Beauty and the Beast

“Beauty and the Beast” holds a special place in the lineup of fairy tales I’m studying right now: my first introduction to it was the Disney movie. All the others – “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “The Frog Prince” – were childhood favourites of mine (well, maybe not favourites, exactly, except for SB, but I knew them well), but this one I only got to know after I came to Canada. The same goes for “Bluebeard”, so it must be that we just didn’t have any books of French fairy tales around when I was growing up. We had Grimms, Andersen, Arabian Nights, Hauff (another German Romantic, contemporary with the Grimms), a collection of Animal Tales, and probably a few others, but apparently no Frenchmen. Or, as it were, Frenchwomen.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a woman’s tale, and is one of the prime examples of the genuine “literary fairy tale”. The first version was written in 1740 by one Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and it’s not your simple Grimms’ style five-page fairy tale. In the translation I’m reading, included in Jack Zipes’ Beauties, Beasts and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales, it’s just under eighty pages long; I’ve heard it referred to as a “novel” and someplace it said it was 250 pages. Now, I don’t think Zipes abridged his translation, so maybe it was just smaller pages or larger print or something; but suffice to say, it’s a LONG story. The best-known version is a much shorter retelling by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont which came out in 1756 (the first English translation was done in 1757, according to the Wikipedia).

De Beaumont’s story is a lot like de Villeneuve’s, except that it only tells one half of the tale, the part that’s now known. Hmm, haven’t we heard that one before? Except that in the case of “La belle et la bête” the extended version is nowhere near as gruesome as in “Sleeping Beauty”. It’s just, kind of, boring, in the TMI sense. You see, the prince has a mother, and the mother has a brother, and there was a wicked babysitter who happened to be a fairy and a king who married a shepherdess, except she was a fairy too, and it’s all to do with what happened years ago when they were all really young, and… What’s it got to do with Beauty and the Beast? Not all that much, actually; or, more to the point, by the time it is told you really don’t care a whole lot because the real story, the one about the girl and the animal, is finished. I guess nobody told Mme de Villeneuve that you shouldn’t introduce people into the plot really late in the book; if they matter, they have to show up in the first few chapters. At least that’s what fiction writers are told today.

Anyway, quick recap of the story as we know it: there’s a merchant, and he’s got a passel of kids – even split, 50/50 between boys and girls (in Villeneuve it’s six each, in Beaumont three), whose mother seems to have gone to her eternal reward, she’s never mentioned. His business goes bad, and they become poor. The daughters are ticked off and don’t want to accept that fact, all but the youngest, who is, of course, the most beautiful and therefore called Beauty (d’uh). She’s also the nicest of the lot and the only one willing to do any work for the family. Now, daddy goes on a trip, hoping to recoup his business losses; the sisters ask for all kinds of fancy gifts, but all Beauty wants is a rose (yes, definite shades of the Grimms’ “Cinderella” here). On the way back from his unsuccessful business trip, he gets lost in the snowy woods, and ends up in an enchanted castle, where he is helped by invisible servants (Beast has his castle fully automated, apparently; rather ahead of his time there). The next morning, he picks a rose in the garden for Beauty, which brings down the Beast on him, breathing fire (well, okay, roaring) and threatening to kill him. On hearing that he has daughters, the Beast makes a deal that if one of the daughters comes along willingly to take the merchant’s place, his life will be spared. So, as we knew would happen, Beauty is the one who offers to come along; the bitchy sisters would never do such a thing. So, now Beauty is in the Beast’s castle, fully expecting to be eaten. But instead, she finds herself welcomed, and from there on lives in the lap of luxury, waited on by the invisible servants. There is no other human being there, so she hangs around the castle by herself except for every evening at dinnertime, when the Beast shows up and talks to her, always ending his visit by asking her to marry him. She refuses repeatedly. Then one day she asks to be allowed to visit her family again; the Beast reluctantly agrees and makes her promise to come back soon, else he’ll die. She goes, and lets herself be tricked or talked into staying a bit too long; but then she has a dream about the Beast dying, and she rushes back as quickly as she can. Sure enough, her dream was real; he’s lying about somewhere in the garden, expiring for lack of Beauty. When she sees him, she either cries or dumps water on him, and makes a passionate declaration of love (or at least the willingness to marry him), which perks him right up. Not only that, it de-beastifies and re-princefies him, with fireworks and fanfares. Hurrah, marriage, happily ever after!

