The Fateful Rose
What is it about the classic fairy tales that draws us back again and again? Stories such as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, that we tell to our children and grandchildren span centuries and excite the imagination. Regardless of how many times we have read the story we are drawn to read them.
Over the past few years there has been an increase in the number of books that retell the classic stories. As each new story comes out, we get a few more details of the character’s lives, or even a new twist to make the story that much more exciting. Sometimes the stories come with a subtle underscore of a different culture and way of life than the original, but are these stories better for the retelling? What does each new version add to our culture and society? How many times will we be able to retell the same story before it is no longer fascinating to the readers? Does this trend in retelling show an inability of authors to create something new or are these writers showing their true talent in making a new story out of something classic and well worn?
With each story, whether retelling or original, the reader hopes to be drawn into a different world, a world like his or her own, yet vastly different; A world where anything could happen. Readers want to relate personally with the characters. We want to see the commoner become a princess or see the princess have to deal with real and terrifying circumstances, but still overcome. It gives us hope.
In our realistic world writers of all kinds of media are creating realistic fantasy that uses familiar situations in a fantasy setting. The closer the version is to reality, the more readers can relate, but does this affect the way readers see the real world? Does this blur the lines between fantasy fairy tales and real life?
Children, adolescents, and young adults are required to decipher what is real and what is not. Even adults can be affected by the media around them. Children who “have a strong sense of fictionality and who know that there is a difference between the story and the actual world are inoculated against most of the bad effects of fantasy. It is when the child takes the fantasy world as the real world — that is, when it ceases to be fantasy— that problems can arise. When the child understands the difference between fiction and reality, however, stories of all kinds can both teach and delight.” (Veith, p. 4)
One such fairy tale, the story of Beauty and the Beast, “has been around for centuries in both written and oral form, and more recently in film and video. Many experts trace similarities back to the stories of Cupid and Psyche, Oedipus and Apuleius The Golden Ass of the second century A.D…The first truly similar tale to the one we know today was published in 1740 by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve as part of a collection of stories” (Origins, p. 1) and later abridged, re-written and published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. The Beaumont version is the most commonly told today.
To answer some of the above questions we will compare the first published version of Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont(Bib. 2) with two other versions of the story, namely Beauty a Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley (Bib. 3) and Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Bib. 4).
The Beaumont story tells the tale of the merchant who has three sons and three daughters. The sons are good and industrious, but the two eldest daughters are vain, prideful and haughty. The youngest is extremely handsome as well, but also good and kind. Those who know her call her ‘little Beauty’ and as she grows up the name remains which makes her sisters jealous.
All at once the merchant looses his wealth and is forced to move his family to the country and live as poor people. The sons work hard with the father to earn a living, but the sisters refuse to do anything but bemoan their lot. Beauty works hard gaining the respect of her father and brothers.
When word comes that one of the merchant’s ships has returned he must go to the city. He asks his daughters what they would like him to bring them and the oldest daughters ask for jewels and fine dresses. Beauty asks for a rose, because there are none in their part of the country.
The merchant completes his business in the city and travels home, but on his way he becomes lost in a great forest. Through the rain and the snow he travels fearing he will die of starvation or be eaten by the wolves he can hear howling around him. He sees a light in the distance and follows it thus finding his way to a castle where he is treated as a guest. The next morning as he leaves he passes through an arbor of roses and remembers Beauty’s request. As soon as he picks the rose he is confronted by a terrible beast.
The beast tells the merchant he must die for stealing his most precious possession, but the merchant begs for mercy explaining that he only did it for his youngest daughter. The Beast finally tells him he can go, but not before making him promise to bring his youngest daughter to the castle to die in his place.
When the merchant shares his tale with his family, Beauty convinces her father to let her go and die in his stead. She goes willingly to the castle where instead of dying she is treated kindly and lavished with wealth and food
After several months Beauty grows homesick and begs the Beast to let her visit her family. He allows her to stay for one week and gives her a ring. She places the ring on her bedside at night and when she wakes in the morning she is home. Her sisters are surprised to find her living happily in luxury. They grow jealous of her circumstances and convince her to stay longer than the one week hoping the Beast will be angry and eat her.
Beauty agrees to stay but feels guilty for breaking her promise and the tenth night she dreams of the Beast lying half dead near the rose bushes reproaching her for ingratitude. Beauty then places the ring on her bedside and falls asleep. When she wakes she is back at the castle.
She searches for the beast and when she finds him she thinks he is dead, but then finds his heart is still beating. She rouses him and tells him to live to be her husband. No sooner does she say this then a celebration erupts and the beast is gone, replaced by a handsome prince. He explains to Belle that he had been turned into a beast by a fairy until a maiden should consent to marry him.
