We’re over half-way through the lovely month of March and I bet a lot of you didn’t know that it was, is, and will continue to be national peanut month. Weird, right? You might also not know that from yesterday (19th) to the 25th of March it’s going to be World Folktales and Fables week around the world. It’s not surprising then that the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast hit cinemas just a few days ago. Now, I don’t know about you but I do find this marginally more interesting than the celebration of peanuts and it’s for that reason that this post is more closely involved with the former. (Though if you are more interested in the peanut thing you can find more information here!)
So what are Fables and folktales? Both originate as word-of-mouth stories but the thing that links fables and folktales most closely is the notion that there is something to be learned from them. Traditionally we look at fables and folktales as tool for teaching kids but (I think) there are a lot of lessons in them that us adults could sometimes use reminding of. They can also be great inspirations for adaptations. whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or an unpublished short story, there’s always some way you can squeeze in references to old folk tales.
Beauty and the Beast most often falls into the category of Fairy-tale but it’s adaptations, re-writings and abridgments over the centuries gels it well with the folklore tradition. It’s one of the most popular and widely adapted love stories of all time and tells the beautiful story of an honest and intelligent girl who can see beyond the surface of what’s there…
The Disney version
For those of you who, for whatever reason, don’t know or remember the plot of the Disney movie (the most well-known adaptation of the tale) here’s a brief summary:
So, Belle, the beautiful, morally idyllic, daughter of an inventor goes to find her father (Maurice), who has taken refuge in a huge castle and has subsequently been locked in the dungeon. She bargains with her father’s beastly captor and ends up agreeing to take Maurice’s place as captive and for him to be free to return to the castle. The beast treats Belle as a house guest and the two eventually begin to become fond of one another. This is with a little help from Beast’s enchanted servants in the form of household objects, most notably a candelabra and a teapot.
Maurice runs around the town trying to rally help for his daughter and most of the townsfolk dismiss him as a crazy old man. Gaston, the hyper-masculine, egotistical ‘eye-candy’ from the town sees this as an opportunity to get exactly what he wants: Belle as his trophy wife. He proceeds to threaten to have Maurice locked up for his ‘insanity’ unless Belle agrees to marry him.
The beast, instead of asking to marry Belle, frees her to see her father again thus, choosing her happiness over his own and resigning himself to be a beast forever under the terms of his entrapment (oh yeah, he’s a cursed prince and when the last petal on his magic rose falls he’s out of chances.) Belle tries to prove her father’s sanity using the magic mirror to show the beast to the townsfolk, this backfires and Gaston rallies the troops – they descend on the castle. A battle ensues with townsfolk fighting against beast’s enchanted servants and the beast is stabbed in the back by Gaston. Belle, teary eyed expresses her love for him on his deathbed as the last petal is falling. The curse is lifted and Beast and servants are returned to their human forms – they marry and do the whole ‘happily ever after’ thing. Nice.
The most read ‘original’ was not wildly different and actually omits the magical qualities of the castle written by Barbot, and reclaimed by Disney. It also features no Gaston and no Cogsworth (nor any of his magical cohort!)
Variants of the story exist everywhere but it is most widely agreed that the first documentation of the story was by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and was published in 1740. It was re-published in 1756 by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and this is the most accessible and referenced version of the tale. You can read the abridged second version of Beauty and the Beast from 1756 here.
The basic story is this:
Belle is one of six children (three sons and three daughters), their father is a wealthy merchant and a widow. Belle is the most lovely of the daughters and is the youngest, most well-read and most ‘pure of heart’ – her sisters resent her and are wicked and spoiled (very much like the step sisters in Cinderella.) Their father looses all his money in a tempest at sea and the family become impoverished.
As it transpires, many years later, the father receives word that one of his merchant ships has escaped the trouble and returned to port. Before leaving to see what can be salvaged he asks his children if they would like any gifts from him on his return. The older daughters ask for fine clothing and jewels, the sons for hunting tools and weaponry. Beauty on the other hand asks only for a rose (how quaint) as they don’t grow in the country where they are. The merchant’s cargo is seized to pay debts and he is unable to afford any gifts for his children (whether the requests are lavish or not.)
