Like Cinderella, the tale of Beauty and the Beast is one of the most popular fairy tales in the world. It’s the story of a self-less young woman who agrees to go live with a beast in order to save her father’s life. In time she grows fond of the beast who treats with nothing but kindness. It’s not until she almost loses him that she realizes she loves him, and triggers his transformation into a handsome prince.
It is believed the tale is based on the story of Cupid and Psyche, as told by Lucius Apuleius in the second century C.E. In this myth, Psyche weds a hideous serpent that is actually Cupid who is under a spell. By night, a man makes love to her, but she is forbidden to look. When she does, she loses her beloved husband.
Variants of the tale appear in numerous cultures. Aarne-Thompson classifed the story as "The Search for a Lost Husband" type 425, with "Beauty and the Beast" receiving its own subtype of 425C. This tale type is one of the most extensively studied by scholars which is understandable in part because so many tales fit into the category.
In the Chinese version, The Fairy Serpent, the beast is a serpent. The girl’s father steals a few flowers for his daughters and is only released when he promises that one of his three daughters will return to marry the serpent. The youngest daughter is the one who goes to the serpent and eventually grows to like him despite his appearance. Leaving for a few hours she returns to find the serpent dying of thirst. She plunges him into water to save his life and he is transformed into a strong and handsome young man.
The Turkish version is The Princess and the Pig. The father is a king who manages to find the gifts for the elder sisters but fails to find the fruit that his youngest daughter requested. When his carriage is stuck in the mud, he meets the beast, in this case a pig. The pig is the only one able to set him loose, and does so only on the condition that the king gives him his youngest daughter as his bride. During her sleep her surroundings are transformed into incredible luxury and the pig into a handsome young man.
The Beauty in the Indonesian The Lizard Husband has six sisters who are rude to the mother of a lizard who asks that they consider her son for marriage. The youngest, Kapapitoe, takes the lizard as a husband, but her sisters heap abuse upon them both. The lizard and his wife work together to build their own farm and the lizard transforms himself into a handsome man when bathing in the river. It takes his wife awhile to accept this change and the sisters, in jealousy, try to steal him away from her. Then, during the night, a castle arises and Kapapitoe and her husband live happily ever after within it.
From Japan comes The Monkey Son-in Law. The father owes a debt to the monkey for giving him water for his crops. As payment, one of his three daughters must go and live with the monkey. The older two will have nothing to do with such a bargain and again it is the youngest who complies. After a year she tricks the monkey into falling into the river to be carried away. She returns home to a thankful father but two rude sisters who are transformed into rats for their disloyalty to their father.
The earliest French version is an ancient Basque tale where the father was a king and the beast a serpent. The 16th century Italy, Giovanni Francesco told the story of Re Porco (King Pig), a brute who received his name for his swinish behavior, especially toward women. A hundred years later, fellow Italian, Giambattista Basile, included four Beauty and the Beast type tales in his Il Pentamerone (1646).
From Russia, we have The Enchanted Tsarevitch, by Aleksander Nikolaevich Afanas’ev In recompense for picking an exotic flower, the father agrees to send the Beast the first thing he sees on arriving home, which turns out to be his youngest daughter. The Beast is a three headed, winged snake for whom Beauty eventually feels compassion. Her visit home is extended by her greedy sisters so that on her return the snake is almost dead. Upon kissing him he turns into a handsome young man.
In England there is the tale of The Small Tooth Dog. The father is a merchant whose life is saved by a dog when he’s attacked by thieves. As payment, the dog asks for the merchant’s only daughter. The daughter goes with the dog willingly, but is unable to find happiness with him. When he allows her to visit her home, she calls the dog "Sweet-as-a-honeycomb." By saying this in front of her father the enchantment is broken and the dog is transformed into a handsome young man.
A Bunch of Laurel Blooms for a Present, from Appalachia, has the father indebted to a witch from whom he has taken some laurel blooms. In this version he is the one who must stay with the witch, but the youngest daughter takes his place. The witch keeps her in a house with a large, ugly toad, whom she learns to love. One night she awakens to find a handsome young man lying next to her and the toad-skin hanging on a bed post. She takes the skin and burns it in the fire. The next morning the young man is still there and thanks her for saving him from the witch’s curse.
In 1740 by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve wrote a version of Beauty and the Beast that was 362 pages long. It was filled with warring fairies and lengthy histories, and contained many criticisms of arranged marriages. In 1756, French aristocrat Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont took this tale and shortened it into the tale we are most familiar with today.
Next week we’ll go a little more in depth in the origins of this fairy tale.