The fairy appears bringing Beauty’s family to the castle, but the sisters are turned into statues at Beauty’s palace gates until they can own their faults.
A Classic Retelling
Our first example: Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley remains relatively intact in comparison to the original tale, with some subtle differences. The setting of the story is in a different time, earlier than the Beaumont tale. It is a time when women were not encourage to educate themselves, but still attended parties, balls, and the theater. Cities flourished on the coasts where merchants sailed to find their fortunes and city people were somewhat afraid of the unknown country inland.
McKinley sets the stage by introducing a range of characters that affect all aspects of the story. We are introduced to Beauty and learn a great deal more about her personality. As a child she was precocious, desiring to be called Beauty instead of Honour. She comes to dislike the nickname for as she grows older she becomes increasingly plain, gangly, and short with spots and mousy brown hair. Beauty doesn’t worry about her looks because she is too busy reading and spending time with her horse Greatheart.
At the beginning McKinley establishes a lead character that is realistic. She doesn’t like her appearance, but she doesn’t obsess about it. Beauty’s character flaws endear her to the reader and create a bond of understanding and appreciation. The reader is better able to believe the experiences and trials she is afflicted with during the course of the story.
We also meet Beauty’s sisters Grace and Hope. This is one major difference in the two stories that makes the characters seem more tangible. Instead of perfection we have a heroin who is somewhat awkward, has a bit of a temper and would rather help pull logs out with her large horse than do needlework. Beauty’s sisters, instead of being petty, selfish, prideful creatures, are good, kind, beautiful, and hard workers with their own heartbreaks and troubles.
This distinction raises the story from the normal fairy tale level to a more personal level. We as readers are able to relate better with how their family dealt with their troubles and see how they are able to work together to prosper. We are not forced to dislike a particular character because of their behavior, but acknowledge that bad things happen to good people and that our heroes and heroines can be just like us.
The story continues along the same lines of the Beaumont tale. The merchant loses everything and the family moves to the country with Hopes betrothed, Ger. Instead of the peaceful retirement represented in Beaumont’s time our characters find themselves among people with curious superstitions. McKinley also introduces us to the idea of a true fairy tale for the people of the country are familiar with magic spells, witches, and wizards.
The family takes a small cottage and blacksmith’s shop on the edge of a great forest. Hope and Ger are married after a year and the family prospers by degrees from Ger’s ingenuity as a blacksmith and even their father’s skill with wood.
As in Beaumont’s version, the father asks the girls if they want him to bring them anything from the city. The girls decline, only wishing his safe return, but the merchant presses them declaring ‘pretty girls want pretty things.’ Grace and Hope teasingly ask for ‘gowns and rubies and ropes of pearls for they have nothing to wear when they next see the queen.’ Beauty asks for some rose seeds. The merchant returns to the city.
Another subtle difference in McKinley’s tale is the merchant’s standing in the city. Though he is poor he is still respected by the other merchants of the city. When the family is forced to leave the city there are many people who would have ‘forgiven his debts for friendship sake,’ but the merchant is a man of honor and saw that his debts were paid as well as the men who worked for him. When he returns from the city he gets lost in a storm and winds up at the Beast’s castle where he is treated with kindness and waited on by invisible servants.
After a good nights rest and an excellent breakfast he leaves the castle. We find that our merchant is a good man who wishes to thank his host, but upon finding no one he follows the doors and gates that open for him. As he is about to leave the castle he picks a rose for Beauty for he had found no rose seeds in the city as she had requested.
McKinley’s beast is much like Beaumont’s. He prizes his roses above all other things and tells the merchant he must die for stealing one. Here we learn a little bit more about McKinley’s Beast. He walks like a man and dresses in velvet. He also gives the merchant a choice. Instead of demanding the merchant bring one of his daughters he gives him the choice to do so promising that if he does the daughter will not be harmed. The merchant leaves sorrowing knowing he must return in one month alone to face his death.
When he returns home to his family they are surprised at the changes that have occurred in their father. In some ways he looks older and exhausted, yet Beauty notices that he seemed to have shed twenty years in his bearing. When the merchant tells his tale the family is shocked, but Beauty immediately volunteers to return with him. At the end of a month she returns with her father to the Beast’s castle.
When Beauty and her father reach the castle we start to get a feel for the magical world of the Beast. The forest that grows behind the blacksmith’s shop is also the same forest that surrounds the enchanted castle. Gates and doors open and close upon their approach and lanterns and candles are lit by invisible servants. Beauty is fed a meal with dishes and foods she had never seen before, even during her city life.
