 71)
This equates with heroic oprimism – appearing to propel the tale towards its happy ending.
I believe that there were several places in the text where the joyous ‘turn’ of events occurred. The first was when the prince saw Donkey-Skin, dressed in all her finery, through the key-hole.
[T]he prince kept peeking at her, scarcely breathing because he was filled with such pleasure. …. Three times he was on the verge of entering her room because of the ardor that over-whelmed him, but three times he refrained out of respect for the seemingly divine creature he was beholding. (Zipes, (1989) p. 71)
While this was a joyous event for the prince, the reader knows that it was also a turning point in the tale for Donkey-Skin. The next joyous event occurred when Donkey-Skin put the ring on her finger, dressed in her finest gown, and entered the court. Once again the tale focussed on her beautiful gown, her physical beauty and her majestic bearing, and on the reactions of the courtisans, King, Queen and prince rather than on the princess’s happiness (which the reader is left to assume). Finally, at the wedding, the bride’s father,
who had purified the criminal and odious fires that had ignited his spirit in the past, [and] the flame that was left in his soul had been transformed into devoted paternal love, (Ibid, p. 74)
also had a joyous moment when reunited with his daughter. “Weeping with joy, he embraced her tenderly.” (Ibid, p. 74) Once again everyone shared his moment, even the fairy godmother, who “told the entire story … [which] culminated in Donkey-Skin’s glory.” (Ibid, p. 74) However, I believe that Perrault deflated the joy of the happy ending by his over-abundance of moralizing.
In THE SIX SWANS, by the Grimm brothers, the sister of the swan-brothers undertook a difficult task in order to free them from their step-mother’s spell. Her brothers told her that, to achieve this:
For six years you may neither speak nor laugh, and in that time you must sew together six little shirts of starwort for us. If one single word falls from your lips, all your work will be lost. (Grimm, (1975) p. 234)
It was considered a trial indeed for a female (that loquacious creature) not to speak or laugh. It also meant that Donkey-Skin had no means of either explaining her identity to the King, or defending herself against the false accusations of her mother-in-law. She suffered sorrow at the separation from her father and her brothers, and grief at the loss of her babies. Our hope is kept alive by the King’s defence of his wife:
She is too pious and good to do anything of that kind; if she were not dumb, and could defend herself, her innocence would come to light. (Ibid, p. 236)
But it is dashed again when even he had to deliver her to justice, after the disappearance of the third baby.
In this tale we are given concrete evidence of her joy, the ‘turn’ occurring as she stood at the stake with the shirts over her arm.
S]he looked around and six swans came flying through the air towards her. Then she saw that her deliverance was near, and her heart leapt with joy.” (Ibid, p. 236)
The reader moves with her from this point onwards as she freed her brothers, who embraced her, then finally was able ot speak for herself. Her children were returned to her, the wicked mother-in-law was punished, and the happy ending was completed with the final sentence:
[T]he King and Queen with her six brothers lived many years in happiness and peace.” (Ibid, p. 237)
In PRINCE AMILEC by Tanith Lee, it was the hero, Amilec, who had to undertake difficult tasks in order to win his chosen princess. From the outset the character of this princess is exposed to the reader, but not to Amilec, who fell in love with her portrait. He was blind to her rudeness, to the page’s warning that she was frightful and that he should go home, and was determined to attempt the tasks no matter how impossible they seemed. However, upon succeeding to fulfill them, with the aid of a pretty witch and her bat, Basil, encountered not the princess’s love and gratitude, but a royal tantrum.
The reader has recognized almost immediately that the witch is far more suitable a bride for Amilec, and must wait in frustration until the ‘turn’ occurs, when he will realize this for himself. Hope is raised when the princess demanded a wedding dress:
By this time Amilec was getting a bit fed up with her tantrums, but he thought that, of all her demands, this was the most reasonable. ( Zipes, (1986) p. 53)
When the witch delivered the dress, wearing it to display its beauty, he was stunned – ‘the scales fell from his eyes’. In front of the court he declared:
“How can I have been so blind! You are the most beautiful girl I have ever met. You are also the kindest. May I humbly ask you to be my wife? I promise to look after Basil, and I’ll live in the cave, if it will make things easier.” (Ibid, p. 54)
To say that the hero was optomistic in this tale would be untrue. However, he was determined, in the face of seemingly impossible odds, to persist till the end. Having formed an alliance with the witch, who completed his task for him, he was able to face each subsequent task more hopefully, looking after Basil and collecting seaweed while she did so. Thus, the hope of the happy ending was sustained throughout the tale.
