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Origins of Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most beloved of fairy tale stories, perhaps only second to Cinderella in popularity and influence. The tale of a gentle, self-sacrificing woman wimpernserum who transforms a bestial creature has been told in many ways down through the centuries. Even such diverse "modern" works as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and King Kong rely to some extent on the beauty-beast theme.

The Earliest Versions of Beauty and the Beast

Folklorists have traced the origin of Beauty and the Beast back to the second century C.E. and the Roman writer Apuleius. In his work, The Golden Ass, Apuleius tells the story of Cupid and Psyche. In this myth, Psyche weds a hideous serpent that is actually Cupid who is under a spell. By night, a man makes love to her, but she is forbidden to look. When she does, she loses her beloved husband.

This beast-as-serpent motif can be found in many other early fairy tales. Included in these are a French folktale from the Basque region, The Enchanted Tsarevitch (Russia), and The Fairy Serpent (China).

Other Early Versions of Beauty and the Beast

The 16th century Italian folklorist, Straparola (Giovanni Francesco), told the story of Re Porco (King Pig), a brute who receives his name not as a literal beast, but, instead, for his swinish behavior, especially toward women. A hundred years later, fellow Italian, Giambattista Basile, included four Beauty and the Beast type tales in his Il Pentamerone (1646).

The Scandanavian countries are the home for a folktale that was collected by Hans Christian Anderson and titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon. In this story the "beast" is seemingly a white bear, but one who comes to Beauty's bed each night as a man. As with Psyche, the young woman is forbidden to look at her lover. Also like the mythological story, there is a strong emphasis on the sexual theme that underlies all versions.

Charles Perrault included the story Riquet a la Houppe in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps Pass? (1697). This Beauty and Beast tale is unique in that the reader is left with the question: Does the beast really transform into a handsome man or does he only appear to do so in the eyes of the young woman?

In 1740 Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve wrote La Jeune Am?riquaine, et

les Contes Marins (1740), a series of tales designed to entertain her salon friends, not children. One of these tales would become the Beauty and the Beast story that is most known today. Much longer than today's story, it included the history of the two main characters -- she was actually descended from royalty, he was a prince who had been cursed -- and several dream sequences.

Five years after Villeneuve's work , the French aristocrat, Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, emigrated to England where she became a tutor and writer. In 1756, she greatly shortened Villeneuve's story, leaving out all the genealogy, most of the dreams, and ending it with the beast's transformation. It was published as part of a collection entitled Magasin des Enfants. It is this version that is the most well-known and most used as the basis for later interpretations.

(It is interesting to note that in neither Villeneuve nor Beaumont's tales is the beast described. This has led illustrators to conceive many possibilities. The most common ones are that of a creature with warthog, boar, lion, or even elephant-like features.)

For a more complete list of Beauty and Beast tales from various countries and cultures, including three versions of Psyche and Cupid, go to SurLaLune.

Related Articles: The Many Versions of Beauty and the Beast, The Story Behind Snow White, The Story of Sleeping Beauty.