Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Of Feminine Subtlety

The Gesta Romanorum is an anonymous collection of legends, fairytales, fables, et cetera, based on Roman history and medieval legends that can be dated back to the end of the 13th century. Most of these collected tales have either a didactic or Christian message: "Of Feminine Subtlety" is no different.

There are several elements in this story that could very well make it a fairytale: the repetition of the number 3 (3 brothers, 3 enchanted objects, 3 times Jonathan is outsmarted), the presence of enchanted/ magic objects, and the eventual torturous death of the manipulative, overly sexual woman. Jonathan, the protagonist of the story, is the youngest brother of 3. Each of the young men inherit things from their father: land, possession, and, in Jonathan's case, magic objects. Unlike his brothers, however, Jonathan is instructed to give his inheritance to his mother until he's mature enough and ready for them. He goes to university and excels in his studies, but when it comes time for him to start collecting his inheritance, his mother will only give him one object at a time and warns him not to give any of his to gifts to women because they will lead to his downfall. Being a didactic fairytale, Jonathan does not heed his mother's advice and ends up in the middle of desert.

But there's hope since Jonathan works his way back to his native city by claiming he's a physician and calls upon the woman who's bested him since she's dying:
Now the lady who had cheated him of the talismans was sick to death, and she immediately sent for him. Jonathan was so well disguised that she could not recognize him, but her remembered her very well. As soon as he came to her, he declared that the medicine would not be able to help her unless she confessed her sins...Since she was on the very verge of death, the lady admitted in a low voice that she had cheated Jonathan of his ring, necklace, and cloth and had left him in a desert place to be devoured by wild beasts...Then Jonathan gave her some of the fruit which produced leprosy, and after she ate it, he gave her some of the water which separated the flesh from the bones. As a result, she was tortured with agony.

This sounds very much like the end of stories like Snow White, where the evil mother/ stepmother must dance in red hot iron shoes until she falls down and dies. Like those stories, it's almost as if the "victim" forces a little too much justice on the party who has injured him/ her. Sure this woman, who after her initial meeting with Jonathan is referred to as "the concubine," was manipulative and did deserve her comeuppance. But the punishment did not exactly fit the crime because Jonathan had also intended to leave this woman in the desert to fend for herself against the wild beasts; she just beat him to the punch. Why should she be "tortured with agony" because this guy was too naive and stupid not to continually give away all his secrets?

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to see such blatant and hero-driven revenge in this tale. In revenge logic, Jonathan's desire to "torture (her) with agony" makes perfect sense. She manipulated and deserted him, so she deserves the "wild justice" that follows. But what's especially odd here, is how he gives her an opportunity to repent before he acts. He allows her to redeem herself in God's eyes. So is this actually as severe as some of the other fairy tales you refer to here? It seems that her confession undermines his vengeful murder of her.