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Arthur Robinson comments:
To which Sarah Cole added:
A Treatise On Fairy Law as it Relates to Marriages
[This article appeared as a series in Issue 33 (March 1992), Issue 34 (May 1992), and in Issue 36 (January 1993), of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted to the Archive by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist.]
Iolanthe and Fairy Marriages
A couple of years ago, I was at a G&S conference, talking about this and that with the many G&S enthusiasts assembled. During the course of one of these conversations, one person dropped what he thought was a great bombshell about the way Iolanthe (The Peer and the Peri) ends. He pointed out that, according to the change made to fairy law, requiring fairies to marry only mortals, the Queen of the Fairies should die because she doesn't marry Private Willis until after he becomes a fairy. I replied that, according to the Arabian Nights, a peri marriage only requires the contracting parties to agree to live together as husband and wife, so according to fairy law, they were married when Private Willis accepted the Queen's proposal. The "bomber" got huffy and said he was sure Gilbert wouldn't have stood for their not being properly married.
Well, they were properly married: that was what I had just said. It's not my fault Gilbert understood his Arabian Nights stories better than the "bomber" did. As a matter of fact, Gilbert understood a lot of things better than a lot of people do, whether he realized it or not. A couple of years ago, somebody wrote an article about how illogical the plot of Iolanthe was. From what I've seen, it is one of the most logical of Gilbert's libretti. The essentials of the plot are consistent with the plot itself, with folklore, and with good sense.
For starters, let's look at fairy marriages. We are told in the subtitle of the opera that these fairies are Peries, which are, according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (revised ed., 1981), "a beautiful but malevolent sprite of Persian myth, one of a class which was responsible for comets, eclipses, failure of crops, etc.; in later times applied to delicate, gentle, fairylike beings, begotten by fallen spirits who direct with a wand the pure in mind the way to heaven" (Brewer's, p. 852). In the story "Prince Ahmed and Peribanou", we find peries of each variety.
For what it's worth, the story of Prince Ahmed and Peribanou (I've also seen it ". . .the Peri Banou") is a fairly familiar one. If you haven't read it, it's about three princes who are in love with the same ward of their father the sultan. Neither the princess nor the sultan can decide which should marry her, so they're sent off to find some wonderful thing. When they return, they all have something equally wonderful, so that test failed. So they resort to the "farthest arrow" competition. The prince who shoots his arrow farthest gets to marry the princess. One prince's arrow goes far, another's goes a long way, and another's (Prince Ahmed's) disappears entirely. Since nobody can find Ahmed's arrow, the princess goes to the second prince. Ahmed isn't too happy about it, but he was curious about what happened to his arrow, so he goes to look for it. He finally finds it in the mountains, at an impossible distance from where it was released. He realizes that some hand had guided it, goes a little farther, and finds an open door in the rocks. He enters, meets a beautiful woman with many beautiful attendants, who introduces herself as Periebanou. She is a fairy, and was the one who, among other things, had made his arrow go so far. She thought he deserved something better than a mere mortal princess, and asks him to marry her. We're going to talk more about that, later, but anyway, he says yes, and for a while, "pleasures come in endless series", as the husband of another fairy has been known to sing. After a while, though, Ahmed wants to see his father again, and the Sultan is wondering what became of Ahmed, anyway. Periebanou finally says he should go to visit his father. He has a nice visit, but due to the council of bad advisors, the sultan begins to fear Ahmed will overthrow him. The next time Ahmed visits, the Sultan starts giving him some impossible tasks to do. With Periebanou's help, Ahmed completes them all. The last task involved bringing his wife's ugly, quick-tempered brother to court. While they are there, the sultan is rude to the brother, so the brother kills the sultan and his bad advisors, and proclaims Ahmed and Periebanou to be sultan and sultana. That seems to be a satisfactory arrangement, and everybody presumably lives happily ever after.
Now you know the story, now let's look at the significant part: Ahmed's and Periebanou's marriage. Admittedly, my copy of the Arabian Nights is the expurgated version, but I compared it with the Lane translation (made in the early 1800s) and the Burton translation (published in 1885), and while the translations have a few fairly minor differences, they agree on the description of fairy marriages. After telling Prince Ahmed that she wants to make him happy, Periebanou says,
It isn't as gushing, but the speeches have the same function. A proposal is made and accepted. As Periebanou said, fairy marriages are contracted with no other ceremonies. And, in Iolanthe, Private Willis is made a fairy after this fairy marriage; so the Queen of the Fairies did marry a mortal, although she was married to a fairy. So much for the angry bomber.
Fairy Marriage Part II: Living with an Immortal
According to Leslie Ayers Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, V. 1 (the annotations for Iolanthe), in an early stage of the opera, Celia had been given a song during the first scene, explaining Iolanthe's banishment. In that song, she calls the law about not marrying mortals "arbitrary". If you've seen the song, you'll know the main reason the law is referred to as arbitrary is probably because Gilbert was running out of that rhymes for "fairy", and it's a good one. In fact, (if you can call an analysis of fairy tales something based in fact), both fiction and folklore give good reasons for immortals pairing off with immortals, rather than with mortals.
One of the best reasons I've run across is the idea that, since one partner is going to age at a slower rate and will greatly outlive the other, the decrepit partner is likely to become jealous. A good example of such a mis-match is the hero of Mary Shelley's story "The Mortal Immortal" and his wife. For the curious, it can be found in the collection, (Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft.) Tales and Stories (Rept. of the 1891 text. Boston: Gregg Press, 1975), and probably in others as well. I don't know when this story was written, but since she died in 1851, "The Mortal Immortal" predates Iolanthe by at least thirty years. In any event, the story is set in late medieval Germany and goes something like this:
The hero spends the end of the story talking about the drawbacks of immortality for a mortal (and you can read the story for more information on those drawbacks).