Beauty’s personality unfolds even more during her stay in the castle. She is very stubborn and has a tendency to let her imagination run away with her. She loves her books and her horses, but she does not always accept the way things seem. She has a very practical mind, but deep down she believes in the enchantments that enclose the castle so deeply. She even gets frustrated when she tries to learn the lay of the castle, but as soon as she is lost her room is found around a corner. On the verge of dreams she can hear her invisible maids discussing the enchantment and later on when the Beast takes her to the library she can see books on the shelves that haven’t been written yet. Through her time in the castle she comes to enjoy and even desire the Beast’s presence, but her practical mind will not allow her to love him nor accept his nightly proposal of marriage.
Throughout the tale the differences between Beaumont’s and McKinley’s versions are subtle and few. McKinley expounds on the characters more, drawing the reader closer. Though we know the basic story, we better understand the anguish and heartbreak of Beauty and the Beast.
After a time Beauty is able to see her family through the Beast’s magic table. She sees her sister Grace about to accept the hand of a local man who she does not really love. Beauty wonders about the lost Robbie when the images in the mirror change and she sees that Robbie has just returned. Knowing her sister Grace would never back out of a promise even if Robbie returned she begs the Beast to allow her to return to tell her sister and then she will come back. The Beast grants her a week.
Here again we find a minor difference in the tales, for Beauty’s family do ask her to stay just one more day at the end of the week, not to anger the Beast or to get her into trouble, but because they truly miss her and feel anguish that she must leave them and never return. Beauty agrees to stay the extra day, but that day is followed by a nightmare where she walks the halls of the castle and can’t find her Beast.
She wakes to find the rose Beast had given her dying in a bowl on her window sill. She leaves immediately and takes Greatheart into the forest. In Beaumont’s version Beauty immediately transports herself to the castle by turning a ring and falling asleep, but McKinley adds another element of intensity. Beast could easily send her to her family and back with the castle’s magic, but such transportation would drive Greatheart mad, so Beauty must travel the hard way. This element, thought seeming so minor, actually draws us even closer to Beauty. The reader understands the frustration of wanting to be somewhere else instantly, but has to suffer the time and anxiety of travel. In Beauty’s case the situation is exacerbated. Beast had promised that she need only get lost in the forest and the path will appear and lead her to the castle, but as she travels beyond the edge of the forest nothing happens.
She makes it to the castle a day and a half later, disheveled and bone weary, but she knows she must find the Beast. Doors do not open as she approaches and lights sputter and die. Her heart is clenched with fear, for deep down she realizes that she loves the Beast and does not want to be parted from him.
When she finds him he is near death, but comes back as her presence is known. She tells him that she loves him and will marry him. As in Beaumont’s tale, the Beast is changes into a man and explains the details of the enchantment. We find that instead of Beaumont’s fairy the Beast’s family was cursed by a wizard and he has been a Beast for nearly 200 years.
The wizard does not reappear like Beaumont’s fairy, but Beauty’s family does come to the castle accompanied. Beauty and her Beast go out to meet them and their happy future. The castle is no longer enchanted and the mysterious forest is now a large park.
Though McKinley stays fairly close to the original version of the story, the changes and differences are enough to make a fantastic story more real to the reader. Does this retelling show an author’s inability to tell an original story? No, contrarily we find a unique story that clarifies the finer points of the characters’ lives and personalities. The characters’ trials and frustrations help the reader to better connect with the story, leaving the reader with a feeling of satisfaction at the close. Though the reader knows the basic background of the story, it is told in a way that draws us into Beauty’s world, a world similar to our own, and then smoothly pushes us into the Beast’s enchanted world.
Does this type of a story blur the lines of reality for the readers as they transition from Beauty’s real life to the Beast’s enchanted one? No, the line is clearly drawn. The timeframe of the story displaces it from what the readers experience here and now and though the reader does connect with the characters better, the elements of enchantment and magic are tied to Beauty’s time and place. The story, though drawing the reader closer and bringing the characters to a realistic level, remains firmly ensconced in the fairy tale realm.
A Modern Retelling
Our second story Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is a modern day version of the tale with a fantastic twist. The story contains parallels to several other versions of the tale, both written and film.
The Beauty of Twilight is a seventeen-year-old girl named Bella (meaning Beauty in Italian). Twilight takes place in a high school setting that is familiar to a large audience of teens and adults alike. The story follows the basics of the original tale, but with modernization. Bella’s step-father wants to go on the road and Bella decides to go live with her father so her mother can go with him. She moves from Phoenix (the city) to Forks, WA, a small town in the middle of a huge forest in the Olympic range. This move is comparable to Beauty going with her father to the Beast’s castle. She leaves the warm, happy home in Arizona and goes to the cold, rainy, unwelcoming forests of Washington.
