Like Cinderella, the tale of Beauty and the Beast is one of the best known stories in the world. It is also the most visited area on the SurLaLune site after Cinderella, far surpassing all other fairy tales on the site with readers.
The history of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is quite different from the other stories in the popular fairy tale canon. The earliest versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Frog Prince and many others are lost in the pre-Gutenberg era with just a few recorded versions hinting at elusive histories. Many scholars posit that those tales began as folklore, passed from generation to generation, from storyteller to storyteller, until enterprising authors published them on rare occasions, capturing them on paper for us to read and enjoy centuries later.
Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, did not start out strictly as folklore, although it incorporates folkloric elements. It has a discernable birth and history, beginning in 1740 with Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, a French writer influenced by the fairy tales written by authors, such as Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault, in the French salons during the earlier part of the century.
Having established a specific author and date of creation for the tale, I should clarify that Villeneuve’s story grew from definite folkloric roots, derived from mythology and countless fictions that preceded it. The Aarne Thompson Uther folklore classification system classifies Beauty and the Beast as “The Search for a Lost Husband” (ATU-425), within which Beauty and the Beast receives its own subtype, ATU-425C. ATU 425 is one of the largest classes in the system with few types containing more tales from around the world than this one--Jan Ojvind Swahn compiled a list of over 1,100 versions in his book, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche (1955). The Cupid and Psyche myth is one of the earliest tales in this class, often considered one of the first literary fairy tales. You can read more about Cupid and Psyche in the history of East of the Sun and West of the Moon on this site.
From my introduction to Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World:
Villeneuve’s work is more novella than simple tale with its elaborate prose and numerous details, including stories told within stories. Her narrative is far from complete upon the Beast’s transformation into a man. Then we meet his mother and learn his backstory as well as Beauty’s own hidden history, for she is not the true daughter of a merchant, but a princess in disguise herself. All of this combines into an elaborate literary creation, not a traditionally truncated folktale. Villeneuve imagined new material, uniquely her own, while incorporating traditional folklore elements, many of which exist in the version we are most familiar with today. She writes about romantic love and marriage while exploring themes like women’s marital rights, although those themes are somewhat hidden in most English translations of the tale.
Two different English translations of Villeneuve’s tale are presented in this collection. The first one, by Ernest Dowson, was first published in 1908. It is one of the most accurate translations of Villeneuve’s content into English, including elements often changed or omitted in other translations. However, Dowson’s language is less ornate than Villeneuve’s and doesn’t capture the same essence as another favored translation, one by J. R. Planché, first published in 1858.
Planché’s translation includes footnotes by the present editor to show where he modified the text, changes he briefly touches upon in his comments to his Victorian audience. The changes, although small, are far from minor for they change an essential element of the tale. Instead of asking Beauty to marry him each night—a familiar refrain in modern versions of the story—the Beast asks Beauty, “May I sleep with you tonight?”
The question, while risqué, is not merely suggestive or erotic. It implies control and choice for Beauty over her own body and sexuality, something that was not legally hers or that of any woman who was handed over as property in marriage to a husband in centuries past. The Beast is no true beast since he never forces his physical desires upon her despite any rights implied by her presence in his home in what today may be considered a common law marriage, although the construct didn’t exist in Villeneuve’s time.
Another important change is in the Beast’s transformation scene. Beauty finally agrees to sleep with the Beast and marry him in the original Villeneuve. The Beast then sleeps beside her during the night, although no other activities beyond Beauty’s mysterious dreams are described. When she awakens the next morning, a man—one whom she has come to love in her dreams—is sleeping beside her instead of the Beast.
So why did all of these elements disappear from the tale we know so well?
Villeneuve's story did not remain exclusively hers, for it provided the building blocks for another writer, Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, in 1757. While Villeneuve’s primary audience is adults, Beaumont’s is children with a didactic message about good manners and behavior as well as physical beauty. Ultimately, Beaumont greatly abridged and rewrote the tale, giving us the version so well-recognized today, but her version wouldn’t have existed without Villeneuve’s original work. One of her most impactful changes was the transition of the Beast’s nightly question from “May I sleep with you tonight?” to “Will you marry me?”
