Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Beauty and the Beast

One of the most durable of all Wonder Tales, this contains as its core a situation that is an Underlier for many later stories. Versions vary, but in the best-known – that by Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1756; trans 1757) – the basic tale is: A bankrupted merchant, with three daughters of marriageable age, the youngest called Beauty, travels in hope of restoring his fortune. Before departing he asks the daughters what presents they would like him to bring back; while the elder sisters respond covetously (there is more than a shade of the Cinderella tale here), Beauty asks merely for a red rose. The merchant's journey is in vain. As he returns he is lost in a blizzard. He discovers a great house, inside which is warmth, a table set for dinner, and a good bed. In desperation, he eventually helps himself to food and sleeps in the bed. Next morning he finds in the castle grounds a rosebush, and takes a branch of it. At once a Monster appears and says that, while he had willingly given the merchant a night's lodging, the merchant must die for having rewarded his generosity with theft. The merchant pleads for mercy, and explains why he stole the roses. Beast (it is a proper name) allows the merchant three months to tidy up his affairs and gives him a chest of treasure, also saying that, if he can persuade one of his daughters to come to the castle and forfeit her life in his stead, he may consider the account settled. The merchant goes home, explains all, and Beauty insists she should take his place. At the castle, though, Beast spares her life, explaining he would rather wed her; she slowly becomes fond of him, despite revulsion at his terrifying exterior, but cannot consent to marriage. Scrying in a Mirror, she discovers her father is near death, and Beast permits her to make one last visit home, on her promise to return. A while later, in a Dream, she sees that Beast is pining unto death for her; she realizes she loves him, and is delighted to awaken back in the castle, transported there by a Fairy Godmother figure. She finds Beast apparently dead; discovering him alive, she declares her Love and at once a long-ago Curse is lifted from him and he becomes a handsome prince; they are happy ever after, while her proud and greedy sisters are condemned to lives of misery.

Leprince de Beaumont's version is based on that in Les contes marins ou la jeune Américaine (coll 1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (1695-1755); a translation of her version appears in Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments (anth 1989) ed Jack Zipes. The essence of the tale can in fact be traced back as far as that of Cupid and Psyche (see also Lucius Apuleius); the story of the Frog Prince can be seen as a cognate. The Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell (?1450; vt "Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady") is an early version from the English tradition (see Gawain); in this the sexes are reversed, Gawain saving Arthur's life by agreeing to marry a hag, who proves in fact a beautiful woman. The relationship between Caliban and Miranda in William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) might be viewed as a skewed version; Tad Williams's Caliban's Hour (1994) exploits this possibility, with Miranda's daughter accepting Caliban in order both to save her mother and avoid an arranged marriage. There have been numerous retellings since Leprince de Beaumont, of which we can note: Beauty and the Beast, or A Rough Outside with a Gentle Heart: A Poetical Version of an Ancient Tale (1811) attributed to Charles Lamb; Beauty and the Beast (play 1841) by J R Planché; Beauty and the Beast (graph 1875) by Walter Crane; "Beauty and the Beast" (in The Blue Fairy Book anth 1889) ed Andrew Lang; "Beauty and the Beast" (in The Sleeping Beauty and Other Tales from the Old French coll 1910) by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, illustrated by Edmund Dulac; Beauty and the Beast (play 1951) by Nicholas Stuart Gray; Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (1978) by Robin McKinley, a recursive version (see Recursive Fantasy) that is at the same time very faithful to the original; Beauty and the Beast (graph 1978) by Chris Achilleos, also recursive; "Beauty and the Beast" (in Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales 1982 coll) trans Angela Carter, illustrated by Michael Foreman (also of interest is Carter's "The Courtship of Mr Lyon" [1979], which transposes the tale into modern times); and "Beauty" (in Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer coll 1983) by Tanith Lee. Jean Cocteau filmed the tale memorably as La Belle et la Bête (1946); Disney made an Animated Movie of it as Beauty and the Beast (1991); there have been other movie versions.

As noted, the tale is of considerable interest as an Underlier. In at least one instance this is overt: the tv series Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990), in which a beautiful woman befriends a mutant who dwells in New York's sewers. Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (1910) plays with the fascination a "beast" may exert over a beauty; all the movie versions (see Phantom of the Opera) exploit this, with differing degrees of overtness. More often, though, the treatment of the BATB theme is covert, and sometimes the sexes may be reversed, as in His Monkey Wife, or Married to a Chimp (1930) by John Collier; by contrast, in Michael Bishop's "The Monkey's Bride", a story inset in Who Made Stevie Crye (1984), it is the husband who is the "monkey" and the wife who accepts him for what he is, herself starting to grow fur. Cija's relationship with the reptilian Zerd in Jane Gaskell's Atlan sequence presents several repetitions of the BATB motif; furthermore, in the series' third volume, The City (1966), Cija conquers revulsion to take on an Ape as a lover, seeing his innate goodness. King Kong (1933) is a classic Cinema hijacking of the theme. This underlier role extends far outside fantasy: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) is a noteworthy example, with Jane discovering that the unhandsome, elderly Rochester has inner virtue that inspires her love; the crime novel Shadows on the Mirror (1989) by Frances Fyfield, in which a beautiful harlot changes her ways on identifying the goodness within a grossly fat man, is a recent example plucked from many. [JG]

further reading: Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale (1989) by Betsy Hearne is an exemplary discussion, containing also considerable bibliographical information.


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.