A companion piece to Episode 96: They See Me R’hlling, written by Laurel Hostak
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I released another Game of Thrones character study. This time, our subject was the enigmatic Red Woman, Melisandre. In our conversations, we explored such subjects as religion in George R.R. Martin’s story world, historical and literary context for the character, and mythological influences in crafting her. In this blog, I’m going to spend some time expanding on the third topic, from the French tales of the fairy Melusine to the numerous variant stories of monstrous or animal brides and violation of trust.
Melusine of Avalon
Melisandre’s most obvious namesake is Melusine, a French mythological figure whose definitive literary incarnation is a compilation of tales by Jean D'Arras from the 14th century, but her origins may date back to pre-Christian folklore. In early stories, she’s associated with water, and often with water sprites, mermaids, sirens, or the Welsh morgens.
In D’Arras’ version, Le Roman de Mélusine, our girl is the daughter of a fairy and raised in Avalon (intersecting lightly with Arthurian legend). Her mother, the fairy Pressyne, is discovered at the edge of a forest by the Scottish king Elynas, a mortal man. She agrees to marry Elynas under the condition that he must never enter her chamber when she is birthing her children. As the characters associated with rash promises in folklore are wont to do, Elynas violates his taboo, and Pressyne flees with her daughters to Avalon. When Melusine becomes curious and presses her mother to explain what her father had done, the revelation of his betrayal enrages the girl. Melusine seeks revenge, locking Elynas in a mountain to die. As punishment for this act, Pressyne curses her daughter to take the form of a serpent or a two-tailed mermaid from the waist down every Saturday.
Here the tale begins to repeat itself when Raymond (or Raymondin), a French count, meets Melusine in a forest and asks for her hand. Melusine accepts on the condition that he never enter her chamber on a Saturday (and thus never see her monstrous form). He, like Elynas before him, can't resist peeking, and he sees her lower half transformed into a serpent. Melusine forgives him, but later he refers to her as a serpent in front of the court. Melusine instantly turns into a winged dragon and flies away, never to be seen by her husband again.
There are a few things we can pick apart here. The backstory about Pressyne and Elynas includes our first conditional courtship, and it’s oddly specific. He must never enter her chamber while she is giving birth. Alarm bells should be going off here. Calling for privacy during childbirth isn’t surprising—after all, it wasn’t common for men of the Western world to witness their partners’ delivery until the late 20th century. But calling it out as a direct parallel to the later revelation of Melusine’s literal monstrosity signals some deeply-rooted fears about labor and the woman’s body. An Oxford University study interviewed men about their experiences after witnessing childbirth or Caesarian sections, and found that in one of the most striking cases, a father was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. (sidenote, while I deeeeeeply want to cry #masculinitysofragile, I’m going to refrain and offer some sympathy given the lack of counseling and medical support available for sufferers of PTSD, whatever the cause may be). It comes with the territory when we understand such concepts as the monstrous feminine and abjection (horror derived from bodily fluids; “casting off of…”), which posit that the horror genre in particular manifests its female-bodied monsters in ways that are distinctly feminine. More succinctly, women are gross and that is scary. Or that’s the idea that’s at play in this myth, and it’s a powerful psychological instinct to break. It persists. The second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel saw Midge dragged offstage for uttering the vulgar word “pregnant.” Women are still made to feel uncomfortable publicly discussing menstruation, or being seen carrying tampons. Think of the infamous “blue liquid” in sanitary napkin commercials to stand in for blood. In that last sentence, I instinctively used a euphemism for maxi pad because it’s so deeply ingrained in me to stay quiet on the subject.
So the woman’s childbed is equated with monstrosity, and it’s something to be kept extremely private, even from her husband. His witnessing of the birth of their third child is a betrayal worthy of abandonment—because once he’s seen it, how will Pressyne ever regain the “mystery?” The episode will later be echoed by Melusine’s condition for marriage, an attempt to keep private a malformation from the waist down and a theretofore secretly dual nature. Her tail evokes such seductive and dangerous mythological images as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the siren, and the Starbucks logo. But Melusine’s secret—and her mother’s desire for privacy in childbirth—doesn’t need to be taken as literally as an expression of the monstrous feminine, though it’s extremely worthwhile to confront our reactions to the female body. The conditions also externalize Pressyne and Melusine’s respective “otherness.” Both are of fairy origin and therefore susceptible to vilification by human society, and Melusine bears a physical otherness that could greatly disturb those who witnessed it at court. They each take on intense privacy and isolation as protection from discrimination or abuse. Both, after trust is violated, choose self-abjection or self-banishment. Perhaps the work of repairing reputations, relationships, and trust is too daunting for these outsider women—or it’s a self-preserving instinct that allows them to escape being dealt the same sentence by the community or loved one.
