I love fairy tales. My poor mom used to read me one of my favorite books, a collection of Armenian fairy tales, over and over again, until she was good and tired of the book and it disappeared. To be fair, the tales were all pretty much a variation on one theme — that of a hero choosing either a white ram or a black ram to rescue a damsel from the underworld. As I got older, I read The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and other volumes. I never tired of them, and still re-read them from time to time.
People who have only seen the sanitized, modernized versions of fairy tales as presented in a Disney movie don’t really understand how dark and disturbing some of these tales were. Not all of them had the happy endings, and some of them were bloody and brutal. And, as I get older, I am less inclined to enjoy a happy ending as much as a merely hopeful one. Perhaps it is because I have become more pessimistic or more realistic. Perhaps my tastes simply changed. But now, happy endings make me think of a cop-out and a formulaic cliché. I would rather have a heart-broken hero or heroine looking at a future not too bright and happy. I can go for slightly optimistic — that it might get better (or maybe not, it’s not up to them to find out).
It’s not just the happy in a happy ending that rankles me. It’s the “happily ever after” that chaps my hide. My mind reels in that blankness. Because the very truth of everything is that we make our own “ever afters,” to a large degree. One fairy tale, in particular, slugs me in my metaphorical gut — Beauty and the Beast. The great truth of life is that majority of the time when Beauty marries the Beast, he stays the Beast. Love from another person doesn’t change their bestiality. That change has to come from within — and most Beasts don’t want to work that hard. You can love the Beast with all your heart and with all your soul, but unless the Beast wants to hold his own lantern a little higher, change is not going to happen. For too many Beauties, this truth is learned way too late and the hard way. It would have suited me better if the Beast would have changed and become the Prince, but only with his dying breath. Then Beauty would have mourned him, knowing that he died a true human — a person, and not a creature. Then, Beauty could have got on with her own life.
I know that we read to get something out of books that we don’t always get from reality. In these fairy tale stories, we hold on to hope that everything will turn out well in the end. We know that we will see two star-crossed lovers united, a lost child found alive, a coward becoming bold and brave, and a shunned boy returning an honored man.
Yet one of the reasons I love mysteries above all is a reminder that life we are guaranteed one ending for all. That even if the murderer is caught, as he or she is most of the time, the dead stay dead. There may be some justice, but it doesn’t change much for the victim — a resolution and maybe a measure of justice, but not real happiness for the family and friends.
In these timeless tales, there is something noble about a hero suffering, but getting back up, barely standing, but standing nevertheless. What I don’t care for is a happy hero, in the end. Personally, I prefer a broken heart over an unbroken one. A broken heart can still wake up in the morning, and help you get out of bed, sometimes just because you are curious about what the day will bring. That’s someone I can understand, someone I can identify with. Basically, I like my “Casablanca” endings above all else — bittersweet.
Bittersweet endings ring more true for fairy tales, especially now, in the midst of a pandemic. For me, a happy ever after ending is a dead-end one. We are basically told to believe that same old, same old will happen and that will bring them a happily-ever-after. But if the ending is merely hopeful — a glimpse of light, says there are possibilities for the future, doors and windows to open, and a chance to work for actual change and growth.
I guess it boils down to this — I do not want to read about happiness. I want to read about hope.