Curious Disasters: Failed Marriages in Folklore
It’s hardly a secret that folk tales exist to deliver a message. Most people can name a piece of folklore that warns about the dangers of talking to strangers, or cautions against pride. Our literary tradition is rife with stories about romance, tragic tales of failed marriages, and admonishments to be kind. Sometimes, though, I don’t think we all get the same message out of the tales.
Many commentators point to the story of Bluebeard as one warning of the dangers of feminine curiosity — a tale in the tradition of Pandora’s box, or the apple in the garden of Eden. Female curiosity is often pointed to as a sin, and many cultures have similar tales.
Bluebeard is a folk tale about a wealthy French man who leaves his wife alone with his house and his riches. He gives her a key ring that will let her into all the rooms in the house, except that there is one she is not allowed to enter. Of course, she does, and that’s where she discovers the bloody corpses of Bluebeard’s former wives. She drops the key and runs, and when he comes home unexpectedly early, he finds the bloody key and tries to kill her too, but a relative intervenes and saves her by killing Bluebeard.
There are many variants of the tale, of course. In many versions, she isn’t rescued, and dies a horrible death. Ursula Vernon, a children’s author and Hugo-award winning artist, wrote my favorite version of the tale. It’s called Bluebeard’s Wife, and is set after Bluebeard’s death from presumably natural causes.
This morning as I was driving to work, I realized how similar the tale of Bluebeard is to ghost stories like the Yellow Ribbon (or green, or black… as with any folktale, there are many variations), which is about a woman who will not tell her husband why she wears a ribbon around her throat. Soon enough, he is overcome by curiosity and removes her ribbon — which makes her head fall off. It’s just one of the many failed marriages in folklore, though few endings are as drastic.
Yet I rarely see them juxtaposed against their counterparts where it is the men whose curiosity leads to failed marriages. So often, the moral is considered gendered. There are stories of this nature, though, once you dig deep enough… which leads me to believe that we shouldn’t consider these morals to be about curious wives or bad husbands at all — but rather inconsiderate people. I don’t think the problem is curiosity at all, but rather failure to comply with a relatively simple request from someone you love, that leads to failed marriages.
Curiosity killed the cat — but satisfaction brought him back.
In European folklore, there is often a condition attached to any pairing of fay and mortal. Melusine, perhaps the most famous mermaid after Disney’s Ariel, required that her husband not enter her chamber on Sundays. He violated that simple request, and insulted her in public with information he learned by walking in on her. She turned into a dragon and left him, never to return… following in the footsteps of her mother’s failed marriage. Pressyne left her husband when he failed to follow her wish that she be left alone while bathing the children in the birthing chamber
The Welsh have a story called Lady of the Lake, where a young man manages to woo an incredibly beautiful woman, the daughter of an immortal, who warns him that if he strikes three “causeless blows” against her, she will leave. They are very happy, until she asks him to fetch her riding gloves and he flicks her with them, playfully. She warns him that this is the first causeless blow. Later, he taps her on the shoulder to ask why she is crying at a christening, and after she explains that the baby will have a painful life due to its weakness, she explain that he’s struck the second blow. He swears up and down that he won’t do it again, but when she laughs at a funeral, he does the same thing, so she explains that it’s strike three and she’s out of there.
Now, some might say that what he did wasn’t worth leaving him over. That all he did was tap her, after all — it wasn’t like he was beating her. But he had three chances to figure out that she didn’t want to be touched in that way, and he never learned his lesson. It reminds me of that post by Matthew Frey, about how his wife left him because he left his dishes in the sink — but it’s much more than that… a situation so common it’s made its way into folklore, though failed marriages are much more common in the modern era, where divorce is legal.
This morning in the car, I was listening to Bruno Mars’ When I Was Your Man on the radio. It’s a song about a man looking back on a failed relationship, and there’s a line in there —
Mmm, too young, too dumb to realize
That I should’ve bought you flowers
And held your hand
— that reminded me how much I hate what I call “apology flowers.” At the beginning of a relationship, I am always very up-front about the fact that I love getting flowers… except when the person who’s giving them to me has done something to upset me and is trying to make up for it. They make me feel cheap, and invalidated — as though my happiness and forgiveness can be bought. Maybe it seems stupid, but if a man kept buying me flowers after I was upset… I’d leave, and no doubt friends would think I was crazy for breaking up with a man for (oh no!) buying me flowers. Except, failing to follow my clearly stated wishes would be a recipe for a failed marriage. If I can’t trust him to not buy flowers, then how can I trust him to give me what I need in the broader sense?
Yet fundamentally, these aren’t mistakes that men make, or women make — they’re mistakes that people make, both genders, to not respect the conditions established at the beginning of a relationship.
I think a lot of people have that one request of the people in their lives, the one that is a little weird and makes them disproportionately angry if that condition is violated. Does anyone have any they’d like to share?