There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognise for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.
– Erin Morgernstern, The Night Circus
But of course beasts have never just been beasts, not in the fairy tale world, anyway. Cats come to the rescue with elaborate heists. A horse’s severed head exposes betrayals. Talking wolves masquerade as other people’s grandmothers. And then there are the transformed – frog princes, raven brothers, a swan princess – held against their wills in a shape that is not their own.
Like most of the great fairy tales, the theme of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has seen numerous retellings. There have been novelisations, such as Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood and Cameron Dokey’s Belle; there have also been screen adaptations, most memorably Disney’s animation with a bibliophile Belle and porridge-slurping Beast. The film is set in France, possibly because the most familiar version of the story is from Charles Perrault. But just like so many other fairy tales, the story of the beautiful girl and the transformed man is a universal theme. For this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, I have collected three different takes on it by three different storytellers. See if you can guess which one might be my favourite.
Version 1: Beauty and the Beast
This telling of the French fairy tale comes from Classic Folk Tales From Around the World, published in 1996 by Leopard. A very wealthy merchant loses his wife but is left with a large family of six children, three sons and three daughters, on whom he lavishes every advantage that his status can provide. I’m not sure what becomes of his sons. They pop up every now and again, but as to what they are doing with themselves in the meantime, the story doesn’t seem to care. This one is all about the girls.
The elder two of the merchant’s daughters are very pretty, but unfortunately also spoiled and kind of bitchy. They dismiss the children of other merchants, laugh at all their gold-digging suitors and mock their intellectual little sister. In the latter case, at least, a bit of jealousy is perhaps understandable. The merchant’s third daughter is so universally adored by friends and family (well, some of her family) that she is given the pet name of ‘Beauty’. She, too, receives many marriage proposals, but wriggles her way out of them without ever giving offence, insisting she is too young yet to marry.
Then, completely without warning, the merchant loses all his vast fortune and is forced to move to the country, where he and his family will have to live like peasants just to make ends meet. The suitors of his elder daughters have changed their minds now that the girls have no money; Beauty, on the other hand, has the option of a good marriage and life in comparative luxury, but turns it down to look after her family instead. And do they need it! While her father and brothers try to cultivate their farm, and her older sisters wander about aimlessly bemoaning their circumstances, Beauty looks after the house and teaches herself how to cook. Her siblings aren’t terribly appreciative, but Beauty’s patience does not go unnoticed by her father, and she becomes more of a favourite with him than ever.
They have been on the farm for about a year when they receive an unexpected piece of good news – one of the merchant’s lost ships has arrived in port with a valuable cargo and just maybe a return to his former wealth. His delighted elder daughters rattle off lists of all the things they want from town; Beauty says nothing, realising that one cargo will not go very far, but when pushed to name a present by her father, she asks for a rose. The merchant sets off full of hope. When he arrives in town, however, someone brings a lawsuit against him and it takes all his newly acquired cargo to pay off the lawyers who clear his name. After all his trouble, he will return home no better off than when he left it.
But things are about to get worse. On his way home, riding along a forest road, it begins to snow and he loses his way. When he sees a distant light, he heads gratefully towards it. Deep in the forest, he finds an enormous castle all lit up as if for a great banquet, but with not a soul in sight. The merchant stables his horse, then goes into the house to beg shelter for the night. He sees a fire blazing in the hearth and a hot dinner on the table, but though he waits, his host doesn’t arrive, so he eats the meal and goes to sleep in one of the castle’s many bedrooms. When he wakes in the morning, his dirty clothes are gone, replaced by a beautiful new suit. The merchant decides to put all this inexplicability down to the work of a kind fairy and goes downstairs for a delicious breakfast. He is just leaving – on his way to collect his horse from the stables, in fact – when he passes beneath a bower entwined with roses and remembers Beauty’s request. He can bring nothing for his other daughters, but breaks off a branch to bring home for his youngest.
That turns out to be a seriously bad idea. A monstrous beast appears, ferocious with rage at this evidence of ingratitude. It is a peculiar piece of logic, really; he was fine with feeding the merchant and providing him with new clothes but turns murderous when his precious roses are stolen. The merchant, terrified, drops to his knees and tries to explain his reasoning. The Beast decides that a fair trade for the roses would be the girl for whom they were intended. The merchant may return home, but only if one of his daughters will return to take his place. To this the merchant agrees, with the intention of saying a final farewell to his family before returning to face the Beast’s wrath. When he gets home, however, and his tale is told, his children are nowhere near so resigned. His older daughters burst into tears and accusations, his sons threaten to hunt down the Beast and kill it, all while Beauty sits quiet and dry-eyed, coming to her own decision. She ignores all her father’s protestations and insists that she will accompany him back to the Beast’s castle.