The joy of the happy ending is not as remote from the reader in this tale, due to the involvement of that reader throughout the tale. Not only did Amilec and the witch live happily ever after, but the princess was happily allowed to travel, leading the story to begin its cycle once again. The reader knows that she also will suceed, if the tale follows it pattern truly.
In conclusion, I reiterate that the hope held by the protagonist of the tale, prepares the way for the happy ending, and is an essential component of the fairy tale, whether the trials be insignificant or enormous. Tales that have no joyous ‘turn’, no happy ending, are unsatisfying, providing no consolation for the reader. As Tolkien said, in his ‘Epilogue’ to ON FAIRY-STORIES:
The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy [fairy-stories] can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, an answer to [that truth].” (Tolkien, (1992) p. 178)
(C) Jud House 28/08/2005
TRADITIONAL LITERATURE: BIBLIOGRAPHY.
Babbitt, N. (1970) “Happy Endings? Of Course, and Also Joy.’ in Haviland, V. Editor 1973) CHILDREN AND LITERATURE Views and Reviews. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.
Buchan, J. (1931) ‘The Novel and the Fairy Tale’. in Haviland, V. Editor (1973)CHILDREN AND LITERATURE Views and Reviews. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.
Butler, F. Editor. (1975) CHILDREN’S LITERATURE VOL 4. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Gilbert, R. (1990) ‘Endings’ in MEANJIN Vol. 49 (1990)
Haviland, V. Editor. (1973) ‘Folk Literature and Fantasy’ in CHILDREN AND LITERATURE Views and Reviews. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.
Le Guin, Ursula. (19 ) ‘This Fear of Dragons’ in THE THORNY PARADISE: Writers on Writing for Children. Blishen, E. Editor. Harmondsworth, UK: Kestrel Books
Lewis, C.S. (1952) ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children.’ in BOURNEMOUTH CONFERENCE PAPERS AND DISCUSSION. Library Association Proceedings.
Liberman, Anatoly. (1985) ‘Between Myth and the Wondertale.’ in MYTH IN LITERA-TURE. Kodjak, A., Pomorska, K., Rudy,S. Editors. Columbia, Ohio: Slavica Publishers Inc.
Kegan, Paul Editor. (1975) ‘The Six Swans.’ from THE COMPLETE GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES. London: Routledge. (H/O)
Perrault, Charles. ‘Donkey-Skin.’ from Zipes, J. Editor (1989) BEAUTIES, BEASTS AND ENCHANTMENT. Meridian: Penguin.
Philip, Neil. (1989) THE CINDERELLA STORY; The Origins and Variations of the Story known as Cinderella. Penguin Books Ltd.
Shavit, Z. (1986) ‘The Notion of Childhood and Texts for the Child.’ in POETICS OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE. Athens & London: University of Georgia Press.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1964) ON FAIRY-STORIES. in POEMS AND STORIES. Williamson F.R. & Tolkien C.R. Editors. London: Harper Collins Publishers (1992)
Yolen, Jane. Editor. (1986) FAVOURITE FOLKTALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD. Pantheon.
Zipes, Jack. Editor. (1993) DON’T BET ON THE PRINCE; Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. U.K.: Scolar Press
Zipes, Jack. (1983) FAIRY TALES AND THE ART OF SUBVERSION. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
Zipes, Jack. (19 ) ‘On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children.’ in BREAKING THE MAGIC SPELL: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. H/O London: Heinemann.
Zipes, Jack. (1986) ‘Fairy Tale as Myth Myth as Fairy Tale.’ in THE BROTHERS GRIMM: FROM ENCHANTED FORESTS TO THE MODERN WORLD. New York & London: Routledge.
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