Animal Brides, Husbands, and Similar Tales
Even if you’re mostly unfamiliar with Melusine’s tragic story, you probably recognized some of the hallmarks from other folklore and fairy tales. The Supernatural or Enchanted Wife (Husband) or Other Relative is a robust category of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Classification of Folk Tales. The ATU—first developed by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne in the early 20th century, revised and expanded by American folklorist Stith Thompson in 1928 and 1961 and then by German folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther in the 2000s—is a sort of Dewey Decimal System for Indo-European folk stories. There are such tale types as “The Lean Dog Prefers Liberty to Abundant Food and a Chain,” “The Talking Bed-Legs,” and “The devil loses a soul that was promised him.” Each revision of the ATU became increasingly immense and increasingly granular in codifying a multi-cultural system of storytelling. Enchanted Wife… is itself a subset of Tales of Magic, and contains such tale types as “The Animal Bride,” “The Frog King,” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” It’s adjacent to the loathly lady archetype as well. Each of those tale types contains multitudes of individual stories from around the world. A quick jaunt through the various categories serves to bring home the concept of universality and the remarkable recurrence of theme and structure across cultures.
Melusine resonates deeply with tales of selkies—the seal maiden who would marry a mortal man if he stole her seal pelt—from the Faroe Islands and the Crane Wife of Japanese folklore. In the latter, we have the same violation of trust motif: a man marries a woman who is in fact a disguised crane; she makes their household prosperous by weaving a brocade from her feathers, but when her husband spies on her in the spinning room, plucking bloody feathers from her skin, she leaves him. This structural element is not limited to men violating women’s trust, however. Though there may be a comparatively higher volume of supernatural bride stories, the violation of trust motif seems ever-present in the reversed-gender variations. Think East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the Norwegian fairy tale (ATU 425A, “The Search for the Lost Husband”), in which a young woman marries a white bear who takes the form of a handsome prince at night—though she can’t see him in the dark. Succumbing to her mother’s insistence that he must in fact be a hideous troll to hide his face from her, the young woman brings a candle into their shared bed, spills a few drops of wax, and poof! He takes off, betrayed by her lack of faith, and the young woman must to perform near-impossible tasks to prove to the white bear’s wicked stepmother that they should be reunited.
If that sounds a lot like the Greek myth of Cupid & Psyche, it’s because it is! It’s a near-perfect retelling with a bear standing in for Love. It also bears (pun intended) similarities to Beauty and the Beast (its own tale type within …Lost Husband given the wealth of variations! ATU 425C), which also shares its central conceit with Cupid & Psyche, though scholars at Durham University and NOVA in Lisbon date its origins to around 4,000 years ago.
Something I find curious in comparing these tales of such similar structure is that Cupid and its derivatives or variants that feature supernatural husbands are “happily ever after” tales. The woman is forgiven for violations of trust, judgment, and shallowness, and she learns the hard-won lesson to have faith in her husband. The couple overcomes a broken promise, and the woman is rewarded for learning to love a beast, or for undertaking torturous labors to win back her husband. Supernatural wives rarely fare so well. Once the rash promise is broken, Pressyne flees. Melusine tries to make it work, but once her serpent half has been seen, her marriage is all but over. The crane wife takes flight the moment she’s beheld in bird form. The selkie, who never stopped longing for the sea, jumps at the chance to retake her seal skin. Few fairy tale husbands search the earth or commit to prolonged penance in order to atone for the betrayal. The story ends with a heartbroken husband and a wife returning to the wilderness whence she came.
The animal or supernatural bride is the perfect embodiment of the “unknowable woman,” whose mystery is part of her allure. She is a precursor to our least welcome visitor, the manic pixie dream girl, who is desired precisely because she seems impossible to grasp. She affirms the necessity of secrecy in a relationship not because individuals are entitled to privacy, but because knowledge is—like Adam & Eve once learned—destructive. Once her mystery is exposed as ordinary or perceived as repulsive to the husband, his trauma becomes the central downfall of the woman. She must take off to spare him further shame. The most tragic element of Melusine-esque tales is the woman’s self-imposed isolation and later exile, literally or symbolically born out of a desire to “keep the mystery alive.” It’s internalized fear akin to “if I fart in front of my partner they will no longer find me attractive,” and an insidious double-standard. Raymond proves the point when he and Melusine attempt to move past his violation, but he can’t hold back his disgust for long.
Hot take: Let’s try not to be disgusted by the female body. The act of bearing witness to the natural processes of the body—and while these folk and fairy tales of course explore cishet relationships where the partners are confronted with a body that is mysterious or unfamiliar to their own, this goes for other kinds of relationships as well—is a cornerstone of intimacy. And until we’re able to move on from stigma and shame surrounding these natural processes, whether specific to the female body (menstruation, childbirth) or universally experienced and universally erased ones associated with illness and aging, intimacy remains obstructed. Let’s let go of the need of mystery. Let’s turn on the light, unlock the door, and let knowledge in.
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