by Terri Windling
I recently watched the Disney cartoon version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast along with a five-year-old friend of mine. The movie is a visual delight -- the animation is remarkable, the Broadway-musical-style show tunes are witty, the Beast is sufficiently ugly and endearing, and Beauty, bless her, is a rare media heroine who actually reads books. As with many of the best stories for children, my young friend and I both enjoyed it, even if we were laughing at different jokes. Nonetheless, I found myself disturbed by the film -- by the broad liberties the Disney Studio took in changing classic elements of the tale. This leads to the question of where precisely should one draw the line between use and abuse of fairy tales in creating art for modern audiences. It is a question that particularly concerns those of us in the field of mythic arts, working daily with the fairy tales, myths, and legends of many cultures.
Beauty and the Beast provides us with an interesting example to consider, because while we generally think of it as an anonymous story handed down from the distant past, in fact, the tale is a literary one, created by the French writer Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740.
De Villeneuve was part of the "second wave" of French fairy tale writers (Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and other salon fairy tale writers comprising the "first wave" fifty years earlier). When she sat down to create Beauty and the Beast (a novella-length tale first published in La jeune ameriquaine, et les contes marins), she was influenced by the work of "first wave" writers, by the story of "Cupid and Psyche" in Apuleius' Golden Ass, and by the various Animal Bridegroom legends of folklore. The story she came up with was uniquely her own, however, and addressed issues of concern to women of her day. Chief among these was a critique of a marriage system in which women had few legal rights -- no right to chose their own husband, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right of divorce. Often the brides were fourteen or fifteen years old, given to men who were decades older. Unsatisfactory wives risked being locked up in mental institutions or distant convents. Women fairy tale writers of the 17th & 18th centuries were often sharply critical of such practices, promoting the ideas of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their Animal Bridegroom stories, in particularly, embodied the real-life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed.
De Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast, over one hundred pages long and published for adult readers, is somewhat different than the shorter version we know today. As the story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fierce figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur -- a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité, magic, and love -- and it is only then that Beauty can truly love him. In this story, the final transformation does not occur until after Beauty weds her Beast, waking up in her marriage bed to find a human Prince beside her.
Sixteen years later Mme Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened Villeneuve's story and published this new version in a magazine for well-bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat -- the twisting subplots beloved by Villeneuve -- to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version (and subsequent retellings) the story becomes a more didactic one. The emphasis shifts from the Beast's need for transformation to the need of the heroine to change -- she must learn to see beyond appearance and recognize the good man in the Beast. With this shift, we see the story altered from one of critique and rebellion to one of moral edification, aimed at younger and younger readers, as fairy tales slowly moved from adult salons to children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears -- he poses no genuine danger or sexual threat to Beauty in these children's stories.
Early in the 19th century, the proliferation of printing presses caused the de Beaumont version of Beauty and the Beast to be widely disseminated in chapbook and pamphlet editions, often with credit attached to neither de Beaumont nor de Villeneuve. Betsy Hearne, in her fascinating study of the tale (Beauty and the Beast, published by the Chicago University Press in 1989), points out that in this period the story took on certain 19th-century trappings absent from previous retellings. In the 1843 poetic version attributed to Charles Lamb, as well as in the sumptuously illustrated Victorian editions that followed, the idea of fate (a metaphysical obsession of the period) is introduced. Beauty's actions, such as going to the Beast's castle in her father's stead, are not simply attributed to either blind obedience (de Villeneuve) or honor (de Beaumont), but to the heroine's acceptance of the predestined fate that lies before her.
In the 20th century the story was subtly altered again. In 1909, the French playwright Fernand Nozier wrote and produced an adult version of Beauty and the Beast with a fashionable Oriental flavor. Nozier's rendition is humorous, yet beneath its light surface the play explores a distinctly sexual subtext, and the duality of body and spirit. In this version, all three sisters find themselves powerfully attracted to the Beast. When Beauty's kiss turns him into a man, she complains: "You should have warned me! Here I was smitten by an exceptional being, and all of a sudden my fiancé becomes an ordinary, distinguished young man!"
This is a problem that has plagued most dramatic representations of the tale. The Beast is such a compelling character that it is frequently disappointing when he is turned back into a prince. The problem is particularly notable in Jean Cocteau's otherwise superb 1946 film Beauty and the Beast, which remains the best dramatic presentation of the tale ever created. Filmed in black-and-white with an astonishing amount of craft, care and love, Cocteau created a masterpiece of mythic art, blending magical motifs with strong elements of realism to bring the tale to vivid life. He strove for what he called "the supernatural within realism," mixing shots of the Beast's enchanted castle with chickens pecking on the ground and other glimpses of ordinary life, skillfully "grounding" his fairy story within the natural world. Cocteau made the film in France after World War II -- a time when post-war blackouts and equipment shortages were daily problems, and when the idea of filming a fairy tale struck many as shockingly trivial. But Cocteau (unlike so many filmmakers today working with fantasy themes) avoids triviality through a deep understanding of his source material, as well as through an intense personal vision and an almost fanatical attention to the details of lighting and design. He aimed, he said, "for the clean, sculptured line of poetry instead of the usual diffuse lighting and use of gauze for magical effect." The resulting film has stood the test of time, and become a classic of the art.
