Thursday, January 21, 2016

OverAnalyzed: "Lady or the Tiger"

We all read this story in high school, right? Mongol king finds out his daughter’s romancing a peasant (or vice-versa) and says THROW HIM TO THE TIGER! OR MAYBE IT’LL BE A LADY! MWUAHAHAHA! …Anyway, this always gets held up as an example of an ambivalent ending, because we don’t know what the princess would hate more—to see her beloved ripped apart by a tiger or to see him happy with another woman for the rest of their lives. But there is an answer, and it doesn’t rely on the princess at all. Instead, it all comes down to the king. 

Let’s step back and have a look at history. Noble women in history—with some exceptions—tend to have one major role: Getting bartered off to other kingdoms as a bargaining chip/baby factory. That sucks, but let’s not get off-track. If you’re getting married, and you’re royalty, you want to continue your dynasty, meaning you want the kids to be yours. (That was the root of Onan’s sin, after all…The refusal to do his duty, not the wankery.) Which, in general, boils down to wanting your wife to be a virgin. 

So what have the princess and her boy-toy done? They’ve gone—and in the eyes of the period—ruined her value as a bargaining chip. Which, a modern audience? (Except for Pat Robertson, who is a walking bag of senility and horribleness). Go girl! Get some! Liberation etc etc etc.  But for her daddy? A medieval (maybe even pre-medieval!) king? Oh, he mad. Not only did his lil’ princess wreck his plans, she wrecked his plans with a commoner! He can’t get ANY political capital out of this whole mess. Obviously, he can’t kill his daughter. But he sure can kill the schlemiel who ruined his baby girl/valuable political pawn. 

Wait, you say. How do we know that the couple were, yanno, intimate? Well, for one, would the king have been this mad if they’d just been holding hands and reading poetry? Doubt it. That’s much easier to cover up. Even if hand-holding was all that went down, it’s still the APPEARANCE of things. The slightest shadow of a doubt might be enough for some jumped-up rival kingdom to say “SHE’S SULLIED! CAN’T HAVE THAT!”

So we’ve got a dude in the arena about to open one of two doors. One of them hides a tiger. The other hides a bride. He’s looking at his princess, and waiting for the word. That’s what this story’s ambivalence hinges on. 

The king knows, though, that his daughter may undermine the “sanctity” of the self-imposed judgement. (Which she has). And he’s angry. So he undermines the sanctity of his arena-court himself. He takes a drastic step. He orders two tigers. 

It’s a decision which goes against his whole justice system. But he’s angry. This little pissant mud farmer has just ruined years upon years of diplomatic negotiations. That cannot go unpunished. And this will be a lesson to his feisty daughter, too: You can’t outsmart me, daughter. Don’t even try. I am the law. 

And that is why there will always be a tiger.