The Most Romantic Story Ever Told

By Aimee BenderOctober 11, 2012

The Most Romantic Story Ever Told
Walter Crane, Illustration from Beauty and the Beast (detail)

I TEACH A CLASS on fairy tales to freshmen and sophomores at USC, and on the first day, as we sit in a circle, I ask them to introduce themselves and share their favorite tale. We hear a lot of Cinderellas, some Jack and the Beanstalks, and the occasional Peter Pan, which begins the discussion of what a fairy tale is, but more often than not, the most popular choice is Beauty and the Beast. These students are generally talking about the Disney version, as most of them haven’t actually read a fairy tale before.

On the one hand, the Disney film, which came out in 1991, hit this particular generation of college students nearly at birth, and it makes sense that Belle, Gaston, and the rugged, burdened Robby Benson-Beast shaped their views of film and love and storytelling. Many of them have watched it dozens of times. But the story’s appeal is deeper than that. Like all lasting fairy tales, and possibly even more than the others, Beauty and the Beast resonates with some harp string tucked deep in our DNA.

What is it about this tale and its various extraordinary retellings?

As a story, Beauty and the Beast defies two of the standard rules for fairy tales. One of the mainstays of the form is that the outside of a character usually matches the inside. If a gal is beautiful, she is pure and good inside. If a prince is handsome, one can count on his fine internal nature as well. If a stepsister is mean and awful, she generally is massively unattractive. (Consider a Chinese version of “Cinderella” where the evil stepsister’s name literally translates as “Pockface.”) This is a useful device, as fairy tales are brief and action-packed, and there’s little time for nuance or character development. Children respond well to a clear and demarcated fantasy world. But Beauty and the Beast is a rare exception; the beast is good, wants to be good, strives to show his goodness, but he is marred and hidden by his beastly appearance, and people run from the sight of him.

Of course, in film, audiences tend to grow attached to this exact beastliness. During the first screening of Jean Cocteau’s gorgeous classic, La Belle et La Bête, Marlene Dietrich famously clutched the director’s hand when actor Jean Marais, in a pair of balloony pants, materialized as the newly transformed handsome prince. “Where is my beautiful beast?” she called out. We grow attached to the beast because we love who he is. We love that he is a beast, that he is rough-edged, moody, troubled; kind, connected, and real. That Beauty sees him for who he is, and is rewarded for that, makes this tale a classic that allows the internal to take time to reveal itself, a truth we surely recognize from our regular lives and loves.

The other way that Beauty and the Beast flies in the face of the usual fairy tale conventions is that the two protagonists get to know each other. They spend time together. They, in a way, date. This is no longer love at first sight, or love at first kiss when sleeping and/or dead.

Fairy tales grow like wildflowers, authorless and widespread, with similar varieties blooming in different countries and continents. Beauty and the Beast is a tale impossible to track to its original seedling. We can find some roots in the Greek myths, in the tale of “Cupid and Psyche,” in which Psyche fears the terrifying serpent-monster that shares her bed only to discover it is the most beautiful man of all, Cupid.

But it was a woman, with the very lavish French name Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont, who, in 1756, fashioned the tale we know today. Her written version (in fact, an edited version of someone else’s), is likely a retelling of something heard, but the shape and details are her own and have passed directly along over hundreds of years. Most of the collectors of tales at that time — Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers a bit later, Joseph Jacobs, Alexander Afanasev, were men, and de Beaumont is one of the only women of the era who made a major contribution to getting these stories down on paper. French scholar Joan Hinde Stewart called her version “without doubt the best-known work of fiction published by any woman in the eighteenth century” and, based on its influence today, the statement seems fitting.

In her tale, a father on a journey plucks a rose requested by his least materialistic daughter. Picking it angers a beast living in a mansion, and the frightening creature will kill him for his theft unless one of his daughters takes his place. We know who comes forward, and more or less what happens from there. The tale is initially one of filial devotion as much as it is about romance. Beaumont’s beast is straightforward, and doesn’t like ass-kissing; “I don’t love compliments,” he tells Beauty’s father. He is also isolated and torn. Beauty stands up to him; she is just as forthright. She rejects his advances. They bond. Ultimately, she is able to shift from being a devoted daughter into a devoted partner.

