Because of Walt Disney, we are all familiar with the concept of the fairy tale. However, the Disney versions have uniformly white washed the older fairy tale forms. These older stories are much darker and ominous to the point that I’m not sure that I would encourage anyone to describe his or her wedding as “fairy tale like” because that would ultimately mean that someone’s tongue had been cut out or that someone’s jealous sister had been punished by being turned into a statue. In fact, many fairy tales are so old that we do not have a clear idea of their origins.
As an illustration of this point, one need look no further than the story of Cinderella: there are hundreds of Cinderella stories; the oldest is believed to have been told around 800 A.D. and takes place in China, which makes sense as Cinderella is characterized as having small feet and small feet were highly prized in China. Over the years, there have been numerous different versions of this story—most of which are tied to the idea of the true bride being identified by her feet.
“Cinderella,” and many other fairy tales like it, is a story that was passed down for hundreds of years in oral form. As a result, these stories were shaped by both the person telling the story and what the listener remembered as significant. Over the years, a pattern emerged that can be seen in many fairy tales—that pattern seems to be the message about childhood and growing up.
In all instances, the fairy tale begins with the child leaving his/her parents’ home. While there are scenarios where the child can ultimately return to the parents’ home, it is only upon the completion of the protagonist’s journey. On a basic level, the first message sent to the listener is the idea that one must step away from one’s parents in order to grow.
The next point of commonality among fairy tales is the presence of obstacles or trials that the protagonist must venture through in order to complete the journey. The protagonist is allowed to fail, and often does as these tasks are usually in cycles of three, but eventually the protagonist will succeed, having learned something along the way and therefore maturing in the process.
The number three is important and often seen in fairy tales. The protagonist is often the youngest of three siblings. The reason for this is that any child can relate to being the youngest of three. Regardless of how many siblings you have—or even if you have none—you are still the youngest and third in relation to your parents.
There is often a sense of justice in the older stories, which Disney often times eliminates altogether in their modern stories.
And, finally, these fairy tales—both traditional and modern—all end with the concept of living “happily ever after,” which is almost presented as a reward for achieving a higher state of being.
As a result of this oral tradition, some fairy tales evolved into many different forms and have many different authors. Other fairy tales, however, were created and written by authors who had a specific purpose. For instance, the fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson—such as “The Little Match Girl”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and “The Nightingale” among others—seemed to have been written with social commentary in mind. But sometimes the fairy tale was written in order to teach a lesson.
In 1756, a woman by the name of Jeanne Marie LePrince de Beaumont wrote an adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” that was clearly conceived as a message to her intended audience, which was comprised of upper class women who didn’t always have a choice in who they were to marry. While slight details of the story evolved over the next 250 years, the main plot remained unchanged: a prince who was transformed into a beast for no specified reason and no specified time frame convinces a girl to live at his castle. Every night, he asks her to marry him. Every night, she declines. Eventually, he lets her go home, but sends her a dream of him dying so that she panics and returns to find him, ultimately proclaiming her love for him. And, hence, he is a beast no more.
Up until Disney’s movie version came out in 1991, this was the story that most people would have heard and it is the story that I grew up on. Though some of the details have changed—the basic premise of a Beast imprisoning a young woman and manipulating her into marrying him remains the same. The odd thing about this earlier version is that people rarely notice the negative components in the story regarding love and marriage. In fact, the changes that Disney made send a much better message about what it means to love.
If we look at the original story, it breaks down as follows:
De Beaumont’s message to her audience—again women in the 1700s who didn’t really get much choice about whom they married—was that it doesn’t matter if the man you marry is intelligent, witty, or good looking. As long as he treats you well, then you’ve made a good match.
The person who must learn a lesson regarding a suitable husband is Beauty—even though she has been portrayed throughout as someone who is loving and giving and lets her sisters walk all over her. So there is no reason why she needs to learn this lesson as she wasn’t judging people by their appearance or intelligence prior to meeting the Beast.
Furthermore, while love is mentioned in the story, it is not a reflection of eros love and is clearly a reference to platonic love. And the only thing that was needed to break the spell was that Beauty agree to marry Beast—not that she profess her love.
In terms of the actual spell in the older version, the Beast has no time constraints—if Beauty didn’t marry him, he could still find someone else. There is no reason given for the curse—so we don’t get a sense that the Beast needs to learn something or grow as a result of his time as the Beast.
