Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time, and has been around since the 1700’s. Authored by Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve, then expanded upon by Jeannie-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, it has enchanted us for years. You’ve seen this story on stage, in film, and in books, but do you know how it first started, and the real tale of the Beast?
There was once a very rich merchant, who had six children, three sons, and three daughters; being a man of sense, he spared no cost for their education, but gave them all kinds of masters. His daughters were extremely handsome, especially the youngest. When she was little everybody admired her, and called her “The little Beauty;” so that, as she grew up, she still went by the name of Beauty, which made her sisters very jealous.
Beauty and the Beast’s Origins
In the original story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve, published in La Jeune Ameriquaine et les Contes Marins, Beauty is the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and the youngest of six children. She’s nicknamed “Little Beauty” and when she grews up, she still goes by the nickname, which infuriates her sisters. In later stories, she’s the daughter of a merchant with only three children. The merchant is asked for a rose by Beauty, and he finds a beautiful one in the garden of a mysterious castle, which turns out to belong to a beast. To save his life, the Beast ask the merchant for his daughter.
These are the main “bones” of the story. The original French language story was much longer than the version we know today, with a detailed narrative and backstory for the Beast. In this tale, the Beast is the son of a prince who is fatherless, and is urged to wage war by his mother. The queen entrusts an evil fairy to take care of the prince, but the fairy is interested in him romantically. When he spurns her advances, she punishes him by transforming him into the Beast. Disney fans can see that the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast follows this storyline a bit, with a prince spurning an enchantress disguised as a beggar when she seeks shelter.
However, the original story also includes a bit of interesting backstory for Beauty. Beauty isn’t a merchant’s daughter, but is the child of a good fairy and a king. The evil fairy had come after Beauty when she was a child, and Beauty was used to replace the merchant’s dead daughter by the good fairy, in a move to protect her from harm. The castle in the original story is also enchanted, much as the castle is in the Disney Beauty and the Beast. In fact, the Walt Disney Company actually credits author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in the French-language version of their film.
The Tale of Beauty and the Beast and Its Characteristics
Beauty and the Beast is known as fairy tale type 425, “The Search for a Lost Husband,” and then the tale itself also is a type known as 425C. You’ll find folk tales such as The Snake Prince, which comes from India, with these characteristics.
The Brothers Grimm shared their own version, entitled The Singing, Soaring Lark, in their classic collection of fairy tales, Household Tales. In this story, the father of three children asks his children what he can bring back as a present for them. The oldest daughter wishes for diamonds, the middle for pearls, and the youngest wishes for a “soaring, springing lark.” He finds the lark but is confronted by a lion who promises no harm if he gives him his youngest daughter, much as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast does. This tale, along with Beauty and the Beast, shares motifs with the Norway fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Asbjørnsen & Moe.
The tale most commonly printed in fairy tale books is Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s version, which removes the backstory. Andrew Lang included it in one of his collections of fairy tales, as did Charles Perrault.
A Beastly Appearance
Thinking of how the character of the Beast has been adapted throughout history, he may take on different appearances depending on the work. His first appearance in de Villeneuve’s work describes him as a “horrible beast,” “who has a trunk resembling an elephant’s.” Here’s a look at how various artists interpreted the Beast’s appearance.
One author decided to interpret the story as a poem for children, and used the lines “The Lord of this princely place had something like a monkey’s face, and feet like lion’s claws.”
The Never-Ending Story of Beauty and the Beast
The classic story of Beauty and her Beast has been intepreted for years in print, on stage, and on film. You may even see the tale pop up in television shows, such as on Once Upon a Time, or on the classic Beauty and the Beast series from the 1980’s. Disney will debut their own live-action version of their animated film in 2017, and browsing bookstores will let you find retelling after retelling of this enduring story.
At Fairytalez.com, you can find all of the versions discussed above, plus plenty of other stories of lost husbands, merchant’s daughters, and far-off adventures.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
What are some of your favorite Beauty and the Beast retellings or story versions?
Beauty and the Beast exhibits an interesting “double trajectory.” The beast in need of redemption and a beauty who exemplifies a true moral code. We also often see the “otherness” of women as in swan maidens who end up suffering burdens of mundane social existence, but then are freed to return to a primordial condition (swan)…