Tale As Old As Time: The Many Versions of 'Beauty And The Beast'Disney's new live-action extravaganza is just the latest retelling of this classic fairy tale. But why do Beauty and her Beast have such a hold on us? And why are there so many versions of their tale?
In the introduction of Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales of Animal Brides and Grooms, Maria Tatar talks about how to classify a fairy tale using the Aarne-Thompson system. Developed and refined since the early 20th century, it's a massive taxonomy that cross-references our fundamental stories by subplots and themes. (The sheer volume of folklore would be overwhelming otherwise; Tatar's book alone contains stories from almost two dozen countries.) And stories of loathly brides and grooms generally fall under two types: The Man on a Quest for His Lost Wife, or The Search for the Lost Husband.
Looking at these categories, however, doesn't offer an easy place for Beauty and the Beast. The familiar 18th-century French version (which Disney borrowed for its tale as old as time) fits the letter of the Aarne-Thompson law: The lost husband is the beastly suitor, whom Beauty must return to and rescue at last. But other stories confound the classic about the girl who agrees to live with a gentle Beast until love softens her heart.
The tales in Tatar's compilation swing from vicious to romantic, from comedy to horror. There are stories of a steadfast prince being loyal to his frog-wife, or a princess searching for her bear-husband "east of the sun and west of the moon" — here, love is proven in action and rewarded with happiness. But Beauty and the Beast stories are about power as much as about love. So sometimes the prince steals a maiden's animal skin to force her to stay with him, or he puts his tortoise-wife on display against her wishes, or he ignores his devoted wife's warnings and discovers she's actually a crane. And these stories, where power is abused, differ sharply from the stories of proof and trust: Almost all of them end with her escape.
The Aarne-Thompson archetypes help us understand what connects the disparate versions of Beauty and the Beast; they're all stories of searching and longing. But the tale resists a definitive telling — because at heart, it's psychologically preoccupied with trust, power, and change, which makes it a hard story to pin down, let alone guarantee a happy ending. By admitting the power of the individual in a relationship, these tales understand that this power can become abuse. (Sometimes all a princess can do is steal back her identity and bail.) It's why there's such visceral appeal in dark retellings; we understand just how close love is to a horror story.
The late Tanith Lee never met a horror story she didn't love; her fairy-tale legacy stares unblinkingly into the dark. Her most famous might be White as Snow, a novel that reassembles shards of several folktales, with Beauty and the Beast thrown in amid Snow White and Persephone. But short fiction is Lee's sharpest tool for pulling old tales apart. The posthumous Redder Than Blood arrives next month with 19 fairy-tale retellings steeped in Gothic prose and the undertones of sexual violence that lurk in so many fairy stories. Among the tales she chews up and spits out are four Beauty and the Beasts, which suggest both Lee's affinity for the pairing and how variations on a theme can hook onto the spine of their archetype.
The heroines of her Beauty and the Beast stories come to no good end. "My Life as a Swan" tugs at the Swan Maiden's skin of feathers, a death by a thousand mistakes. In "Kiss Kiss," the tentative companionship between a girl and her frog drops from bittersweet to bitter — since he can't abuse her the way other men do, she comes to love him as he is, and his transformation is then a tragedy. And "The Beast and Beauty" examines a handsome husband and the ugly wife for whom the weight of obligation and beauty's sheer power eventually become a barrier to the thing she most longs for: escape.
But "The Beast," a retelling of the French tale, is the Gothic favorite, weighted heavily toward Bluebeard and fascinated by the loathly husband, Isobel the sacrificial bride, and beauty as corrupting force. That last is everywhere; beauty casts so insidious a spell that Isobel's own father struggles against lust for her. ("She was in the library, sitting by the fire, an open book on her knee. She might have been waiting. He looked at her. He thought, Yes.") However, like many a Beauty, Isobel comes to realize the power she wields after she learns her lover's pursuit of beauty is more beastly than she guessed. It's a dark-mirror iteration in which she finds out exactly what happens if she leaves him. It also allows that surely Beauty herself has a monstrous side; his kills don't horrify her, only his lies. (Here we also get an echo of the beastly brides in Tatar's anthology; to mistrust her is to misjudge her power — and lose her.)
Lee's stories, unlike those of her forebear Angela Carter, offer almost no happy endings on the other side of the mirror. They condemn the happy ending wholesale; what magic may attempt, human frailty will eventually consume. In Lee's stories, happiness is worth only as much as whatever power the prince is willing to give his up, and beauty — or Beauty — will never be enough currency to pay that price. It's a story that hopes for the best, and recognizes the worst.
Folkore is the bedrock of storytelling. These tales act as cultural timestamps, as geographic markers, as artifacts, and as living stories that show us something of ourselves. Beauty and the Beast stories are categorized in the folklore canon by a yearning for something that's been lost. When retold, we see their core elements repeated again and again, and while they reflect our awareness of the toxic dynamics of power, they also reflect our hope for romance and our desire for something subversive at the heart of love — its ability to change us.
Fairy tales occupy a space between narrative and history, with our own perspective as a real-time narrative remove. To read fairy tales is, in itself, to participate in something transformative, with the hope of finding something to love and understand; in reading them, we retell the story all over again.