Monday, April 25, 2016

And He Became a Handsome Prince Part II: The Romance

            As one should perhaps expect when dealing with monsters, relationships with them often get off on the wrong foot. The reasons for this are simple—love is hard enough between two humans. If people do not always know how to love one another, it is natural that adding a creature to the mix would further complicate things. Monsters often do not know how to love. After all, many of them became monsters due to some bizarre attempt at romance gone horribly wrong. Love hurts. If anyone knows this it is the beasts of the world, and so they find themselves showing it to their beauties, often quite by accident. Of course, the beauties are not so easy to start a relationship with, either. They have a tendency to judge one by appearances, which can be a bit difficult when one appears to be a bear.
            Beauty and the Beast begins with a rose. The next bit, where the Beast demands a life in exchange for said rose, is a little less romantic. Also unromantic is the way the Beast propositions her every night. They try, these creatures. They just don’t know how to get started. Bettelheim explains this well, saying that “[in] a way this story tells that to be able to love, a person first has to become able to feel; even if the feelings are negative, that is better than not feeling” (288).
Nightly proposals aside, the protagonist of The Beauty and the Beast is generally a decent suitor. Throughout the rest of the day he is kind, if not an excellent conversationalist. She feels some fondness for him, at least, though she always turns down his proposals. However, her real love develops at night, when a handsome prince visits her dreams, begging her to free him. This dream prince, of course, is the Beast in human form, allowed to reach out to her only cryptically in the dark. Night is an important time in folklore—it is when monsters regain their humanity or give it up for love, when spells are broken, when the secrets of the day are revealed. Confronted with two versions of their beast, beauties often fall first for the one they meet at night, even when they cannot see them.
            In “East ‘O the Sun, West O’ the Moon,” the story’s beast, a white bear, quite literally buys his beauty, telling her father that if he can have the girl, he’ll make him “as rich as [he] now is poor” (Asbjørnsen). The girl, like Villeneuve’s Beauty, goes along out of love for her father, who, though he works hard to convince her, will not actually sell her until she agrees, and for her starving family. Affection for the bear grows slowly—her relationship with him is friendly enough, it seems, but her real interest is in the man who joins her in bed each night, when all the lights have been put out. Telling her mother about this mystery man on a brief visit home, she admits to being “woeful and sorrowing, for she thought she should so like to see him, and how all day long she walked about there alone, and how dull, and dreary, and lonesome it was” (Asbjørnsen). 
            As if buying and selling and threats weren’t enough, sometimes the monsters begin by trying to eat their future lovers. Really, it’s amazing what a girl will forgive. In the Danish “King Lindorm,” a giant snake monster demands that his parents provide a wife, and then eats the two princesses they find on his wedding nights. Fearing war, the third time the lindorm demands a bride, the king picks a peasant girl out of the forest for him. Unsurprisingly, the wedding night is difficult. The lindorm was born already cursed—he has never been human, and he has never known love. Some echo of a human idea that getting married and falling in love is the thing to do, though certainly present, cannot overpower the instincts of a hungry snake. But the love of the girl will be enough—love for her family, her own life, maybe even what she knows this monster could be—and by morning he will be a man, full of love and forgiven of all dietary sins.
            The prince figure in “Donkey Skin” falls in love with, and sometimes nearly dies for, a shadow and a dream. This is where Cinderella comes into it—Donkey Skin, too, appears briefly and beautifully in the night, melting away into a world of servitude.

            Part of the process—perhaps the most important part of the process—of becoming human is learning to love, which for monsters usually means healing from hurts inflicted in the name of love. For the most part, beasts cannot be loved, not completely, in all their forms, until they have learned to love properly, without causing pain. When they can love selflessly, their beauties will return that selfless love, and finally they will be allowed their humanity again.

