The Neolithic origins of the “Beauty and the Beast” folktale (DeDisnification, Part 4)
Beauty and the Beast marked a transition for Disney’s animation studio: the film featured a modern female protagonist, one who, rather than attending to household chores, prefers to educate herself through reading. By and large these things are quite positive and a welcome change from the frankly ditzy Little Mermaid.
The main message of the film is about people’s appearances versus their true natures—bracketed by Gaston, a good-looking creep, and the Beast, whose appearance is beastly, but who is actually good—which also feels spot on. The comic relief is good, the songs are good, its early integration of 3D CG is done well. Indeed, Beauty and the Beast was to become the mold for the studio’s films for the next decade with greater and lesser degrees of success. Arguably we are still in this era.
Admittedly, there are some niggles I feel worth mentioning: Belle’s thirst for reading apparently extends only to fairytales even though she’s an adult. The song she sings about her favorite book says that it contains Prince Charming, and this is the only example we are given of what she reads. While she seems to be of marriagable age (whatever that might be), she also wears her hair in pigtails, so it’s hard to figure out just how old she’s supposed to be.
Also, while it’s great that she’s not a domestic drudge, she also has no real responsibilities at all—she reads and hopes for adventure and does not have a great deal of agency. Her father is an unsuccessful tinkerer: his gadgets’ lack of success of is part of the case made for throwing him in an asylum, so it’s difficult to understand her independence.
When it comes to the relationship between the two titular characters, some have characterized it as Stockholm Syndrome, but I think Disney managed to successfully navigate those waters: Belle volunteers to stay in the Beast’s castle as a substitute for her father, the Beast generally treats her well, and even lets her go when confronted with the fact that she is effectively his prisoner. Overall, it’s actually a pretty great film, so I’ll mainly be discussing its origins.
And on this topic, the tale is very nearly as old as time: In folkloric categorization, Beauty and the Beast is known as ATU-425C. The first three letters merely mark the classification within the Aarne-Thompson-Uther system, the last one marks a variant type, and the number, one which applies to a large body of tales, refers to its actual motif, known as The Lost Husband. A well-known example, and perhaps my personal favorite is East of the Sun and West of the Moon, ATU-425A; the main form of the tale. Kay Nielsen’s illustrations (see above) probably have a lot to do with this. Later in life he went to work for Walt, and contributed to some of the more awesome scenes of Fantasia. In any case, some estimates place the prototype of this tale in the Neolithic at roughly 4,000 years old.
One of the earliest known written versions of the trope is the myth of Cupid and Psyche, images of which appear in Greek art as early as the 4th century BC, but which we mainly know today from the 2nd century AD version in Numidian-Roman (Numidia is split across modern Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia) writer Apuleius’ The Golden Ass—a different variant, ATU-425C. In this version, an uncannily beautiful princess is given in marriage to a monster to avert the wrath of Venus. This monster is indeed Cupid, hiding his identity from his bride, but taking fantastic care of her, as a disembodied voice in the daylight and in person only in complete darkness. Psyche’s jealous sisters get her to use a lamp to see who her husband is (shades of Cinderella; the jealous sisters are another well used folkloric trope), she does, is cast out and has to complete four tasks to expiate this breach of trust. Cupid has reasons for hiding his identity from Psyche: he is defying his mother (Venus), who ordered him to make her fall in love with some loathsome creature, and he also doesn’t want her to freak out, which is exactly what she does.
The oral tradition was eventually to spawn La Belle et la Bête, by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, published in 1740 in Young American and Marine Tales (La Jeune Américaine et les contes marins). The 16th and 17th centuries were when many European traditional tales came to be written down. This version was shortened and rewritten for Children’s Collection (Magasin des enfants) by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 to create the most widely-known version of the tale. As with many of the subjects Disney was to take up, there were dozens of retellings in various media for them to draw on.
In particular, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film adaptation seems to have provided a strong kernel for the animation studio’s work. The idea of expanding the cast beyond the two main characters was done very much on the model of the Cocteau version, wherein Belle gained a boorish suitor similar to Gaston named Avenant, and the Château de la Bête included objects magically imbued with life. Cocteau was multitalented; a celebrated writer, designer, playwright, artist, and filmmaker. His black-and-white film’s excellence is still apparent today, and the human form of Disney’s Beast bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Jean Marais’ Bête.
Sadly, I must end on a less positive note: there is an upcoming live-action version, which, from what I’ve seen is a nearly shot-for-shot redux of the animated film, and which is therefore completely unneeded artistically and motivated entirely by a quite different beast: mammon.