A hideous beast falls in love with a beautiful young girl. Such is the essence of the “beauty and the beast” story type. Whether it’s an actual beast, a giant gorilla, a hunchback, a wild jungle man, or a masked mystery who haunts an opera house, the idea remains the same: the ugly and unlovable develops a passion and longing for the lovely and pure.
Each story is slightly different. Sometimes, as in the classic Beauty and the Beast, the girl learns to love the monster for his heart, not his appearance, and they live happily ever after. Other times, like in Tarzan, the beauty falls in love with the beast, but cannot bring herself to share her life with him, leaving him lonely and brokenhearted. Still other stories, such as King Kong or The Hunchback of Notre Dame feature a girl who is repulsed by the beast. All different, yet all the same.
Why do we love this story so much? Why does it continue to attract us in its various forms? And why is it that we sympathize with the beast so strongly? What part of us is drawn to this tale as old as time?
I noticed as I was thinking over this topic that the oldest and greatest story in the history of the universe is actually the opposite. Rather than a beast who loves and sacrifices himself for a beauty, a Beauty, perfect, flawless, without blemish or spot, descended from His throne to sacrifice Himself for the beast whom He loved more than anything — us. We are the beast.
Thus, we relate to the beasts in the stories. At first glance, I thought that our love for the tales might be related to pride. We want to believe that we are truly beautiful underneath our blemished, ugly exterior, that our hearts are good rather than “desperately wicked and deceitful above all things” as the prophet Jeremiah tells us. We want to think that there is something in us that would be drawn to the beauty, something innately good.
But a friend encouraged me to look deeper, by pointing out the redemption of the beast in most of the stories. Tarzan is wild, hopeless, a true animal without any ethics or understanding of love, until his beauty enters the jungle. The Beast too is wild, animal and completely selfish until Beauty finds her way into his castle, and her lovely spirit calls out love in his heart. Quasimodo changes from a cowardly kidnapper to a man who is willing to lay down his life for Esmeralda, while Erik, the Phantom, goes from a selfish, monstrous ogre, to being willing to give up the woman he loves when he knows that he is not best for her.
Perhaps then, these famous tales present a stronger resemblance to our own story than one might expect. As the beast, we need to see that a beauty can love us, despite what we are. And the love of the one true Beauty is the only thing that can redeem us from our ugly past, the only thing that can call forth true, though still flawed, love. They are a reflection, if a vastly imperfect one, of our own story.
Thus, we shall doubtless continue to read and write beauty and the beast narratives, no matter how many we’ve experienced before. They give us hope, by pointing us to our Beauty, who loved us despite our beastly character, and whose love and purity cannot help but create beauty in all of us, if we only keep our eyes on His glorious light.
For further reading:
– I’m co-authoring a steampunk fairytale series with Aubrey Hansen, and we’re starting with Cogs, a Beauty and the Beast retelling. Find out a bit about the series on her blog!
– My friend David J. Hartung has written his own version of the beauty and the beast story, a delightful tale called The Song of the Troll. Have a look at it in first draft form on his blog!