Now, while the hero's troubles with immortality would not be those of one born an immortal, the hero's wife's problems would be an issue during the term of such a marriage. The mortal spouse would resent the immortal's apparent youth and vigor, the tempting attentions that youth would be likely to bring, and the faithlessness his or her easy (and impending) liberation from the marriage would imply. Like this wife, that mortal spouse would be likely to become abusive, and, if British folk tales are accurate, fairies will not tolerate abuse. (Most of the stories about men marrying water fairies, for example, end this way: the wife has told the husband that he must not do something to her, such as strike or swear at her. He does that thing, and she leave him in a flash. The legend of Melusine is another good example. Regardless of folklore, though, an accusation of faithlessness is an insult to a Gilbertian fairy. In the short- story version of "Fallen Fairies",for instance, two of the fairies marry mortals, who remain mortals, and lived happily with them until they (the men) died. The story concludes with the comment that they wore widow's weeds afterward, and doing so became quite the style in Fairyland.)
In any event, the point should be clear: if both partners are immortal, neither will grow old or bitter, and therefore the motivation for such domestic tensions is eliminated. A fairy law prohibiting fairies from marrying mortals would therefore make a lot of sense.
Fairy Marriage III--Mortals in Fairyland, and Fairies giving up immortality
Fairyland, too, though, has its drawbacks. During my misspent youth, much of which was squandered in the reading of folk tales and legends, I found that a nearly universal attribute of fairylands is that time passes very quickly there. From China to Britain are stories of people who have been in the presence of fairies for what they thought was only a short time, and when they came back to the mortal world, many years had passed. As a matter of fact, the motif even appears in the Golden Legend as the story of the monk Felix (who listens to a heavenly bird for a few moments, and finds out he has been gone for a hundred years). In spite of the pleasures of Fairyland, the mortal generally wants to return to the mortal world, so they always discover this fact too late.
What's more, age has an unpleasant tendency to catch up with mortals who leave Fairyland, especially in the European fairy stories. If a fairy likes the visitor, he or she is given some kind of talisman and a taboo. For instance, in a Chinese story, the hero is given a box he is not supposed to open. In a British one, the hero is given a horse from which he must not dismount. In each case, the mortal finds that he had been gone so long that all his friends and relatives are dead. Invariably, the taboo is broken: the box is opened, and the horse is dismounted. The mortal suddenly ages however many earth years he has been gone, and generally crumbles to dust. People the fairies don't like get no talisman, and just crumble to dust. (For more information on this subject, see the chapter "The Supernatural Passage of Time in Fairyland" in Katherine Briggs' book The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends (New York: Pantheon, 1978. ISBN 0394502485).
If a mortal plans on remaining a mortal, and doesn't want to antagonize his or her spouse, living in Fairyland would seem the best option. But he or she must remain in Fairyland forever. Judging from folklore, joy incessant does bore the sense, and they are rarely able to do it. So, there's another reason for a law against fairies and mortals marrying.
On the other hand, while I've never seen this motif in a real fairy story, a number of writers have brought up the possibility of more-or-less supernatural beings taking on mortality. Unhappily, their sacrifice generally leaves them like mortals who have left Fairyland: they age many years in a moment. You can probably think of other examples, but the most notable literary characters I can think of are Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard's She, and Lo-Tsen in James Hilton's Lost Horizon. As you probably remember, Ayesha steps into the "Fire of Life" a second time to encourage her lover to join her in immortality, and ends up having her immortality taken from her (shades of the fate of the villain Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade--she winds up a real mess just like he does, too, come to think of it). And the young and beautiful Lo-Tsen leaves Shangri-la with her lover and Hugh Conway. Her lover dies during their escape, and when Conway is finally rescued, he is found with an ancient crone.
Arguably, these cases are just extensions of the mortal leaving Fairyland motif, but isn't that the whole point? If a fairy becomes a mortal, would not he or she be a mortal in Fairyland (or one who has left Fairyland) and subject to the penalties. I don't recall ever reading any legends about a fairy being killed, but does it not follow that the way to kill a fairy is to make it mortal? According to Strephon, if Iolanthe were a mortal, she would have been a couple of centuries old. If she had her immortality taken from her, she would, like Ayesha, shrivel into a badly-preserved mummy.
Come to think of it, if a fairy chose to take on mortality while still in his or her youth (before they would be crushed by the weight of age), there would be no problem, either with their marriage or with the fairy law. The law is not specific on when the fairy would die, and if the fairy became mortal, that fairy would die, eventually. But such an option would have come too late to apply in Iolanthe.
Given the situation at the beginning of the opera, Iolanthe, in order to be remotely logical and remotely satisfying, could only end the way it does: with fairies married to fairies in Fairyland. Mortals married to immortals get unbearably jealous as they get old. Immortals married to mortals in immortal lands end up with discontented spouses (who insist on dying of instant old age), and immortals who would live as mortals also end up dying of instant old age. Like a wise judge, the Lord Chancellor and the Queen of the Fairies (and therefore W.S. Gilbert) understood the intent of the law against fairies marrying mortals and, in the end, were able to bend the letter of the law to fit that intent. As far as I'm concerned, nothing could be more satisfactory.
Page updated August 22, 2011