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SPOTLIGHT: The history & meaning of 'Beauty & the Beast'

Sunday, November 15, 2015





"Beauty & the Beast" is one of the world’s most beloved fairy tales. It is also thought to be one of the oldest. It has its roots in a story called ‘Cupid & Psyche’ which was included in the collection of stories known as Metamorphoses, written in the 2nd century AD by Apuleius. That is more than two thousand years ago ... and there are more than one thousand different variants of this tale, in cultures all over the world. 

In many versions, the monstrous bridegroom is a serpent. In the Norwegian version ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, he is a bear. In the Grimm brothers’ version, ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is a lion, and in the English variant, he is a dog. 

* ‘Cupid & Psyche’-type tales usually feature three sisters. The youngest is the most beautiful. She must marry (or live with) a monster, beast, or animal, usually as penance for some kind of theft or misbehavior. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’, she was so beautiful that people began to worship her instead of Venus. In ‘Beauty & the Beast’, her father steals a rose. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the father tries to catch the beast’s pet lark. 

* The Beast comes to her bed at night in the form of a man, but she must not see him.

* The Beauty betrays the Beast somehow. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’ and ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, her dangerous curiosity leads her to light a lamp so she can see who her bridegroom is. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, she allows light to fall upon him. 

* He is revealed to be a beautiful man - a prince or a god. But since she has seen him, and was forbidden not to, he must leave. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is transformed into a dove.

She searches for him, sometimes having to complete many difficult tasks in order to find him. Her journey is to the underworld and back, seeking redemption.




In 1740, a French writer called Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve took the well-known ‘Animal Bridegroom’ tale and rewrote it as ‘The Story of the Beauty & the Beast’. Being over 100 pages long, this is the first time a fairy tale was retold in novel form. Villeneuve’s version was dark, complex, and sensual. In her tale, the danger is very real – the Beast is fierce and wild, and must be tamed by the girl. As Terri Windling has written ‘(in Villeneuve’s story) the Beast is a truly fiercesome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur … The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere.’ 

Sixteen years later Mademoiselle Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, took Villeneuve's story and cut it to the bone, removing much of the latent eroticism and complex back-story. She published her simpler version in a magazine for young ladies. In Beaumont’s story, the monstrous shape of the Beast is a kind of furry costume that he wears, hiding the good and noble man within. 



The story was therefore no longer about the Beast's need for transformation, but instead focuses on the heroine’s need to learn to look beneath the surface. So Beaumont’s story is closer to the original ‘Cupid & Psyche’ tale, in which the heroine must undergo a series of trials and tests before she is worthy of her divine lover.

Beaumont’s version of the tale has now been retold so many times it has its own sub-category in the folkloric classification system – Tale Type 425C ‘Beauty & the Beast’. 



The Meaning of the Tale


As always, there are multiple interpretations of the meaning of the story. As P.L. Travers said, ‘we go to fairy tales not so much for their meanings as for our meanings.’ (quoted in The Meanings of "Beauty and the Beast": A Handbook, by Jerry Griswold.)

Bruno Bettelheim looks at the symbols of the tale. For him, the stolen rose is indicative of the ‘broken flower’ of maidenhood, and so anticipates the loss of her virginity. This would make ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a story of sexual awakening, as so many fairy tales are. For Bettelheim, who was a Freudian psychoanalyst, the story is therefore one of oedipal conflict – the daughter must grow away from her childish love of her father and into a more mature love of her husband. 



Steven Swann Jones believes fairy tales are ‘symbolic depictions of social and emotional crises faced by audience members … (‘Beauty & the Beast’-type tales) dramatize the central and apparently problematic experience of coming to terms with marriage.’ 

Old school feminists might argue that – by trying to please her father by marrying the Beast - Beauty is locked into a female-reductive patriarchal society. 

However, newer feminist readings of the tale look back to its mythic roots. Psyche means the vital breath, or breath of life, and so stands for the human soul. Psyche, the heroine of the old tale, has to undergo a long journey down into the dark terror of the underworld and back up into the light, a journey of transformation, redemption and rebirth. 

This mythic reading of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale fills it power. It is the story of a woman’s journey towards true knowledge of her secret lover, and indeed of the nature of love itself (remember that a rose is often a symbol of secrets). 

Marina Warner has written: ‘The Beauty & the Beast story is a classic fairy tale of transformation, which, when told by a woman, places the male lover, the Beast, in the position of the mysterious, threatening, possibly fatal unknown, and beauty, the heroine, as the questor who discovers his true nature …by the end of the tale …. The terror has been faced and chased; the light shines in the dark places.’ 



You may also enjoy reading some of my other blogs on fairy tales:






PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!
Comments
liss commented on 26-Nov-2015 08:44 PM
Beauty and the Beast has always been my favourite faerie tale, I can see the connection with Psyche. Great read. Thanks Kate.
Walter Mason commented on 27-Dec-2015 09:22 PM
Fascinating, Kate. A couple of weeks ago I went to the Art Gallery of NSW to see Cocteau's magical film 'La Belle et la Bête' and this fairy tale has been haunting me ever since.
Nina Campbell commented on 26-Nov-2016 09:26 AM
Unpeeling the layers of meaning make the tale so much richer. Thank you for sharing :)

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