On his way back the merchant becomes lost in the woods, in a storm, he finds a magnificent castle and is invited in by a mysterious figure and given refuge from the storm. There he is cared for and has refuge for the night. On his way out he notices a rose bush in the garden and proceeds to pick the loveliest rose for his daughter, Belle. He is then confronted by a hideous beast. Furious that the merchant has defiled his most precious thing, the beast demands the merchant must die. The merchant explains his reasons and the beast agrees that he may have his rose and give it to Belle, under the condition that the merchant, or one of his daughters, returns to the castle.
The merchant agrees and returns to his family laden in all the furs and jewels his children had asked of him. He is not allowed to tell Belle of his bargain with the beast. Eventually she finds out and does indeed return to the castle. The beast explains that she is now mistress of the castle and he showers her in gifts. Every night he asks Belle to marry him; every night he is refused and Belle dreams of a handsome prince asking her why she will not marry him. She decides that Beast must be holding the prince captive but despite all her searching she cannot find her prince.
She lives well but eventually becomes homesick and pleads with the beast to let her visit her family. She agrees to return in exactly one week and departs with two magical items. One, a mirror that shows what’s going on at the castle, so she can see what the beast is doing. And another, a ring, which (if turned three times on her finger) returns her instantly to the castle. When Belle tries to share her riches with her jealous sisters the objects turn to rags at their touch and return to splendour when held by Belle – it is as if the Beast meant their loveliness to be had only by her. The sisters, jealous of Belle’s life, beg her to stay in an attempt to rile the beast and have her eaten alive. Belle, flattered by their out-of-character shows of affection, agrees to stay another day.
But Belle begins to feel guilty of her betrayal and checks on the Beast using her magic mirror. She is shocked to see the beast lying half-dead of heartbreak in a rose-bush and uses the ring to return immediately to his side. She falls on the beast and cries tears of love for him and when the tears hit his skin he is transformed into the handsome prince from her dreams. He explains he was cursed to be ugly by a fairy he refused to let in from the rain – she cursed him to only be freed when he found someone who would love him despite his ugliness. Belle and the now prince get married and live happily ever after…
The most significant aspect of the story is the beast’s supposed ugliness – one adaptation is titled ‘The Pig King’ and depicts a fleshy, monstrous creature – this pig-like aesthetic is also reinforced by artwork referencing the story. What’s lost a lot in the adaptations is this repugnant vulgarity. The beast is now often portrayed as cat-like with feline facial features and a strong physique, making him almost attractive despite the lack of human qualities.
Ever heard of Petrus Gonsalvus? or hypertrichosis?
‘The man of the woods’ born in 1537 in Tenerife, it has been argued, may have inspired the classic tale of love between ‘a beauty’ and ‘a beast. He came to the king of France, Henry II in 1547 and was sent from there to the Netherlands where a wife was chosen for him (for her beauty) and the two became married. The only reason we know so much about him is because of his medical condition.
Gonslavus had what is colloquially now known as ‘werewolf syndrome.’ Hirsutism, also called Ambras syndrome, is a condition that means his entire body was covered by an excess layer of hair. He was the subject of medical inquiry for much of his life and bizarrely, all of his afflicted children were even given away as gifts to other European royalty – such was their intrigue. I can’t imagine how devastating that must have been for the couple – especially as much of their life together was subjected to scrutiny and documented for public spectacle. Supposedly, upon meeting Gonslavus, his wife (Catherine) was disgusted but after their 40 years together and many children she grew to love the man for his inner beauty. The couple settled in Italy and resided on a private estate, away from prying eyes, and lived out the remainder of their days together.
It’s the kind of sweet and tragic romance that deserves some credit as far as I’m concerned. Whether or not the two stories were connected is something we can never truly know but it sure is interesting to think about the idea of a story based on something real.
All in all, this story is a great one and it teaches us some lovely things. Not only that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, and to look beyond what we see, but also that we should value kindness, modesty and loyalty and maintain them in the face of adversity.
Now, if that’s not a good enough reason for a trip to the cinema then I don’t know what is!
– Cat –