“And they all lived happily ever after.” What were they thinking, these recorders and writers of fairy tales, like Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, to imprint such a message on our hearts and minds? And what are we thinking, to still thrill to hear it? Do we dream of being healthy, wealthy, beautiful/ handsome, and partnered in flawless, unending romantic bliss? Or does it all feel like too much sugar after Valentine’s Day? An unfortunate and dangerous dream that sets up young girls to be passive, insipid things (some say) waiting for their perfect prince to come? And perhaps turns young boys to action-based, even violent, “macho” games? (What nine-year-old boy who knows nothing about George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin would volunteer to hear it?) So is the fairy tale dream at fault for adult woes?
And yet, when I talk with my twenty-something-year-old students, it isn’t enlightened movie versions of fairy tale stories, the likes of Shrek and Frozen, that bring smiles to their faces. No, you guessed it: it’s the 1987 movie The Princess Bride. I only need whisper Westley’s signature line to Princess Buttercup, “As you wish….” and their faces glow, positively radiate, with joy. As in the grandson’s kindled wonder when the grandfather is reading this story to him, hearts beat higher when a true love story is heard. Yes, the “Storybook Love” song plays on in our heads—that is until someone (in this case, me, with my students) poses the question, “Does love have to break your heart?” The question falls like a hammer, like a death knell—too rude, really, to have been asked, and once asked, impossible to ignore.
“Does love have to break your heart?”
Yes. Yes, it does. If it’s love, it does and it will. Pain interrupts the “happily ever after” dream. Death ends it. Or so we think. But did we get that right? The “all lived happily ever after” part?
In the fairy tales my mother read to me, the line was “Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.” Which in English is, “And if they haven’t died, they’re still alive today.” Not exactly the health-wealth gospel fueled by the beauty myth, is it. Do they still have to take out the garbage? Obviously, right? (I once read a critic who actually thought it meant they didn’t.) Do they never fight? Really? Whoever heard of couples who never got annoyed with each other, never disagreed, never fought? I like how Aravis and Cor in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia story The Horse and his Boy are “so used to quarreling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.”
So with my mother’s and father’s prayers, with my Sunday School lessons, there was room in my young heart for the dream of some measure of bliss in this life. And when I found out about Tolkien writing in “On Fairy-Stories” that some fairy tales are about “the Consolation of the Happy Ending,” saying that the truest form is about “eucatastrophe…. the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…. a sudden and miraculous grace,” I knew he’d said exactly what many of us feel. Precisely! The best fairy tales hint at the Gospel. The “happily ever after” in any language is a small picture of the glorious hope of the Gospel. Fairy tales have plenty of suffering, but they don’t end there. In fact, they don’t really “end” because they point to what will not end: the coming Great Joy, Joy, as Tolkien said, “beyond the walls of the world.”
Deep breath. Where do we go from here? What do we do with heartbreak? Failed romance? The romance that never happened? Deep tragedy? And always, the death of a loved one?
We can go to the place of heartbreak and stay awhile. A long while. The truth is, for now, the hurt never leaves us, nor should it, if we truly have loved and lost. The question is this: What job is the hurt doing in our hearts? Is it leading to bitterness, resentment, cynicism? Or is it helping us to release petty and large grievances, and instead give ourselves to care, to love, even more deeply?
I’m always sobered by Lewis’s words in The Four Loves that love in this life means heartbreak, but that the alternative, a heart that will not be broken, eventually ceases to be a heart and so “will become unbreakable.” As he warned, “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Likewise, as Frederick Buechner says in Telling the Truth, in his chapter “The Gospel as Fairy Tale,” the ones who get the happily-ever-after are “all who labor and are heavy-laden, the poor naked wretches wheresover they be.” And so we must become poor, broken, in order to live rich and forever be rich. That’s what the best fairy tales are all about.
My friends, Happy Valentine’s Day!