|Beauty and the Beast, Mercer Mayer|
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|
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
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|
|Beauty and the Beast, Edmund Dulac|
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|
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.