Well, okay, so C. S. Lewis isn’t really part of that story. He just retold it. A couple of days ago, in the course of this study, I pulled out my copy of Till We Have Faces and started to reread it. It’s been years since I’d read it, if not decades, and mostly what I remembered of it was that I found it kind of confusing. I didn’t really know what was going on. This time that was much better. But then I’d just read Cupid and Psyche, which helps a lot.
Now why am I even going into that whole thing? Because Cupid and Psyche, a story written by the second-century Latin writer Apuleius, is the earliest prototype of the “Beauty and the Beast” type of tale. C&P is the story of a king who has three daughters, the youngest of which, Psyche, is extremely beautiful (sound familiar already?). The goddess Venus gets ticked off at her – purely jealous spite on her part because humans are saying Psyche is Venus walking the earth – and sends her son Cupid out to kill the girl. Meanwhile, Psyche’s father is told that she needs to be sacrificed to the gods, exposed on a mountain peak, so that’s what they do. But Cupid has by now developed a heavy crush on Psyche, pretty as she is (no, pardon me, stunningly beautiful as she is), and he gets the wind god Zephyr to carry her off the mountain to a secret palace, staffed by invisible servants (!). Psyche is a bit freaked out, but enjoys the luxuries of the palace, including some unseen musicians serenading her (hidden speakers in the walls is my guess – oh, wait, it’s a couple millennia too early for high-tech equipment). Come nightfall, IAMQUE ADERAT IGNOBILIS MARITUS ET TORUM INSCENDERAT ET UXOREM SIBI PSYCHEM FECERAT – oh, sorry, “there entered her unknown husband, mounted the bed and made her his wife” and then takes off again before daybreak (V.4.3). (Translation by one E. J. Kenney, of the University of Cambridge, from 1990. No, I can’t read the Latin myself; I barely recognize some of the words. But it amuses me to have the Latin text to look at next to the English.) So here’s the first big difference between Psyche and Beauty: Psyche never lays eyes on her husband (just hands), while Beauty won’t let him into her bed because she knows he’s ugly as sin. Okay, so after a while of this, Psyche’s sisters set out to look for her. Cupid, being of the divine persuasion, knows they’re on their way, and also has a strong hunch they’re bad news. He tells Psyche to stay away from them, but she starts whining and crying and threatening suicide (really!), until he reluctantly agrees to let her see them, knowing full well that their marriage is going to be in deep doodoo because of these chicks. Sure enough, once the sisters figure out that Psyche is not only not dead, but lives in the lap of luxury with a husband she loves (even though she’s never seen him), they get incredibly jealous and plot her downfall. Unfortunately, Psyche, being the gullible type, makes it easy for them. It doesn’t take much on their part to talk her into a belief that this husband of hers is actually a hideous monster, and for her own safety she needs to kill him. (The thing that gets me about this is that it specifically says that “by her hands and ears, though not by her eyes, his presence was completely felt” V.5.1 – in other words, she’s been feeling up this guy every night for weeks, and hasn’t figure out that what she’s got under her hands is a normal guy with wings, not some kind of serpent-like monster? She’s just a bit dense.) So in spite of Cupid’s stern prohibition, she smuggles a lamp into the bedroom and takes a look at him when he’s asleep, killer knife at the ready. Of course, once she sees how drop-dead gorgeous he is, wings and all, she repents of her silliness, but it’s too late: a drop of hot lamp oil lands on his shoulder and burns him badly. He wakes up, just a little upset, and tells her that’s it, now that she’s seen him he has to leave. Psyche is heartbroken. She leaves the palace, and begins wandering the earth in search of her husband. Interestingly enough, one of the first things she does in her wanderings is to go punish her sisters for getting her into this: first she finds one, then to the other, and tells them that the god kicked her out for what she did, and wants to marry the sister instead. Both sisters fall for it, run up the mountain, and end up falling off the mountain top to their death. Anyway, now Venus enters the picture again. Cupid has gone home to mama, and is quite ill with the burn that he got. Venus, for her part, is absolutely furious at her son’s betrayal of her, and has Psyche brought to her so she can take it out on the girl (because, you know, it’s all Psyche’s fault that she’s beautiful and Cupid fell for her). Venus is rather beastly to Psyche, hitting her and punching her (even though she’s pregnant!), and finally sets her some impossible tasks which are meant to kill her. But Psyche gets assistance from magical helpers – some ants, for example, help her sort out a big pile of grains – and completes all the tasks Venus gave her. Cupid has finally recovered from his burn, and is fed up enough with mama’s antics that he goes to the Big Guy Himself, Jupiter, enlisting his aid in getting his wife back. Jupiter obliges, tells Venus to lay off Psyche, and makes the girl immortal by means of a serving of ambrosia (the beverage, not that cool-whip-and-marshmallow concoction). They have a big wedding feast with a dance number by Venus, and eventually Psyche gives birth to a daughter, “whom we call Pleasure”. They live happily ever after (literally), the end.
So, pretty obvious where the parallels to “Beauty and the Beast” are. I find it interesting that Psyche takes revenge on her sisters (which only works because the sisters are selfish bitches); in Villeneuve, the jealous sisters get to live with Beauty at the Beast’s palace, in Beaumont, they’re turned into sentient statues at the palace gates by the good fairy, but Apuleius’ girl does her own punishing. Another major difference between B&B and almost all other “animal bridegroom” stories such as this one, and the Norwegian “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (which is very similar to “Cupid and Psyche”) is that Beauty never gets the warning, never has that “forbidden thing” she must not do, such as look at her husband. In some B&B versions, he tells her to make sure she comes back in time, or he’ll die, and the sisters trick her into staying too long which almost kills the Beast. But never quite – as soon as she has the dream of him being sick, she runs back to him and the spell is broken. And of course the biggest difference is the interaction between the girl and the man/beast. Psyche is married to Cupid, and just thinks he’s a beast, while Beauty knows he is, and refuses to marry him because of it. “Beauty and the Beast” is a transformation story, while “Cupid and Psyche” and most of the other tales of this type are growing-up and quest stories – if anyone is transformed here, it’s Psyche, not her husband.
Lewis’ adaptation of Cupid and Psyche moves even further away from the “Beauty and the Beast” storyline. In Till We Have Faces, the “beast” aspect of Cupid is almost entirely dropped; the story is told from the perspective of Psyche’s oldest sister, whom he calls Orual, and who does, in fact, deeply love Psyche (which causes its own problems). Lewis’ story is a story of identity, love, and understanding of the supernatural; the one who is transformed is Orual. It’s been an interesting comparison.