None of us are unfamiliar to the promise of “happily ever after” trope of fairy tales, so much so that each tale is incomplete without its own happy ending. But it is such a doubtful phrase, and makes one ponder whether happy endings are in reality a myth or not: what exactly is this “happily ever after”? Under a veil of goodness, artful presentation and appealing dialogue, they are just dark, gruesome tales, full of evil stepmothers, hungry wolves and demure damsels in distress (along with suitable princes to kiss them back to life, if need be!). When these stories were written, were they perhaps an attempt to tell the kids about the Real World when they were still in their cribs, and hence devised these ingenious scripts with very questionable “happy endings”?
The child is unknown to the worries of material life when the stories accompany him to sleep, and his tiny brain, curiously trying to keep up with the pace of events, falls asleep out of exhaustion , even before the storyteller has reached the ending node of “Happily ever after”. As he goes to bed, he is in the most comfortable of his clothes, in the most cozy ambience of his home and in the most tender association of his loved one (a mother or a granny)! Nothing else, to him, feels safer at that moment. So when his senses gradually venture into the realm of rational life, his bedtime tales cling to his mind as the strongest epitome of happiness, of everything positive. The fairy tales remain in him, not as the anecdote of Princes and Princesses, but as the sensation of indescribable happiness. And with the utterance of the word – fairy tale—it is not the protagonists in the tales that he sees, but espies the object that he most dearly loves or the event that renders to him the insurmountable delight like the “fairy tale times” offered to him. Fairy tales create an illusion for the child—no doubt stories of rotten apples for Snow White, of hungry wolves chasing Red Riding Hood, of a beauty cursed to sleep forever, of a maiden with unending tresses, are exciting for the child, though they usually carry markedly sinister undertones. But it’s only when he’s grown enough to read it himself, that he encounters the happy end of all the tales. In that sense, do the “happy endings” truly serve their purpose?
There was once a story about a wolf and seven little goats. The mother goat had to go to the woods, so she advised her seven children to keep the door firmly shut against all strangers, specially the wolf. Obedient children that they were, they didn’t welcome in the wolf when he came knocking at the door. Finally, after carrying out a successful impersonation of their mother, the wolf managed to get in and hunt the kids down who hid under beds, behind clocks and in drawers and gobbled them all, but one, whole. When the mother returned, she quickly realized what had happened and went down to the stream with her youngest child, where she conveniently knew the wolf was. And even more conveniently, the wolf was fast asleep. So much so, that he didn’t notice her cutting open his belly, retrieving her unharmed kids; stuffing it with stones and then stitching it up again. When the wolf awoke, he was so full with pebbles that he fell into the stream and died while the goats lived “happily ever after”. The story reeks of greed, deceit, revenge and violence but what probably attracts children to it is the sheer impracticality of the wolf swallowing his prey whole and sleeping through a painful surgery by an inexperienced mother. And of course, the final verdict of justice, of a “happily ever after”. Since fairy tales have taken it upon themselves to accustom children to worldly vices, to villainize certain animals and to teach them how cruel life can be, should they also not tweak the happy endings a bit? Why do they maintain a mysterious silence over the father goat that is conspicuously absent? Why do they show the wolf as a black creature with only evil in him? Why do they pretend that everything has to end happily, justifiably? When Cinderella is swept off her feet by her Prince Charming after catching his fancy and taken to his grand palace, the story ends “happily”. But do we know anything about their married life? What if the Prince himself turned out to be not so charming? What would happen to their “happy ending” then? Also, one hardly comes across a tale where the lady is tale getting married to anyone with a cottage rather than a palace, an average looking man with nothing to offer but his heart. We automatically assume that she would be happy with the Prince simply because he is dashing, and has mansions and horses to boot.
In the midst of allegories, pseudonyms and mind-boggling symbology, fairy tales shroud the actual story with a unique deceitfulness of their own. But with time the child too, perhaps, realizes, that one cannot be happy “ever after” and for him the boundaries between “good” and “bad”, “happy” or “sad” become shady and then disappear altogether. As we grow up, we also realize that we have to capture our happiness in our transient bubbles of “forever”; when we face tough times, we have to go ahead with our Life without a Prince Charming or Fairy Godmother to fall back upon. In the process, we learn to create our own “happy endings,” because there’s no such thing as a real ending. Momentous to the world or not, for every individual, his fairy tale is unique to him, yet equally intimate to every hearts.
So, the next time you have to tell a kid a fairy tale, feel free to change the ending a bit—after all, it might actually help him! So instead of “they lived happily ever after”, how about, “they lived happily till another wolf came around?”