This is when the older girls stop being understandable and become a pair of ugly stepsisters instead. They are for some reason thrilled to be rid of Beauty and have to fake tears on her departure with cunning use of onions. The brothers are genuinely upset but otherwise useless. Their father and sister ride into the forest, where the horse finds its own way back to the Beast’s castle. Everything is brightly illuminated, as before, with a magnificent meal set out for two – as if a terrified girl and her grieving father are in any state of mind to appreciate the feast. Beauty assumes that her ‘host’ intends to fatten her up before devouring her, but when she wakes up the next morning and searches the castle she finds a room with her name on the door and an array of entertainments set out for her inside. Why would the Beast have provided her with a harpsichord if he intended to eat her? There is even a mirror that allows Beauty to see her family whenever she wishes. That is both comforting and distressing, because she knows her father got home safely, but also that he’s half out of his mind with grief for the daughter he now thinks is dead.
That night at dinner the Beast arrives to eat (with her, please note) and Beauty discovers that he’s less scary, more depressed, his being fixated on the idea of his own ugliness and stupidity. She tries to cheer him up, but that rather backfires when he asks her to marry him. For all his kindness, that’s something she simply cannot do. Three months pass this way; each day Beauty is alone in the castle, and each night the Beast asks her to marry him. Though she has come to enjoy his company and appreciate his gentle conversation, she always says no, and eventually tries to make him stop asking because she can see how much every refusal hurts him. He begs her never to leave him, but she cannot promise that either. In her enchanted mirror she has seen that her father is very ill and she is desperate to go to him. In the ensuing discussion between herself and the Beast there are some mutual threats about dying of grief and in the end he agrees to let her stay with her family for a week. If she takes off her ring, he tells her, she will transported back to his castle in her sleep, and he will be waiting for her.
In the morning Beauty wakes in her father’s house. The merchant is overjoyed to see her, and presumably her brothers are too, but her sisters are less impressed by Beauty’s triumphant return. They have both married since she disappeared, but unwisely, and they plot to destroy Beauty’s happiness (and possibly her actual life) by convincing her to stay longer than her promised week. On the tenth night of her stay, however, she dreams of the Beast, lying alone and dying in the gardens of his palace. She is horrified at herself for staying away for so long, and for not realising how much he means to her until now. She pulls off her ring and goes back to bed, and when she wakes she finds herself back in the Beast’s castle. But when the usual hour of his daily visit approaches, he does not come. Beauty runs through the castle, calling for him, then remembers her dream and hurries out into the gardens. Her Beast lies on the grass, almost dead. In his despair over losing her, he tried to starve himself to death. Which is terribly sad, I know, but also disturbingly obsessive. Beauty doesn’t see it like that, though. She begs him to recover, to live and to marry her.
Abracadabra! The whole castle is lit up with fireworks and music. In the time it takes Beauty to glance bewilderedly around her, the Beast has vanished, replaced by a beautiful young prince who is trying to thank her for breaking his curse. Beauty brushes him off – she wants to know what’s happened to her Beast. The prince explains that she’s actually looking at him. An angry fairy gave him that hideous shape until such time as a beautiful young woman should choose, of her own free will, to marry him. Now that he is restored to himself, the prince/Beast wants Beauty to be his queen.
They enter the castle together and to Beauty’s amazement she finds her entire family there, waiting for her. A fairy (another one…?) has transported them there to tie up a few loose ends. Fairies are pretty intense about morals, and this one is not pleased by what she has seen of Beauty’s sisters. She turns them into statues until such time as they really repent of their wicked ways and then, with a single flick of her wand, whisks everyone away to the prince’s realm, where the people have been waiting for his return instead of replacing him with somebody else. They are thrilled to restore him to the throne with his new bride. Now, that couldn’t possibly be because there’s a scary fairy lady tapping her wand in the background…
Version 2: The Lady and the Lion
This version comes from Dean&Son Ltd.’s collection, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and is the likely basis for the Patricia A. McKillip short story (to be found in her anthology Harrowing the Dragon) entitled ‘The Lion and the Lark’. This merchant has only three daughters and is still quite rich, thank you very much. When he sets out on a voyage, he is charged to bring back pearls for his eldest, jewels for the middle child, and a rose for his youngest. It being the middle of winter, that’s no easy task she’s set him. He has looked everywhere without success when, on the journey home, he chances upon a very strange castle where half the garden appears to be in winter and the other half in summer. The merchant doesn’t seem to notice how weird that is. He just thinks of it as a bit of good luck and picks a lovely red rose. He and his servant are riding away when an outraged lion springs from nowhere to eat the thieves.
