An Author Reviews: Beauty and the Beast

So I promised a Thursday review and didn’t deliver. My husband took me out of town for two days, and at the beginning of the week I thought I’d be able to get everything up and timed to appear on the right day. Ha! Obviously it didn’t work out :) I’m going to post the review a day late so I’m not too much of a slacker.

One of my projects is writing a new story for Beauty and the Beast. I realize it’s been retold a thousand times, but everyone always glosses over why a fairy enchanted the beast to begin with. What’s the fairy’s story? I did a bit of research into the fairy tale, which is actually not quite a fairy tale, and thought I’d share it for something different in my Writer Reviews post.

The predecessor of Beauty and the Beast is actually the story of Cupid and Psyche. Here’s a brief recap in case some of you don’t know it:

Psyche was the daughter of a King and Queen and had two older sisters.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau

The sisters were beautiful, but Psyche outshone them. People started to praise her above Venus, making the Roman goddess jealous. Like all good Roman gods, Venus didn’t really plan ahead, and set forth the demise of Venus in a thoughtless way by sending her son Cupid to bring misfortune to Psyche. Of course, he falls in love with Psyche. To appease his mother’s wishes and to assure Psyche remains single, he casts a spell that no one will propose marriage to Psyche.

Psyche knows nothing of the interference, but after her sisters are married off, she begins to wonder why she can’t get married and goes to an oracle. The oracle tells her she’s destined to be married to a horrendous beast on a mountaintop. Psyche then realizes this is because of Venus’s jealousy (I’m not sure how…the Oracle does not specify Venus) and she goes to the mountains and discovers a palace where everything she desires is given to her.

Benjamin West

She’s married, but she never sees her husband. When she asks, he says he does not want her to think he is an ugly beast or a beautiful god, he wants them to be equals. (Even during my very naïve age of 11 when I first read this story, I wondered how they could have sex without Psyche seeing her husband. Wouldn’t she at least feel his wings??)

Anyway, she begs him to let her sisters visit and they of course are jealous. They convince her to break her promise and look at her husband so that they might be next in line to marry him. She breaks her promise, sees that she married Cupid and is turned out of his palace. The sisters are also turned out and end up dying trying to get back to his palace to marry him.

Psyche is destitute and wandering in the wilds. She ventures into different temples for refuge and finds one where everything is disorganized. She reorganizes it and cleans it up. The goddess of the temple takes pity on her and decides to help her with the Venus problem. She tells Psyche to confront Venus herself. Psyche goes to Venus and Venus sets her about doing impossible tasks in order to win back Cupid. Other gods are now interested in this story and decide to help her complete these tasks. The last one is to get make-up from another goddess and bring it back to Venus. She’s told not to look at it. And so guess what? She looks at it and is put under a sleeping spell. Then her husband, Cupid, comes by and says, “Haven’t you learned your lesson yet? Don’t look when you’re told not to!” But he really loves her still so he helps her complete the task and then Venus relents and they get to live together again. Hooray!

Then enters the first written version of Beauty and the Beast several centuries later in 1740. It’s a novel by Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve. She wrote at a time that was very interested in parentage, court intrigue and the plight of daughters and women as property to their fathers and husbands. Both the Beast and Beauty are royalty, but Beauty is living with a merchant as his unknown adopted daughter along with three brothers and two sisters. A fairy has enchanted the Prince to be a Beast due to court and family intrigue. He’s a Beast not only in body but in personalty. This version is about his change back into a compassionate human. He does not transform into a prince until after the wedding night. I haven’t read this version because it’s hard to find, so I’m only going off of internet interpretations. I see the fairy as the goddess Venus and of course Cupid and Psyche as the Beast and Beauty. She expanded Beauty’s family and it’s more about the Beast’s change instead of Beauty’s.

Sixteen years later, Madame Le Prince de Beaumont shortened the story and published it in a journal for young women. I guess there weren’t copyright laws back then! Her version is what is most familiar to us in retellings. She leaves out the court intrigues and the dream sequences in Villeneuve’s book and turns it into a story about a girl who needs to look beyond appearance and find the beauty that’s inside a person. From then on, the story has changed with the morals and themes of the times. It’s like fan fiction going crazy.

Many parts in Beauty and the Beast remain constant through the retellings. The merchant is always very rich at the beginning of the story and then disaster strikes, usually in the form of his ships sinking, leaving them very poor. One ship is always found, and when he goes to claim whatever fortune is left, he gets lost on the way home. A huge castle/mansion appears to him and invisible servants provide him with everything he needs. When he’s leaving in the morning, he spies a rose. His older daughters have always asked him to bring home rich presents, but Beauty has only asked for a rose. So when he sees the rose, he picks it for Beauty, and that’s always the Beast’s first appearance.

The Beast always demands the life of the merchant in exchange for his treasured rose. The merchant always explains it’s for his daughter, and so the Beast says his daughter can die in his place. What’s interesting to me is the daughter must always come of her own accord. To me that says the spell breaker must be beautiful in soul. There’s almost always a ring that Beauty uses to transfer herself back to the Beast’s castle and a mirror that she looks through to see her family, or alternatively the Beast dying when she’s with her family. But, even these two objects are changed about.

