The beauty, the beast and the myth Many meanings live with ancient story

December 05, 1991|By Colin McEnroe | Colin McEnroe,The Hartford Courant

UNLESS you are in a position to avoid 8-year-old girls for the next six months, you are going to be hearing a lot about "Beauty and the Beast," the new Disney movie.

It may enhance your already burgeoning reputation as a raconteur if you have a few comebacks ready.

For instance, many 8-year-olds will be fascinated to know that Beauty and Beast myths appear in all sorts of cultures, ranging from a 2,200-year-old Tibetan story about a lion prince with 18 marks of ugliness to the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Well, maybe not.

But the Disney version -- with Robby Benson's voice as the beast and Angela Lansbury as a singing single-parent teapot -- is only one in a long chain of stories more or less corresponding to what classifiers of folk and fairy stories call "tale type 425C": Girl lacks husband, girl meets beast, non-hilarious complications ensue, girl marries beast.

Tale type 425C has been kicking around for centuries, but the story most of us know as "Beauty and the Beast" surfaced in 1756 in "Magasin des Enfants" by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. This was an appalling educational book for French children. The story was, to use the words of University of Chicago scholar Betsy Gould Hearne, "buried in the midst of tedious, didactic conversations among figures such as Mrs. Affable and Lady Witty."

Beaumont had actually swiped the story from one of her contemporaries, one Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve, but Beaumont's version was shorter, tidier and full of more obvious morals for good little French children.

Beaumont's story became the template from which the many hundreds of subsequent versions proceed -- many of them wildly different in big and little ways.

What does the tale mean? Depends on how it's told and who's interpreting.

Possibly the most upsetting explanation comes from Jack Zipes, a folktale compiler and professor of German at the University of ++ Minnesota: brainwashing little French girls into becoming trophy wives.

"The tale was originally a rationalization to get girls to enter contractual marriages with old, ugly men," says Zipes, author of "Spells of Enchantment: Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture" (Viking, $29.95).

It was customary at the time for girls in their mid-teens to be married off to rich old guys, Zipes says. The message of the tale was that if they hung in and tried to love old Monsieur Nosehaire, he would come to seem a charming prince.

"The fairy tale upholds a patriarchal order," says Zipes. "The daughters are expected to sacrifice themselves for their father, to oblige Daddy no matter what catastrophic mistakes he makes."

In his famous study of fairy tales, "The Uses of Enchantment," Bruno Bettelheim argued that the story was really about (surprise!) sex. The story, he wrote, was about Beauty's Oedipal attachment to her father. Because of sexual repression, any other male object seemed repugnant to her. Papa gets sick because Beauty's love of him is unhealthy. She detaches from Papa and transfers her affections to an appropriate mate. The mate starts looking less repugnant, and Papa gets well. Next patient.

Until recently, the film version most people knew was "La Belle et La Bete," Jean Cocteau's 1946 black-and-white masterpiece.

Cocteau's movie seems to make a far more sophisticated psychological statement. The Beast's castle is symbolic of the unconscious world where roles and identities blur, where

transformations and revelations occur but in ways that are not clean-cut and obvious.

The Cocteau treatment fits nicely with the writing of Joseph Campbell, the mythology scholar, who argued in many of his books that one of the hero's (or heroine's) important journeys is the journey inward, where one meets other parts of oneself.

Cocteau's was, however, not the only film treatment. A 1976 version, with George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere was made for television and later released to theaters.

"I adored the fairy tale," says children's book author Jane Yolen. "The only thing I didn't like was the ending, where the Beast turns back into a namby-pamby prince."

To endure, says Yolen, "A fairy tale has to have a protean quality. It has to mean many things to many people. It has to mean something to men as well as to women.

"Whenever I hear one of these fairy tales told again, I hear it from the point of view I'm at in life," she says. Growing up in the '50s and '60s, Yolen says, the B&B story told her that a young woman may love her home and her family but also journey out and find love and adventure.

Most interpreters, however, ignore the transformation of the Beast.

How many guys do you know who went through young adulthood with their needles stuck in that warrior-macho groove, until they met a certain woman? And then they suddenly uncovered tenderness and sensitivity that their closest friends (if they had any) would have bet the farm was never there?

Zipes agrees that the story addresses that mysterious process through which a woman reaches a heretofore unreachable man. It's sort of a counterclaim against some of Robert Bly's men's movement ideas, he says, in arguing that "men do need help in getting in touch with a certain side of themselves."

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