Variations on "Beauty and the Beast" From Around the World
While most people are familiar with the Walt Disney rendition of Beauty and the Beast, this version is actually based on a French story written by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756. Most of the written fairy tales that we know today are based upon folk tales passed down over the years through the oral tradition. Despite geographic distance, cultures across the world have their own versions of the Beauty and the Beast story, which experts call "the animal bridegroom" and the "search for the lost husband" tale types.
These story variations originate from France, America, Greece, Scandinavia, Ireland, Britain, Africa, Indonesia, Portugal, Russia, Italy, Germany, China and Japan, among others.
While the French version that has become popular in America is about a betrothal to a generic "beast," in other stories the wedding partner can take the form of bear, pig, snake, fish, frog, bull, monkey or horse.
Fairy tales are often our first exposure to the world of stories, and are as familiar to
us, if not more so, than other genres of story.
Many writers are overtly or even subtly influenced by such stories, and these themes are present in many works outside the genre of the fairy tale. Though the themes of animal bridegroom and search for the lost husband are most popular in these simplistic short forms, they have to some extent transcended their genre, influencing such works as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf.
The Classic Version
The Beaumont story starts with a merchant with three daughters. The merchant has fallen on hard times, and the daughters must help to keep the household. Only the youngest does so, while the older two are lazy and sullen. Upon departing for a journey, the merchant asks the daughters what they would like for a present upon his return. The first two ask for expensive things, but the youngest one, "Beauty" asks only for a rose.
The merchant is on his way home when he becomes lost, and stumbles upon a magic castle. He enters, but finds no signs of life. Food, drink, a fire and a warm bed magically appear before him, so he stays the night.
The next morning, the merchant stops before leaving to pick a rose from the castle garden for Beauty. At this point the beast appears, and threatens the merchant's life for disturbing his garden. A compromise is reached, in which the youngest daughter will go to live in the beast's castle as repayment for picking the rose.
The beauty goes to the castle, and eventually falls in love with the beast. Though the two are happy, she misses her family, and journeys home for a visit. She has promised to go only for a week, but her sisters beseech her to stay.
When the beauty finally returns to the beast, he is very ill. At this point the beauty says that she will marry the beast, thus breaking the enchantment placed upon him. The beast regains his human form, and they live happily ever after.
Cupid and Psyche
Cupid and Psyche, written in the 2nd century, is not only the oldest known version of the Beauty and the Beast tale, but it is considered one of the oldest recorded example of the fairy tale.
Psyche is the youngest of three princesses. She is so beautiful the Venus, the goddess of beauty, becomes jealous. Psyche is unable to find a husband, and it is prophesied that she must go to a mountain to wed a monster.
When Psyche arrives at the mountain, she finds food and drink that magically appear in a deserted palace, but she is otherwise alone. Her husband comes to her only at night, and only in cover of darkness.
Psyche eventually becomes lonely, and her husband agrees to allow her sisters to come and visit her. The sisters tell Psyche to light a lamp in the night, so that she can steal a glimpse of her husband. Psyche, overcome with curiosity, does what her sisters have advised. The light of the lamp reveals none other than Cupid, the son of Venus. A drop of oil from the lamp falls onto Cupid, and he wakes, furious.
Cupid leaps out the window and flies away, and Psyche sets out to search for him. She undergoes many trials at the hand of the bitter Venus, even venturing all the way to the Underworld, but eventually Cupid forgives her and the lovers are reunited. The gods then transform Psyche into an immortal, so that the two will never again be parted.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
A Scandinavian version, East of the Sun and West of the Moon (ESWM), serves as a missing link between Cupid and Psyche and Beauty and the Beast.
ESWM tells of a young women who is convinced to leave home and marry a bear, so that her family can be lifted from poverty. As it turns out, the bear is a prince under an enchantment by a troll, who regains his human form only at night. Every night the bear comes to her bedchamber in darkness, while wearing his human form.
The young woman, though she is falling in love with the bear, misses her family, and returns home for a visit. During the stay, her mother advises her to light a candle at night to get a glimpse at her sleeping bridegroom.
Upon her return, the young woman takes her mother's advice, and sees a handsome man. Three drops of tallow fall from the candle onto the shoulder of the man, and he wakes. Unfortunately, the young woman has just broken the conditions for the release from the enchantment. The bear could only have been freed if the young women were to live with him for one year, without knowing his secret. Now, because she has seen him in his human form, he is obligated to leave and marry the evil troll’s daughter.
The young woman departs the castle after him, and searches for the bear/prince. She undertakes a rather arduous quest, finally finding him, and with a bit of ingenuity on both their parts, breaks the enchantment.
Charlotte Bronte's classic novel Jane Eyre builds on the theme of the Beauty and the Beast. Jane, while somewhat plain in appearance, is hardworking, kind and gentle. She goes to the isolated Thornfield Hall, under the employ of the rough-mannered and coarse Rochester. Jane and Rochester do not meet at first, and when they finally do, the scene is portrayed in a dreamy, fairy-tale like manner.
Jane, the inner beauty, and Rochester, the beast eventually fall in love. At the wedding, Jane discovers Rochester's secret. His wife, the madwoman Bertha Mason, is alive and living in the attic of the hall. Bertha, beastly and animal-natured could be considered the alter ego of Rochester, further reiterating his status as beast.
Jane flees and undertakes a voyage of self-discovery. Eventually she returns to Rochester, who has been blinded and maimed. Jane cares for Rochester, the two are finally wed, and they both live happily ever after.
There are a whole host of film adaptations, short stories, and novels all inspired by versions of the Beauty and the Beast story. While many of the older fairy and folk tales fall out of fashion, Beauty and the Beast, with its many universal themes, not to mention poetic beauty, has become a perennial classic, and is likely to stay that way for years to come.