Well, okay, that’s how it works in Beaumont. In Villeneuve, it’s pretty much the same up to the fireworks and fanfares, but then there’s a snag. You see, the prince’s mother shows up, in company of a fairy (whom Beauty has been talking to for a while in dreams, so she’s a known quantity). And Mama Queen is not at all in favour of her darling Prince marrying a commoner, no matter how many curses the girl has broken and how much the Prince swears he’d rather be a beast and married to Beauty than a pretty-boy without his girl. Well, mama’s a royal snob. But what do know – the fairy’s got some insider info up her fluttery sleeve, which she imparts to the reader in several indeterminable and convoluted backstories. It all turns out right, because, you see, Beauty actually isn’t the merchant’s daughter, she’s a princess! (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?) Not only that, she’s the queen’s own niece! And the fairy’s niece, too! [Blah blah blah – insert fast-forwarding noise – blah blah] And the prince was cursed by his guardian, who was an ugly old fairy and wanted to shack up with him, which he wasn’t into, but now we’ve got her sorted, and Beauty’s parents (the real ones, a fairy and a king) are back together, and her foster father and his offspring get to come live at the castle. So now everybody is happy (even though nobody is who we thought they were), and we can finally have the wedding and get on with the happily ever after.

Yeah. No surprise Mme de Beaumont chopped off that last half. So, incidentally, did Andrew Lang in the version he printed in The Blue Fairy Book in 1889. He says it’s after Mme de Villeneuve, which it is – he keeps quite a few of de Villeneuve’s details which aren’t in de Beaumont – but he ends it with the breaking of the curse and the wedding. All told, I think I like that version best. It’s got some charming details, for example, every night in the Beast’s castle Beauty dreams of this handsome prince whom she falls very much in love with, and who keeps telling her not to be deceived by appearances. Her feelings for this dream boy are one of the reasons she keeps turning down the Beast’s proposals, so when she finally agrees to marry Beast, that’s a major change of heart for her. Of course, dream boy is Beast himself in his human form, so the happily ever after at the end rings that much more true.

I just wish I knew French, so I could read these stories in the original. Apparently there are a few interesting tidbits, particularly in Villeneuve, that literally get lost in translation (see SurLaLune Fairy Tales and dettoldisney on the topic). Ah well, I have to make do with what I’ve got.


4 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast

  1. Wonderful!! I had no idea there were so many “long” versions of B & B. But then, as a fairy tale, I’m not surprised at all. This seems to be true of all of them. So far, anyway. As for the tale itself, I only know the Disney version with its beautiful animation and rollicking soundtrack. My son loved the “Gaston” songs. Lol. I think I remember that it won Academy Awards also, so not just a regular Disney cartoon.

    The story itself is, as you say, genuine literature, and it is not quite as formulaic as many of the other fairy tales. For one thing, the heroine isn’t a mindless twit who merrily twirls about until a passing prince plucks her off the ground and gallops her away somewhere for a “happy-ever-after.” Belle actually has a mind. The Beast who is the un-charming anti-prince is a character of despairing depth who truly “gets to know” Belle–who does not, incidentally, trip over her frilly pink apron and fall helplessly into his burly arms–imagine that.

    I liked the “Beauty and the Beast” story that I saw because it allows for the good people to rise above their flaws–to actually have flaws–and because it shows romantic love as a process that happens over time. It also shows that a heroine can be terrified, alone, and helpless, but can still be strong and moral–and still be plausible. Gee, I think that it was written by a woman is kind of obvious. Lol.


    • I just re-watched the Disney movie again – and yes, I love it too. It’s my favourite (that, and Shrek – for much the same reasons). However, the interesting bit is that the Disney film makes quite a lot of changes. A big one is that it gives Belle quite a lot of agency; it very much plays up the aspect that in this story, it’s the *girl* who saves the *prince*, not the other way around, but in the process she gets what she wants, too. I mean, that’s empowering! If you’re interested in just what changes Disney made, check out that “dettoldisney” link in the last paragraph above, she goes through it bit by bit.


  2. One thing I think is interesting about “Beauty and the Beast” beyond the fact that it’s an example of the literary fairy tale is that it’s also an example of a literary tale that “went folk” so to speak. Following Beaumont’s version, variants of the story started popping up in the folk tale traditions of various cultures. Italo Calvino had it as “Bellinda and the Monster” in his book Italian Folk Tales. The Grimm’s had it as “The Summer and Winter Garden” before it was removed from the books for not being German enough. I even read a very different version of it as “The Rosy Story” from a book about folklore from the Scoharie hills of New York State. People often fuss about writers changing folk stories when they write them down, but the process works in the other direction too.


    • Interesting about the Italian and Grimms versions; I’ll have to look them up. And of course B&B does go back to Apuleius’ “Cupid & Psyche”.

      Yes, I think this development of a folktale “from the top down”, as it were – literary to folk fairy tale – is very much exemplified with B&B. Lüthi says that in that process, the tales become more folktale-like again, i.e. take on the characteristics of a classic folktale, such as two-dimensionality of characters and settings, formulaic style, etc. That’s already apparent when you compare de Villeneuve and de Beaumont – the former is much more detailed, but the latter has more “punch”.
      It would be interesting to do a study of those literary tales that “went folk” – B&B is one case, most of Andersen’s is another. There are plenty of literary tales that never made it out from between the book covers, but some went viral, as it were. What are the qualities of the tales that made this happen? And do we have new stories today for which this will happen? (Harry Potter, maybe?)


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