Even the title of the fairy tale, Sweetheart Roland, suggests a romantic love story. But the themes of courtship and marriage are often grim and violent events in fairy tales and this story does not disappoint. Before Roland the Sweetheart is even introduced, a mother mistakenly chops off the head of her only child and we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, all because of apron-envy. This story suggests that on the road to marital bliss, one must always remember the primary obstacles to happiness; in the opening scenes of this tale, jealousy is the hurdle. Survival (let alone happiness) depends on overcoming this destructive, obsessive, and deadly force. But the primary theme of this story, I think, is not human survival, but the survival and endurance of love. This tale describes the vicissitudes and trials encountered when pledging one’s self to a sweetheart.
Besides encountering surprising amounts of blood and gore in the opening sentences, one of the first oddities in the narrative is that the precise hands of the stepmother are described when she chops off the head of her daughter. She holds the axe in her right hand while groping with her left. This level of detail in oral narrative is striking. Why not just say she held the axe in her hands, or she simply chopped? This type of right hand versus left hand distinction is also encountered in Rapunzel, when the powerful sorceress cuts off the girl’s hair. Rapunzel is a similar story describing the hazards of negotiating a successful marriage, but at its heart this story focuses on the violation of marriage taboos. It would be interesting to track down this right-hand versus left-hand motif in other stories to determine if it really alludes to some obscure marriage rite or only pops up when a taboo is broken (or when it pops up at all).
But back to Sweetheart Roland. Most of the courtship or wooing in this tale takes place when the two protagonists are on the run. They undergo a process of transformation, assuming forms that are interdependent yet mutually advantageous for surviving the wrath of a treacherous world (here: an evil stepmother). In both instances Roland functions as the protector, in his guise as the sea and in his role as the fiddle player. The maiden is the quick-thinker, nimbly designing and adapting the forms of escape. Marriage requires a versatile skill set, including adaptability, quick thinking, persistence and constancy. This last virtue is poignantly alluded to when the maid assumes the shape of a granite field stone, waiting patiently for her lover to return. Love is a rocky road, as this fairy tale underscores. Even abandonment must be endured with good cheer and patience. Forget the seventies adage “love means never having to say sorry”. In this fairy tale “love means always loving”. It weathers hardship like a stone, it prevails over disappointments. It survives, somehow.
Contrast these ideas about love and partnership with modern notions, for example, the relationship at the center of the hit movie “No Strings Attached”. It’s hard to imagine that the heroine in the movie has found the type of love that would keep on loving, over vast amounts of time or even geological time as alluded to in the fairy tale . For a a very funny review of the movie read the New Yorker article by David Denby http://www.newyorker.com/arts/reviews/film/no_strings_attached_reitman
But go see the movie and then remember Sweetheart Roland.