Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shut Up, You're Only Getting Married

What is the deal with fathers in legends? Either they're criminally neglectful and allow their second wives to mistreat their daughters, or they're stiflingly protective and would rather kill a guy than let him say boo to his baby girl. It's as if the state of being the father of an attractive young woman triggers a chemical reaction that turns even the mildest of dads into psychotic serial killers.

You think I'm kidding? The father of the Twelve Dancing Princesses killed an unspecified number of princes before the soldier came along. Forgall sent Cuchulainn to fight a deadly warrior woman before he'd let him marry Emer. Ysbaddaden practically replicated the labors of Hercules to keep Culhwch from marrying Olwen (although to be fair, that was also to preserve Ysbaddaden's own life). And then there was the total nutjob who was so opposed to the idea of his daughter having a life of her own that he locked her on top of a glass mountain. They do say your kids drive you crazy, but that is just uncalled for.

Atalanta and Melanion, John Dickson Batten
And then there's Atalanta.

Full disclosure: this girl is My Girl. I wanted to be her when I grew up. I spent hours practicing my running, hoping one day to be as fast as her. She was a bow-shooting, speed-racing, take-no-prisoners badass, and I was dazzled from day one. But even I couldn't turn a blind eye to the engagement challenge that she, not her father, dreamed up. Beat her in a race or die? There's loading the dice, and then there's not even playing.

I always thought that that absurdly cruel challenge was a power play between Atalanta and her father. "You want to marry me off? Fine. But we'll do this my way, and even then you won't really be able to pretend you've got any say in my life." Dozens of poor saps, as infatuated as I was, got sent to their deaths for something that had absolutely nothing to do with them.

Atalanta's engagement challenge is doubly unique: 1) The potential bride gets input, and 2) her input creates the challenge. The other promised girls rarely get a word in edgewise about what they think of the unnumbered men who die for their sakes. Emer slips out of a marriage proposal while she's waiting for Cuchulainn, but only because Fiance Number Two decides not to be a jerk and steal Our Hero's girl. The Twelve Dancing Princesses certainly connive at their suitors' deaths, but their actions are never judged within the story, and they never comment on how they feel about dooming these men.

The Prince Enters the Briar Wood, Edward Burne-Jones
The worst-case scenario, as in so many other things, is poor Sleeping Beauty. No one ever asks her what she wants. She exists in limbo while men die in sight of her tower. None of it is her fault - unlike Atalanta, she has no say in whether or not anyone dies - but what a lot of baggage to wake up to. The knowledge that a century of death and pain went on while you slept, unaware and unable to help, must be devastating.

Culhwch at Ysbaddaden's Court, Ernest Wallcousins
And what about someone like Olwen, where the choice is between your father's life and your future? Culhwch kills Ysbaddaden at the end of the story without a second thought, neatly getting vengeance for a broken promise, fulfilling the gimmick of the plot, and securing his task-free life with his blissful bride. Except for the bit about how he just cut her father's head off. Have fun with that in marriage counseling. Would Olwen be happy with Culhwch, who after all is brave and stubborn enough to fulfill her father's insane challenges, or would she prefer to have her dad alive? Or was there someone else she'd rather have married? Or did she want to get married at all? No one ever asks.

The fulfillment of the challenge is always treated as the bride's answer: of course she'll marry the hero! He's jumped through all these hoops for her sake! It would be a total bitch move, not to mention anticlimactic, if she refused him! No one wonders what life would be like, married to a prince who happened by the castle on the right day, or to a guy who'd let her dad get flayed and beheaded, or to a girl who'd have sent you to die without regrets if you hadn't happened to toss her a few shiny apples. Sometimes the story goes out of its way to prove that there will be a happy ending: Olwen does in fact fall in love with Culhwch, Emer holds out for Cuchulainn, Atalanta and Hippomenes actually get busted by the gods for having too much sex. But what about the soldier, married to a Dancing Princess who wanted him dead? What about Sleeping Beauty and the prince from another century? What about all the rescued princesses who get handed over to whatever schlub pries them free from the dragon, or the wizard, or the sacrificial knife?

Brides are mute. No one's interested in what they have to say, unless they're a wild card like Atalanta, and the most even she can do is amend the engagement challenge rather than dispense with it completely. When brides try to have a say in their future, it's disregarded. The most Olwen can do to help Culhwch is to get him an audience with Ysbaddaden, at which the men do all the talking despite Olwen's presence; after that, she has to sit around and wait for outside factors to decide her fate. Sleeping Beauty's castle throws a wedding party about ten seconds after waking up. Spell or no spell, that is no way to treat a disoriented sixteen-year-old in the grip of someone else's will (in this case, the goddamn fairy who was supposed to fix her life). We know it'll work out; we flipped to the end and saw "Happily Ever After." But the implications of the silencing of the women at the moment of crucial choice are terrifying. A fairytale bride's entire culture conspires jointly to shut her up at the very moment when her voice should be heard. And this is the happy ending.

For extra weirdness, often the stated reason for an engagement challenge is to ensure that the prospective bride's husband is "worthy of her." If you care so much about your daughter's welfare and happiness, wouldn't it make more sense to ask her what she thinks?

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