July 12th, 2013
“The version of the story most of us know from childhood can be unpacked in so many ways, but the unpackings that ring truest for modern life lie somewhere between a moralistic “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and the recognition of the moment that comes to nearly all long-term romantic relationships, where you experience a sudden flash of disconnection, and realize you are in love with a stranger, an alien, a beast.”
– Merrie Haskell
Marriage used to be a big deal, we like to believe that it still is, but it used to be even more of a big deal: a contract between two families, a bargain that you couldn’t get out of. Also: love had nothing to do with it. For the man a wife meant that someone took care of his household, and that was a huge job back then, without dishwashers and frozen pizza, it also meant he’d get legitimate heirs. For the woman, the quality of the man she “secured” would define the rest of her life: rich or poor, happy or beaten, safe or not… If you fell in love along the way, you were lucky.
Women could as a general rule (depending a little on who, where and when) not own their own land or earn their own money, neither could they choose their own spouse. They were transferred from their father’s care to their husband’s, if he died; her sons would have to take care of her – or in the worse case scenario (there are no sons!) a brother or other male relative had to make due… Marriage was a lottery – and an important one: securing a kind and wealthy husband ensured a good life. The Prince, as such, was a lot more than a hot guy in breeches, he was the ultimate prize. So its not that strange that fairytales are rife with female rivalry, or that that the princess’s arch enemy more often than not is another woman, often someone elder whose position she threatens, or a sister who also has her eyes on the prize…
But what if your man wasn’t all that? What if he was flawed: vicious, rude or ugly? Girls of yore didn’t necessarily take that in strides, and there was much worrying about this marriage matter. Beauty and the Beast reflects this worry, and is, in its own cultivated way, actually a rebellious text, critizising the practice of forced marriage:
Beauty and the Beast is not a folk tale, it was written by French author, Madame Gabrielle Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740. Mme Villeneuve was part of the literary circles in the salons of Paris, which had been passionate about fairytales for a while already, when she entered the scene. Inspired by older animal bridegroom stories and the myth of Eros and Psyche, Mme Villenevue wrote the story to highlights the perils a young girl might have to face when married away to a stranger. The erotic threat was much more evident, and the story a lot harsher than the later, watered down, version of the fairytale. The Beast was truly a beast, far removed from the human he once was.
Then the story traveled to England with Mme Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote down a much shorter version of the story in 1756. Now the focus had changed: in the original story it was the Beast’s task to overcome his animalistic instincts and become human, but in the new version in was Beauty’s task to call forth the man inside, and by her feminine powers of virtue, patience and love, recover the lost prince – the story we all know. The sexual threat was almost gone, and over the years that followed he became less a beast and more like a man in a monster suit. The story was no longer for adults, but for children, especially little girls who were urged to find the man in their designated beasts.
Even if the fairytale Beauty and the Beast is a construct; a literary tale, it’s born from an old tradition of animal brides and bridegrooms. We find these stories all over the world: in India the bridegroom is a tiger, in Africa a lion, Korea and Japan are crowded with soul sucking fox wives and an Arabian prince married a tortoise. In Europe we have had countless versions: from the romantic stories, like East of the Sun, West of the Moon, to short, humorous stories like The Dog Bride. Usually the stories follows a pattern, where the bride has to bed her animal husband, and at night he sheds his animal skin and becomes a man, then she exposes him and he has to flee, and she has to go through a series of trials to get him back. Often the story skips the last part, like in The Pig King, where the king and queen burns his pig skin and he remains human, or The Frog Prince, where throwing the little toad in the wall or decapitating him does the job. Sometimes the prince (or princess) doesn’t change when in bed, and in earlier times this was not a moral problem, but probably a great source of amusement.
It was not a rule that the animal prince or princess was born human and then changed, often they were born animal, or had the ability to shape shift. The union of men and animals was often seen as beneficial, and powerful families sometimes claimed to be a product of one (like the emperors of China, who was said to have decended from dragons). This positive view changed in medieval times, when the Christian church’s influence increased. I suppose it was a matter of soul, which they thought the animals did not have.
