I wonder if the folks at Disney knew how right they were with the lines “Tale as old as time, Song as old as rhyme, Beauty and the Beast.”
Maria Tatar, editor of Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World certainly knows. Not only does her introduction to the book include the phrase “as Old as Time” (the full title of the introduction is “The Odd Couple in Tales as Old as Time”), but the first entry in the anthology goes all the way back to ancient Greece and starts two familiar characters (albeit two characters who might not automatically be associated with Beauty or the Beast): Zeus and Europa. Of course, this is part of the point of the book.
While Beauty and the Beast — whether it be the French text, the first Disney version, the second Disney version or another retelling of this classic tale — is probably the most familiar version of this story (at least to Americans), it is certainly not the only story that fits into this genre. In fact, it seems like almost every culture (and every time) has its own Beauty and the Beast.
So we begin with Zeus, who was famous — or perhaps infamous — for changing into an animal so that his wife Hera wouldn’t notice his lecherous ways. Next up is Psyche and Cupid and then “The Girl Who Married a Snake”. It’s not until the second section of the book, “Charismatic Couples in The Popular Imagination”, that we find the French version of Beauty and the Beast. While this may be (for many) the most familiar story in the collection, it’s still worth a read or reread. Because, not surprisingly, Disney changed some things. Beauty’s two sisters and most references to economics didn’t make it into the Disney films, and to be truthful, are cut from many adaptations.
The book closes with sections on animal grooms and animal brides.
Tatar includes stories from England, Iran, India, Russia, and South Africa (among other places). Bears, dogs, frogs, snakes, pigeons, and swans are some of the animals represented. It’s fun to encounter new stories but also to revisit childhood favorites with adult eyes. Some produce the same sense of joy and wonder; others, such as “Puddocky” with its drowning of dogs and women, lose some of their appeal. Tatar introduces each story — providing a little cultural context, noting a theme, or showing similarities to other myths, fairy or folktales.
The book is short (as are most of the stories) but most likely Tatar could have filled several volumes. As she notes: “It began to rain Beauty and the Beast stories once I set out on the hunt for a ‘tale as old as time’ (that’s Mrs. Potts in Disney’s film version of the fairy tale). The story has been with us for centuries, and this volume aims to help us understand exactly why.”
The sheer number of stories makes it hard to find much common ground or universality — other than the idea that these stories often relate to the fears and concerns of the culture that produced them and that because of this they give us lots of things to talk about. Some stories have the quintessential happy ending. Others end in suicide, or have a happy ending for the hero but have a very unhappy ending for others. Some stories focus primarily on virtue; others economics. Some heroines do everything right and end up with a happy ending. Some heroines make a lot of mistakes and still end up with a happy ending.
Further, the stories deal with sexuality, cultural norms, the idea of the other, and self-sacrifice. What we find magical, Tatar often explains as less than fantastical — a century or two ago, an arranged marriage (particularly between a younger woman and a much older man) might have felt very Beauty and the Beastlike to the woman. Tatar notes all this and more in the introduction, which might have been just a little too short to give the subject matter justice.
This is not to say the introduction isn’t thought provoking, because it is. It’s a little dense at times and there’s often a lot of academic-speak, but no one can argue that Tatar’s ideas aren’t intriguing — particularly when she notes that one reason animal wives and husbands/animal husbands and wives may have fallen to the wayside is because technology is now scarier than monsters of the animal variety. She states “‘Beauty and the Beast’ has become a kind of dense palimpsest of narratives, with so many layers that it becomes almost impossible to sort out the many different cultural stakes in the narrative. In the future, the Beast may take the form of an android or cyborg, machines that embody our anxieties and phobias about what the future holds for humankind when surrounded by man-made devices.
While Beauty and the Cyborg does seem like something Hollywood might consider, I don’t think animal tales are going anywhere (and I don’t really think Tatar does either). Tatar quotes a lot of important critics like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Camille Paglia, but my favorite quote in the book is from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi: “Tales are always better with animals in them.”