by Alena Gašparovičová
And they lived happily ever after is undoubtedly a well-known phrase that can be found at the end of many a romantic fairy tale. It rounds up the story and suggests that after a period full of struggle, the protagonist(s) are finally getting to a period of peace, prosperity and marital bliss.
The conception that marriage is a state of ideal bliss that is perpetuated in romantic fairy tales is not without issues. The phrase and they lived happily ever after suggests that with marriage, all the problems that the protagonists have faced in the course of the story will come to an end, and no new problems will arise up until they die. The aim of this paper is to discuss the theme of marriage in Naomi Novik’s novel Spinning Silver, focusing on the main female protagonist, Miryem, to show how the author demonstrates that marriage does not necessarily mean that one will live happily ever after.
One of the arguments against marriage being a happy ending without any challenges is that marriage itself is rarely portrayed in fairy tales. Marcia Lieberman’s analysis of Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book demonstrates a few important points about the portrayal of marriage in fairy tales. As Lieberman notes, marriage is a typical ending in many well-known fairy tales: “Marriage is the fulcrum and major event of nearly every fairy tale; it is the reward for girls, or sometimes their punishment” (Lieberman 386). However, fairy tales are mostly concerned about the process of courtship between the protagonist and her prince. Only rarely do traditional fairy tales go beyond the phase of courtship and observe marriage itself: “Only a few of the stories show any part of the married life of young people, or even of old ones” (Lieberman 394). Similarly, Pat O’Connor argues that marriage in fairy tales is “the most magic state of all”; however, it is “never described beyond the wedding scene itself” (139). As such, fairy tales present marriage as an ideal everybody should strive toward, but even this genre which perpetuates the very idea of a happily ever after, usually does not explore whether it is really so.
The fairy tales that show the lives of the protagonists beyond their wedding seem to reaffirm that marriage does not guarantee a happy ending without any complications. One such tale is “Rumpelstiltskin”, to which Spinning Silver is closest to. In the traditional fairy tale, “the end product of spinning secures a husband for the protagonist” (Schanoes 292). The same can be said about Miryem, although she is less than pleased about that. Miryem has no real say in her marriage at first. Her unplanned boast about being able to turn silver into gold attracts the attention of the Staryk King. Her words are not meant literally; she is merely referring to her job as a moneylender; however, once she proves her worth by turning the Staryk King’s silver into gold, the King abducts her to be his Queen. One aspect of the story that challenges the idea that marriage is the ultimate state of happiness is the reason for the protagonists in “Rumpelstiltskin” and subsequently in Spinning Silver to get married in the first place. It has nothing to do with true love, which is the usual case in fairy tales. Maria Tatar notes that: “The Grimms’ final version of ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ for example, features a heroine who evidently can spin straw to gold, a talent that the story’s monarch finds ‘most appealing.’ That tale, rather than linking a heroine’s labor with supernatural beauty, allies hard work with supernatural powers to produce desirability.” (Tatar 123) As Tatar further notes: “Few tales in the Grimms’ collection are so crass as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ in depicting purely economic motives for marriage” (Tatar 124).
This also holds true for Miryem’s marriage. She gets married to the Staryk King, a Fae-like being from a land that looks like a winter fairy tale and resembles a humanoid icicle. He marries her for her ability to turn silver into gold, although it is metaphorical until she comes to the Staryk kingdom. Miryem has no say in her choice of a husband as he is much stronger than her – socially, as a king, physically, as a man and a Staryk, and magically. He basically kidnaps her to become his wife because she has done him a service by trading his silver to get gold, and he “[leaves] no debts unpaid” (Novik), thus he has to give her something of equal value in return, and he believes only making Miryem his Queen would suffice. Though the Staryk King’s obsession with acquiring gold is not economic but rather protective since gold is something that can protect his people from their enemy, the notion that he marries Miryem for her ability rather than out of love remains unchallenged. At one point, he even admits to that, telling Miryem: “My lady, I did not think you could answer it, when I took you from your home without your leave, and set value only on your gift” (Novik). As it can be seen, he did not only choose Miryem merely for her gift, completely disregarding the rest of who she is; he also believed that he would get away with it without any punishment because Miryem is human, and he did not think she would ever have any opportunity to get back at him for that.
Aside from how the courtship – or rather lack of it – is depicted, the marriage itself is also not ideal. In the traditional “Rumpelstiltskin”, the story goes beyond the point where the couple gets married because the miller’s daughter is indebted to the titular Rumpelstiltskin and cannot attain her happy ending until she repays that debt. Similarly, a large part of Spinning Silver focuses on Miryem’s marriage, albeit the details are different from the traditional tale. Miryem suddenly finds herself alone in a foreign land where everybody dislikes her for being human, married to a King who hates being married to her. He even goes as far as trying to poison her after the wedding to get rid of her; however, he changes his mind when her power to turn silver into gold becomes literal.
In the end, thanks to her resourcefulness, Miryem manages to persuade her husband to take her back to the human world for her cousin’s wedding. Unbeknownst to him, she has conspired with another woman, one who is married to a monarch possessed by a fiery demon, to turn their husbands against one another. This leads to the Staryk King’s capture. This, along with Miryem’s growing gifts, leads to Staryk King’s realisation of what a mistake he has made by taking her to be his Queen without her consent and without any regard for her as a person. Ultimately, he takes back any claim he might have on her as his wife. Thus, Miryem can finally take charge of her life and decide what she wants to do with the rest of it. She does consider getting married again, this time to somebody whom she would choose on her own and somebody who would be her peer. However, she insists that it will be done only under her conditions, showing how far she has gone in terms of gaining control of her life. “Miryem defies the boundaries of what was possible for her, earning a magic beyond her wildest dreams, and ends by making herself and her wishes respected — marrying only when she wishes to do so, and on her own terms.” (González Bernárdez 121-2). To her surprise, the Staryk King asks for her hand in marriage again, which she at first dismisses: “‘If you really wanted to court me,’ I said, ‘you’d have to do it by my family’s laws, and you’d have to marry me the same way. Save your time!’” (Novik). However, he persists, and by adhering to Miryem’s expectations and customs, he eventually gains her trust, and she marries him. He reveals his true name, which is something he very vehemently refused to do earlier in the story, as he signs the documents which make him and Miryem husband and wife again. Their second wedding shows just how far their relationship has progressed as the Staryk King not only finally shows respect towards Miryem, but he also makes himself vulnerable by signing his name in the marriage contract.
In the end, partially owing to chance and partially owing to her own intelligence, Miryem does get a sort of a happy ending. However, it is not attained by simply marrying the Staryk King, especially not after their first wedding. Rather than that, her happy ending comes in the form of securing a good life for the people she cares about and earning freedom and respect. The idea that marriage is the ultimate happy ending is still a prevailing conclusion in many works of literature. However, novels such as Spinning Silver show that married life is not simply a state of bliss devoid of any problems. It is merely a new stage of life that comes with its own challenges, ones that, under ideal circumstances, one does not have to deal with alone.
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