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On Compassion, Mercy, and Love in Fairy Tales

Updated on October 7, 2014


I would first like to begin with one simple caveat. I am not a folklorist or expert on fairy tale in anyway whatsoever. Fairy tale has not been my life’s study. I am simply a man that was introduced at a young age to the wonder and enchantment of fairy tales in the Arthurian Legends. Since then the tales have captivated me, and I have often wandered long in them.

The theme of this article is the closely linked ideas of compassion, mercy, and love, or as I would like to call it in this context, transformative love. But before I can discuss things, I must make sure that we all understand something about fairy tales.

Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood

In fairy tales there are rules. When someone breaks these rules, they are punished, but when they keep the rules, they are rewarded. Some of these stories are even set up to serve as warnings against wrong actions. Take for instance the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. She is told not to speak to strangers on the way to grandmother’s house, but she disobeys. The result is horrific as both she and her grandmother are eaten by the wolf. Different versions give different endings. In some, they are rescued by a woodsman, and in the others, they are not. Even when they are rescued, there has already been punishment. Little Red Riding Hood’s moral failing was lack of obedience and perhaps lack of wisdom. This serves as a warning against disobedience. Fairy tales then exist in a moral cosmos.

Even though this article does not focus on the idea of reward and punishment, it is necessary to understand this idea in order to understand the concepts of compassion, mercy, and love as they play out in fairy tales. The main guiding principle that I will look at in this article is love.

For those interested in language

agape - selfless love of one person for another

philia - the love between friends

eros - romantic love

Introduction Continued - Love

There is a weakness in the English language when it comes to the word love. We only have the one word to express an idea of such great depth and width. One could also argue that we have the verb to like, but it does not seem to be anywhere near as strong as love, nor does it have a noun form. This is different from many languages; for example, Greek has at least three words for love. They are eros, phileo, and agape. The issue with this in English is that people often mistake the word love to mean romantic love only, unless clumsy qualifiers like brotherly love are added to express a basic idea.

Once Upon a Time

Emma Swan kisses Henry
Emma Swan kisses Henry

The TV Show: Once Upon A Time

So when the phrase “true love” is used in fairy tale, people often leap to the conclusion that romantic love is what is in view. This is often but not always the case. Take for instance the end of season one of Once Upon A Time, an excellent fairy tale type show on ABC. Emma Swan kisses her biological son, Henry, on the forehead as a display of true love and thereby breaks the curse that hangs over Storybrooke. This is most certainly not romantic love, but rather love between a mother and a child.

The true love of fairy tale always contains a measure of risk to the one giving it. In other words, it is self-sacrificial. Yet again in Once Upon A Time, before Emma kisses Henry, she is forced to do battle with a dragon in an attempt to save him. In doing this, she proves her love for Henry, and her kiss is able to break the curse. It is this self-sacrificial love that is the transformative love of fairy tale.

In this article, my main example to help explain what I am saying will be Beauty and The Beast. I will be using the Walt Disney version, which is an excellent fairy tale, roughly based on Jeane-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's version rather than using the version by The Brothers Grimm or the version by Villeneuve. Each of these gives a slightly different account of the tale. Only the Walt Disney version covers the scope of compassion, mercy, and love, which I will examine in this article.

Prologue to Beauty and The Beast

The Cursed One

The Beast
The Beast

Mythic Precedence

It can be noted here that this test actually reflects an often given mythological test. Hospitality was an extremely important thing in the ancient world because they did not have the hotels and motels that we have today. Because of the importance of hospitality, the gods will often descend from their place in mythology to test men’s hospitality. They will then reward those, who show it, and punish those, who do not. So this specific test has a mythical backdrop to it.

For those interested in language: The Origin of the word Compassion

It originates from the Latin words cum meaning with and pati meaning to bear or suffer. Combined they would mean to bear with or to suffer with.

The Prince's Transformation into the Beast

The movie begins with a test. The character of the individual is always tested in the moral cosmos that is fairy tale to see whether they are worthy or unworthy. As it is in this particular case, the test is usually a simple one. Here there is a test of compassion and hospitality. An old bedraggled beggar woman comes to the castle in search of basic shelter. When compared to nobles, beggars often seem to be unlovable because of their appearance. They are not washed, nor are they able to maintain their looks. This beggar woman is repulsive to the prince, and so there is no way that he is going to let her in. At this point, as is typical in these tests, a warning that things are not always as they appear is given followed by a second chance for a correct response. The prince fails again.

