Friday, August 20, 2010

Beauty and the Beast

Originally written by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, it has been adapted for the stage, made into a ballet, a television series and countless movies. Of course, the best known version of this story must be the animated musical from Walt Disney pictures with songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. In truth, Walt himself had been interested in the story for quite some time, but kept on hitting a wall in terms of story development. It was Howard Ashman who, twenty years after Walt passed away, uncovered the single element of the story which was being neglected by the film’s creators:

The Beast’s Humanity.

All versions of this story walk a fine line with the Beast. How human can be how and how beastly? He has to be frightening beyond belief when he is first introduced but when he softens at the end, we have to believe that it’s possible for Beauty to fall in love wth him. I only hope that my Beast comes across this way, and if he does, it’s only because of Mr. Ashman’s inspiration. We lost a great talent when he passed away, so it is to his memory that this story is humbly dedicated.

here was once a wealthy merchant who had six children. Three boys and three girls, to be precise. Now, the two older girls were very pretty, but very spoiled and selfish and stupid. They were cruel to the servants, disrespectful to their elders and fickle in their romantic affairs, as each had several boyfriends at any given moment. But the one person these two girls hated more than any other was their younger sister, Beauty.

Now her name wasn’t really Beauty, but ever since she was a baby, her father had called her “Little Beauty,” and now that she was quite a young woman, the name had stuck, so everyone knew her as Beauty. The name fit her better than any other could because in addition to being very fair of face and figure, she was beautiful on the inside. What does that mean? Well, for one thing she was very gentle and kind and good-natured. She always said “please” and “thank you,” even to the servants, she showed respect to others by calling them “sir” or “madam,” and her favorite pasttime was reading, so she was very clever.

Not surprising then that her sisters resented her so.

Well, things were going just fine for the family until, quite suddenly, the merchant lost everything. His entire fortune! Now he and his children would have to leave their vast estate and spend the rest of their days in a small farmhouse in the country, where they would have to work to feed themselves. Of course, Beauty’s sisters were outraged at the very thought of living like (ugh!) commoners and decided that they would instead marry one of their many suitors and…oh, right. It turns out that the only resaon the boys put up with the sisters’ cruelty and selfishness is because of how wealthy they were. Now that they were poor, they had no further offers of marriage and were doomed to the farmhouse with their father and brothers.

As for Beauty herself, at first, naturally, she was upset at the thought of losing her wealth. But, she dried her eyes and said to herself, “Crying won’t change anything. This is the way things are now and I might as well make the most of it. Besides, it might be an exciting new adventure for us all!”

It was saying things like this that made her sisters hate her the way they did.

So the merchant and his brood relocated to the country and, after a while, it must be said that they were getting along all right. The boys worked the fields and tended the animals and the girls kept house…and by “the girls” I of course mean “Beauty and no one else” because her sisters refused to do anything more strenuous than brushing their own hair. It’s fair to say they weren’t adjusting as well as Beauty. And, to make matters worse, Beauty’s positive attitude just made her sisters hate her even more. “She’s trying to make us look bad,” they would whisper just loud enough to be heard. But despite their disdain, Beauty was compassionate toward her sisters and loved them with all her heart, which was, of course, the most beautiful thing about her.

One day, the merchant had loaded up his cart to go into town to sell his wares. The path to the town led through the forest, but as the weather was clear and the sun was shining, he wasn’t afraid. He asked his children if there was any special present they would like him to pick up for them while he was in town. His boys asked for new farming implements so that they could do their work better (a fine trio of young gentlemen, these boys, which is why it’s too bad they don’t have more to do in this story). His two elder daughters wanted jewels and trinkets and new dresses and silks and satins and things.

But Beauty asked for nothing.

“I don’t need anything, Father, only come home as quick as you can,” she said when she was asked. Of course, her sisters thought she was trying to show them up again, so, more to appease them than anything, she said, “All right, if you must bring me something, let me have…a rose. They are scarce this time of year, and I do love roses.” And so saying, she waved goodbye to her father…never dreaming that her humble request would change the course of her entire life and the lives of her whole family!

This is called “foreshadowing” and it’s great for adding drama.

