Beauty – Robin McKinley (U.S., 1978, reread)
Adaptations of La Belle et la Bête – Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (France, 1740):
- Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (France, 1756), as published by James Lumsden and Son, Glasgow.
- Andrew Lang (Scotland, 1889)
Unless you’ve been living with your head firmly ensconced in sand (and given the craziness of the news, I wouldn’t discount the possibility), chances are you’ve noticed that Walt Disney Studios has a little film out just now that may just have earned a little bit of money in recent weeks and that is based on an old fairy tale…and that just happens to fit in well with Classic Children’s Literature Month. I can’t say for certain (my memory escapes me on the particulars), but it’s likely that one of the trailers for Beauty and the Beast prompted me to a return visit to a more contemporary written adaptation, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.* And that in turn has sent me down the rabbit hole–not only did I then (re?)visit some of the more traditional tellings, but I have on order from the library Beauty and the Beast Tales from Around the World (Heidi Anne Heiner), though since they have to purchase/process a copy first (apparently this is what they do instead of ILL?), it could be a while before I get to that one.
What I would really like to read (and thus the library hold) is a translation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 La Belle et la Bête. As far as I can tell, Villeneuve’s tale was the original story from which all of the other more familiar adaptations have sprung. That is, the original with the elements of a father promising a rose to his beloved daughter, getting lost in the woods and taking refuge in an enchanted castle where he is doomed to death by the beast for stealing a rose, the daughter willingly taking her father’s place and ultimately falling in love with the beast and ending his enchantment. (I believe there are other beauty + beast stories with different base elements–thus the “Tales from Around the World” part.) Since I was unsuccessful in finding an English translation of the Villeneuve, I settled temporarily for two adaptations, both of which are apparently both much shorter than Villeneuve’s and also the more commonly told. The first was by a Frenchwoman, Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. I couldn’t find a translator listed, but it is from the edition published by James Lumsden and Son in Glasgow. The second is by Andrew Lang, from his The Blue Fairy Book collection of fairy and folk tales.
Although both fairy tales, as well as McKinley’s novel-length adaptation are similar in their elements, they vary in the particulars. The fairy tales are most similar–naturally enough, for they share a common source. Beaumont’s version more emphatically pushes the moral however: virtue will be rewarded and selfishness punished. Here, Beauty’s sisters are proud and vain and selfish, while she is good and kind. (There are also brothers, but they have very little personality as they are mostly just good sons and brothers.) Lang’s version, on the other hand–and perhaps here the more than 100 years between them makes a difference–has sisters who are nearly as insignificant as the brothers. The moral is not illustrated in them, but only in Beauty, who is rewarded for her own goodness and love. Notably, in none of these versions is it stated that the Beast under an enchantment due to his own moral failings, but rather entirely due to outside forces (in contrast to both Disney versions). (Actually, to be more accurate, I don’t think an explanation is given in Lang.)
In contrast with the fairy tales, McKinley’s adaptation much more greatly fleshes out both characters and plot. She has the advantage of greater length, for her story is a novelization of the fairy tale. But it also deviates some from the traditional stories. Instead of viewing Beauty with jealousy, her sisters are loving and kind in their own right–they truly do not wish to see her go and be sacrificed to the Beast. Nor are they the selfish, proud creatures of the fairy tale, but loyal to both their family and their lovers. Indeed, the middle sister, Hope, is distressed long before the loss of wealth, for her true love wishes to return to his hometown as a blacksmith and she is sorry that she might have to leave her family behind. But this lover is able to help the merchant and his family when they lose it all, thus showing how one tragedy may bring with it opportunity, and we see many scenes of happy family life, even after Beauty’s father has lost everything. I had worried that returning to a story I had so loved as a child might be a disappointment–that it could not live up to my memories–but thankfully, it was not so, and continued to enchant and delight me, far more so than the shorter versions.
I look forward to exploring other versions of these tales, and remain especially interested in Villeneuve’s. The short stories suffer in their shortness as compared to Beauty; will the longer original prove more satisfactory?
*Technically too new to be called “classic” just yet, I think, but older than I realized. Since it started me down the fairy-tale path, I decided to include it here anyway.