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In the Mahabharata, Arjuna shoots a fish in the eye to win his princess. (No suitors' lives were lost in the making of this Swyamvar.)

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna shoots a fish in the eye to win his princess. (No suitors were harmed in the making of this Swayamvar.)

Sagacia read Bleary in Bloomington’s letter aloud to the fabrication* of storytellers gathered at the Fairy Tale Lobby viewing a 24-hour Once Upon a Time marathon. Most had fallen asleep during the second season, but Sagacia’s oratory stirred them to consciousness.

“So, what do you think?” Simplia asked when Sagacia had finished.

“As to whether this motif is common in Asian wonder tales,” Erika Taraporevala began. “Well, there have been swayamvars where indian princesses got to garland the prince or king of their choice, and there were challenges involving bows and arrows — In both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — but there was no death penalty for failing, in fact no penalty other than not getting the bride. In some cases there would be some unkind twitter from the other contestants, and nothing more. Those are epics, but even the wonder tales in India don’t seem to be high on the do-or-die motif.”

“I think winning the bride or half the kingdom ought to be enough,” Simplia said.

“Hmmph!” Sagacia huffed quietly, though not too quietly.

“Shakespeare,” Marian Leeper began. She put her teacup down gently as everyone looked to her. When one hears the name “Shakespeare” spoken in a British accent, one cannot help but assume that one is about to hear an expert speak.

“Shakespeare raised the stakes in A Merchant of Venice,” she continued, “. . . by making the contenders swear to be celibate if they failed. I guess that wouldn’t go down so well with school audiences. And, anyway, Portia cheated to make sure the right guy won.”

Csenge Zalka spoke up. “The motif is called ‘Do or Die,’ and it is usually the first thing parents and teachers pick up on,” she said. “I got into trouble once for ‘telling the kids stories about death’ when I told a fairy tale where they threatened the prince with execution if he failed. And I didn’t even mention the heads of the previous suitors on spikes around the castle!”

“How symbolic!” Simplia gasped.

Sagacia shushed her immediately.

“The symbolic thing behind the do-or-die idea is raising the stakes,” Csenge continued. “Basically, the adventure does not carry the same weight if the punishment for failing is a stern scolding vs. actually losing your life. At the same time, there are levels to the cruelty. Even as a kid I never liked the Hungarian folktales where the punishment tends to get very graphic – heads on spikes, torn apart by horses, etc.”

“Or, it could just be a device,” said Simplia.

“A device!?” Sagacia snapped. She rolled her eyes and sighed.

“I suspect that it is a device meant to keep people humble, or in their place,” said Shelley Griffin Van Camp. “After all, if just anyone could try to marry the princess we be awash in commoner rulers in no time at all. This way the winner must be of unknown noble lineage.”

“Okay,” Megan Hicks piped in. “I’ll agree that it’s the King’s attempt to keep the riffraff from accidentally ascending to the throne, but it often is someone of humble birth who succeeds where those with royal pedigrees fail. Maybe it’s the King’s method of killing off the young bucks who would otherwise challenge his power. He can’t kill them outright, so he appeals to their manliness, and when they prove to be vain enough to let testosterone do the talking, their swashes inevitably buckle.”

“That is actually a very valid point,” Csenge agreed. “It exists in many stories. Isfandiyar–one of the stories I worked with for my book–gets sent on all these ‘do or die’ quests because his father wants to stay on the throne. Psychologically it is the Old King vs the New King.”

“The threat of death does have a dramatic effect!” Sagacia inserted, “No matter what it’s psychological purpose might be.”

“Yeah. Or its technical purpose,” said Simplia.

“Technical?” Sagacia glared at her friend who seemed to be living up to her Simpleton heritage. “Technical?” she repeated.

“There might also be a technicality behind it,” Csenga said, nodding toward Simplia.

Simplia sniffed regally.

“It simply prevents suitors from trying the ultimate challenge multiple times,” Csenge declared. “Didn’t get to snatch the golden slipper from the top of the tree? Get back in line and try again! Didn’t make the princess laugh? Go away, come back with another joke! Do-or-die makes sure they only get to try once, I guess. Bad logic, but fairy tale logic…”

“Yeah!” Simplia pronounced. “What she said!”

Sagacia crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “There’s more to this than meets the eye,” she muttered.

*I’m staking my claim to being the first to use the collective noun for storytellers, fabrication, in a published work. Thanks to Megan Hicks, who asked for suggestions and pronounced the winner, and to New Zealand’s Penni Ha’Penny whose suggestion received the nod!

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