The merchant was in high spirits as he traveled through the forest to the market place where he was to sell his goods. The birds were singing, the sunlight streamed in through the branches of the trees and cute, furry little woodland creatures abounded, and all looked up as he passed, as if to say “Good morning!” It was, all in all, a most enchanting scene, such as one would expect to find in…well, in a fairy tale, I suppose.

The same, unfortunately, could not be said for his return trip. No sooner had he reached the city limits when he had been robbed of everything he owned! His money, his watch, his pencil (one of those really good ones, you know?) not to mention everything he was going to sell. They left him his horse, and nothing else, and that’s just because the horse was so old and run down that the robbers expected him to drop dead at any moment. Now the woods seemed an altogether more forboding sight for the merchant and his horse. For one thing, he had not planned to return home until the following morning. But, having nothing to keep him in town any longer, or even money to pay for loding, he had turned back that very day, and night was falling. Not only night, but a terrible storm was brewing. The wind blew so hard it nearly blew the poor old merchant off his horse. But when the wind finally died down, the merchant made a terrifying discovery:

He was hopelessly lost in the woods.

The storm had blinded him and he had missed his way. Now it was the dead of night, freezing cold, the merchant himself was soaking wet and he had no idea where he was or who, if anybody, could help him. He was beginning to fear he would die in that wood when all of a sudden he came upon a most unexpected sight.

For there, in a clearing in the middle of the forest, was a castle. A giant stone castle, with iron gates all around. It was an old castle, and not in very good condition, but it was shelter and that’s what the merchant needed. He entered the courtyard through the gate and looked around for somebody, anybody who might be able to help him. Finding no one, he took his horse around to the stable and tied him up while he himself went into the castle.

The castle was massive on the inside and almost as dark and cold as the forest he had just left. “Hello” he called out in all directions, “Is anybody home?” He called for quite some time but got no answer. Finally, he came upon a dining room and there, to his great surprise, was a dining table…well, no, that’s not what I mean. Of course there was a dining table, that wasn’t a great surprise, that’s what you expect to find in a dining room. I mean…sorry, I got a little excited. What was surprising was that the table was set up with food and wine. It was just as if he was expected. “They won’t object, I am sure,” thought the merchant, and he sat down and ate his fill. Then he continued to search the castle for someone who could tell him where he was. Instead, he found a bedroom which, like the dining room, had been made up as though he was expected. The bed was turned down there was a roaring fire in the fireplace. “I am very cold and tired,” he thought and, assuming that his host, whoever he was, wouldn’t object, he undressed, got into bed and went right to sleep…

The next morning, the merchant woke up to another surprise. His clothes had been cleaned and pressed and were laid out for him on a chair next to the bed. He dressed and continued to explore the castle. It was much less frightening in the daytime, he had to admit, and there were gold and jewels and riches everywhere he looked. The pantry was full of sumptuous food, the rooms were full of oppulent and luxurious furnishings, as a matter of fact the only thing there didn’t seem to be any of was people.

As he wandered through the rooms, the merchant’s eye fell upon an opened window which looked out on a flower garden below. At once he remembered his promise to Beauty to bring her a rose. So, he went outside, took a few roses in his hand and cut them from the bush to make a bouquet. But, as he finished cutting the stems, he perceived a shadow looming over him. He turned around and what he saw shocked him more than anything he had ever seen.

It was a beast! An enormous, eight-foot-tall monster covered in thick brown fur. His hands were giant paws which ended in razor sharp claws. His mouth was snarling and the merchant could see a row of terrifyingly sharp teeth. There was nothing remotely human about this monstrosity…except his eyes. But even these were twisted in an angry glare as they looked down on the merchant with raw hatred. Perhaps the humanity the merchant saw in the beast’s eyes made his visage all the more terrifying.

“I welcomed you into my home,” the Beast bellowed, and his deep, mighty voice seemed to emenate from deep within his hideous body, “I gave you food and rest. And this is how you repay my hospitality? Cutting my roses like a common thief? I should tear you limb from limb!”

The merchant fell to his knees, “Please, be merciful, Mr…er…Beast. I meant no harm. The roses were meant as a present for my daughter. Won’t you forgive me?”

