Wednesday, May 26, 2021

King Thrushbeard

King Thrushbeard has always been one of my favorite fairy tales. Top five, easily. (The top five, in no particular order: King Thrushbeard, Prince Lindworm, Donkey Cabbages, East of the Sun West of the Moon, and Beauty and the Beast.) This is partly because (spoiler) I'm a total sucker for secret identities (I blame this on early exposure to Robin Hood and The Princess Bride), and I think partly because of a blog post I read years and years and years ago, which analyzed King Thrushbeard as a Christian allegory. It was a really fascinating post, and I wish I could link it for you, but I first encountered it over a decade ago, and I wouldn't know where to even begin looking for it now.

So recently I reread King Thrushbeard for the first time in at least five years. Which. Kind of a mistake. Some things are just better in memory. (Which is why I no longer read favorite books from my childhood. Some things you just can't bear to have ruined by, like, good taste.) 

Anyway. Let's get into it.

Our story starts with a princess who doesn't want to get married, which. Fair. But we're in a setting, where,  like, you kinda gotta anyway. Princesses in this culture are not doing a lot of marrying for love, even in fairy tales. And our girl, she's being pretty much as difficult as possible about it. Her father keeps on bringing in suitors, and she keeps on rejecting them in the rudest ways possible. Mostly stuff about their physical appearances. "I can't marry this guy; he's so fat he looks like a wine barrel." "He's so red he looks like a rooster." "His chin is so crooked it looks like a thrush's beak." Etc., etc. Except that the thrush beak one - I'm glancing through the version as I write this post and that's what it says, but in other translations I know they've said his beard looks like a thrush's nest, which makes much more sense to me because facial hair is much more easily changed than chin shape.

Now, okay, I get that marrying a total stranger to strengthen your father's political alliances isn't fun. But insulting powerful men as you reject them is just not the best idea, hon. You're gonna cause problems there. People are gonna blame your dad for your rudeness and not want to be in treaties with him anymore. Which you should know.

So. Dad gets fed up with this whole thing after princess rejects the latest batch of suitors, and swears to marry her to the next beggar that comes to the door. Minstrel beggar comes by shortly afterwards, and beggar and princess are married despite strenuous objections by both. King kicks princess out, because it's "not proper for a beggar's wife to live in the palace."

Princess and beggar walk a ways. They pass through a number of beautiful places owned by King Thrushbeard (which is what we're calling chin/beard dude now), and princess bemoans her foolishness in refusing to marry him. Out loud, which her new husband points out is pretty rude, as she's married to him now. 

Eventually they reach the tiny hut where they're going to live. Princess is shocked and horrified by lack of servants. Beggar immediately sets her to cooking and housework, neither of which she has any idea how to do. And then he decides she needs to get a job.

(Once he gets married we never see him beg again, or do any other kind of work; he just expects his brand new wife with no marketable skills to provide for him and contributes absolutely nothing to the relationship. Fantastic. Real stand-up guy.)

Princess is set to weaving baskets, but the materials cut her delicate princess hands. She's set to spinning thread, but those materials also cut her delicate princess hands, and, like, what? Exactly how delicate do your hands have to be to be cut by thread? Apparently we just have a full-on Princess and the Pea situation here. Okay.

Beggar sets her to selling pottery in the marketplace. That goes really well; people buy her pots because she's pretty and sad and they feel sorry for her. This is apparently pottery that the beggar bought from someone else, making the princess sort of the middleman here. Which is where the trouble comes in; some drunk dude on a horse comes through the market and smashes all her pots. Which she and the beggar then have to pay for.

And of course, according to the beggar, this is all her fault, because of the part of the market she chose to work in? If she'd set up somewhere else the pots wouldn't have been trampled. And, like, I'm not liking the beggar. Not an appealing character. Kind of a jerk.

He gets the princess a job as a kitchen maid at King Thrushbeard's palace. She starts smuggling food home in her pockets, which will become relevant in a minute here, because she and her husband are very poor, and food is hard to come by.

