Finding a life partner in a fairy tale is a perilous undertaking, particularly if you happen to be female. More than one girl has been married off against her will to a cursed prince, a homicidal sorcerer or even an actual wild animal. Often, these stories end on a sinister note. Other times, miraculously, it all works out okay – who doesn’t know the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’? Rarely, however, do we see the flipside: handsome young men marrying monstrous women. I have found two examples, and…well, let’s put it this way. They don’t handle the situation with Beauty’s poise.
Story 1: Melusina
This story is from Luxembourg and taken from Maggie Pearson’s collection The House of the Cats and other traditional tales of Europe. It begins by introducing us to Count Siefried, who is rich, handsome and about to get married. Rumour is rife about the girl in question. Admittedly, the story is a gossip-worthy one. While out hunting, the count drifted away from his friends to follow the sound of singing and found a naked woman bathing in a mountain spring. Being a pretty decent man, he offered her his cloak – being a fairy tale ruler and therefore prone to incredibly impetuous decision making, he also proposed marriage on the spot.
So, the couple marry. There is only one condition Melusina requires of her husband; that she may lock herself in the castle chapel on Saturday at sunset and remain there undisturbed by anyone all through Sunday. At first, the count abides by the rule without question. Over time, however, local gossip begins to get to him. It’s said his wife is a witch, working spells in secrecy; as each of their children are born, small flaws are seized upon as proof of her impurity.
One Saturday evening, when Melusina has locked herself in the chapel as usual, the count crouches before the keyhole to watch what she does. She is bathing, as she was when he first saw her – but he might not have proposed had he seen the serpentine tail draping over the edge of the bath. In his shock and disgust, the count makes an incautious sound and Melusina realises he has betrayed her.
The same gossips who condemned her produce three different accounts of the ensuing events. Some insist a crack opened to swallow her; others, that she dived into the river, or flew shrieking out the window. Certainly, she is never seen in the count’s lands again, but for months afterward the nurses tending her youngest two children are woken in the night to the sound of a woman singing. When they go to the nursery, the window is open, the room is empty, and the cradles are gently rocking.
Story 2: The Legend of Lady White Snake
This one is taken from Chinese Fairytales, retold by Sun Xuegang and Cai Guoyun, and takes a rather different approach. It begins with a white snake and a turtle who live in the same lake, both dreaming of immortality. The snake takes the approach of good deeds and positive thinking; the turtle prefers greed and aggression. Inevitably it ends up in a fight, and the white snake wins hands down.
A thousand years of study and good deeds later, the snake and her sister manage to take the forms of young women. They visit the human world during a spring festival and at first enjoy the celebratory atmosphere, but then it begins to rain and the only shelter they can find is a large tree. A young man passing with an umbrella gallantly offers them better protection from the downpour. Introductions are exchanged: the white snake now goes by the name of Bai Suzhen, her sister by Xiao Quing. The young man with the umbrella is Xu Xian, a poor young pharmacist.
By the time the rain eases, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian are enchanted with each other. He insists on her keeping the umbrella, in case it starts to rain again on the girls’ journey home. Her sister, who has noticed the mutual admiration, quickly agrees and assures him they will return the kind loan the next day. The acquaintance is continued and several months later the couple marry. With all her magical abilities and centuries of study, Bai Suzhen is an extraordinarily gifted doctor and Xu Xian’s pharmacy becomes famed for its efficacy. During a terrible plague Bai Suzhen administers medicine free of charge to all the poor and sick. Her fame spreads, and eventually reaches the ear of the turtle she vanquished all those years ago. He now goes by the name of Fa Hai, masquerading as a monk with three magical tools stolen from a Buddhist temple.
He’s the type to hold a grudge. Travelling to the city where his old enemy is living, he stops her husband in the street and declares that he is surrounded by a terrible black energy, proof positive that he is consorting with devils. For instance, what if his wife was really a white snake…Xu Xian is outraged by the suggestion, but the ‘monk’ persists. If he takes a glass of wine to his wife during the Dragon Boat Festival and she drinks, he will know she is entirely human. If not – well, he has been warned.
Xu Xian wants to rid himself of the idea. Like an idiot, he takes Fa Hai’s suggestion and offers his wife the wine. She refuses at first, pointing out that she is pregnant, but under his pressure consents to drink a little. Immediately she feels sick and retreats to her bed. When her husband comes to check on her, he sees a white snake coiled on the mattress, and falls into a faint.
It takes Bai Suzhen some time to recover her human shape. As she rises, she finds her husband sick with shock on the floor. Asking her sister to watch over him, she hurries away to collect magical plants and brew up a restorative tonic. He recovers, but not in an appreciative frame of mind. “You tricked me!” he accuses. “I have just saved your life because of my love for you,” his wife points out. “How can you say I tricked you?”
His answer is to jump out of bed and go running to the nearest temple, where Fa Hai is waiting. The snake sisters, who have followed, watch the gate open to let Xu Xian inside and recognise the fake monk for what he really is. They demand to see Bai Suzhan’s husband at once, but Fa Hai is not afraid of them any more. He lifts up his stolen Buddhist sceptre and a giant storm comes sweeping in, swelling the river until it breaks its banks and washes through the streets.
The sisters are not so easy to kill, however. Bai Suzhan transforms a golden pin into a boat and circles the temple, looking for a way in. It finally gets through to Xu Xian that his wife may be a monster, but that she is not monstrous. He climbs the temple walls, calling her over to where he is, and jumps down into the boat. Reconciling their differences, they return home – or what’s left of it, given there’s a catastrophic flood going on and all. But who cares about that! Their marriage has been saved!
For a little while, anyway. When Bai Suzhan’s child is born, the family gathers to celebrate and Fa Hai sneaks in to cause more havoc. He waits until Bai Suzhan is alone in her room, then uses his second magical tool – a golden bowl – to transform her back into a snake. He then flees the house and buries the bowl, with Bai Suzhan inside, to make sure she is trapped forever.
Upon finding his wife missing, Xu Xian goes straight to the temple, but is too late to catch Fa Hai. Xiao Qing takes a different tack. She returns to her own world for intensive study, and eventually comes back with a store of knowledge. With her newfound magical powers, she finds out where her sister was buried and summons up a storm of her own to set her free. The snake sisters’ first priority is then to find Bai Suzhan’s husband and son – next, they track down a certain traitorous turtle, whose flashy vengeance resulted in losing his stolen tools. When he sees two wrathful snake women coming his way, he scurries away to hide inside a crab – and is trapped there forever.
So that’s a happy ending of sorts, though both mother and aunt lost many years with the child. Common to both stories is a theme of deception; these men both believe they have been tricked into marrying monsters, but it is the breaking of their promises that forces the women they profess to love back into serpentine shapes. Bai Suzhan’s husband realises he loves her anyway. Melusina is not so lucky.
Perhaps it’s because the tellings I’ve used here are fairly recent, but both are decidedly sympathetic towards the female monsters. They are beauties and beasts at the same time, without a safe narrative framework to guarantee their happily ever after – but that doesn’t mean for one minute that they can’t be heroines.