“If what you say is true, I shall not begrudge you the roses. However, you have taken advantage of my good nature and for this you must pay.” The Beast seemed to consider things for a moment, and then said, “How many daughters do you have?” A curious question, but the merchant answered, three, and at this the Beast raised an eyebrow. “You may return home this very day. But one of your daughters must take your place. One of them must elect to come here of their own free will and arrive at my door within two days. If none of your daughters will do this, you must return yourself within two days. Do you understand?” The merchant said he did and thanked the Beast for his compassion. “There is a large, empty trunk in the room where you spent the night,” the Beast continued. “Fill it with anything you would like from my castle, shut it and lock it. Then take your horse and go home. The trunk will be waiting for you when you get back.” With that, the Beast turned and went back inside.

Well, the merchant was in a terrible predicament, but he reasoned that it would be best to do as the Beast commanded. He went upstairs and filled the turnk with golden candlesticks, satin pillows, diamonds, rubies, silks (new farm implements from the barn) and anything else he could fit inside, closed the lid and turned the lock. Then he went to the stable, untied his horse and rode home. Even though he was unsure where he was, the horse seemed to know the way.

Upon arriving at his home, however, the merchant was faced with the unpleasant task of explaining the situation to his children. He told them the whole story of what had transpired between himself and the Beast and, when he was done, reached into his coat pocket and held out the roses he had cut, handing them to Beauty. “Here, my child,” he said, sadly, “as I promised.”

“How dare you!” cried Beauty’s sisters. “You and your stupid roses! I hope you like them, because they’ve cost our dear father his very life!”

“They have done no such thing,” said Beauty. “The Beast said that if one of us would go to him of our own free will, that Father would be spared. It was my roses that started all this…so I shall go.”

“No, don’t say that,” said her father. “Don’t even think it. You are young and have years and years of life ahead of you. It is a father’s duty to lay down his life for his children, not the other way around. Now I’ll hear no more of this.” But that night, while everyone else slept, Beauty rose, dressed and climbed on her father’s horse, who, again, knew the way as if by magic. And when the merchant awoke the next morning, it was to find his youngest child gone into the woods to live with a monster.

The sun was just rising as Beauty had arrived at the Beast’s castle. Whereas her father had found the castle seemingly unoccupied, the Beast was standing at the gate waiting for Beauty.

“What is your name?” asked the Beast.

“Beauty, sir,” replied the girl.

“You understand what is happening?”

“Yes, sir. I am to be your prisoner in my father’s place.”

“You will have the freedom of the castle. Plenty to eat and drink, a warm bed, books to read, musical instruments to play…but you may never leave the castle as long as you live. Do you agree to this of your own free will?”

“I do,” replied Beauty, wiping a tear from her eye as she did so.

The Beast showed her to her room and gave her a brief tour of the castle. In spite of herself, Beauty had to admit that one could not wish for a better prison. It was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. Her bed was so warm and soft it was like sleeping on a cloud. The fireplace seemed to have a life of its own and would burn hotter when it was cold and die down when it was too warm. All the food she ate was so wonderfully delicious that it seemed to melt in her mouth. And the castle library was full of more books than Beauty could read in her whole life.

In fact, it would have been downright idyllic had it not been for the Beast himself. For though he had shown her nothing but politeness and consideration since her arrival, she was still very frightened of him. She fancied she heard him growling and roaring when she wasn’t around. Some nights she even had nightmares that the Beast had gone mad and was going to devour her alive! But frightened though she was, she would never let the Beast see her fear. When they were together at supper (one of the Beast’s rules was the Beauty had to dine with him every night), she was kind, respectful, and made a valiant effort to look him in the eye. But his face was so hideous and monstrous that it was not easy.

The Beast, for his part, sensed her discomfort and so made an extra effort to change for her. He gave her whatever she wanted, bowed when she passed, did everything he could to make her less afraid. And, over time, it began to work. Indeed, after only a few months, Beauty was able to look at him without a twinge of fear. In fact, when the Beast injured himself (broken wineglass, an unforseeable consequence of being a great, hulking behemoth trying to be polite and refined), she was even able to tend to his wound, even touching his hand without recoiling in terror. It was then that both Beauty and the Beast realized what had happened:

They had become friends.

And that evening, as they said good night to each other, the Beast asked the question he had been longing to ask for ages: “Beauty,” he asked, “do you love me?”

“I care for you as a dear friend,” said Beauty. “But, no. In my heart I do not love you.”

The Beast asked this question every night from then on. And every night Beauty gave the same answer. After a while, the Beast began to lose hope that she would ever love him.