Another animal bride/bridegroom version is where the wife or husband hides the animal skin, and when their spouse eventually finds it, she or he will flee, often leaving riches and/or children behind. This is interesting stuff: could it mean that we leave behind our true nature when entering marriage? That our significant other holds it – and our freedom – hostage? There are many versions of this story, but the most common is perhaps the one about the selkie wife.
There is a wonderful freedom from convention in many of these stories, maybe because they have a strong oral tradition. The princess isn’t always nice either: in many versions of The Frog Prince, she is actually both obnoxious and arrogant. And the prince is no better: the girl that breaks the spell is often the last one of three, where the beastly bridegroom has deposed of the two before her (they couldn’t “handle his beast”). The stories do, however, reflect much of the same fear as Beauty and the Beast – and has probably served as both warning and education for young ladies.
And then there’s Bluebeard, who simply cannot be ignored when on the topic of perilous marriages… Like Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard is a literary fairytale, written by Perrault in 1697. He built the story on older fairytales and legends, but also on history: Gilles de Rais is often suspected of being the original source of the Bluebeard tale, but Cunmar the Accursed is a much more likely candidate: Local legend has it that his last wife fond the corpses of his previous brides in the chapel and ran off into the woods. Cunmar found her and hacked off her head, but the body was found, reassembled and revived by local monks. The wife later became St. Tryphine. The link between the stories becomes even more clear in old artwork rendering the story, where Cunmar gives his young wife a key. The key is an important element in the fairytale, since the blood splatter on it is what gives the disobedient wife away. In the stories that inspired the Bluebeard, the key is often substituted with something else; like an egg to carry, or a flower in the hair.
Bluebeard has parallels in fairytales of the handsome stranger (like Reynardine, or Mr. Fox), sometimes the stranger is the devil himself, and the bloody chamber of wives is substituted with a fiery hell. But the story of the man with the dead wives becomes even more disturbing in tales like Bluebeard, where the culprit is no stranger, but the well-mannered gentleman next door. He is so charming and well-liked, that the rumors about his missing wives are ignored – like a modern Dexter or Hannibal Lecter. As Lydia Miller says; by handing the bride the key, he: “…wanted his new wife to find the corpses of his former wives. He wanted the new bride to discover their mutilated corpses; he wanted her disobedience” – an excuse to kill her.
When Perrault wrote the story, it was not the terror of being married to a murderer that was the issue; it was the female curiosity and/or disobedience. He almost pictured Bluebeard as a pitiful character who was so very unfortunate with his wives. He gave them, after all, everything, and expected nothing in return but this simple promise; not to open the door. And the brides takes even more blame: in the 20th century, it was a trend among folklorists to decipher the symbol of the bloodstained key as a sign of infidelity on the wife’s part, as if a broken marriage vow somehow justified Bluebeard’s rage. Also: while the brides in the various, similar fairytales that predates the creation of Bluebeard are very capable of saving themselves by being clever and brave, the Bluebeard bride is usually not: she has to wait for her brothers, or some other males, to come and kill him off.
While Bluebeard, like the other stories in this post, also reflects the anxiety surrounding marriage, it also points to something else: the dead brides. It was not unusual in a time where women’s mortality rate was sky high due to the perils of pregnancy and births, that the man a girl was given to had been married before. The young wife had to live with the shadows of his dead wives; a constant reminder of her own mortality and possible fate…
No one, not even in our day or time (I hope), wants to marry Bluebeard, but something has happened with the beasts: where they used to be a threat, something wild and undisciplined that threatened society, they have taken on an allure of something tempting and erotic – and the “prince inside” just can’t measure up. Maybe we feel so safe and secure in our everyday lives that we’d rather like a taste of wilderness? Reconnect with nature, so to speak… This, of course, changes the story again…
To say it with Marlene Dietrich when she had watched the end of the first screening of Jean Cocteau’s movie La Belle et la Bête in 1946:
“What happened to my beautiful beast?”
Heinz Insu Fenkl:
Fox Wives and Other Dangerous Women
Tales of Faerie:
Straparola’s The Pig King
The Dog Bride
The Problems of Trying to Find Morals in Fairytales
A Timeless Romance (Los Angeles Review of Books)
Iona and Peter Opie:
The Classic Fairy Tales
Camilla Bruce, 2013