Bella’s personality is not the typical teenager; she acts much older than her age thus enabling older readers to connect with her. Bella has many of the characteristics that we see in our fairy tale heroines. She is smart, pretty (though like Beauty in McKinley’s version she considers herself plain, awkward, and clumsy), brave, and self-sacrificing. Bella does not have sisters, good or bad, but she gains friends who embody both the good sisters from McKinley’s version and the bad sisters from Beaumont’s tale. Our story is also modernized by Bella’s family circumstances. Her parents are divorced. Her mother is happily remarried and her father lives alone.
It does not take long for Bella to meet the Beast of the story, Edward, and just like the original tale Edward is hiding something from Bella. Edward is a vampire, but he and his family do not kill people to satiate their thirst; instead they kill animals. Bella is not completely repulsed by Edward, but intrigued at what makes him different, just as Beauty, though frightened at first, is intrigued by the Beast and his castle and what traps him there.
Edward’s character relates to many different versions of the Beast. We see his desire to save Bella from the out of control van in comparison to Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast when Beast saves Belle from the wolves. He speaks well and is educated just like the Beast in McKinley’s version and he is also much older than Bella just as the prince ends up being much older than Beauty.
In both the Beaumont and McKinley versions of the story, Beauty’s father meets the Beast and calls him a monster. Even the Beast considers himself to be a monster. In Twilight, Edward calls himself a monster, but Bella comes to know that he is not a monster, but a good person who has been cursed with a new lifestyle. Throughout Twilight, Edward makes references to Bella wanting to be a monster or be with a monster, yet Bella is wise and observant enough to know who he really is. We compare this to Beauty’s family in McKinley’s version who cannot see past what the Beast is to find out who he really is.
Though the “enchantment” can never lift from Edward, the monster part of his persona is slowly taken away as we get to know him and his family. The reader begins to appreciate the trials that their ‘perfect’ family have to go through. In Beauty, we learn about some of the difficulties the Beast experienced as he learned to live in his new state. This gives the reader insight into these fantastic characters making them seem more real and tangible even though their existence is fantasy.
Towards the end of the story, Meyer takes a different turn, veering away from the traditional Beauty and the Beast format. However, by the end of the four-book series we return to the basic format of the story, including the happily ever after (literally) when Bella gains becomes a vampire like Edward and is able to live with him for ever.
Some variations of the Beauty and the Beast story include scenes of angered villagers hunting the Beast to kill him because of shunned beaus or greedy leaders. Even this element is included in the Twilight series when the Volturi come to destroy the Edward’s family because they are too powerful. Other common elements are present as well. For example in both the Beaumont and McKinley version we see Beauty/Bella’s love of reading and overall intelligence. There is also a similarity in Beauty/Bella’s dark-haired, pale looks and good demeanor.
As the reader begins this story, they are given the feel of a realistic fiction with a familiar setting and real life characters, but the story takes a unique twist sending the readers into a fantastic world that is almost too closely connected. Concerns have arisen that the tale is overly linked to reality and sets an imperfect standard of love and relationships for teens and young adults, but do critics underestimate the intelligence of young readers in thinking this way? Most readers view the book as just a story and though they may absorb some of the thoughts and ideas, they clearly understand the difference between fiction and reality.
“If writers considered the impact of each and every one of their words before writing it I imagine that no story would ever get told for fear of the consequences. Shakespeare would not have written Romeo and Juliet for fear that his readers would go out and poison themselves for love. Stoker would not have written Dracula for fear that some deluded individual would go out and start stalking people who had pale skin and a preference for the night life. But they did write their stories and people will go on writing stories, and readers will go on reading them. And some will be affected by what they read, and sometimes those effects will be bad and sometimes they will be good.” (Carsley, Paragraph 4)
Overall, we discover that the retelling of a classic tale gives the readers the opportunity to experience a new story, whether it is realistic fiction or fairy tale. Though the premises of these retold tales are the same, each new version brings about a unique world for different individuals. As readers finish the stories there is a sense of contentment that the characters they have gone through so much with “lived happily ever after.”
- Beauty and the Beast, StoryOrigins,http://www.balletmet.org/Notes/StoryOrigin.html#anchor1405144
- Beauty and the Beast, the original version, by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/beauty.html,
- Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- Good Fantasy & Bad Fantasy by Gene Edward Veith, http://www.equip.org/PDF/DF801.pdf
- The Difference Between Fantasy and Reality by Yvonne Carsley, http://www.bukisa.com/articles/202518_the-difference-between-fantasy-and-reality