Although it is a film that can be watched by children, the subtext is adult, and powerfully so. Beauty's nightly refusal of the Beast and the slow awakening of both her attraction and her sexuality are contrasted with the Beast's struggles to contain his own animal nature. He comes to her door covered with the blood of the hunt, and with anguish she sends him away. This echoes the Scandinavian animal bridegroom tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, in which a young woman is sold by her father to a big white bear -- but in the Scandinavian folktale the sexuality is more explicit. The animal bridegroom comes to his young wife's bed every night, under cover of dark. Beneath her hands, she feels the shape of a smooth young man, not a huge white bear -- but she is forbidden to light a lamp or catch a glimpse of his face. In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche weds a hideous flying serpent -- who is really Cupid, under a spell. By night, a man makes love to her -- but she, too, is forbidden to look. She breaks this taboo, and is punished by losing her now-beloved husband. A series of arduous tasks must be completed to win him back. In Beauty and the Beast there is no equivalent taboo or insistence on obedience. Beauty's task is the opposite: to look where others would not, and to perceive the man within the Beast. The Beast's own task is patience, and the reclaiming of the human within himself.
An American television film of the story, made in the 1970s and starring Walter C. Scott as the Beast, notably failed to make any improvement on Cocteau. Robin McKinley was so enraged by this production that she sat down and wrote her first novel, Beauty, in response to it. Like Cocteau, McKinley understood the importance of grounding magic in realism, and of using clean prose to echo the clean lines of the old folk stories. McKinley lengthens the tale into novel form without cluttering it with spurious detail. She takes a few liberties with the original material (Beauty's sisters, for instance, are sympathetic), yet she stays faithful to the spirit of the original. Her heroine, unlike most versions, is a gawky, horse-mad, intelligent young woman whose name is a gently ironic one. Beauty's time in the Beast's castle is particularly well-rendered, and her raptures over the Beast's library (containing works from the future by Browning and Kipling) were surely the inspiration behind the book-loving Belle of the Disney film. McKinley was quite young when she wrote Beauty. Twenty years and several novels later, she found herself attracted to the tale once again -- looking at it through new eyes of experience and maturity. She then wrote the novel Rose Daughter, a new rendition of Beauty and the Beast. Reading the two novels side by side is a fascinating experience, and both books are highly recommended.
Angela Carter is another writer compelled to explore Beauty and the Beast. Carter understood how to work with the adult themes in fairy tales better than any other modern author, and her early death from lung cancer has been a blow to the field of mythic arts. In addition to editing folklore collections, Carter wrote a series of dark, rather Gothic stories based on fairy tales, collected in The Bloody Chamber and (posthumously) in Burning Your Boats. Elements of Beauty and the Beast and other animal bridegroom motifs are vividly rendered in two of Carter's best stories: the poignant "Courtship of Mr. Lyon," and the sensuous "Tiger's Bride." In the latter, a profligate father loses his lovely daughter in a game of cards, and delivers her up to a wealthy masked man who imprisons her in a crumbling mansion. This is a subversive treatment of the theme, smooth as black velvet and sharp as a thorn. In both stories, Carter is careful to sustain the Beast's charisma to the very end.
"Rusina, Not Quite in Love," an enchanting novella by the Italian writer Gioia Timpanelli, published in Sometimes the Soul, transplants Beauty and the Beast to Sicily. An impoverished painter marries a rich, hideously ugly man in order to pay off her father's debts. . .and finds the princely soul hidden by the beastly exterior. Susan Wilson's novel Beauty also features a painter in the heroine's role. Set in New England, it's an interesting novel, if not an entirely successful one.
Tanith Lee's story "Beauty," published in her adult fairy tale collection Red As Blood, takes Beauty and the Beast beyond fairy tale forests and into the far future. Lee retains the magical rose, the wayward father, the two sisters, and the monstrous suitor who must not be refused. But the Beast in this case is an alien being, and the climax of the story is a clever one -- the transformation centered on the heroine and her ideas about herself and her life. Lee returns to the theme in her chilling dark tale "Beast," (published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), mingling Beauty and the Beast with elements of Bluebeard and Mr. Fox. Wendy Wheeler's "Skin So Green and Fine" (published in Silver Birch, Blood Moon) is an unusual take on Beauty and the Beast, incorporating Haitian voodoo and spirit possession into the tale of an innocent baker's daughter married to a mysterious man and taken to live on an isolated sugar plantation.
