Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Love Letter to Bigamists

Right off the bat, you need to know that the Snow White story has never done much for me. This may have something to do with being traumatized before age 6 by the re-release of the Disney version (the transformation scene, oh my god), but it's also deeply rooted in my disdain for heroines who don't do anything, and distrust of stories that hold them up as role models. By now you should know that I'll take Kate Crackernuts over the fairest of them all any day of the week.

Which makes it odd that a Snow White variant is among my favorite fairy tales of all time.

Silver-tree, John Batten
"Gold-tree and Silver-tree" is different from the classic version, though, in all the ways that matter. The Scots felt no need to whitewash the mother's murderous designs on her biological daughter; Silver-tree, the evil queen, even couches her single successful plot in a false solicitude for Gold-tree's well-being. Gold-tree has a modicum of sense; when she sees Silver-tree's ship coming for her, she knows perfectly well that her mother wants to kill her, and that she needs to hide. But the biggest difference, and the reason why I love this version, lies in the actions of the prince.

In the Grimms' Snow White, the prince is at best a moron and at worst a necrophiliac. Either way, he is primarily a plot device. And in "Gold-tree and Silver-tree," that's exactly how he starts out. Right after Silver-tree finds out that Gold-tree is more beautiful than she is, up rides the prince, seeking Gold-tree's hand in marriage. Problem solved: Gold-tree marries the prince, her father slips Silver-tree a goat's heart, and for bonus points, Gold-tree and the prince actually fall in love. Everything's perfect until Silver-tree realizes that Gold-tree's alive, sticks a poisoned dart in her finger, and sails back home, presumably cackling all the way.

Death of Gold-tree, Michelle Hunt
Point one in the prince's favor: He doesn't try to kiss, sleep with, or otherwise perform acts of dubious consensuality on the seemingly-dead body of his wife. (He does keep her unblemished corpse in a locked room, but he can't really be blamed for that, since it's plot-relevant and he's grieving for his lost love. At least, I cut him some slack on that. And I bet poor Talia would, too.)

And then things get really interesting. The prince remarries.

So. It's a fairy tale. We already know that Gold-tree's not really dead. But no one in the story does. This may be the one and only time where I'm glad to see characters not operating in full awareness of fairy tale logic. I'll pull out my hair and scream at clueless third brothers and innocent girls victimized by their stepsisters, wondering why the hell they don't wise up. But here, I'm completely on board, because what's happening is that real-life logic is superseding fairy tale logic. Of course the prince would remarry. He's a prince, and he didn't have any kids with Gold-tree. It's his job, regardless of the fact that he still mourns the woman he loved.

Gold-tree, Morris Meredith Williams
And then, he wins my undying love, because his second wife is a complete and total badass. When he forgets to take the key to Gold-tree's locked room, she Bluebeards in there and finds the body of her predecessor. Does she go all "other woman" on poor defenseless Gold-tree? Does she cook her in a stew? Does she confront her husband about the near-literal skeleton in his closet?

Nope. She just takes out the poisoned dart. And when the prince gets home, she tells him right away, "Hey, I woke up your first wife, and you obviously still love her, so I'll just peace out and let you two lovebirds get back together." Is there anyone else in fairy tales who freely walks away from a love conflict with sincere goodwill? Is there anyone in the real world who can do that? The second wife basically thumbs her nose at fairy tale convention, while at the same time making us desperate to keep her around. I love her for it.

Two Princesses, One Prince, V-Eclipse
Point two in the prince's favor: He made a very intelligent second marriage.

Point three in the prince's favor: As soon as the second wife offers to step out, he refuses to let her. She says she'll go away. His exact words in reply? "Oh! indeed you shall not go away, but I shall have both of you."

This guy is so cool. Maybe not smart enough to just take the dart out of his first wife's finger, but totally smart enough to marry a woman with brains, to value her for her intelligence, and to let his first and second loves know that he cherishes them both equally.

It's hardly conventional, either in fairy tales or in the world we live in. But I have to think that this is one awesome three-way marriage. No one is superior: Gold-tree owes her life to the second wife, who owes her continued place to the prince, who owes his happiness to both of them. It's impossible to feel like anyone's an interloper here, because they all play integral parts in the relationship. Plus we get to keep the smart girl on the heroes' team. This is a total win for everyone involved.

The clincher of it all, vindicating the prince's unconventional decision, is that the second wife is solely responsible for the death of Silver-tree (remember her?). Once again, Silver-tree hears that Gold-tree's alive and comes back for more murder. Gold-tree's initial instinct - to flee, again - is firmly countermanded by the second wife, who gets them both down on the beach to say hello. Silver-tree offers Gold-tree a cup laced with poison, pulling the caring-mother card yet again in front of witnesses. Cool as a cucumber, the second wife retorts that she doesn't know where you come from, honey, but in this country the person offering a drink takes a sip first, I mean really, where are your manners. And when Silver-tree pretends to drink, the second wife just smacks the bottom of the cup so that the poison goes straight into the would-be murderess's mouth. Call me crazy, but I think that's even more karmic than Snow White's stepmother dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes. It's quick, it's elegant, and it's not nearly as grotesque.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre, eala-nedea
This is a fairy tale where real-world rules also apply. Sure, there's a talking trout and some confusion over the actual fact of death. There's also unvarnished mother-daughter darkness, the irreplaceable value of second love, and perhaps the most unconventional marriage fairy tales have to offer, portrayed in unambiguously glowing terms. I've never read a fairy tale quite like this one. With the exception of the Beauty and the Beast variants, I've never seen more interesting romantic dynamics. It's a lot more complicated and compelling than "someday my prince will come."

And it's subversive as hell. It pokes fun at the passive heroine. It giggles at the genre's conventions. A secondary character steals center stage halfway through, and the reader never looks back. It never punishes its heroes for their atypical choices, and in fact rewards the unexpected over the standard. Fairy tales exist to reinforce the status quo. But by the end of this one, you're cheering for the triumph of true love expressed through bigamy. That is gutsy like nobody's business. And more than anything else, I love this story for that very fact: that it stakes out its territory, takes a stand, and refuses to back down.

If only we could get Snow White to read it...

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