Beauty’s time in the castle is filled with isolation. She has no one to talk to except for the Beast—so it’s no wonder she eventually starts to look forward to sharing a meal with him.
Finally, the Beast resorts to emotional blackmail on several occasions: 1. When Beauty first asks to go see her father one more time, he tells her that if she leaves him, he will die of grief. 2. When she doesn’t return on time, he sends her the dream of him dying by the canal. 3. When she returns to him, we discover that the only reason why he is dying is because he decided to stop eating as a way of punishing Beauty for leaving him.
In the end, what is most important to the Beast is not that he marries Beauty—what is most important is that he breaks the spell.
All I can say is that, in comparison to the de Beaumont version, this is one of those times when Disney got it right.
In the Disney version, the message to the audience is that love takes time. Love is tied to friendship, and love means putting the other person’s needs before your own.
Also in the film, the person who needs to learn a lesson is the Beast—and the lesson is more about how to treat others and not tied so much to one’s appearance. In fact, Belle establishes right from the start through her interactions with Gaston that she does not judge people based on their looks.
The film recognizes the social changes that have taken place regarding love and marriage. Belle professes her love for the Beast, which is what breaks the spell. So the need for love in the relationship is more important than agreeing to marry a person.
The actual curse placed on the Beast in the film is geared toward the Beast needing to learn a lesson. There is a time constraint, meaning that if he doesn’t find someone whom he loves and who loves him in return before his 21st birthday, he will remain a Beast forever. This is highly significant because the Beast chooses to let Belle go before either has declared their love. He does not ask her to return. He does not place any stipulations on letting her go. He does not make her feel bad for leaving. And he knows that in letting her go, he is sealing his fate.
While Belle is in the castle, she is not lonely. She has many characters with whom she can interact. Furthermore, she is not forced to interact with the Beast or sit through uncomfortable dinners with him. In fact, when the Beast first asks her to dine with him, she refuses to. Beyond the fact that this illustrates that Belle actually has a backbone, what it reveals is that Belle does not decide to interact with the Beast because she is lonely or because she has to eat dinner with him. She interacts with the Beast because she wants to.
There is no attempt at manipulation on the part of the Beast. The only ones who try to manipulate Belle are the servants because they have an invested interest in the spell being broken.
And this is where perhaps the biggest difference between the two stories lies: the Beast has learned to love. He has placed Belle’s happiness above his own, and he does not expect to be rewarded for that love.
However, like their predecessors, Belle and the Beast end up breaking the spell and, we can presume, end up living happily ever after.
This final concept of “happily ever after” is, as I mentioned earlier, the last component to the traditional fairy tale. But I feel that it creates a dangerous precedence to believe that once a person has reached adulthood and/or attained marriage that one will now be forever happy.
No one lives happily ever after—regardless of how well matched or well suited you are for the other person. No individual is happy every day. The human condition is much more varied and nuanced than that. It is about experiencing a variety of emotions: euphoria, pain, fear, anger, joy, frustration, contentment.
The difference, however, is that now you have someone with whom you can share those experiences. Someone with whom to laugh when you feel joy. Someone who will hold you up when grief weighs you down. Someone who will sit beside you, content to just be.
So perhaps it would be more accurate if our stories ended with “and they lived emotionally ever after.”—except I think that phrase loses something in the translation.
If we go back to that original fairy tale pattern, it still rings true today. While the original model is about childhood and growing up, I do think that we follow this pattern often through our lives as we continue to grow and change—as we venture from the known into the unknown.
Today, our bride and groom are beginning their journey as she steps away from her parents and steps towards her husband.
Their journey together will contain many trials—some of which they will navigate successfully and others at which they might first fail. In that time, their perception of one another will change much like the wife in André Breton’s poem, including the love that you now feel, which will deepen and become more complex with each year.
One day, their journey will include a third should they bring a child into their lives.
As the years go by, both will achieve a higher state of being.
In the end, all stories are about love on one level or another—they just aren’t necessarily highlighting falling in love, which is a nice story to tell but is truly only the beginning. When we read about or watch two characters struggle to find one another or find a way to be together—to figure out a way where their love can happen, we are riveted. But once the couple has united, we lose interest until the relationship unravels.
I find it odd that the beginning and the end are the stories we like to tell because it’s actually the middle that is truly important. The middle will take years to unfold. And it’s what you DO in the middle that matters most.