Jane Yolen is a woman who has worked with fairy tale themes for many years in the roles of fiction writer, academic, and editor of folklore collections. Yolen's meditation on Beauty and the Beast comes in the form of a deeply evocative poem, "Beauty and the Beast: An Anniversary" (first published in The Faery Flag). The poem is from Beauty's point of view, years after the event of the story, reflecting on her years with the Beast and their solitary, childless lives. English folk singer June Tabor has recorded a beautiful rendition of Yolen's poem on her CD Against the Streams, highly recommended.
Beast by Donna Jo Napoli, is a rich, unusual, beautifully crafted version of the tale. Inspired by the Persian fairy tale tradition, Napoli's hero is an Islamic prince transformed by a curse into a lion. Fleeing his father's lands, he makes his way to an abandoned chateau in France -- where a merchant, a rose, and a courageous young woman bring the story to its proper conclusion. The novel was published for Young Adult readers, but its prose and psychological depth recommend it to adults as well.
Several of the children's picture book versions of Beauty and the Beast are also worthy of adult interest. The best of the classic editions features the watercolors of Edmund Dulac, with text by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, originally published in 1910. This Oriental-flavored rendering is so beautiful that facsimile editions of the book can still be found. As for modern volumes, I particularly recommend those illustrated by the following artists: Angela Barrett, Jan Brett, Kinuko Y. Craft, Mercer Mayer, Barry Moser, Gabriel Pacheco, and Pavil Tartarnikov.
There are countless ways one can draw on old fairy tales to inspire modern works of art and fiction, as the works discussed above clearly demonstrate, and these ways are limited only by the imaginations of the artists themselves. No single version of Beauty and the Beast can be considered "correct" or "definitive" -- for although the story by de Villeneuve and de Beaumont did not begin as an oral folktale, it has its roots in that tradition. And it is the nature of folktales to be fashioned anew for each new generation.
And yet, Disney's film of Beauty and the Beast still disturbs me. Perhaps because it has not been billed as a new story inspired by the old fairy tale; rather, it has been presented to us as if it were the old fairy tale, and such is the power of the Disney name that audiences around the world now perceive this as truth. Yet it's not the old tale. Too many fundamentals have been changed for the film to make that claim -- and changed in glib or sloppy ways that lessen the story's classic themes. The father has been changed into a harmless buffoon, his role in Beauty's imprisonment diminished into an accident of circumstance. Beauty's request for a rose, and her father's unfortunate way of procuring one, have been deleted altogether, along with the jealous sisters. An arrogant suitor, Gaston, has been added and presented as the villain of the piece. In short, the heroes and villains of the story are clear-cut, unambiguous -- Belle and her father are always Good, Gaston and his minions are Bad. In the old fairy tale, Beauty makes mistakes: she goes home, she forgets about the Beast, and by doing so she almost causes his death. In the Disney film, we have a perfect heroine who never grows, never undergoes a transformation of her own to echo the Beast's. The requisite happy ending is achieved, but the price for it has not been paid -- except by the dull-witted characters unfortunate enough to be wearing the black hats.
I am reminded of something Jane Yolen once said, lamenting the fate of another fairy tale at the hands of Disney Studios. In the old Cinderella tale, she pointed out, our heroine was a clever, angry, and active girl, but in the modern Disney film she becomes "a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by talking mice and birds because she is 'off in a world of dreams'. It is a Cinderella who is not recognized by her prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejeweled. Poor Cinderella. Poor us." In Disney's beautiful animated version of Beauty and the Beast, we take one step forward with the creation of a literate and courageous heroine, and two steps backwards as the heart of the tale is lost in the musical razzle-dazzle. But hey, the film is entertaining and fun. My young friend and I enjoyed it thoroughly. So should we care about what's been lost in the process?
In my opinion, you bet we should. It does no service to lie to children, to present the world as simpler than it is. Villains rarely appear with convenient black hats, good people are rarely perfect. Beauty has gone to Hollywood now. Poor Beauty. Poor Beast. Poor us.
Some further reading:
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley
Beast by Donna Jo Napoli
Sometimes the Soul by Gioia Timpanelli (novella)
Beauty by Susan Wilson
"Beast" by Francesca Lia Block (The Rose and the Beast)
"The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" by Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber)
"The Tiger's Bride" by Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber)
"The Tale of the Rose" by Emma Donoghue (Kissing the Witch)
"Beauty" by Tanith Lee (Red as Blood)
"The Beast" by Tanith Lee (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears)
"The Lion and the Lark" by Patricia A. McKillip (The Armless Maiden)
"Beauty and the Beast" by Vivian Vande Velde (Tales from the Brothers Grimm
and the Sisters Weird)
"Skin So Green and Fine" by Wendy Wheeler (Silver Birch, Blood Moon)
Beauty & the Beast history:
Beauties and Beasts by Betsy Hearne
The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner
Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood by Jane Yolen
Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments by Jack Zipes
Credits & copyrights:
Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
The text above first appeared in The Journal of Mythic Arts and Realms of Fantasy magazine (1995). It may not be reproduced without the author's permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go here.