This is something I wrote a while back when I was pondering medieval tales, the lessons they teach, and how that translates into our modern world and our modern stories. Here are a few lessons:
Don’t go into the forest
Sometimes princes turn into evil monsters
Be wary of who you allow in the house
This is what I wrote about princes turning into monsters.
Back in the middle ages girls, especially a wealthy or noble girls, had to marry the man her father chose for her. If she was a princess she certainly had no choice in the matter; her fate a political and financial transaction. It didn’t matter if she loved the man, if she found him attractive, or even if he was anywhere near her age. Middle aged men often married girls as young as 12. Sometimes the marriages worked out; often they didn’t. That probably didn’t stop young women in the middle ages from dreaming any more than it stops young girls from dreaming now. A political marriage or a marriage made for financial gain can be filled with love. They are not mutually exclusive.
But, often the marriage wasn’t filled with love no matter how much a young girl might have wanted it.
Sometimes princes turned into monsters.
A Real Life Example
Take Henry Tudor, King Henry VIII of England. As a youth, Henry was handsome, athletic, smart, and powerful. He married Catherine of Aragon, the princess of a powerful Spanish family, who, like Henry, was attractive and smart. It should have been a fairy tale match–the beautiful prince and princess.
Unfortunately, for Catherine it turned out to be more of a horror story. The fair “prince” morphed into a monster. They were happy at first. She gave birth to a daughter, but never gave birth to the son Henry desperately wanted. He, like all kings, needed a male heir. Henry VIII became completely obsessed, to the point of madness, with having a male heir. After a while Henry grew tired of Catherine and her inability to deliver a male child. He also fell in love with another woman, Ann Boleyn, and did everything in his considerable power to rid himself of Catherine (short of murdering her). Henry broke ties with the Catholic Church, because the Pope would not grant him a divorce from Catherine. He risked war with her powerful Spanish family. Finally, Henry exiled Catherine and her daughter Mary (who later became Queen Mary I “Bloody Mary”) to a remote and drafty castle. Catherine’s “prince” turned irrevocably into a monster.
He continued to be a monster for the rest of his life. When he and Ann Boleyn first met Henry was still a handsome, athletic, and charming king. By the time he wed Ann Boleyn he was a monster, and Ann caught the worst of his monstrosity. When she gave birth to a daughter (the future Elizabeth I) and never had a son, Henry accused her of witchcraft and incest in order to get rid of her. Ann was executed, beheaded after a sham trial. What was her “prince” doing when Ann lost her head? Meeting with his future wife, Jane Seymour. Henry VIII was definitely one prince who turned into a monster.
The sad story of Henry, Catherine, and Ann was all true. Fairy tales warned of the prince turning into a monster as well.
The Tale of Bluebeard
Bluebeard was a wealthy man with houses and a gold carriage—a fine catch for suitable young girls to marry. The problem—he was ugly and sported a blue beard. He threw a lavish party for all of the eligible girls, and one girl was impressed enough to agree to marry Bluebeard. Once married she moved into his castle and they were happy…for a while. One day Bluebeard had to leave for a few weeks. He told his wife to enjoy herself and do whatever she wanted; he gave her the keys to all of the rooms and closets in the castle, but warned her not to go into one of the rooms. He warned her he’d be angry if she opened the door to that room. She obeyed and he left. However, curiosity got the best of the young wife and she opened the forbidden closet to find a row of dead women—Bluebeard’s murdered wives. The wife ran away and tried to hide that she’d been in the room. Unfortunately for her, the key was magically stained with blood and she couldn’t get it off. Bluebeard returned home early and discovered the bloody key. He told her she’d be joining the other wives in the bloody room. Just as Bluebeard was about to cut off her head, her brothers barged in and killed him. They rescued the young girl, but not before she discovered that her prince of a husband was actually a monster.
The new Vampire literary craze is the prince-turned-into-a-monster story with a twist. In our modern stories, the girl continues to love the monster even after she finds out what he is! Imagine the young wife in the Bluebeard story discovering Bluebeard’s murdered wives in the locked room, wondering what kind of “monster” her husband turned out to be, and then confronting him about it. All the while she decides she’s still in love with him and wants to figure out how to be with him despite his being a monster! Or maybe he figures that with her love he can overcome his monstrousness. Sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?
In the middle ages life was much more black and white—monsters were evil. Period. Monsters killed you. No “vegetarian” vampires or werewolves who saved damsels in distress. Vampires fed on your blood and werewolves tore out your throat. They were not love interests.
I sometimes wonder if this turn of events means that women have become powerful enough in our culture that we can love the monsters. Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn, and Bluebeard’s wife were not powerful enough to fight with or compete with their powerful husbands. They could never hope to stand up to the monster. Today, women are strong and powerful enough—physically, in the work place, in politics, and in education—that perhaps we believe we can take on the monsters. Boyfriend a vampire? No problem, a strong 21st century girl can handle it.
The problem with this view? Sometimes the fair prince really is a monster. Take Edward Cullen of the Twilight series. Bella discovers this boy she’s in love with is a vampire…a literal monster. She decides to go with it and love him anyway. But Edward is a monster in another way—Edward is an abuser. I know there are millions of girls and women out there in Twilight fandom who love Edward and think he’s the ideal man, the ideal boyfriend, and that no boy or man could ever live up to him. Um…NO! Abuser. That makes him a modern monster.
Dear Abbey once wrote a list of the 15 signs that your man is an abuser. She did this to help women see the signs of abuse before things get out of hand. Edward Cullen fits 14 out of 15! Here is the list:
1. Pushes for Quick Involvement
4. Unrealistic Expectations
6. Blames Others for Problems and Mistakes
7. Makes Others Responsible for His/Her Feelings
9. Cruelty to Animals or Children
10. “Playful” Use of Force During Sex
11. Verbal Abuse
12. Rigid Gender Roles
13. Sudden Mood Swings
14. Past Battering
15. Threats of Violence
I don’t have time here to go into all of the ways in which Edward fits that list. If you’ve read the Twilight series, you’ll see how he fits. The only one that doesn’t work for Edward is number 14, ‘Past Battering’, and that’s only because we never learn anything about his prior relationships, if he even had any. If you haven’t read the Twilight series, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Unfortunately, abuse is all too common in our society. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. This doesn’t have to be physical violence; an abuser can use many other ways to dominate his partner, as we can see in the list above. Edward may not ever physically assault Bella, but he uses many of his other considerable weapons against her.
I wish the “prince turning into a monster” was no longer a true lesson that girls needed to learn. Unfortunately, we still have monsters in our midst and in our books and movies.