“Beauty,” he asked one morning, “are you quite happy?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied. “I am very happy here. Except…”


“Well…I know I promised never to leave, and I will keep my promise. I just miss my family so much. My father, my brothers and…yes, even my sisters. I want so much to see them again.”

The Beast thought about this for a moment, then said with a sigh, “If that is what you wish, then you should go to them. I will release you from your promise for one week. But you must give me your solemn word that you will return to me within one week.”

Beauty gave her word and, as with her father before, she was allowed to fill a trunk with anything she liked before she left. This she did, closed it and locked it before saying a final farewell and thank you to the Beast and getting on her horse to go home.

And what a wonderful week it was. In the time she had been gone, her father’s hard work had paid off and they were all quite wealthy again. Not as wealthy as before, but they were no longer impoverished (of course the trunk from the Beast’s castle didn’t hurt). Everyone was delighted to see Beauty again, even her sisters who, since saying goodbye to Beauty so long ago had quite reformed and were much nicer people than they were before.

“However did you escape that terrible monster?” they all asked her.

“You don’t understand,” said Beauty. “He isn’t a terrible monster. He looks frightful and, I’ll admit, I was afraid of him for quite some time, but I have gotten to know him since then and I find him very kind, very gentle. The truth is we are quite good friends. Which is why I must be sure to return to him in a week’s time.”

Her family was disappointed at the thought of losing her again, but understood that she had given her solemn word. But, as the week came to an end, something terrible happened. Beauty was having such a good time with her father and her brothers and sisters that she completely lost track of the days and before she knew it, ten days had passed since she left the Beast’s castle. When she realized what she had done, she climbed up on her horse and rode full speed back into the forest to beg the Beast’s forgiveness.

When she got to the castle, however, the Beast was not waiting for her at the gate as he had been the last time. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen. She searched through the whole castle, before finally, she spotted him. She glanced through a window, which looked down on the flower garden, the very same window her father had looked through when he saw the roses he was going to give to Beauty. But instead of roses, Beauty saw the figure of her friend, the Beast, lying prone on the ground. She ran to his side and found he was very weak indeed.

“You did not return,” the Beast said, very weakly. “I thought…I thought you had forgotten me.”

“I meant to return, I did,” said Beauty. “And had I known what it has done to you, I never would have left you. And I never will again, I swear it.”

“Beauty,” said the Beast, struggling with every breath, “Do…do you…love me?”

“I care for you as a dear friend,” said Beauty. “And…yes. In my heart, I love you.”

Upon hearing this, the Beast rolled his head back and shut his eyes. Believing him to be dead, Beauty fell upon him and wept into his lifeless form. But as she wept, she felt the fur beneath her hands vanish. The body she clutched so desperately shrunk and changed shape, so that when she opened her eyes she saw, not a hideous monster…but a man. A beautiful young man, opening his eyes and looking around.

“I…I am changed!” the man cried. “Beauty, you have set me free.” But Beauty was confused and frightened and shyed away from the beautiful stranger. “Beauty, please. Look into my eyes. It’s me. Your dear friend, the Beast.”

“It is you,” she said when she had looked into his eyes. “But how?”

“Many years ago, a wicked witch cast a spell on me, turning me from the prince you see now into the beast you’ve come to know. The only way I could break the spell was for a young maiden to give herself to me freely and willingly. That is why you needed to come to me of your own free will and why I asked you every night if you loved me.”

“And I do,” said Beauty. “I love you with all my heart.”

“And I you,” said her prince and he took her in his arms and kissed her.

Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story. Beauty and her prince returned to the merchant’s home and explained the whole thing to the girl’s family. Then the whole family moved into the castle where Beauty and her prince were married and bore many fine children, children of inteligence, grace, compassion, honor and…of course…beauty.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  •  “Faerie Tale Theatre” (TV) Susan Sarandon as Beauty and Anglica Huston as one of her sisters
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991) The award-winning animated musical with Paige O’Hara and Robbie Benson in the title roles.
  • “Beauty and the Beast” (TV) Contemporized version of the tale which ran for three years on television starring Linda Hamilton as “Catherine” (Beauty) and Ron Perlman as “Vincent” (The Beast)

NEXT WEEK: “Cinderella”

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