Beauty and the Beast

Greetings! The version of Beauty and the Beast that I have recorded comes from Mme Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, who in 1756 adapted the story from the original novella written by Mme Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740.

De Villeneuve’s original story was written as a critique of the marriage system of her day in which women had “no right to choose her own husband, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control her own property and no right to divorce” (Terry Windling). And the bride might only be 14 or 15 years old. Women dreamt of a better way of life in which there was mutual love, civility and a modicum of autonomy. In the original story – written for adults – the Beast does not turn into a prince until after the wedding when Beauty wakes to find him beside her.

Mme de Beaumont shortened the story - thereby possibly rescuing the story from oblivion; Mmme de Villeneuve was “a lady not renowned for conciseness, her long-winded narrative occupying 362 pages” (Opie & Opie), - and changed it so that the emphasis is not so much on the Beast’s transformation, nor on the unfairness of the marriage system, but more on the moral virtues required of girls. Beauty had access to books; this is probably because Mme de Beaumont , as a governess, was interested in education. She ‘wrote out of a deep involvement with the young.... intelligently and not too earnestly” (Opie & Opie). Still, the story makes it clear that both protagonists have tasks to fulfil before their happiness is complete. The Beast has to be very patient and control his animal instincts; Beauty has to suffer her losses good-naturedly, learn to look beyond appearances and overcome her fear. The transformation works on both characters “to restore balance and bring about integration” (J. C. Cooper).

‘Animal groom’, or ‘Loathly Mate’ stories such as this one are ubiquitous and ancient, one example being an African story of a crocodile that turned back into the man he once was when a kind-hearted girl licked his face!

Beauty and the Beast is not what Gypsy Thornton (Once Upon a Blog) calls a “bubblegum and glitter” kind of tale. It is one of the “love-transformation tales, which teach that the power of love is more direct in action and more powerful in its results than any amount of sorcery, enchantment or contrived magic” (J. C. Cooper). This reminds me of the power of love to melt ice in H. C. Anderson’s The Snow Queen. Beauty and the Beast is a strong story about relationships, sexual and filial, and about the dangers lurking in the darker side of our personalities, the bits we don’t like to admit to.  It is also a strong story about knowing who we are and how committed we can be to our destiny and the people who are tied to us as part of it.

Resources:

J.C. Cooper, Fairy Tales: Allegories of the Inner Life

Iona and Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales.

Gypsy Thornton - http://fairytalenewsblog.blogspot.com.au/

Terry Windling - http://windling.typepad.com/blog/


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Annotations

Beauty – such a controversial term – and what we suffer in our efforts to make ourselves look beautiful! So often in fairy tales beauty describes inner qualities as well as, or more than, merely what a person looks like.

...reading good books – from their preferred activities I surmise that Beauty seems to be an introvert and her sisters extroverts. This is not to say that introverts are any more virtuous than extroverts.

...lovers slighted and forsook them – fair weather friends indeed, but without their finery all the sisters had to fall back on in their poverty was their puffed up pride, whereas Beauty had inner fortitude to draw on.

Work – ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Beauty thrived on it; her sisters’ indolence and spite is reminiscent of the dynamics between Cinderella and her ugly sisters.... funny how riches can bring out the best and worst in people.

Rose  Queen of flowers in the West, equivalent of the Lotus in the East, “its mandala form represents the wholeness of creation, the perfection of the deity, and the individuation of the Self” (Antony Stevens). The rose is sacred to Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Barbara Walker, in her Women’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, spends three pages on the ancient symbolism of the rose, linking it to the Virgin Mary and to the Goddess. This first mention of the rose is almost a throw-away line, yet it has such significance; the whole story hinges on it.

...lost in the forest – it is so easy to get lost in a forest where there are no easy landmarks, and as the sun is obscured all directions look the same. In Jungian symbology the forest represents the unconscious which is identified with the feminine principle. Cirlot says that forest symbolism is “connected at all levels with the symbolism of the female principle of the Great Mother”, dark, unfathomable, and “free from any control or cultivation”. According to Bettelheim the forest “symbolises the place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through; where uncertainty is resolved about who one is, and where one begins to understand who one wants to be”. Getting lost in a forest is a frequent motif in fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White come to mind), and indeed may be a prerequisite at the beginning of the journey of individuation – of moving from the known, conscious world, to the unknown, dark, almost impenetrable world of the unconscious, the undeveloped wilderness (Bettelheim), and in the process of moving through the forest, to find oneself. It was the beginning of the biggest adventure of his life for the merchant father.

...come willingly and suffer for you – this is a dire threat of death – of himself (and then who would take care of the family?) or his daughter (he knows which one – the most valued one, Beauty). At the time this story was written women did not have a say in the choice of their husband, so this is unusual.

The chest of gold – This gift from Beast could be taken for a bride-price, a softener of the blow the death of the father or Beauty would be to the family. Yet, with his impending loss, money was the last thing on his mind, and when he does find it in his bedroom he keeps it a secret because he knows what ructions it will cause. It is Beauty who suggests he use it as dowry for her sisters. This is the first sign that all is not as bad as it seems.

Fine lady – the one who appeared in Beauty’s dream was the fairy in charge of the whole shebang. She saw to it that the wicked fairy, the one who had put the spell on Beast, did not prevail (reminiscent to the two fairy godmother’s wishes in Sleeping Beauty). Here we see the two archetypal aspects of the Great Mother, her nurturing aspect and her destructive aspect, as can also be seen to a lesser degree in Beauty and her sisters. The fine lady (fairy) who encourages Beauty in her dream is the second sign that all is not lost.

Beauty’s Apartment – The third sign that her demise is not immanent is the provision of the library and music (ta-da! her favourite things) for her amusement; in fact her every need and whim has been catered for. Being an introvert (in my opinion) these provisions made up for the lack of company, except for that of Beast in the evenings.

Beast – he is helplessly under the control of the spell put on him by the wicked fairy. It is interesting to think of a man, - whom we usually think of as the gender of the species that likes to be in control of himself and others, - as being at the mercy of a beautiful virgin to release him from the spell; at the mercy of a woman with a kind heart, resolute and courageous. I wonder if as a Prince he retained his complaisant (inclination to comply willingly with the wishes of others) nature, or did he revert to stereotype? Remembering that this story was written at the height of the patriarchy, perhaps it was wishful thinking on the part of the author.

I hope the throne will not lessen your virtue – with a throne comes power, and power can so easily corrupt.

Resources:

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols

Antony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue

Barbara Walker, The Women’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets


Reflection Questions

These questions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps you don’t relate to the whole story, but parts of it do resonate with aspects of your experience. Those are the parts you can work with. And if you find a question disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend or therapist to talk it over with. I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.

  •  “Beauty is only skin deep” – how deep under the skin is your beauty?
  •  Which character do you most identify with in the story? Which qualities of this character do you have? And how are you different to this character?
  •  Which character or qualities would you like to emulate or aspire to?
  •  What negative qualities would you like to overcome?
  •  What does happiness mean for you? Is it something you can achieve inside yourself or does it depend on outer circumstances?
  •  What inner strategies do you have to fall back on when things go awry or friends fall away?
  •  What does work mean for you? Is it play that you get paid to do? Are you following your bliss?
  •  What about forests? Have you been in one lately? In its symbolism as representing the unconscious and the journey of individuation, imagine you are in or near a forest. Where would you place yourself – at the entrance, in the thick of it, or more or less at the far edge where you can see the forest beginning to thin out to open meadow?