In the prologue we have already been introduced to the prince as a selfish, unkind, spoiled brat, so it should come as no surprise that he fails the test. The woman is revealed to be an enchantress, and she passes judgment on the prince.

We can see two reasons for the prince’s failure. The first reason is his foolishness in not understanding the beggar’s warning that true beauty lies within. This is an important concept to the rest of the story, which I will touch upon more a little later. This foolishness though is not what damns him. The second reason for his failure is that he lacks love in his heart. What is the type of love I am talking about here? It is what is usually called compassion. The prince sees this beggar woman, whose clothes cannot keep her warm, suffering in frigid weather. How does he react to seeing a fellow human being in such dire straits? He dismisses her. This is a prince, who has everything his heart could desire. If he wants it, he gets it, but he cannot spare even a little room in his castle by the fire for a poor woman. This lack of compassion then is what damns him.

As is often the case in fairy tale, the punishment is fitted to the crime. The prince could not find it within his heart to show love and compassion for that which by appearance was unlovable. Because of this, he is turned into something that is unlovable by appearance. The only way to break free from the curse is for someone to show love to him. He like the beggar woman is now in a state of utter helplessness. He is entirely dependent on the compassion, mercy, and love of another to save him. What is more, his inward nature, which was that of a beast, is now displayed in his outward appearance. His situation is hopeless as the prologue ends. After all, “Who could ever learn to love a beast?”

The Beauty


The Coming of Beauty

Leaving the Beast in his helplessness and despair, we need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves a question. Why is Belle called beauty? Obviously, she is outwardly beautiful. This is why Gaston is so infatuated with her. Like the Beast, he is only looking at the outward appearance. If she were ugly like the beggar woman, Gaston would have behaved towards her in the same way that the Beast behaved towards the beggar. This is not the reason that she is called beauty though. Recall for a moment, the words of the enchantress back in the prologue. “Beauty is found within.” Therefore if Belle is to be beauty, she must be beautiful not only in outward appearance, which is fleeting, but also inwardly. She must have a quality of moral beauty to herself.

This moral beauty is demonstrated by two acts of love to her father, Maurice, who is an inventor. Most people around him seem to think that he is silly and strange. Belle though always treats her father with kindness. The first act of her love occurs when he is frustrated with his wood chopping invention. She steps in and encourages him not to give up. This demonstrates her love towards her father. Now, this of course leads to Maurice with Belle’s help finishing said invention and heading off to the fair.

Why are they objects?

It could be pointed out here that the fact that the servants are items is not just an accident. It is humorous, but there is something deeper going on. The Beast treated other humans as objects to serve him. It is also most likely the case that his servants enabled this view. Therefore they are turned into objects, which they were already treated as.

The Servants' Quiz

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In the second act of love, she offers to exchange herself for her father so that the Beast will free him. Maurice had been imprisoned by the Beast after getting lost in a storm on the way to the fair and wandering into the Beast’s castle while looking for help. It is in these scenes that we find out that the Beast has not learned the lesson of the original test. After Maurice enters the Beast’s castle, he was shown hospitality by some of the Beast’s servants, who are now objects. But then the Beast discovers Maurice and is furious. Rather than showing hospitality and compassion, he throws Maurice into the dungeon. Belle goes searching for her father. She arrives at the castle, and the servants are both shocked and excited that a woman, who could possibly break the curse, has come. She finds her father and has her first encounter with the Beast. This is an important scene for establishing that Belle is beauty. She cannot free her father by her own strength. The Beast will not free her father because he is angry. So Belle in her second act of love makes the offer to take her father’s place. The entire story hinges on this offer. With this self-sacrificial deed, she shows her inward beauty. The Beast accepts, and Maurice is freed.

