The History of Beauty and the Beast


The tale has gone through many varied and imaginative incarnations, but remaining constant are the themes of envy unrewarded, of learning to love what may at first appear a ‘beast’ and the benefits which virtue and selflessness will bestow on the individual.

Beauty and the Beast, as far as fairy tales go, has a reasonably short history.  Most fairy tales began as folklore, passed on from generation to generation, until they were eventually written down by collectors such as Giambattista Basile, Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm.  Unusually, Beauty and the Beast does not appear in the anthologies of any of these authors (although the Grimms do have a reasonably similar version in The Singing Springing Lark).  The tale has gone through many varied and imaginative incarnations, but remaining constant are the themes of envy unrewarded, of learning to love what may at first appear a ‘beast’ and the benefits which virtue and selflessness will bestow on the individual.  Although the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story certainly does incorporate folkloric elements (notably the Aarne-Thompson type of ‘The Search for the Lost Husband’) it has a discernable history, first starting with Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (1695 – 1755).

Villeneuve was a French author influenced by Madame d’Aulnoy, Charles Perrault and various female intellectuals who gathered in the aristocratic salons.  Originally published in La Jeune Américaine, et Les Contes Marins in 1740, Villeneuve’s La Belle et La Bête was an original piece of story telling.  It was over one-hundred pages long, containing many subplots, and involving a genuinely savage, i.e. ‘stupid’ Beast, who suffered from not only his change of appearance. The book explored broader themes of romantic love as well as issues surrounding women’s marital rights in the mid-eighteenth century.  In this period, women had no choice over who they married (it was generally left to their fathers) and had to ‘learn to love’ the men they were bequeathed to.

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Villeneuve’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story was later changed and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711 – 1780) and published in Le Magasin des Enfants (1756).  It is this version which readers are most familiar with today, although many elements were omitted from the original tale.  Chiefly, in Villeneuve’s account (and not in Beaumont’s), the back-story of both Belle and the Beast is given.  The Beast was a prince who lost his father at a young age, and whose mother had to wage war to defend his kingdom. The queen left him in care of an evil fairy, who tried to seduce him when he became an adult; when he refused, she transformed him into a beast. Belle’s story reveals that she is not really a merchant’s daughter but the offspring of a king and a good fairy. The wicked fairy had tried to murder Belle so she could marry her father the king, and Belle was put in the place of a merchant’s dead daughter to protect her.

Beaumont significantly pared down the cast of characters of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and simplified the tale to an almost archetypal simplicity; much loved and repeated.  The change from Belle as the offspring of a king and a fairy, to Belle as a simple merchant’s daughter is very telling. Beaumont’s version, starting with an urban setting is highly unusual in fairy tales, as is the social class of the characters, neither royal nor peasants.  Such details reflect the vast social upheavals occurring in France at the time; with the story published just thirty-three years before the French Revolution.  This period marked the decline of the powerful monarchy and the church, and the concomitant rise of democracy and nationalism. Popular resentment of the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and aristocracy grew amidst a financial crisis following two expensive wars and years of bad harvests – with demands for change couched in terms of Enlightenment ideals.  That the heroine of La Belle et La Bête is a simple, working class girl – able to tame the aristocratic beast, spoke directly to the social concerns of the day.

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Beauty and the Beast, Peter G. Thomson, 1885.

Beauty and the Beast, Peter G. Thomson, 1885.

Despite these discernable ‘French Enlightenment’ beginnings, Bruno Bettelheim has noted in The Uses of Enchantment that this story most likely derives from Cupid and Psyche, the ancient chronicle from the Latin novel Metamorphoses, written in the Second Century CE by Apuleius.  It concerns the overcoming of obstacles to love between Psyche (meaning ‘Soul’, or ‘Breath of Life’) and Cupid (meaning ‘Desire’) and their ultimate union in marriage. The myth of cupid and psyche is one of the oldest tales to evidence ‘the search for the lost husband’ trope, and is considered by many scholars to be the first ever literary fairy tale.  The similarities between this legend and Villeneuve’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ are so striking, it is very likely to be a direct descendant.

The Ancient Roman tale starts with Psyche’s banishment (by the jealous Venus) to a mountaintop, in order to be wed to a murderous beast.  Sent to destroy her, Cupid falls in love and flies her away to his castle. There she is directed to never seek to see the face of her husband, who visits and makes love to her in the dark of night. Eventually Psyche succumbs to her curiosity (prompted by her selfish sisters), but accidentally scars her husband with a candle.  In attempted atonement, Psyche offers herself as a slave to Venus, and completes a set of impossible tasks.  Completing the last task (seeking beauty from the Queen of the Underworld), Psyche opens the ‘beauty in a box’ and, hoping to gain the approval of her husband, opens the box a little – at once falling into a coma. Overcome with grief, Cupid rescues her.  He begs Jupiter that she may become immortal, so that the two could be forever united.  Here, instant resemblances can be seen with the character of the beast, banishment to a castle, the deceptive sisters, and true love (mixed with tragedy) ensuring the pair’s eternal union.

A tale as old as time

Even with this tale’s ancient beginnings, Apuleius might also have drawn on earlier, oral renditions of the tale from Greek versions; and the Greeks, in turn, may have derived their story from Asian sources since ‘Cupid and Psyche’ closely reflects the narrative of ‘The Woman Who Married a Snake.’  This variant first appeared in the Indian Panchatantra, a work known to have existed in oral form well before its appearance in print in 500 AD.  This helps to explain later ‘Beauty and the Beast’ variants, where the French beast is replaced by a snake (in the Russian, Chinese and Greek versions), and others – for example in the English variant written by Sidney Oldall Addy, where the ‘beast’ is a ‘Small-tooth dog’, a Danish narrative of ‘Beauty and the Horse’, and the Swiss variant of ‘The Bear Prince.’  Despite these intriguing discrepancies in the narrative, the best known English version (published by Andrew Lang in 1889) stays with the French roots, representing a complex mix of Villeneuve’s and Beaumont’s stories.

Lang largely favours Villeneuve’s elements of the story (hence its inclusion in this collection, along with Beaumont’s account), but also edits out much of the extra dialogue concerning fairies and genealogies.  There is another (older) English translation in evidence, that of J. R. Planché (published in 1757), which altered a small but significant part.  Instead of asking Belle to marry him each night, the Beast asks: ‘May I sleep with you tonight?’  The question, whilst obviously more risqué, was not simply erotic.  It served to imply control and choice for Belle over her own body and sexuality – something which at that time was not legally hers, nor of any woman handed over as property to her husband.  This overt sexuality is repeated in the Russian tale of The Enchanted Tsarévich, and the Chinese recitation of The Fairy Serpent.  In most, the beast is no true beast and never forces his physical desires upon the woman.  The Italian narrative of Zelinda and the Monster differs in this respect, as the snake persuades the young girl to marry him, only because her father will die if she refuses.

As a testament to this story’s ability to inspire and entertain generations of readers, the tale of Beauty and the Beast continues to influence popular culture internationally, lending plot elements, allusions and tropes to a wide variety of artistic mediums.  It has inspired some of the best fairy tale adaptations in film, from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), a nominee and winner for ‘Best Motion Picture’ by several Hollywood organisations.  With regard to its wide geographical reach, as is evident from even this brief introduction, it has enthused and affected storytelling all over the globe.  The story has been translated into almost every language, and very excitingly, is continuing to evolve in the present day.

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