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.