The merchant babbles explanations. Intrigued by the mention of this beautiful rose-loving daughter, the lion agrees to let him go if he will send in his stead whatever greets him first when he gets home. The merchant sees that this could go very badly wrong, but his servant talks him into agreeing and they continue on their journey. Unfortunately, just as the merchant predicted, it is his youngest daughter who comes running to greet him and he bursts into tears as he tells her of his terrible bargain.
Bravely, she sets out into the wood, thinking that perhaps she can soothe the lion and come home again unscathed. What she doesn’t expect is to find a prince there instead. He tells her about the curse laid upon him and his court, that they should take the form of lions during the day and be human only by night. He is charming enough that the merchant’s daughter agrees to marry him and for a long time they live very happily together, if a bit unconventionally. The lion prince even encourages her to attend her eldest sister’s wedding, where she is met with amazement and delight, everyone having believed her dead long ago. It is such a success that when her next sister is to be married, she wants to bring her lion prince with her. He doesn’t like this idea. If even the slightest ray of torch light falls on him in his human shape, he tells her, the curse will transform him into a dove that must wander the earth for seven years. There are worse things than being a lion. She is determined, though, and eventually he agrees. She is sure she can keep him safe from light, but one crack in the door is his undoing and she returns from the wedding feast to find a dove where her husband should be. He flies away, and the merchant’s daughter follows, guided by nothing more than the occasional white feather. How she survives the next seven years is a mystery. She must keep moving or she will lose him forever.
As time passes, she begins to hope that soon their ordeal may be over and they can be together again. Then the white feathers stop falling. The dove has disappeared. The merchant’s daughter asks the sun if it has seen him, and the moon, but neither can tell her where her husband has gone. The sun gives her a casket and the moon an egg, tokens of their sympathy to be kept for the hour of her greatest need. That, it seems, is still yet to come. Still she persists, offering her question to the night-wind. It in turn asks its kin and at last there is news – the south wind has seen the white dove. He has changed into a lion again and is fighting a dragon who is, by a startling coincidence, an enchanted princess. Carefully instructed by the south wind, the merchant’s daughter comes between the combatants and strikes them both with a rod (I think this may mean a reed?), turning them back into a prince and a princess.
But just because the princess is no longer a dragon doesn’t mean she isn’t dangerous. In an outrageous sleight of hand, she whisks the lion prince away and decides to marry him herself. It takes his long-suffering wife a long time to find them again, by which time his second wedding feast is already prepared. This is the hour to which the sun and moon were referring and the merchant’s daughter cracks open her casket, drawing out a dazzling golden dress. Seeing her wearing it, the princess immediately wants it so much that she even agrees to let her rival into the prince’s room a night. She covers her back, however, by giving him a potion that means he sleeps right through his wife’s impassioned pleading. But the merchant’s daughter is not the type to give up. She breaks open the moon’s egg and out comes a hen of living gold with twelve chicks that play so charmingly around her that the princess agrees to a second night with the prince in exchange for them.
She fully intends to give the prince another draught of sleeping potion, but the chamberlain has already warned him about this and told him about the sad girl who visited him in the night too, so the prince throws away his fiance’s offered drink and is fully awake when his wife returns for the last time. He recognises her voice and the princess’s spell is broken, allowing him to once again remember the past. They sneak out of the palace together in the dead of night and go home. Then – ONLY THEN – do we find out they have a child. Whom they both abandoned. For seven years. And who ends up as nothing more than a footnote at the end of the story. I’m sorry, what?
My advice is, read McKillip’s version. It makes more sense.
Version 3: The Snake Prince
This Danish fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1982 collection A Book of Heroes and Heroines and starts off by introducing us to a handsome young prince whom nobody actually likes. He’s something of a Lothario and breaks so many hearts that at last a certain good fairy decides enough is enough. Disguised as a pretty young woman, she becomes an immediate target for the prince’s attentions, but instead of falling into his arms she slaps him across the face and turns him into a snake. If he can find some innocent young girl who feels sorry enough for him to kiss him without fear, she tells him, he will be free. In the meantime, she takes him to an island in the middle of a lake and leaves him there to stew over his problems and feel sorry for himself. No one misses him much. His parents assume he’s off somewhere up to no good and the ordinary people who dread his future rule just hope he never comes back.
When the fairy changed his shape, however, she left him his voice, and it’s an alluring sort of sound as you might expect with a prince like this. Sometimes he swims across the lake and tries to charm innocent young women into kissing him, but while he succeeds in bringing many of them back to his island home, none can kiss him without fear, and none of them ever return. Stories spread about him, but not everybody believes them. Margretta is one such sceptic. She lives in a village near the lake and often drives cattle close to the water with her fiance Jacob, confident the Snake Prince will never come for her. But then one day Jacob is called back to the village and Margretta is left alone by the water, drowsing in the hot summer sun with the cattle grazing around her. When she wakes up the Snake Prince is there. He’s beautiful and strange and bewitching, and Margretta forgets all the warnings she’s ever heard when he begins to sing. It is only when she is almost at the lake’s edge that she comes to herself and realises what danger she’s in. By then it’s too late. The Snake Prince snatches her up and swims away with her while she screams in vain for Jacob.