The Beast's Transformation Begins

It is at this point that the Beast’s storyline begins to progress. Belle goes exploring and enters the forbidden west wing where the rose, which marks the Beast’s remaining time of hope, is kept. The Beast finds her and is furious. Belle runs away from the castle. While out in the snow covered forest, she is attacked by wolves. At this point, the Beast comes to her rescue. He drives off the wolves and is injured. It could be argued that he is perhaps still doing this only for selfish reasons. After all, he needs Belle for the curse to be broken, but we are definitely beginning to see character growth. They return to the castle, and they begin to grow closer together. Belle is actually beginning to love the Beast. There is a dance scene with the typical Disney singing. Then the Beast allows Belle to look in his magic mirror to see her father. When she does, she sees that Maurice is ill and perhaps dying. It is here that the Beast definitely makes an unselfish choice. He releases Belle from her promise with no guarantee that she will return. The Beast’s character growth is not yet done, but it has greatly advanced due to Belle’s love for him. Having let Belle go, he again returns to a state of hopeless despair.

Gaston's Arrogance

The Villain Gaston

Entering into the final part of the story, I must now touch on a character, who has been mentioned but not much spoken of. This character is Gaston. He is a brilliant addition made to the story by Disney though he is also based in part on the character of Avenant in the 1946 French Film, La Belle et la Bête. He is the Beast. That is to say that both the Beast and Gaston share a similar self-absorbed, spoiled, and selfish personality. Gaston cannot understand how any woman could resist his “charms”. He wants Belle. When he learns that Belle might be interested in someone else, he imprisons her along with her father in their cellar, incites a mob, and then leads the mob to kill the other man, the Beast. This is not true love but rather a self centered lust.

The Final Battle

The Beast's Final Transformation

Gaston and his mob march on the castle. The servants launch a heroic defense against the mob while Gaston makes his way to the top of the castle and faces off against the Beast. The Beast at first is not willing to fight because he has given up on life and is without hope since he let Belle return to her father. Then Belle, having escaped from the cellar, rushes to the castle. Her return brings hope back to the Beast and enables him to fight. The Beast battles Gaston to the point where he can easily kill him, but then we see one of the best expressions of the character growth or transformation of the Beast. At the moment where he has Gaston at his mercy, he shows mercy. He responds to Gaston’s pleading and lets him live even though he has every reason to kill him. This stands in stark contrast to the prince at the start of the movie, who would not show compassion to the beggar woman. While he is still in form a beast, he is no longer inwardly a beast. Now, Gaston being Gaston does not accept the mercy of the Beast. When he looks at the Beast, he still sees only the outward appearance and not the inner virtue. Having failed to learn the lesson, he again attempts to kill the Beast. Then following the moral law of fairy tale, he plummets to his death. His wrongdoing is punished. He receives his just reward.

The Transformation

And so we come at long last to the end of the matter. The rose wilts, but as the final petal falls, Belle confesses her love to the dying Beast. As his inward self has been transformed by Belle’s love, now his outward self is also transformed so that it once more reflects his inward self. Gone is the spoiled, selfish, unkind prince, and in his place, we have a man that has learned his lesson and been redeemed. Belle’s compassion and love have transformed him, and he now knows to look beyond outward appearances. He has learned to show mercy and compassion, and most of all he has learned self-sacrificial love. He has become a man worthy of the title prince. As they kiss, the castle itself is transformed from a place of brooding terror to a place of beauty. The servants are also then transformed as the curse is completely and totally broken.

Conclusion - Why Fairy Tales Are Good

In closing, I would like to say that it is stories like this that have always drawn me to fairy. Undoubtedly, when I was a child, I was drawn because of knights, dragons, battles, and all that simple heroic stuff, but I also did at times recognize the deeper things going on. For instance when I was child, the King Arthur legends taught me much about duty, courage, and honor. As I grew and matured though, it was these deeper ideals of fairy tale that I found more attractive. It is these, which make a fairy tale not something childish to be simply shooed away to the nursery for little children. It is these that can make fairy tale profitable for all ages.

Do you like Beauty and The Beast?

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    • Anate profile imageAUTHOR

      Joseph Ray 

      6 years ago

      Thank you. I've loved Fairy Tales since I first red the Arthurian Stories as a little kid (except for a brief period where I decided that they were childish and switched to Robin Hood). I also really liked this movie.

    • profile image

      Ally Lewis 

      6 years ago

      I'm a sucker for fairytales and anything Disney. I like the way you broke down the movie - really insightful!


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