Title and Editor: Beauty and the Beast: Tales from Around the World collected by Heidi Anne Heiner
Publication Date: October 2013
Genre: Fairytale Collection
How I got it: Bought the ebook from Amazon
I’m in the minority among fairytale lovers—“Beauty and the Beast” is not my favorite fairy tale. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I dislike it.
Let me clarify: it’s the best-known versions by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve that make me cringe; however, animal bridegroom and transformation tales in general are my absolute favorites. I love tales where human and animal collide.
I revisited these tales and many, many new ones (for me) in Beauty and the Beast: Tales from Around the World. This collection is amazing: 188 fairy tales collected in more than 800 pages. I can’t imagine the effort put into editing a collection like this. I bow to Heidi Anne Heiner, the editor (which I may have literally done the single time I met her).
The tale we know of as “Beauty and the Beast” was originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, but the best known version is Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s, an abridged version of Villeneuve’s written just seventeen years later. You can find the Beaumont version online, but I can’t find any full-text versions of the Villeneuve. The Beaumont version is the one all the movies are based on, and by all I mean the Disney movie and Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, the only two I’ve seen. I thought I had read the Villeneuve version before, but I was very wrong. There are a lot of differences between hers and Beaumont’s. The beginnings are very similar, the main differences being in the earlier Villeneuve version Beauty dreams of an unknown prince; a menagerie of monkeys and talking birds follow her around (which is cool); and the Beast’s castle has these special rooms where she can essential watch TV as tricky mirrors capture the latest theatre and opera (also pretty cool). But where Beaumont’s version ends—the beast is transformed, they’re going to marry, that’s it, right?—the Villeneuve version continues. In fact, it’s not even halfway over, because then the Prince’s mother tells her story, then the prince his story, then the fairy tells her story, then the king, and then the merchant father shows up. So I kept thinking it was almost done, and then, nope! Someone else just has to continue with their own sob story.
However, that’s not why I dislike these tales; it’s the heavy-handed morality I find cringe-worthy. Both tales teach that good girls are meek and acquiesce to their father’s will, that if you’re patient enough you’ll learn to love the man you’d never have chosen to marry. This is compounded in the Villeneuve version, for not only is the Beast, well, a beast, part of the spell he’s been put under requires him to act dumb. So he can’t even have intelligent conversations with Beauty. Not only must she marry someone physically unattractive, but seemingly stupid as well. On top of that, while the Villeneuve version claims that morality dictates class—that a lowborn lady of superior character is the equal of a prince—she negates that statement by making Beauty in fact royalty, and brought up by the merchant with no one knowing her true station.
Yes, I find these morals irritating, though I understand that the tales were written in 18th century France, a time of arranged marriages. “Beauty and the Beast” prepares young girls to enter marriages their fathers arranged with seeming beasts and to try and find something loveable in them.
Most who love this tale say it’s their favorite because it’s about learning to love people despite their looks, and while I get that, Beauty is essentially kidnapped and eventually falls in love with her captor. It doesn’t matter what he looks like, it’s a cringe-worthy scenario.
But those are only 2 of the 188 tales collected, and I found a lot more to enjoy. Many of the tales in this collection employ a similar plot to “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” and if you haven’t read it, you really need to. In this fairy tale, a father gives his daughter to a white bear who promises him wealth. She rides on the bear to his castle and he visits every night, though without any light so she never sees him. Lonely, one day she asks to visit her family and the bear agrees, so she travels to her childhood home where her mother convinces her to light a candle while the bear sleeps to make sure she’s not sleeping with a troll. She does so, and upon seeing the attractive prince the white bear turns into at night, she can’t help but kiss him. As she does so, some candle wax falls on him and he awakens (see Cupid and Psyche, also in the collection). The prince cries out that now he must leave her and go to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon, where the witch who’s cursed him lives, and marry a different princess. If she had only stayed with him for a year and day in his bear-shape, without looking upon him at night, they could’ve remained married.
