Monday, July 10, 2006

Once Upon a Time - Romance and Fairy Tales

(First of all I need to apologize for I said I would post this last week. But I got embroiled in another Ikea-adventure, which involved, among other things, a wooden bookshelf door dropping onto my foot and some major rearrangements of my library.)

Like fantasy, romance fiction employs various elements of fairy tales, a genre which has been analysed by Max Lüthi (THE EUROPEAN FOLKTALE, 1947), among others. The familiarity of romance with fairy tales becomes obvious in the structure: at the beginning, the order is disturbed; the heroine often has to leave her home (e.g. in Gaelen Foley's LORD OF FIRE) and has to master several adventures before the order is restored or a new order is established at the end of the book. Similiarly to fairy tales, this new order is usually represented by the marriage of the protagonists and/or by the birth of a child: the adventures are over, the villains punished, and hero and heroine can finally return home:

". . . they raced across the wild, windswept crags and green valleys of
Home. Their land.
And the land of their unborn babe ...
And all their sons and daughters yet to be.
(Shannnon Drake, COME THE

Contrarily to what Jeanne Dubino writes in "The Cinderella Complex: Romance Fiction, Patriarchy and Capitalism", "home" in these cases doesn't only stand for a building of a mortar and stone and most certainly does not stand for the suppression of woman and her exploitation as a houseworker in patriarchal society (compare Dubino 105-06). The term "home" in romance stands for the protagonists' love for each other and for a new harmony in their relationship.

Apart from using structural elements of fairy tales, several romance novels also refer to specific fairy tales, most importantly:

A) "Beauty and the Beast": in this case, the hero embodies the beast, which is emphasised by animal or demon similes, metaphors and nicknames. Paranormal romance even goes one step further: here the hero is not just described as a beast, he is a beast: a supernatural being, often a shapeshifter, as in Christine Feehan's Carpathian series. The heroine is often forced to stay in his home (e.g., in Foley's LORD OF FIRE) or he comes into possession of hers, either by conquering it (e.g., in Penelope Williamson's KEEPER OF THE DREAM) or by receiving it as a gift from his king (e.g., in Drake's COME THE MORNING). It falls to the heroine to conquer and tame the beast, "to change [the hero] from an emotionally frigid Neanderthal into a sensitive, caring, nurturing human being", yet with his warrior qualities still intact (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, "The Romance and the Empowerment of Women" 58).

B) "Cinderella": the heroine in romance is often poor and has a lesser social status than the hero. Their love story consequently bears a resemblance to the Cinderella tale, and while only few heroines become actual princesses, they do become countesses/duchesses (in historical romances) or the wives of a multi-millionaires (in contemporary romances, especially category romances).

Despite all these similarities to fairy tales, it is important to realize romance (and fantasy, for that matter) differs from fairy tales in one important point: in contrast to the latter romance is set in reality, albeit a fictional one. Thus, even though romance uses elements of the fairy tale genre, it does not share its most important characteristics as described by Max Lüthi: romances are in set in specific places not just in "a forest", in "a village"; the characters are three-dimensional and, thus, they age, learn from their experiences, bleed and hurt when cut, and experience a host of emotions. In romance characters are individuals with individual names (the only names that appear in fairy tales are either nicknames like Little Red Riding Hood or commonplace names like Jack/Hans, Gretel); they are usually neither completely good nor completely bad.

The vital difference between romance/fantasy fiction and fairy tales becomes especially pronounced when magical gifts like gems and flowers falling out of one's mouth while talking come into play: in the "real" life of fiction such a gift turns out to be immensely impractical: "'I can still say 'morning,' ' Rowena growled, 'but I'm deleting the other word [i.e. good] from my vocabulary. Rose thorns hurt when they scrape across your lips'" (Elisabeth Waters, "The Birthday Gift" 104).


  1. I hope your foot is better now. And I don't think you need to apologise for lateness - this entry was one well worth waiting for.

  2. I'm glad you've enjoyed it, Laura! :) The foot is still in one piece, but has changed colour. A bit. Perhaps it thinks it's a chameleon!

  3. Clearly the door is a magic door, with the unusual power to change people's skin colour. You're very lucky you didn't let it touch more of you, or you could have ended up multicoloured all over. You're also lucky in that I'm fairly sure this sort of enchantment wears off after a few days, so your foot should be back to normal soon. I hope your quest for the perfect shelving solution is successful.

    At my house, we need the Pied Piper of Hamlin to come and visit, because there are too many mice, and they're becoming very bold. I'd make sure I paid him, though.