“Love can make a man into a beast. Love can also make an ugly man beautiful.”
– The Prince laying down the story’s message, with emphasis on the former in this case…
CONTENT WARNING: This review features a brief mention of violence and sexual abuse, and discusses a portrayal of an abusive relationship. If you or someone you love is in an unsafe situation with a family member, spouse or partner, it is okay to reach out for help. Links to various hotlines and organizations that can assist you will be posted at the end of the review.
Perhaps the most iconic of the “animal bridegroom” folktales spanning across the globe is Beauty and the Beast. The motif of a beautiful woman being paired with a beastly man is indeed a tale as old as time; the oldest recorded story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, includes an anecdote about a savage wild man, Enkidu, falling in love with a virtuous priestess, Shamhat. Like Snow White, though, the origins of the Beauty and the Beast story we know today can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this time through the tale of Cupid and Psyche:
Psyche was the most kind and beauteous of three sisters, yet all who came to admire her only did so for her looks, not to pursue a wife. The attention Psyche received earned her the ire of Venus, the goddess of love. She commanded her son Cupid to make Psyche fall for a hideous creature as revenge. But on seeing Psyche for himself, he fell in love with her. Cupid vowed to protect her from his mother’s wrath. When Psyche’s father went to visit an oracle, he was told she was going to marry a horrible monster and had to be left alone on top of a mountain for it to claim her. Psyche accepted her fate, not expecting the West Wind to carry her to an enchanted palace in the clouds instead. Her lover came to her invisible each night to dote on her every whim, asking only that she never try to see his face. Psyche was happy for a while, but began to miss her family. Despite Cupid’s misgivings, he allowed her sisters to pay her a visit. The sisters were bitterly jealous of Psyche, however, and planted doubt in her heart about her mysterious husband. They convinced her to look upon him as he slept to find out who he really was. Psyche was thrilled to learn she was wife to a god, but some hot oil spilled from her lamp onto Cupid. Burned in more ways than one, Cupid abandoned Psyche, and she was forced to undertake some herculean labors in order to prove her faithfulness and win him back.
One can see how the tale would evolve into a parable about love, loyalty, and how beauty is only skin-deep. The story even took a step into reality with Petrus Gonsalvus, “the man of the woods” or “the hairy man”. Gonsalvus suffered from hypertrichosis, a condition involving hair growing all over his face. Because of his animal-like visage, people of the time barely considered him human. In 1547 he was brought to the court of King Henry II of France where he more or less filled the post of “royal freak show”. He was married to a beautiful woman, Margaret of Parma, and they had children who likewise inherited their father’s hypertrichosis. Some scholars claim it was Gonsalvus who inspired author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve to write Beauty and the Beast. Her version of the story was published in 1740, then abridged and re-published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont sixteen years later, with many more iterations by authors such as Andrew Lang following after.
It’s widely agreed that Villeneuve wrote her story as a way to prepare young ladies for arranged marriages. It’s easy to see the metaphor when you read it through that lens: Beauty is more or less traded to a suitor by her father in exchange for riches, she’s sent away from her family to live him, and emphasis is put on his kindness, wealth and higher standard of living as reasons to overlook his less pleasant qualities. Though the story can rise above it and the implied Stockholm Syndrome inherent when told well, only one version has successfully done so:
But since this episode came out almost a decade before Disney’s, it had to take inspiration from elsewhere…
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