The recent PCA/ACA conference led to discussions about the happy ending in romance and Elizabeth Lane, in particular, wondered about the "codification of the HEA" and whether it had been studied from "a folklorist's perspective".
Luckily, the community of romance scholars includes Linda J. Lee, a folklorist at the University of Pennsylvania. In response to Elizabeth's question, she generously wrote a micro-paper about it via Twitter, which I'll collate below. The first tweet in the thread's here.
Yes, most European fairy tales do end happily ever after - and most
European languages have closing formulae that make this point. In
English, it's "happily ever after," but other languages change this up a
bit. For instance, in various Italian dialects, the formulaic ending is
something more like "they lived happily and here we sit without a cent." Closing formulae of Sicilian fairy tales often draw a contrast between
the circumstances of the characters in the taleworld and the
storyteller/audience in the real world. The Snake Who Bore Witness for the Maiden ends with (English
translation): They lived happily and content, but we have nothing to pay
the rent. Here's a selection from Jack Zipes' translation of Laura Gonzenbach's
Sicilian Folktales. Zipes translated from German into English
(Gonzenbach had translated from Sicilian into German when the collection
was published in 1870):
[LV - I was curious so I went off to look for Spanish fairy tale endings and
there are lots of different ones, but apparently one of the most common
is “fueron felices y comieron perdices” (they were happy and ate
But more notably, not all fairy tales end happily. My favorite example of this is a fairy tale included in the first
edition of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmarchen but omitted by the 7th
edition in 1857 called "The Children Who Played at Slaughtering." Yeah,
it ends pretty much the way you expect based on the title.
And many don't end in marriage. Take, for instance, Little Red Riding
Hood (ATU 333). In Charles Perreault's 1697 tale, the wolf eats the
grandmother and the little girl, and the audience gets a warning about
the dangers of sweet-talking wolves who follow you into your bedroom. And the Grimms' version of Little Red Riding Hood from 1812 has a male
rescuer figure that releases the grandmother and the girl from the belly
of the wolf. (My students often read this restoration as a metaphor for
marriage, but there's definitely not one on the page.) An oral version like "The Story of Grandmother" comes closest to a
happily ever after because the tricky heroine rescues herself. Plenty of
eroticism, but still no marriage. Here's the text: http://boj.pntic.mec.es/~jmarto1/01tradicion-oral/delarue.html
Even when traditional oral European fairy tales end in marriage, it's
usually not terribly romantic. The prince tries to buy comatose Snow
White, for instance. Many female protagonists are really just making the best of a terrible
situation. Some end up in marriages while running away from incestuous
fathers (like Donkeyskin, a story that bears lots of similarities to
Cinderella). Some certainly do have some romantic moments, though. But in so many others the female protagonists marry their rapists. Yeah,
early versions of Sleeping Beauty didn't awaken with a kiss. In Basile's "The Sun, the Moon, and Talia," she wakes up when one of the
twins she gives birth to sucks the piece of flax from her finger while
trying to nurse. Yep. No kiss. But she eventually marries her adulterous
rapist. So it's all good, right? There's a Sicilian fairy tale called "The Snake Who Bore Witness for a
Maiden" in which a prince rapes the heroine and then plans to marry
someone else, except for a marvelous snake who wrecks that plan.
There is a relatively recent concept of "anti-tale" that denotes fairy
tales with a parodic or inverted structure. But Don Haase rightly
criticizes this concept, because fairy tales have always had a variety
of structures and endings.
The HEA of fairy tales is, in some ways, a modern invention. Arguably an
inevitably of film adaptations that have longer stories with more
developed characters. And again - if the choice of marrying your rapist or never marrying at a
point in history when women had few choices.... Happily ever after
means something quite different.
However, if we look at the literary fairy tales from the French salon
writers (mostly women, writing for other women), there are stories with
narratives and happily ever afters that much more resembles romances. Probably the best known of these is "Beauty and the Beast," originally
published in French in a novella length by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot du
Villeneuve, then retold by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont as a
shorter story in 1756. (I'm currently revising an essay on consent in monster bridegroom
stories, including Beauty and the Beast, so this tale type is top of
mind at the moment.) If you've seen or read, oh, just about any version of Beauty and the
Beast - be it Cocteau's film or Disney's or whatever - it almost
certainly draws on Beaumont's tale (and, by extension, Villeneuve's).
But as will come as no surprise to the romance novelists and scholars
out there, the female French salon writers have largely been overlooked
by folklorists in favor of the male collectors and editors. Go figure. Elizabeth Wanning Harris has an excellent book about this - Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale.
So the French women fairy tale writers were writing longer, more complex
stories, rather than the shorter stories that are today's canonical
fairy tales. (Harries calls these "complex" and "compact" tales.) And we find stories that start to resemble romances among these stories.
Again, Beauty and the Beast is probably the best example of this.
Dr. Sandra Schwab expanded a little on some of these points:
To a large extent, the opening and closing formulae of fairy tales
became codified with what in German is called "Buchmärchen" (book fairy
tales), like the Grimms' KHM. (Just as a quick aside for non-folklorists: The term "Buchmärchen" was
introduced to denote the difference between oral fairy tale tradition
& published one. And then there's yet another category, namely, the
literary fairy tale. All these different types influence on another)
Because most of the editors of collections of "Buchmärchen" were male, as
Linda mentions, they also became infused with a greater emphasis
on patriarchal / middle-class values, as becomes nicely evident when you
compare different versions of a tale in diff eds of Grimms' KHM. I'd use the term "literary fairy tale" for the tales of those French
women writers. I haven't studied them in detail, but from the little I
read up on them, I seem to remember that many of them nicely subvert
patriarchal values of their time. You can see the same thing happening in the re-tellings of fairy tales
written by 19th-century British women writers, e.g., "The Brown Bull of
Norrowa" by Maria Louisa Molesworth.
Y colorín, colorado, este cuento se ha acabado.
[Colourin, colour red, this tale's finishèd.]