Tale as old as time, well . . . not quite. Though if Apuleius’ has his say, then perhaps the tale is older than we first thought. Of course we all love Disney’s magical masterpiece, Beauty And The Beast, how could you not? Belle with her selfless sacrifice to save her father, her ultimate strength to fight against the oppression of her beastly captor, finally her soulful heart, a heart that could see past the guise of a monster filled with hate. We all know how it ended, and no one is happier than I to see love overcome adversity. In a world where horror movies are as common as corrupt bankers and lying politicians, I must admit, I crave that childlike smile that strikes my lips whenever I see that ungodly beast turn into the prince that Belle so deserves. I am a sucker for a predictable ending, especially when it comes in the form of a Disney classic. To see it remade into a live action movie . . . well, that makes my heart swell with glee.
But, where did the story begin? Where did Belle first meet her beast?
Unlike most fairy tales, which were passed down through the generations, until they found their way into the collections of Giambattista Basileus, Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm, Beauty and the Beast was a notable absentee in their works (although The Singing Springing Lark by the Grimms was somewhat similar). No, the first known working of the story, though not exactly the singing, dancing festivities of a Disney movie, was published in La Jeune Américaine, et Les Contes Marins in 1740 by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, under the name, La Belle et La Bête and was truly an original piece of story telling.
But was it? Or do the origins date back much, much further?
Indulge me if you will, close your eyes and imagine yourself in a world where Rome was still well and truly the world super power, and beasts were seen in the great arena fighting to . . . Well, I’m sure you get the idea––it wasn’t pretty. They certainly weren’t dancing in their finest suits, courting the most beautiful girl in town. It would be an understatement to say this was not a time where love overcame adversity. In fact, love quiet often ended in betrayal and even death. But through all that, through the unjust nature of the time, we may just have the original origins of the much loved classic. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, the Latin novel written in the second century CE, tells the tale of Cupid and Psyche. Though of course it does have it’s differences, one played out as a broad Milesian comedy, the other an earnest tale of morality, it does still strikingly resemble the novel by Villeneuve. I can’t say that I’m not tempted to take you through the entirety of the two tales, but for the sake of conserving time, I shall simply give your imagination a sample of the similarities.
Leaving out the tale we all know (cough, cough, Disney), let’s delve into the original tale of Belle and her beast. Of course, it does vary from the upcoming movie we are all clambering to see, most notably Belle being an only child. In the Original Belle has two sisters, Adelaide and Felicie, and a brother, Ludivic. Despite that, it still holds all the aspects that make it one of our favourites. Much like Belle’s own tale, Psyche’s sisters are insanely jealous of her, perhaps for her extreme beauty––think Angelina Jolie in a tunic. No wonder they had issues. The two stories are also similar in the fact that both women believe they are marrying monsters. Belle’s beast, who we’re pretty certain hasn’t washed since his mother realised he looked like a bear, doesn’t exactly encourage Girl Scouts to come knocking with sugar cookies. He’s your everyday, seven foot, crush your bones sort of monster. Whereas Psyche’s suitor, like the invisible man, does not show himself to her so she believes him to be a monster. Not an ideal way to start a relationship, though dating in the dark would have you think otherwise.
The resemblance goes further than that, with the plot telling, in both stories, of a love affair almost destroyed by both Belle’s and Psyche’s scheming sisters. Belle’s sisters steal her golden key and plan, together with Ludovic (her brother) and Avenant (her male suitor), to eliminate the beast. Likewise, Psyche’s sisters urge her to slay Cupid with a knife. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as inthralled as the next fellow when it comes to some good old fashioned scheming, but surely one wouldn’t be too disconcerted if the one you were so desperately jealous of was to marry a beast. Not a handsome king, but a dirty, unwashed monster. My best guess would be that pelts in those days would have gone for quite the pretty penny and that beast had one almighty pelt. Cupid, not so much, but he was invisible, so . . .
However, to show another similarity, these are both happy endings where love wins out. Which, for Apuleius’ version, surprises me. Perhaps a more appropriate ending for the time, would have been if Psyche had to fight Cupid in the Colosseum, in an epic battle to the death––the Emperor having the final say on who lived and who died. Would make for a very interesting movie, wouldn’t you say? But as it is I’m a sucker for a happy ending, I’m glad they went in that direction.
Both Belle and Psyche get their happily ever afters. Beast, after a grief laden struggle, turns into a handsome prince, clearly to Belle’s relief––though she will tell you she doesn’t care about looks. That tale’s as long as the story itself––where they run off with her father (another shift from the original) to get married, where her sisters are forced to hold up her gown. Presumably Ardent (the beast), ushers her off to the French Alps where some skiing and hot chocolate would ensue. Psyche on the other hand, had to accomplish a series of tasks––American Ninja Warrior style we’re guessing––before drinking an immortal potion from Jupiter, before she can be reunited with Cupid. They get married, have a daughter, sip wine, eat cheese and wait for the day their tale will be simplified and rebooted into a Disney classic. They could never have imagined it would happen twice, but here we are. Let’s just hope that Emma Watson keeps her spells to herself. Though, in saying that, a penultimate clash between the beast and Voldemort would certainly have me smiling. Perhaps in another thousand years this will be the case, but for now, let’s sit back and enjoy––with a few more thoughts towards the masterful storytellers who brought us the originals––the magic that is Beauty and the Beast.
Image from http://movies.disney.com.au/