So the prince disappears, and the girl decides to find him. She travels, asks nicely for directions from three old women, who give her gifts in exchange for her kindness, then goes to the four winds for help, rides the North Wind to the castle, but alas, the prince does not recognize her. So she dresses as a peasant, tempts the princess the prince is now engaged to with the gifts the three old women have given her, and sleeps with the prince every night, whispering the truth of who she is in his ear. But the princess has given him sleeping droughts, and it’s only on the third night that he hears her whispers. Realizing who she is, he marries her.
This is only a brief summary, and I strongly recommend reading the entire tale. While similar at the beginning to “Beauty and the Beast,” I prefer this tale because the heroine still has agency—she decides to find the prince. No one forces her. Certainly, from a feminist perspective, there’s still a lack of complete agency. Her father gives her away for money; her curiosity causes her to loose the handsome prince. But it’s still a lovely fairy tale.
The many non-European fairy tales are the best thing about this collection. One of my favorites is “The Monkey Prince” from India, which I had never read before. In this tale, a Raja has seven wives but no children. He goes into the forest and, as directed by a fakir, gathers 7 mangoes and tells his wives to eat the mangoes in order to become pregnant. But his youngest wife is sleeping when he comes home, and the other 6 wives eat all the mangoes and leave none for her. Despairing, when the youngest wife awakens and finds all the mangoes gone she eats the mango stones instead. All 7 wives become pregnant, but because she ate the stones instead of the flesh, the youngest gives birth to a monkey. The monkey prince is smart and clever and taught by the fairies underground.
In a nearby kingdom, King Jamarsa wants a strong son-in-law for his daughter, Princess Jahuran. He decides to have a competition: whoever can hit her with a heavy iron ball can marry her (this seems like a strange way to find a son-in-law!). All six of the Raja’s human sons try and fail, and the monkey prince accompanies them, though he takes off his monkey skin and comes as a handsome human prince (unrecognized by his brothers). Catching sight of him, the princess decides she wants him and no other. The monkey prince manages to hit Jahuran 3 times but when no one is looking, and he decides not to tell anyone that he’s hit her (for undisclosed reasons). But the princess wants him and no other for a husband, so the next day she takes a bow and arrow and before he can escape, shoots him in the leg! He manages to run away anyway, puts back on his monkey skin, and the princess orders a servant to find whoever in the camp is injured in their leg and bring him to her. Searching, the servant can find only one, and brings back the injured monkey prince in his monkey form.
So Jahuran marries the monkey, even though her father tells her not to, and at night takes off his monkey skin. He says he wears the skin because he’s afraid his brothers will kill him out of jealousy, which turns out to be true. On a boat to visit their mother, the brothers try to kill him six times, but the princess saves him each time. They live with his mother for a while, who still thinks he’s only a monkey, and then one day the princess burns the monkey skin to show his mother that her son is really human. Unlike many tales where the wife burns the skin, everything turns out fine. When everyone sees the prince’s human form, they’re glad, and the couple live happily ever after.
It’s probably obvious why I like this tale so much—the princess and prince are both unique characters who make decisions for themselves. The princess chooses whom to marry, saves her husband multiple times, and is the one to ultimately reveal his true human form. This tale comes from Indian Fairy Tales originally collected by Maive Stokes, and since it has a bit of a literary touch to it, I wonder if she changed anything about it. Either way, I want to read the entire collection.
These are only 4 of the 188 tales in Beauty and the Beast: Tales from Around the World. Obviously, it’s a treasure trove of animal transformation tales. If you’re a fairytale scholar, or you love animal transformation tales like I do, then you’re going to love burying yourself in this collection.
One minor quibble, I read this on the kindle, and it did not keep track of the time remaining in each fairy tale, but rather in each broad section. This made it difficult for me to judge when a tale would end and if I had enough time to read it, which was especially problematic with the French tales, since they’re often quite long and involved.
You can find a complete table of contents here.
Also, Heidi runs a fantastic fairytale website I highly recommend, SurLaLune.