All goes well until the king's wedding day. She's got her pockets full of food, and the king - King Thrushbeard, who she so rudely rejected - demands that she, a random kitchen maid, dance with him. While they're dancing, all her pockets burst, spilling the stolen food, and she's in filthy rags in a ballroom in front of a suitor she rejected, so she makes the only logical choice and runs right out of there.

The king follows her. He says, "Surprise! I'm your beggar husband and somehow you didn't recognize me just now? I orchestrated this whole big thing - the marriage, the broken pots, that fun little wardrobe malfunction you just had - to teach you a lesson. And now that you've learned it we can live happily ever after!"

To which the princess replies, "I suck and I'm not worthy to be your wife," which. Just. Oh, honey, no. You were really rude to him once, so he made the next several months of your life a living hell. You are not the unworthy one. Why do you think you're unworthy? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Do you have Stockholm Syndrome? Is that even how Stockholm Syndrome works? Probably not, but I am Concerned.

(One of these days I'd like to make it through a whole fairy tale summary without being Concerned. Hasn't happened yet.)

So. The wedding that's happening is her surprise wedding, she changes clothes quick before the ceremony, and they live happily ever after. Good times. Our beggar/Thrushbeard was a lot more likeable in my memory before this reread.

(This post was available early on my Patreon.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Beauty and the Beast: Dream Prince

I’m going to take some time today to talk about one of my (many) favorite aspects of the original Beauty and the Beast, which I’ve somehow managed to go all these years without covering.

The Superman love triangle.

Is there some sort of official name for this phenomenon that I haven’t bothered to look up? Probably.

But you know what I’m talking about. Lois likes Clark, but she’s really hung up on Superman. So this poor guy is in competition with himself for her affections.

In “The Beauty and the Beast,” the beauty is living with a beast who proposes to her every night, and every night she says no. But she’s growing increasingly fond of him, and one of the main things preventing her from saying yes is her Dream Guy.

Now. A brief explanation of the beast’s situation here. Part of his curse is that he seems as dumb as the beast he looks like. So he’s sort of trapped inside his own head, and it’s not possible for the beauty to really get to know him.

But he’s visiting her in her dreams, as a prince - as his real self. And she’s fallen in love with the dream prince, who she hasn’t connected with the beast.

So she’s refusing to marry him because she’s in love with the person he’ll become as soon as she says yes.

Basically, it’s a mess.

And ultimately she does agree to marry the beast, when it seems he’ll die if she doesn’t. At which point we have two options.

She agreed to marry him because she does care for him deeply, even if she’s not in love with him, and has decided that she’d rather keep him alive than keep waiting on a man who might be only a figment of her imagination. In which case everything is gonna be great when he changes; she saved the beast she’s fond of, and now gets to marry the man she loves.

The beast’s near death has made her realize that it’s him she truly loves, not a man who may only be a figment of her imagination. And as soon as she realizes she loves the beast more than the man, the beast ceases to exist forever and is replaced by the man. Which is a major bummer, and much awkwardness is bound to ensue.

It’s a worse situation than Superman’s; once he comes clean to Lois, it’s all good, because Clark and Superman are the same person in different clothes. But while the beast may be fundamentally the same person he always was, the terms of his curse prevent him from acting like himself while he’s a beast. Which means that the two people the beauty is torn between are, in a way, simultaneously the same person and two different people.

And it’s just - honestly I’m not sure I see this working out well. If you’ve fallen for this big, kinda ugly guy who’s a little slow, a little dumb, are you going to be happy with a whip-smart hottie? And if the girl you like was always nice to you when you were slow and ugly, but is suddenly all over you when the spell breaks, if she agreed to marry you, but is clearly delighted when this causes you to become a radically different person from the one she agreed to marry, how are you going to feel about that?

Overall, it’s this “seem like a beast” clause that continues to be problematic. Because if you love someone, it shouldn’t really matter what he looks like, right? But if the spell changes how you act, that’’s just difficult. That fairy who cursed him knew what she was doing; he is thoroughly screwed over.