I was reshelving some books the other day, and there was Rosmund Hodge’s debut YA fantasy, Cruel Beauty. I’d read it when it first came out, remembered enjoying it, and sat down to reread it.
There seem to have been a number of variations on Beauty and the Beast coming out lately, especially in YA. Though the ‘beast’ can be a demon or death personified, he is seldom an ugly monster. He can be cursed, but in a way that doesn’t mar his dangerous beauty. Because the ‘Beauty’ of the tale seems to have switched over from her to him.
I enjoyed this particular book because its heroine, Nyx, is so different from her fellow heroines in other B&B novels. Raised on stories of heroic sacrifice, Nyx is very, very angry. And who wouldn’t be, having been told from her earliest years that she was to be the family sacrifice—she was to marry a demon—so that her twin sister, and the rest of the family, and the land, could go free? Oh, not just marry him, but assassinate him.
Armed with hermetic training, grim tales of sacrifice, and above all her anger, Nyx gets through the marriage and meets the Gentle Lord, her demon prince. Smokin’ hot and dangerous hero/villains for our heroines to deal with appear to be a trope our culture is exploring these days, as we grapple with our ambivalence about violence: we do not want the reality of it happening to us, while we watch it and play it in our entertainment.
You can read the rest of my review of the book here; to sum up, the world the author builds is poised between the land of fairy tales and that of myths, striking echoes from what I consider the greatest of all modern treatments of the ancient myth of Psyche and Cupid, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. There are also echoes of several mythic traditions in the climactic struggle, while all the important elements are there: the sister, the mysterious house, and above all power.
Because it is an ancient myth. “Beauty and the Beast” goes back much farther than Jean Cocteau’s amazing film of 1946. There are all echoes of it in a variety of tales, some even maintain that Shakespeare was riffing comically off of it with Bottom as the beast:
Madame LePrince de Beaumont, an upper-class Frenchwoman, wrote what we westerners might call the pre-modern, or Enlightenment, version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Though she didn’t get in with the first publication (that was by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740), LePrince de Beaumont rewrote Villeneuve’s tale and republished it in 1756, refining it over the next thirty years.
The versions those two women wrote drew on elements of the Greek myth, but the focus of the tale was more about the problems of arranged marriages, in which young women were legally sold off to in order for men to consolidate power and position.
Young women, often no more than girls, went along willingly partly because at a young age they could not see past titles and wealth, and partly because they were raised to expectation of an arranged marriage, while being kept ignorant of what marriage meant. The wedding day might seem like a splendid fairy tale, but grim reality set in fast.
LePrince really dug into the beast’s monstrous behavior, perhaps drawing on her own horrible two years of marriage to a real stinker, before she got her marriage annulled and then moved to England to support herself by her pen. Her version, translated into English, can be found here. Note the echoes from Cupid and Psyche, which includes the curious sisters who get Psyche into trouble.
LePrince’s tale certainly struck a chord with readers, as it stayed in print ever afterward, inspiring many variations. Some even feel that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park owes a great deal to Beauty and the Beast, though in the end of Austen’s novel, Beauty rejects the Beast—an ending that seems to have been problematical at the time as well as now, as its sales never equaled her other books, and ever since it seems to be Austen’s least popular novel.
At the same time, Byron was making himself famous depicting dark and dangerous hero/villains who might or might not be redeemed by the love of a good woman, inspiring two generations of dangerously attractive bad boys ever since.
As for the monster Beast, another iteration showed up in Phantom of the Opera, later in that century.
Cut up to the 20th Century. Midway through, two very different versions of the mythic story appeared ten years apart: first, there was Jean Cocteau’s film in 1946, and in 1956 C.S. Lewis published Till We Have Faces.
Critics, used to his Christian apologia and his children’s stories, did not seem to know what to make of this remarkable novel, which hearkens back to Apuleius’s version of Cupid and Psyche.
Apparently Lewis was bothered by this myth his whole life, as he struggled to make sense of it. It wasn’t until he he discovered romantic love in marriage, late in life, that he finally found a way to make sense of it through writing his novel. Many consider it his best book, written in first person by a woman, Orual—the sister of Psyche—who convinced Psyche to break the rule and look upon her god of a husband, who surely must be a monster, or why would he not show himself? Orual herself was so ugly that she had to wear a veil, unlike her beautiful sister.
As for the Byronic beast, he, too, has shown up in many varieties, beginning with the Bronte sisters, and coming right down to writers born after the mid-twentieth century; Robin McKinley has spent most of her career writing various versions of this branch of the tale, and she, in turn, has influenced many others.
At my age, I find that the more interesting versions of the tale are not just about heroine versus sexy-but-dangerous hero/villain. Though that can be fun! Ambivalence about violence, anger versus love, fear of the Other, dealing with strife in the family and the weirdness of the unknown, all have been duly explored within the familiar tropes of the tale.
But there are a lot of them. I brought this up at a panel once, and asked my fellow panel members, and the audience, what they believed was the draw.
An archaeologist who said she focused on social history from a psychological slant maintained that the tale probably goes clear back to our cave ancestors. Our foremothers, she said, wanted the best looking man available, of course, and one who could whack the occasional predatory teeth-gnasher away from the cave, but what price did she pay to choose the most successfully violent man from the other Grunts and Nogs? Too often his violence was turned on her as the closest target.
She said, in effect, “This myth’s continued popularity shows that women have always wanted to have the power to tame their beasts.”
What do you think?