The plasticity of fairy tales is demonstrated by these illustrations of Beauty and the Beast from over the years. In the original fairy tale, the Beast is never explicitly described, so artists had to use their imaginations. From the top left, going clockwise, he’s a spotted hyena, a wolf-boar, a very weird walrus-mole hybrid, and a (rather appealing) brown bear who is kneeling to make his proposal.
The Disney version, which is perhaps the most famous (though not the most definitive) version, portrays the Beast as a composite creature with shaggy brown fur, buffalo ears and horns, a goat’s beard, and boar’s tusks. His posture is that of an animal standing on its hind legs. His profile, however, is human — he doesn’t have a snout.
The story itself — of a girl marrying an animal or supernatural being, and acting as the agent to restore his humanity — is an old one, told and retold in many cultures around the world. It showcases morality, the power of love, and good common sense. That the human partner is always female, and the monster one, male… well, I’m not going to go there, but it does imply something basic about human nature.
The Western version, the one we’re most familiar with, is one of those rare fairy tales that can be traced back to its author(s). It was published first in 1740 as “La Belle et la Bête” by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, then rewritten (plagiarised, really) in 1756 by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont for a collection of children’s stories. Andrew Lang re-wrote it yet again, in English, for his Blue Fairy Book published in 1889. Lang published 12 volumes of these stories, all named after colors, many of which I devoured as a child at a local library, and no doubt influenced me as a writer.
The genesis of the original French version of “La Belle et la Bête” may have influenced by the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, but also by real life. Petrus Gonsalvus was a 16th century Spanish man born in the Canary Islands who suffered from hypertrichosis — he grew hair all over his body, not just his scalp. Treated as a sideshow attraction, the King of France, Henry II, took pity on him and gave him an education, as well as court manners. Petrus later married the daughter of a royal servant and had seven children, four of which also suffered from hypertrichosis. The family was featured in many paintings over the years and was still in the news 200 years later. Jean Cocteau paid homage to it by designing the makeup of the Beast in his 1946 cinematic version of La Belle et la Bête to look like Petrus’ portrait, with the addition of catlike ears and fangs.
There were two Jeans in this movie… Jean Cocteau, the director, and Jean Marais, the actor, who played the Beast, and purportedly they were lovers. As if things couldn’t get even more confusing about the tale.
Here’s a list of more names, any of which could inspire a story just as convoluted and fascinating.
Unwritten Fairy Tales II
|Pigeons and Diamonds
The Marvelous Bell
The Orphan and the Frog
The Tortoise Bride
How the Calf Became Silent
The Admirable Husband and the Greedy Wife
The Tale of Prince Roland and Princess Jenny
The Serf Who Became a Statue of Bronze
Little Black Boots
The Dutiful Drummer
The Hunchback and the Mouse
The Learned Beggar-Woman
The Ogress and the Cunning Bishop
Fingers of Stone
The Golden Mouse
The Heartless Heart
The Orphan and the Apple
The Bride Who Wouldn’t Smile for the King
The Serf Who Loved the Snow
Princess Tabitha and the Noisy Tower
The War of the Peacock and the Blackbird
The Thief Who Stole the Rain
Little Pomegranate Tips
Gold-mask and the Three Shy Bulls
Prince Guillaume and the Palace Of Gold
The Quest of Princess Merry-Lass
Empress of the Eagles
The Town Without Truth
The Pirate’s One-Legged Daughter