The Original Tale of Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a staple of many classical fairytale collections, including those of the brothers Grimm. While their compendiums are generally collections of tales with anonymous authors and unknown origins, Beauty and the Beast is completely different; the tale can be concretely traced back to the French novel La Belle et la Bête. While inspired by tales such as Cupid and Psyche and The Pig King, it was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. The story of La Belle et la Bête fills a an entire book; the original tale being not only much longer, but also more complex. In 1756 Beauty and the Beast was published again, this time in an anthology by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Her version was heavily abridged, with the entire second half of the novel deleted, and became the basis for the story we know today.

So what ended up on the cutting room floor? While told in a traditional fairytale setting, the books convoluted backstory of both Beauty and the Beast reads more as a social commentary on marriage conventions, and a discourse on the absurdity and arbitrariness of the rules that fluctuate depending on class, and realm. So here is a brief synopsis of the original, unedited text:

Halfway through the novel the Beast has already transformed back into a Prince after convincing Beauty to spend the night with him, thus breaking the curse placed upon him. The next morning, his mother, the Queen, and a mysterious good fairy, arrive at the door to celebrate. While initially overjoyed at the union of Belle and the Beast, happiness soon turns sour once the Queen realizes that Belle is nothing more than the daughter of a merchant. Upon this realization she decrees that Belle is not good enough to marry her royal son.

It is imperative to note at this point that Belle’s initial objections to the Beast were not merely superficial. The French word for beast, Bête, not only refers to an animalistic appearance, but also conveys a sense of stupidity. The original Beast was not only hideous in appearance, but also lacked any conversational wit to charm Belle’s heart; Belle and the Beast never developed a rapport. Their conversations never progressed past the Beast asking her how her day was, and how she occupied it, followed by a request for her hand in marriage. Belle’s fondness for the Beast came purely from her commitment to honoring her father’s obligation (handing over Belle as a penalty for the theft of one of the Beast’s roses), and gratitude to the Beast’s kindness, not from love.

In fact, Belle spends most of the novel in love with a mysterious man who visits her in her dreams, and while this man eventually turns out to be the Beast, Belle still chose to honor the steadfast kindness and generosity of the Beast over him. It seems unfair that Belle, who was willing to overlook the flaws of the Beast, is now being rejected by his mother because of her parentage, and being asked to free the Prince from his promises to her.

While Belle initially accepts the Queen’s wish, and prepares to release the Beast from his betrothal, the good fairy comes to her rescue, and reveals that the meeting of Beauty and the Beast was orchestrated as part of a much larger (and convoluted) narrative. In the back story of the Beast we learn that after the death of his father, the King, the Queen was forced away into a combat with a warring neighbor who assumed that a kingdom without a king would be easily usurped. She left the young Prince in the care of another fairy, who turned out to be evil and power hungry. Once the Prince came of age the evil fairy tried to force his hand in marriage; when he refused, she cursed him to live his days as a hideous beast, locked away, unable to reveal his secret to anyone.

The good fairy then also reveals that in addition to being the one that lifted the curse, Belle is in fact the Queen’s niece (which means that she is fit to marry the Beast). The Queen’s brother, The King of the Happy Isles, then materializes at the castle ready to be reunited with his long, lost daughter. As this (confusing) story unfolds we learn that the King of the Happy Isles had believed both Belle and her mother were dead. Belle’s mother had originally been a young shepherdess, but in the Happy Isles, marriage customs pertaining to social class were non-existent, so the King was free to marry whomever he chose, and had married the young girl, and elevated her to Queen of the Happy Isles.

The good fairy then reveals another bombshell, Belle’s mother was not in fact dead, nor a shepherdess, but the fairy sister of the good fairy herself. While those in the Happy Isle may have been free to chose who they marry, the fairy realm did not have such freedom, and once it was discovered that Belle’s mother had married a mortal, the evil fairy (the one who cursed the Beast) ensured that she was locked up for her crime. When she disappeared from a locked room in the castle without a trace (while her husband was away on his many frequent business trips), her maidservants assumed the worst and declared her dead.

The evil fairy then decided she wanted to marry the King of the Happy Isles, so changed her form into that of a neighboring Queen and tried to get the King to marry her. Still heartbroken from the loss of his beloved, he politely spurned her advances, using the young Belle as an excuse. The evil fairy then convinced Belle’s nursemaid and her husband to take Belle into the forest to kill her. As they arrived at a clearing in the woods to do so, the good fairy rescued her niece, and left a trail of bloodied clothes behind so the King of the Happy Isles and the evil fairy would believe Belle had been slaughtered by wild animals. As she was fleeing, the good fairy happened upon the infant daughter of the merchant who had just died in her crib, and she substituted the babes so Belle would be raised in safety until it was time for her to meet the Beast.

The plan unfolded as expected, and Belle and the Beast fell in love, and the curse was broken. To complete the ending, Belle’s imprisoned fairy mother was then suddenly, and unexpectedly, released. With the good fairy’s sister returned,  Belle’s adoptive father  also appeared, with his six sons and five other daughters (with suitors in tow). While distraught to learn Belle wasn’t his real daughter, he still pledged a bond of familial love, and then they all lived happily ever after.

P.S. The original version also has a wonderfully surreal scene where Belle, longing for companionship, stumbles across a room full of birds, and another full of monkeys. The animals then put on a play for her, with the monkeys miming the acting parts while the parrots play ventriloquists, squawking out their lines.

Confused yet? Let’s see Disney pull off that prequel.

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