Monday, April 18, 2016

And He Became a Handsome Prince: The Curse

Stories of transformation, whether the subject be a husband, wife, sibling, child, or friend, must begin with the cause of transformation. The beasts of Beauty and the Beast tales are cursed, but this often goes beyond the act of a spell being cast—beasts are cursed with the love of those who cannot truly love them.
            Scholars such as Bruno Bettelheim will talk at great length of the Oedipal nature of, for example, the love of Beauty for her father. But what stands out far more upon closer reading is the opposite problem. Mothers and fathers, as well as a horde of other inappropriate figures, fall in love with their children with alarming frequency. Punished for failing to return romantic feelings in utterly bizarre situations, children are punished by transformation, a spiteful and childish reaction along the lines of “If I can’t have them, no one can.”
In the variant which our modern “Beauty and the Beast,” is most clearly descended from, a French novel by Madame Villeneuve titled La Belle et la Bete, the Beast’s back story is very clearly developed, and one particularly striking change has occurred over the years. Most recent tellings of the story show the Beast as cursed due to his mistreatment of some innocent. In Villeneuve’s version, as in many early variants of the story type, the situation is quite the opposite. The young prince is watched over for many years, in the midst of war, by an elderly fairy. Their relationship is always close, but shifts dramatically over time; telling his story later, when the spell is broken, the prince says, “Whereas she had previously permitted me to call her ‘mama,’ she now forbade me…She wanted me to love her not as a mother, but as a mistress” (Villeneuve 200). The prince has come to love her as a mother, his own being absent, and she has always treated him as a son, a child—certainly not a lover. He is punished for rejecting her advances, and for his mother’s description of the proposed match as “absurd” (201).
The fairy turns him into a monster, commanding that he seem as stupid as he is hideous, and remain in such condition until a beautiful girl develops “such tender love for [him] that she’ll agree to marry [him]” (203). In uttering this curse, she clearly exhibits her unsuitability as a lover; not only is she a maternal figure in his life, but she is unable to imagine that anyone would love him were he not intelligent and attractive, showing that her love for him runs no deeper than this.
In “East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon,” a popular Norwegian variant of the Greek “Cupid and Psyche,” the prince finds himself in a similar position with a stepsister. Having failed to fulfill the escape clause on his curse, he must finish what he started before his detour as a polar bear. Noticing his reluctance to marry the sister in question, his troll stepmother has cursed him. As a white bear, he was to live with a woman for one year, a bear by day and a man, in bed with her, every night. If he could make it this long without her seeing his face, he would be free. But if the woman failed to meet these terms, of which she was never informed, the prince was marry his stepmother’s daughter, a troll princess with a nose three ells long (Asbjornsen).
Even in “Cupid and Psyche” itself, one can see the same element. True, there is no other bride on hand, and no actual transformation occurs—it is merely a relationship that lives only in the dark. Bettelheim claims that Cupid’s relationship with his mother, before Psyche enters the scene, is sexual, but the text does not spell this out as clearly as he implies (293). Regardless, his relationship with his mother in undoubtedly overturned by his relationship with Psyche, and he is forced to hide himself and the relationship from her anger. The transforming love that these stories are centered on is consistently preceded by a love that is possessive, obsessive, and often utterly inappropriate and immoral.
            A particularly interesting case is that of Aarne-Thompson Type 510B, or “Donkey Skin.” Aarne-Thompson groups this story with the Cinderella types, and though that is sometimes accurate, it can also fit perfectly here. This is due to regional issues; 510B is a broad category, and the stories based in Northern Europe, where Aarne and Thompson worked, bear much more resemblance to Cinderella stories than those told elsewhere (Goldberg). In the case of the titular Donkey Skin, there is no literal curse. She is cursed only by her father’s romantic pursuit. Desperate to avoid an incestuous marriage, the princess tries first to set impossible conditions for her father, but when he meets them all, she is forced to flee, taking on a grotesque disguise in order to protect herself.
            In the French version recorded by Charles Perrault, the princess, based on instructions from her fairy godmother, asks her father to kill and skin an enchanted donkey that excretes gold coins. When he unexpectedly does so, the princess runs away wearing the skin of the donkey, which will protect her from recognition for most of the story. In the version told by the brothers Grimm, one of her conditions is “a mantle made of a thousand skins of rough fur sewn together, and every animal in the kingdom must give a piece of his skin toward it” (76). When she runs away, of course, the princess uses this as her disguise.

            Another French variant, this one by Henriette-Julie de Murat, is called “Bearskin.” This story is slightly different from those above, in that it does involve the princess actually changing into  bear to escape unwanted marriage, rather than just donning a disguise. In her analysis of this tale, scholar Marina Warner notes that for female beasts “shape-shifting also shifts the conditions of confinement…[she] acquires more freedom of movement than as a young woman, and more freedom of choice” (283). While it is noteworthy that most female characters choose their own transformation, ultimately they have no more real freedom than their male counterparts. They, too, were forced into this position against their will in the aftermath of false and wicked love.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I'm back!

So I've been AWOL for nearly 2 months. Oops.

General Update:
Graduation in 5 weeks. Work to do in those five weeks: tons. Including but not limited to 25 page research paper on human relations in folk traditions, ten page paper on book banning and first amendment rights, cleaning on the apartment, and locating of new people to live in the apartment with me.

In other news:
Between work and school almost no writing has been done, but I did finally finish a novel I've been working on forever, and I've begun tentatively revising a novella I finished in high school. Gotta say, not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

So my fantastic solution to the problem of having no time to rant about fairy tales right now: I'm gonna post pieces of my paper-in-progress, which is basically me just ranting academically about fairy tales for a grade.

And guys. Oh my goodness. The incestuous undertones I have uncovered in the last few weeks. Yikes. Maybe Freud was onto something after all, although in these cases all the ickiness lies firmly with the parents. Those poor, poor kids. How do you get turned into a beast? You turn down your parents' and parental figures' sexual advances.

Anyway. Academic ranting coming soon. In the meantime, as an apology for my disappearance, have a slightly grainy picture of my cat.

His name is Alfred Lord Tennyson, Alfie for short, and he is the best thing.