She wakes up in the gardens of a silver palace. Proceeding across the lawns towards her are a hundred young girls wearing white and carrying candles. The first two to reach Margretta help her to her feet and lead her inside, into a grand hall where she is given food she won’t eat and a bed she can’t sleep in. She is lying awake when the door to her room opens and the Snake Prince creeps inside. He hisses into her ear about his being an enchanted prince and her being his chosen bride and how all it will take to make everything perfect is just one kiss…Margretta’s response is to punch him on the nose. As Amy Pond would say, she’s kind of engaged. The Snake Prince flees and the next morning the other kidnapped girls come to explain her situation. Having refused the prince once, he won’t ever ask her for a kiss again but neither will he let her go. She is his servant now, like all the others. They’re pretty philosophical about it. One is just a little girl who, having been carried away by accident with her older sister, doesn’t really remember anything else. She likes the palace. Unfortunately, she’s the only one.
Meanwhile, Jacob has returned to the lakeside to find his cows wandering all over the place and no Margretta. His initial annoyance turns into horror when he sees the trail leading down into the water and realises what has happened. Panicked and enraged, Jacob heads for the nearest boat and is about to launch himself off in pursuit when the good fairy who started all this in the first place appears in front of him in full magical majesty. Jacob, all his thoughts with his sweetheart, only notices that there is somebody impeding him and tells her to get out of his way. The fairy patiently points out to him that this is a suicide mission and he’s really better off taking her advice. So he goes home that night to sleep and in the morning goes looking for a rowan tree.
Rowans have magic. Only those with true hearts and clear consciences can touch a rowan without coming to harm. Jacob, with his heart full of love for Margretta, has no difficulty in breaking off a branch, which he then brings down to the lakeside where Margretta was taken just the day before. When he sees the Snake Prince coming, he strides forward to block his way. Being a snake hasn’t improved the prince’s attitude much, his response being “Out of my way, peasant!”, albeit delivered in a hiss. Jacob is having none of that. He whacks the Snake Prince with his rowan branch and immediately the creature begins to shrink, dwindling away to the size of an earthworm who is – to add insult to injury – stuck to the rowan branch. He still won’t give back Margretta though, so Jacob rams the branch into the ground and leaves him there for three days, each morning coming back in the hope of a different answer.
Eventually the fairy intervenes. She gives the prince a thorough telling-off and then turns him back to his former size, on the strict condition he take Jacob back with him to the island palace where he keeps all his kidnapped maidens. The Snake Prince is cowed enough to agree. They arrive to find all the girls busy in the palace gardens, including Margretta, who has no sooner seen Jacob than thrown herself into his arms. The fairy pronounces her approval on all the romance by conjuring a golden bridge across the lake so that all the girls can finally escape. The Snake Prince tearfully watches them go, convinced that he will never be freed.
But at the end of the procession is that little girl, the one for whom the palace has always been home. She sees the Snake Prince crying and runs over to comfort him, saying goodbye with a hug and – wait for it! – a kiss. Much to the little girl’s astonishment, the Snake is transformed back into a handsome prince. He doesn’t know quite what to do with his rescuer, who has just turned seven and still has the cake to prove it, but he does what he always does and proposes. If he’s very, very good for the next ten years and doesn’t break any hearts, will she marry him then? Perhaps, says the little girl. I think she liked him better as a snake.
Yes, I like this one best. Was it too easy to guess? I like that Margretta punches the prince who kidnaps her. I like it that girls have obviously been taking this approach for a long time, because the prince has totally missed to point of his transformation and the fairy has to come back and clarify matters before he can free himself. I like that the little girl doesn’t promise to marry him someday! But all these stories have a special charm to them. They are about the transformative power of love, about how when you really care about someone, you don’t care what they look like. Even the ugliest beast in the forest can become beautiful to you if his heart is truly kind. It’s worth noting, though, that most transformation stories cast men as the tragically ugly but essentially good-hearted creatures that can only be saved by…beautiful young girls falling in love with them. I wonder if there are any beautiful young men out there who would do the same for a female Beast? I would really like to think so. Apart from the Arthurian tale of the Loathsome Lady, however, I can’t actually think of any.
Then again, maybe enchantresses just don’t get so mad at other women, only at bratty young princes. It’s as good a way as any to save a kingdom.