The story has spawned multitudes of retellings. Jean Cocteau transformed it into film 190 years after de Beaumont published her version. He used hardly any dialogue and told the tale through cinematic paintings of deep darknesses and luminous billowing light. He made the mansion into a haunted, lonely prison; he showed us a place where objects act magically, pouring wine and pointing directions, (serving as inspiration for another film version…); and he introduced us to a beast tortured by his own conflicting instincts (played, incidentally, by Cocteau’s longterm lover). In Cocteau’s film, released just a year after the end of World War II, the beast berates himself for his own violent tendencies and seems to suffer and soften under Belle’s stern, loving gaze. This Beast is not cute and fuzzy and cat-like — at times he is blood-splattered, frenzied, drunken-seeming, wild. And then, hours later, he cleans himself up, a perfect gentleman, and escorts his new friend around the grounds.

La Belle et La Bête sealed a new interpretation of the tale into the cultural minds of many, and Shawn Levy of The Oregonian listed the film as his number one favorite of all time. Nearly 30 years later, the magnificent Angela Carter, who must’ve surely seen the Cocteau film, threw down her own version (two, in fact) in her collection of retold tales, The Bloody Chamber. In one rendition, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon,” she retells the de Beaumont tale in her own lush language, with what feels like an honoring of Cocteau’s stone mansion and lavish sensibility. She introduces us to a Beauty who needs the Beast to relax her brittle prettiness and to remind her of the humility and depth she is apt to lose under the shellac of the London socialite scene. The Beast is as crucial to her as she is to him. The story doesn’t take any surprising turns, but the double space break before the last line is a special one: the space marks the passage of much time, and I interpret the last line as Carter’s envisioning of what ‘happily ever after’ actually looks like — it is no throwaway end cap, but instead a brief and resounding image of real love as it ages.

But it’s Carter’s second story retelling, “The Tiger’s Bride” that changes the narrative; I won’t say how, as it’s better to read it, but I will say that this story explores the obsession that fuels The Bloody Chamber: the clash between the wild and the civilized, between one’s socialized behavior and the untrapped instincts and beastlinesses that lead to passion and freedom and sometimes trouble. What is human? What is animal?

Disney famously chimed in in 1991, and there have been any number of other related “makeover-style” movies and books. But regardless of all the retellings, the core rests, and we love the core. These types of tales are categorized as “Animal Groom” stories: the Swan Maiden tales, where a man falls for a swan who turns into a woman when bathing by a lake. “The Frog Prince.” “The Pig King,” a bawdy Italian telling, where women lie in bed with a swiny guy who murders his brides because they find him disgusting, until he finds one who gives him a chance. A melancholy Japanese tale, “Urashima the Fisherman,” where a fisherman falls for a turtle who leads him to her godly land. Shrek. To fall for a non-human, someone different, the ‘other’, and to find a like-minded love inside.

Several years ago, I went on a date with a guy who was telling me about his trials in the online dating world. “Most women list the same book as their favorite,” he said, and I held up a hand; “Let me guess,” I said, thinking. “Eat, Pray, Love?” He nodded. It wasn’t a longshot, it was such a gigantic hit, but I still felt a little fascinated by the phenomenon of posting it on a dating site. The book, after all, is its own fairy tale, and I could see why someone might list it almost as an advertisement: this is what I want. Match this. I want her life, her Prince Charming. I want love, and sex, and romance, and freedom, and pizza. But the book is not just that — that’s really only the end stretch. How many women who put that book up there in their profile were choosing it because of the agony and process of the narrator, versus her triumphant and ultra-romantic finale?

There’s a similar trap in Beauty and the Beast: we know the end. We may kiss a frog hoping for a prince, but the reason the frog turned into a prince is because the princess fell for the frog. Not because she was anticipating a reward for her open-mindedness. Beauty never knew the Beast was a man inside — when she finally realizes that she loves him as he is, for who he is, he transforms. There is major wisdom in that, a wisdom for any age, any era.


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