The sisters are also in every version to varying degrees of evil. The brothers are often dispensed with, leaving a much smaller family, and the mother is always already dead. Beauty is also the blood daughter of the merchant in every version I’ve read, so I guess the orphan bit in Villenueve’s book wasn’t liked. The father is never really vilified for trading his daughter for a rose, but it still makes me squeamish even in modern retellings that try to obscure it. Jane Yolen, a renowned fairy tale writer and expert has pointed out how fairy tale exchanges are often weighted heavily on one side, which I think is very true in this case.

In the end, when Beauty is released to visit her ailing father, she always breaks her promise to return to the Beast. Sometimes it’s because her sisters trick her into staying, sometimes it’s to stay with her father and sometimes she just forgets. She always saves the dying Beast with some form of water, usually tears, but some versions she uses fountain water. What strikes me as most interesting is, except for Villenueve’s version, the Beast is almost always completely innocent. To me, this is a parallel to Cupid whose only crime is loving a woman his mother doesn’t approve of.

My first exposure to Beauty and the Beast is a long playing record that I listened to over and over as a child. In that version, the theme seems to be more about a daughter’s unwillingness to grow up and leave her father behind than finding the true nature of the Beast. She even refuses marriage proposals from men because she is so loyal to her father and to a lesser degree her three brothers. Her sisters are not too mean and everyone ends up happy and rich when she finally sees it’s time to marry the Beast.

In my early adult life, I read Robin Mckinley’s story Rose Daughter which is her second retelling of the story Beauty and the Beast. It’s a gorgeous rendition full of magic and emotions. It turns the story around a bit by making the sisters good hearted and helpful when they leave their rich life at the beginning of the story. At the end, Beauty gets to choose whether she wants him to remain a beast or turn into a human. I won’t say what she chooses or why in case some of you want to read it :) Her first published novel is also a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but I haven’t read that one. Robin McKinley admits that she comes back to the theme in Sunshine. This is definitely not a direct retelling of the story, but there are many parallels with the Beast being a Vampire.

When I started my recent research, I checked out some illustrated versions to read. Beauty and the Beast by Max Eilenberg and Illustrated by Angela Barrett is a straight forward retelling of the story with the loveliest artwork. It has my favorite drawn version of the Beast, even though he is not dressed in human clothes as he is in all the other versions, and I would love to hang any of the pictures in my home.

Beauty and the Beast by Nancy Willard and Barry Moser also has lovely artwork, but it is a completely different style done with engravings. It’s set in America at the turn of the twentieth century and starts out with some really interesting tidbits. For example, Beauty’s mother was friends with a witch and they kept a cottage together until the mother mysteriously died. The family moves into the cottage when the father’s fortune fails and I thought we would hear more of the mother, but we never do. There are also interesting tidbits about the Beast’s past, but then at the end there’s absolutely no explanation for why he was turned into a Beast. This was a big let down to me, as I had really enjoyed the story up until then. Still, it’s worth checking out just to view the pictures.

Beauty and the Beast and other stories by Adele Geras and illustrated by Louise Brierley is a good retelling of the story but I admit to not liking the illustrations so much. They are very plain and to me, the whole story evokes lushness. I also read another collection of French Fairy Tales at my children’s elementary school but I forgot to write down the author. In that version, the sisters are so evil in their dealings with Beauty and Father, that they’re turned into fireplace grates when a good fairy appears to change the beast into a human. This is the only version I have read where the Beast’s mother appears with the fairy to give her approval of the marriage. It made it kind of a reverse of Sleeping Beauty at that point because it seemed everyone in the castle had been under the enchantment waiting for a princess to break the spell.

The French film version Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau 1946 is definitely interesting, though the melodrama acting is a bit hard for me to watch. It was celebrated when it was released as a masterful work of art and even my husband was impressed with some of the camera work. The end was very different. The Beast has a Temple to the Goddess Diana which holds all of his treasure. Beauty’s brother and his friend who’s a suitor of Beauty decide to go and kill the beast and take all his treasure. When they break into the temple, the statue of Diana shoots the suitor of Beauty and he changes into the Beast and the Beast has the suitor’s face. I have to wonder if Disney was inspired for their version of the story by this movie. The suitor is a jerk throughout the movie, much like the villain Gaston in the Disney Version. I didn’t like the ending because it seemed to rob Beauty of her moment of discovery. It seemed more that Diana changed the Beast instead of Beauty.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has gorgeous artwork and lots of magic and mystic that I like. However, I’ve never liked the addition of Gaston and the mob from town. I’m not sure why I’ve never liked it. Maybe it detracts too much from the struggle between the Beast and Beauty. Maybe it just adds a Disney predictability that I don’t care for. I do like the explanation for the Beast’s enchantment and the Rose, but I wish they would’ve left in Beauty breaking her promise so that she could have more growth of character. She’s at least stalwart and practical from the get go, unlike other Disney heroines.

When Villenueve wrote her novel about Beauty and the Beast, she designed a story rich with opportunity for people to reinterpret and redesign. Perhaps it’s our wish to always see the good in people, or maybe it’s the wish for everyone to see the good in us, but it seems the story strikes a chord that we always enjoy hearing.

Here are the sites that were a huge help in research: