Beauty is the Beast

Byron's corsair


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.

cruel beauty

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:

bottom and beauty
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.

beauty and the beast by Dore

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.

18th century beauty

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.

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?



Beauty is the Beast — 53 Comments

  1. To me, the most salient thing about the Cupid and Psyche story are the elements of trust and identity. Psyche trusts her mysterious unseen husband; her sisters awake her suspicions; her fear turns out to be groundless, but trust is broken. It’s easy to make her situation sound like it has an easy answer–you can construct the situation so that it’s ridiculous to expect someone to take something on faith (for instance, in real life, we’d tend to think it’s pretty ridiculous to have a situation in which you weren’t supposed to look at your spouse’s face–and yet, I can think of a great story scenario in which that’s the case…. hmmm….). Or, contrariwise, you can construct a situation so that it’s ridiculous to NOT trust your spouse. But real life is more ambiguous, and I think the story draws power precisely from the sense that it would be hard to pick a course of action if we were in Psyche’s position.

    And then there’s the identity question. Is her spouse a wonderful being? Or a terrible monster? And of course the Beauty-and-the-Beast story takes that in the other direction. Is he a terrible monster? Or is there something else to him?

    When you’re getting to know a person, they are mysterious to you. They declare who they are–both with assertions and with their actions–but are they that thing? What makes a person who or what they are? Altogether fascinating.

    • Yes, and that aspect of the emotional and psychological dilemma has been with us for a couple thousand years at the least, or the myth still wouldn’t resonate with us today.

  2. The idea that women “have always wanted to have the power to tame their beasts” is an interesting thought at a time when domestic violence is at the forefront of our national dialogue (though only because it’s related to football during football season, I note).

    However, to me it suggests another myth, one that might be encoded in the original story as well: Men are brutes without the civilizing influence of women. That implies that men are incapable of controlling themselves — which I think is nonsense — and that women have a duty to civilize them.

    Perhaps it’s because I have zero interest in spending my life civilizing men that I have never much cared for Beauty and the Beast.

    • That has certainly been raised through women’s writing in history, I’ve noted. I think one of the more interesting treatments of the ‘men are brutes without the civilizing influence of women’ through novels that I have read was Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance.

      • I remember that book, though I thought the outcomes in the split worlds were meant to be more balanced. The men did start a war, but did okay afterwards; the women were peaceful but eventually cholera got past them (but the split came back together in time to prevent disaster). I remember the women’s side being mostly about doing well taking over the ‘men’s work’, ie at that time the hard tech.

  3. I hate Beauty and the Beast and refuse to read it to the kids because it’s a viciously damaging idea, that if only you (female) love someone (male) in exactly the right way, they will stop hurting you and become everything you’ve ever wanted.

    Screw that.

      • I don’t see it as the darker side but as intrinsic to the story. But I don’t know what revisionist or critical approaches may be taken presently.

        • I’ve heard some interesting critical approaches from feminists, not necessarily writers, but scholars in various fields. It’s the most interesting, I think, when panel discussions and audiences are primarily women representing various ages and backgrounds.

          BTW I felt that way about The Giving Tree and similar books, also the Crawling Mommy book, Love You Forever; kept those away from my kids when young, until they got old enough for discussions of reading, and how to observe but step away from damaging ideas.

            • My pastor sometimes reads those to kids in church, and I always feel a little alone in thinking they are just horrible. Nice to hear other people express the same opinion.

              My parents never inflicted that sort of stuff on me, thank goodness. Though they did use ‘Blood on the saddle’ as a lullaby…

                • I loathed both those books and kept them away from my kids. When someone gave us a copy of Love You Forever, I admit that I read it to my younger daughter with my own snarky commentary. Her response: “that Mom is kind of creepy.”

        • I’ve long seen Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard as two sides of the coin. It’s the same story – except that in one, the apparent monster turns out to be an awesome person, and in the other the apparent awesome person turns out to be a monster. And I think those are both useful stories, as long as they’re balanced against each other.

  4. On the endless flight back from England last month, I watched six or seven movies, one of which was a 2014 French La Belle et La Bête. Not a patch on the Cocteau version, although very pretty. And was reminded that in the fairy tale version I remember from my childhood, of the three sisters Belle is set up as the selfless one, throwing herself to the Beast in place of her father (I’ve read other versions in which the father cravenly offers her to the Beast). The thing that always piqued me was that, after being something of a doormat within her family, she begins to fight back when she’s alone with the Beast, as if outside of her family she can begin to grow a spine.

    I have a half-finished B&B story with the Beauty’s father as the POV character. Someday.

  5. “I have a half-finished B&B story with the Beauty’s father as the POV character.”

    Woops, even though I’ve just read Sartorias’s LJ post and all this entry, I still flashed on a modern heroine hired at a picturesque Bed and Breakfast by its Byronic owner.

    I plead insufficient caffeine.

  6. I tend to agree with the theory about the sacrificial daughter, given to the gods, a god, a demon, the dragon, a beast, to save the larger family, in one way or another: sold to slavers in time of famine, kept at home to care for aging, ailing parents in the Victorian era, given to the hostiles to buy time or good will, as Lot gave his daughters to the angry mobs of Sodom and Gommorah, to the church to serve the nuns etc., when the farmer couldn’t pay his taxes to the abbey this year. So many ways a family had of sacrificing a girl — not to mention wives: each child a tooth and lack of protein for the pregnant woman killed her young, but she didn’t look or act young any longer.

    Then there is Zeus and his ilk, who just take — thank goodness it was my youngest daughter, and now I don’t need to find a dowry.

    • In some interpretations, the scary or ugly bridegroom is an elderly and/or ugly man in an arranged marriage — who is all along kind and gentle to her, especially in bed. Which she can believe and relate to, as long as she doesn’t look at him!

      • My thought, when you say that, is that it is a taming story — like MY FRIEND FLICKA or NATIONAL VELVET, or THE WAR HORSE. The young person meets a dangerous animal and is the only one, because of her vision, purity of heart, optimistic nature, etc. who can tame it and (save the ranch) (donate it to England’s war effort) (win the Kentucky Derby).

        • But in those versions of Animal Bridegroom, she didn’t have to tame him, as he was nice all along. He was trying to tame HER to eventually stop fearing his appearance and accept his kind character.

          This makes sense of the frequent trope, “If you had waited a little longer, the curse on me would have been lifted.” If she had let the relationship develop further before the shock of looking at him, it would have been better.

      • Oh, yes. Though he didn’t have to be old or ugly, perhaps, just strange. Especially when the type Beauty and the Beast as opposed to The Search for the Lost Husband was written — there’s a story told of that era where a young nobleman asked his father whether it was true that his father intended to marry him to a certain young noblewoman, and was told to mind his own business.

        And in other interpretations, it’s just her being frightened at the possibility of a sexual relationship that makes her think of him as beastly. Once she can cope with it, she realizes he’s still human.

  7. Likely contrary to Lewis’s intent, seeing TWHF mentioned here made me think of Orual AS the Beast who (as in some versions of Animal Bridegroom) turns out to be not bad after all.

  8. When I was a kid, Beauty and the Beast was by far my favorite of the traditional fairy tales that I knew, for two reasons. One was that, in my reading, it was about looking past surface appearance to the person inside. (My mother supported this reading.) Another was that Beauty, in the version we had, was an active heroine with agency who made her own important decisions (sacrificing herself to save her father, choosing to go back to the Beast), something that was not true in the other tales (e.g., Sleeping Beauty).

    • Yes–both are good points, and I note that many, if not most, of the modern versions I’ve read take these into full account. I’m glad not to see passive Cinderellas waiting to be rescued.

    • “One was that, in my reading, it was about looking past surface appearance to the person inside.”

      That sounds like the Cabinet des Fees type, which I grew up on, as it was in Lang’s Fairy Books and other popular sources long before the Disney movie (which was more like the pre-Cabinet versions, which most people here seem to be describing).

      One Cabinet version was titled iirc “The Wonderful Sheep”. He gave her royal refuge from her Learish father, was sweet and polite from the beginning.

      • Yes, the Beast was kind and pleasant from the beginning, in the version we had. I’m not sure which version it was–not Lang’s, but a similar book of tales. I first read it in the late 1960s, and the book was pretty shabby even then, so no telling when it was published. Definitely pre-Disney, though!

        • Slight off topic, but both these in which the Beast is kind and pleasant to Beauty from first meeting, have a dark bloody threat component at the beginning. In BatB it’s the Beast threatening her father; in TWS it’s Beauty fleeing her father the king who wants her killed (as in Snow White).

  9. The evopsych interpretation seems to skip over the fact that no one wants the Beast in Beast form, not even the Beast himself. I think modern werewolf and vampire stories reflect this idea more. The Beast is shunned and isolated from society, not at all an ‘alpha’: no one wants to be him or be protected by him.

    Like Mary Aileen, I see the story as being about agency, but for both Beauty and Beast, so I actually identified with both of them, but only in certain versions: McKinley’s Beauty and the Disney version (heh). My response stems from these versions, but it’s not a historical reading at all, just personal.

    The curse is to me a magical metaphor for chronic illness, with the subsequent fallout in terms of identity: the Beast is completely identified with his illness (ie/ his name) and when others interact with him they only see the illness. The identification of someone with their illness is particularly common in mental illness, since those by definition will change how people behave/their personality, ie/ something you can see.

    Beast doesn’t really read to me like an abuser, but rather someone who has become so disheartened that no one is able to see that this curse (illness) is not really him. If you’ve read any accounts of what it’s like to live with something like depression, for example, the parallels just seem to stick out.

      • It also occurred to me that Pride and Prejudice is the more obvious Beauty and Beast, more so than Mansfield Park. I assume this has been analyzed to death somewhere, but I’d never thought of it that way before. Jane Austen also manages to remove some of the damaging ideas people might get from the fairy tale, since Darcy must transform himself to achieve a happily ever after. All the other versions I’ve read have Beauty’s love being the catalyst for Beast’s transformation, so Darcy’s love for Lizzie being the instigator is a nice change. Though Darcy is initially completely oblivious of his Beast status ha.

        • While I have seen many discussions of how Darcy must change before she will accept him, I’ve never seen the novel likened to Beauty and the Beast. I like that idea!

          • Oh ya? I think it’s quite apt. Darcy’s curse is his pride, which isolates him from the society of others, and I believe it’s usually some fatal flaw in Beast’s character (such as pride) which results in the curse and thus Beast’s isolation . . I believe the underlying story is very much there. There are other parallels, such as Lizzie’s bond to her father. Austen plays up the beauty of Lizzie’s character/spirit instead of physical beauty, and Lizzie needs to see beneath Darcy’s curse (pride) to his real form (he’s actually quite a nice employer heh) to finally gain her happily ever after.

        • Oh, I like that. And that would mean that all reformed-rake romance novels — every book in which the hero is strange and scary but gradually comes to love the heroine — is similar.

      • I think there are crumbs that seem to invoke depression: Beast neglects his appearance and the upkeep of the castle, isolates himself and uselessly lashes out at everyone . .

        Re: the Disney version -I found the scene where he asks for help to win Belle really funny, because the response reminds me of when unkempt big guys sadly inquire what they can do to stop people from cringing away from them in elevators, and everyone responds: hygiene!! (Incidentally, lack of self-care tends to be a symptom of depression.) Cut your hair, wear better clothes, shower regularly, and even if you’re big and slightly ugly, people will be less likely to be scared of you. But don’t furrow your brow when you’re thinking, because people will think you’re scowling, and god forbid you should be justifiably angry and raise your voice .. .

        Disney’s abusers are more truly the enchantress (the blameless castle people suffered so she could teach Beast a lesson, and she honestly overreacted) and Gaston: arranging a wedding without Belle’s consent, attempting to control her and tell her what she should be interested in by throwing her book in the mud, and choosing her future for her as his wife and mother of his kiddies.

  10. I confess, I am not much of a fan of BatB. Not only have I always disliked the onus being placed on women to police men’s behavior (and to be perfect while not being allowed to expect that their potential husbands even be human), but as a child I got so sick of hearing “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon” dismissed as the Scandinavian version of BatB when I liked “East” better and knew it was the same tale type, but not actually derived from BatB, that I developed a deep aversion to BatB. I have since read and watched many takes on BatB, mainly because they’re so ubiquitous. Still not a fan, unless it’s a take that both makes the hero responsible for himself, and acknowledges the potential for the monstrous/Beastly in the heroine. For that matter, I prefer the versions and variations of “East” that do the same, but also feature that final, arduous, mystical journey the heroine undertakes because she has seen the truth of her husband and she chooses him based on that knowledge.

    • Oh, that’s an interesting connection, I had not even thought of that, with “East of the Sun, West o’ the Moon.”

      What variations would you recommend? I don’t recollect I’ve seen any of late!

      • I have a few variations in my to-be-read pile, but my books are clear across the country in storage. You have probably run across a few iterations and didn’t realize it, though. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller featured two variations, “Hans My Hedgehog” and “The True Bride.” There’s also “The Brown Bear of Norroway,” a Scottish take on the same tale type. In each case, the bride violates a condition of her marriage, usually in an attempt to free her husband of his curse, and he is taken from her as a consequence. Frequently, he is now subject to a betrothal to a troll or ogress, and unless the heroine can find him and outwit his new fiancée and said fiancée’s family within a certain amount of time, he will be lost to her forever. So she (usually) commissions a pair of sturdy iron shoes, and sets off to learn where he is and how to get there. In most cases (but not all; the bride in “Hans My Hedgehog” doesn’t do this bit, for instance), the heroine finds her way to the home of the mother of the Four Winds, and from there she hitches a ride on the back of the wind to an enchanted realm.

        Beauty fights her way back into the Beast’s castle after breaking her promise to return to him within a certain timeframe, but that’s not quite as impressive a journey, and she does so still ignorant of Beast’s true nature. When she agrees to marry him on his deathbed, it has always felt, to me, less like a realization of romantic love and more like guilt and pity. To which I say: no thanks.

          • Those versions seem to tie into all those folk tales about the guy marrying, or becoming enthralled by, another dangerous female. Have you read FIRE & HEMLOCK, by Diana Wynne Jones? All the beastly aspects of the guy then can be blamed upon the evil fay or whatever, that has him in thrall. It is the task of the heroine to break him out, and this turns him from bad to good husband material.

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