Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tale as Old as Time

My favorite fairy tale, in any and every form, has always been Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast, Mercer Mayer
It's as feminist as mainstream fairy tales will ever get: Beauty is an outspoken and brave heroine whose sacrifices and triumphs alike are directly due to her own choices. It upends the pretty-people-are-good theory that runs rampant throughout so many fairy tales; the Beast presents the best case of character development in folklore. It has everything anyone could ask for in a story: adventure, danger, glamour, magic, romance, jealousy, and an important point elegantly made.

I'm not alone in my love for this story, either. There are tons of variants on any fairy tale; Egypt and China have their own Cinderella stories, and the beautiful-girl-with-evil-stepmother story is ubiquitous in every culture. But not necessarily popular. Beauty and the Beast is so beloved a story that we've popularized its variants as well. Cupid and Psyche; East of the Sun, West of the Moon; Tam Lin: they're the same story in new clothes.

Possibly the best common thread in all the variants is the heroine. Whether her name is Janet, Beauty, or Psyche, the heroine of a Beauty and the Beast story will always be the kind of girl you'd want your daughter to grow up into. She'll be gutsy and independent and passionate. She'll own her mistakes and learn from them. She won't be afraid to defy authority, or to dream big, or to carve out a place for herself when she doesn't fit into any acceptable norms. She is, quite simply, a badass.

Eros and Psyche, Marta Dahlig
And the hero, while always a swoon-worthy sweetheart, will be oddly passive once the heroine comes onstage. His proactive steps to break his curse generally end after he procures the right girl. Cupid is perfectly happy never to appear to Psyche; the bear-king fetches a bride and then settles down to a nocturnal existence; Tam Lin, knowing he'll be used to pay the Fairy Queen's tithe to hell, is content to wait until Janet realizes she's pregnant and demands some answers before he tells her how she can save him. The Beast's nightly proposal to Beauty is actually the most go-getting strategy of them all. Unlike the others, he's not willing to hang around until the lightbulb goes off in Beauty's head; he keeps the question in her (and our) minds at all times, reminding us just how unhappy he is in his cursed form. And his gracious acceptance of her constant rejection, especially in the face of his obvious misery, ennobles him long before we realize he's a human.

Then there's the antagonist.

One of the most fascinating things about a Beauty and the Beast story is that it doesn't actually need a villain. It's not a story about defeating evil; it's a story about finding love and acceptance in unexpected places. It's about human nature, and human expectations of and responses to love. It's beautifully complex in the questions it asks about who we are.

Psyche at the Throne of Venus,
Edward Matthew Hale
But if you simply must have a villain, there is one who keeps coming back to plague our supernatural couple. Powerful, intimidating, tyrannical, and fond of toying with prey. And a woman.

Remember what I said about feminism? It is all over this story. Invariably, the final confrontation in a Beauty and the Beast story is between two strong-willed women deciding the fate of a passive man. Janet faces down the Fairy Queen. Psyche performs every task Aphrodite sets her, even the one that by rights should have killed her. The bear-king's wife tricks her way past the troll queen's magical cheats to snap her husband out of his trance. And even Beauty, when she finally tells the Beast that she loves him, shatters the spell laid on him by a vindictive sorceress. These are formidable foes, with lots of magic and very few scruples. It's abundantly clear that the heroes cannot win against them. The bear-king doesn't want to get engaged to the troll queen, but he does. The Beast can't break his spell alone. Running away on his own never occurs to Tam Lin. Cupid displays the most defiance, but it consists of marrying in secret and whispering hints to Psyche when his mother's back is turned. Only the women can defeat those who menace their men.

Charon and Psyche, John Roddam Spencer
And they don't even have to do it through traditionally feminine ways. Psyche's tasks - sorting grains, stealing golden fleece, traveling to the Underworld - are exactly the kind set for male heroes. The Underworld descent in particular puts her on a level with Hercules, the only other human to go to Hades and come back successful. (And Hercules was a demigod.) Janet's wrestling match with the transforming Tam Lin requires her physically to fight a lion, a snake, a newt, and a living flame, just as Peleus does when struggling to capture Thetis. The heroine of "East of the Sun,
Beauty and the Beast, Edmund Dulac
West of the Moon" pulls off the kind of deception that would make Loki proud. Beauty's task is easier, since her variant has no physical antagonist, but she still suffers the trauma of believing she's come too late to save her beloved, and has to search for him in a vast garden at midnight. We're not talking the cliched healing-power-of-a-woman's-love here. This is battle on the front lines. This is facing death and nightmares and coming back victorious.

But the best part, of course, is the end. So many fairy tales have an incredible protagonist who defies the odds for the love of someone who just doesn't seem worthy. The Little Mermaid gives up everything for a truly dopey prince who never really gets it. The soldier who solves the mystery of the Twelve Dancing Princesses has to marry someone who plotted his death. Tons of third sons fall for haughty princesses who set them impossible tasks before they'll deign to look twice at them.
Tam Lin, Dan Dutton
But in a Beauty and the Beast story, there's no such unequal relationship. These couples don't deal in love at first sight. They spend time with each other. They get to know each other. They fall in love with personalities, not with outward appearances. And when the spell is finally broken and they're free to be together, the story has created an actual romance that an audience can believe in. "And they lived happily ever after" isn't just a conventional platitude in these stories; it's a statement of fact, built on an established and proven relationship.

There's even some equity in the ultimate resolution of who winds up where. Psyche and the bear-king's wife take up residence in their husbands' worlds; Tam Lin enters Janet's. The Beast and Beauty do a lovely little trade-off: the broken spell allows him to be an acknowledged part of her world, and her marriage to him makes her part of his. These couples are a match for each other in every way. Rewarding the courage of one means rewarding the dedication of the other.

A Beauty and the Beast story requires you to think. It raises questions about equality, the flaws of humanity, and the nature of love. And it provides answers by presenting us with the most developed and sophisticated sets of lovers in any fairy tale. It's that rare treasure, something popular that is also something good.


  1. I don't have anything insightful to say this time. lol But I like your pictures.

    1. Sometimes I think looking for the pictures is the best part of having this blog. I just get to comb the Internet for images of my favorite stories and show off the best ones. There is nothing about this that doesn't rock.

      And don't worry. I think I'm going to blog about war goddesses tomorrow. Food for thought, instead of a gigantic love-fest on My Favorite Fairy Tale Ever. :D (Sometimes I just have to squee. Even on a blog whose main purpose is thoughtful squeeing.)

    2. lol you were thoughtful. just also thorough! thorough beyond my personal experience with Beauty and the Beast.