Beaumont’s version was translated into many languages and published in various parts of Europe soon after it was orignally published in France. Over time, the story became so beloved that it entered the popular fairy tale canon, often told and retold orally, spreading around Europe and then to other continents. Still, with a firm literary history, the tale has seen fewer variations despite its close relation to the hundreds of tales descended from Cupid and Psyche. But this beloved tale exists thanks entirely to the ingenuity of Villeneuve and Beaumont.
Many modern interpretations relish the beastliness of the Beast, his lack of humanity and/or his resulting animal sexuality. Angela Carter explored the tale more than once in The Bloody Chamber, her critically acclaimed collection of short stories, most notably with a story, “The Tiger’s Bride.” In her story, the heroine ultimately turns into a beast to join her lover, leaving her humanity behind, essentially turning Beaumont’s moral on its ear and celebrating women’s liberated sexuality in the latter half of the 20th century.
Newbery Award winner Robin McKinley began her career with the now classic novel, Beauty, a fairly straightforward retelling of Beaumont’s tale with a definite transformation at the end. She stays mostly true to Beaumont’s version while adding some changes, such as making Beauty’s name ironic, for she is gawky and awkward, not beautiful. In later years, she has revisited the tale’s themes in her Rose Daughter and Sunshine. Rose Daughter ends with the Beast’s transformation less defined, a more ambiguous ending from the more experienced McKinley.
Author Tanith Lee provides another twist on the tale with her short story, “Beauty,” which plays with perceptions of beauty in a new way, adding in some science fiction and twists that will be ruined if I tell you more. The story should not be missed and can be found in Lee's Red as Blood as well as in The Meanings of "Beauty & The Beast" A Handbookby Jerry Griswold.
Other authors, such as Donna Jo Napoli in her Beast and Alex Flinn in her Beastly--which was made into a feature film in 2011--tell the story from the Beast’s viewpoint. There are countless more novels and shorter works, especially if one expands the search liberally into the romance genre where the theme is as popular as the perennial favorite Cinderella.
Perhaps the most interesting change to the tale in the past century has been Beauty’s attraction to the Beast which ultimately leads to her disappointment when he is transformed. This change is apparent in some film adaptations, most notably Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece La Belle et la Bête (1946). The viewer, as well as Belle, feels disappointment when an ordinary man replaces the magnificent beast during the transformation at the end of the film. After all, during the film, we’ve come to know and appreciate the Beast, not this strange, albeit handsome, face on the screen offered as the happily ever after.
The tale has inspired some of the best fairy tale adaptations in film, from Jean Cocteau’s film to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), a nominee and sometimes winner for Best Motion Picture by several Hollywood organizations. Even a television series, Beauty and the Beast, ran for a few seasons in the 1980s and became a cult classic starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. It is one of the few successful television series to overtly use a fairy tale for its premise, setting the tale in a modern New York in which the Beast—an appealing lion-like man--lives in an underground community of outcasts and Beauty is a lawyer in the city. They acknowledge their love but decide they cannot be together due to the different worlds they inhabit. The series was reinvented for a new series which started in 2012 starring Kristin Kreuk and Jay Ryan.
You can explore more on the Modern Interpretations of Beauty and the Beast page.
In the end, Beauty and the Beast continues to be shared and retold to each new generation. New picture books, new novels, and new films appear on a regular basis, exploring the tale, some finding new meanings and subverting old ones while others cherish the original.
The version of the story which I have annotated comes from Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book (1889). He attributes his version to Villeneuve, but his version is actually an interesting mesh of Beaumont and Villeneuve. He favors Villeneuve's elements of the story, but edits out much of the extra dialogue concerning the fairies and genealogies which Beaumont decided to leave out of her version, too. The dream sequences are intact, however, which I wanted to include in the version I annotated.