It’s no great secret that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale. It has themes of transformation, sacrifice and redemption, plus one of the smartest fairy tale heroines ever. What’s not to love?
Beauty and the Beast appeared in its current (or relatively current) form in 1740, when it was written by Gabrielle–Suzanne de Villeneuve. It was a critique on the sale of women into marriage, never knowing “if they’d find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed.” Since then, it’s transformed from a tale in which the genuinely fierce and beastly hero must change for love, to one where the heroine must learn to love despite appearances, to, well, the Disney version. (God save us all.)
The story takes its cue from myths that were told centuries before, when Hades kidnapped Persephone. A powerful man, a pariah, banished to a solitary realm. A girl taken from her loving family to alleviate his deep loneliness and perhaps save his soul. While the story can certainly be related as one of violence and rage, there are versions that are more sympathetic to Hades’ desperate act.
*sniffle* I’m getting all emotional just thinking about it!
Sacrifice is one of my favorite themes – a tangible demonstration of what love is worth and what we will give up for its sake. The Beast knows the his heart will break and he will die without his Beauty, yet he lets her go so that she can rejoin her family. And Beauty, torn between love for her family and her growing love for the dangerous monster who needs her, knows that choosing one will irrevocably harm the other.
Redemption is another element of the story. The original Beast is truly a beast. Dangerous, vicious, threatening to the heroine both physically and sexually. Yet under for influence and for her sake, he puts aside the animal and reclaims the man he once was.
Transformation is the heart of Beauty and the Beast. The Beast is the obvious character for this transformation, but in Robin McKinley’s second interpretation of the story, Rose Daughter, the change is not the one we’ve learned to expect. Nonetheless, the animal is rendered human by love for his Beauty – not mere desire or animal passion, but a heart fully given to another’s keeping.
In the best stories, Beauty isn’t always perfect, sweet, forgiving and saintly. She must change from a young girl occupied with her own thoughts and plans into one who is capable of seeing what lies beneath and beyond the surface. To facing up to danger, and being willing to both stand for what is right, as well as bend to what may be. There are no easy choices for her in this story and it requires a strong, smart, steady heroine.
There is no shortage of Beauty and the Beast stories and each one brings something new to the table. I can’t think of another fairy tale that can handle so much revision, yet remain true to its heart.
What’s your favorite version?
- In writing this piece, I referenced Terry Windling’s excellent article, Beauty and the Beast. I also direct you to the reading list she presents at the end of the article (scroll to the bottom of the page) for many different versions of the story.
- One of my favorite fairy tale sites, Sur La Lune, has a page of stories that are similar to Beauty and the Beast.
- Jo Walton wrote a review comparing Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” and “Rose Daughter” for Tor.com. Recommended companion reading for the two novels.