For those of us who love the world of the Renaissance Festival, the fairy tales of old are a cherished source of wisdom and beauty. We’ve all loved seeing the knights and ladies strolling the lanes of our faires. Read on to discover how romance worked in story, and how it might make its way into your own romantic life’s tale!
It has become cool to hate the fairytale romance. Certainly, there are many unsavoury implications in traditional tales that have been fed to us as uncomplicated romance. Who is this strange prince kissing the enchanted corpse of a 7 year-old? Shouldn’t there be more of a basis to a relationship than ‘the king thinks this peasant girl is beautiful and will reward her beauty with marriage?’ Of course. But fairytale romance gained its initial reputation as something beautiful and worth dreaming of for a reason.
Part of the blame for the proliferation of bad fairytale romance lies with the retellers. The Grimm brothers notoriously reworked and, in their view, sanitised the tales they collected. My personal enemy, Charles Perrault, retold popular European folktales and tales written by his French contemporaries (notably Madame d’Aulnoy), adding explicit morals to the end of each story to tell young women exactly how he thought they should take his instruction. The moral at the end of his “Cendrillon” helpfully advises:
“It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, well-born, sensible, and have other similar talents given only by heaven. But however great may be your god-given store, they will never help you to get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or a godmother to put them to work for you.”
Silly girls. Being an interesting person isn’t what gets you a husband!
I believe it is notable that the versions of the stories with which we are more familiar, and indeed the versions to which people most object, were written down by men. A different perspective gives more of a focus to the development of a relationship between characters, rather than positioning loveless marriage as the empty reward at the end of a struggle and telling a story completely unengaged with the idea of genuine love between people.
Beauty and the Beast: Belle’s Agency
To that point, I turn to “Beauty and the Beast.” Critics who understand neither the story nor Stockholm Syndrome popularly tout this story to be one of that narrative, but that reading has no basis in the story as written by Madame de Villeneuve and later rewritten by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.
The story begins with a merchant, the father of six children. His youngest, Beauty, is not only worthy of her name, but kind, gentle, and intelligent. Her attributes are noteworthy, as they are not shared by any of her siblings. Before leaving on a business journey, he asks his children what he can bring home for them. Though her siblings ask for expensive, fine things, Beauty asks only for his safe return. Her father presses her to ask for something more, and she agrees to the request of a single rose.
On his return journey, the merchant is caught in a storm and seeks the nearest shelter, which happens to be a strange palace. It seems to be abandoned, though the tables are covered with food and drink. The merchant helps himself and spends the night in comfort. In the morning, before he leaves, he sees in the palace’s gardens a rose, and remembers his promise to Beauty. He plucks the flower, and suddenly, a great Beast bears down on him, threatening to punish the theft with death.
The merchant begs for mercy and tells the Beast why he took the rose. The Beast agrees to relent, but only if one of the merchant’s daughters will take his place as a prisoner. Despairing, the merchant asks what story to invent to convince one of them to come, and the Beast responds, “No excuse would be necessary. If she comes at all, she must come willingly. On no other condition will I have her.”
Arriving at home, the merchant gives Beauty the rose, lamenting that she knows not what it has cost him. This excites the curiosity of all the siblings, and they press their father until he tells them what has happened. The boys begin plans to kill the Beast while the girls lament their doom and complain that Beauty has ruined everything with her foolish request. However, Beauty agrees with her sisters, saying that it is only right that she take her father’s place.
When Beauty comes to the palace, the Beast greets her with a lavish feast. He allows her father to stay the night, and sends him away with fine gifts. Beauty finds herself showered with affection in her days at the palace. Every passing wish she expresses is fulfilled immediately — even impossible requests, such as moving the palace’s aviary closer to her bedroom so that she might hear the birds sing more often.
Each night, the Beast asks her if she will marry him, she says no, and they bid each other goodnight. And each night, Beauty dreams of a handsome prince who dances with her and asks how he can make her happy, and of a beautiful lady who asks why she will not marry the Beast. Beauty tells the lady that she only loves the Beast as a kind friend. Indeed, as time goes on, she professes that she loves the handsome prince, and this makes it harder for her to accept the Beast and shun the prince. The lady warns Beauty not to be deceived by appearances.
After a time, Beauty asks to go visit her family, and though the Beast is reluctant, he allows her to go. He warns her that she must return after two months, and she promises she will. The riches the Beast sent back with the merchant have restored the family’s fortunes, and Beauty sees her family in high spirits. She is pleased to see them happy, but feels strangely separate from their life; her thoughts are often with the palace and the Beast, rather than where she is with her family.
One night, she dreams of finding the Beast dead, and in terror, she bids her family goodbye and returns to the palace. Indeed, on her return she finds the Beast seemingly dead, and fetches water from a nearby fountain to revive him. When he awakes, she cries out in relief, “I never knew how much I loved you ‘til just now, when I feared I was too late to save your life.”
That night, the Beast asks her again if she will marry him, and she answers, “Yes, dear Beast.”
The lady from her dream arrives arm in arm with another noble lady, and when Beauty turns to ask the Beast what the meaning of this is, she finds he has transformed into the handsome prince from her dream. The noble lady is revealed to be the Queen, the Beast’s mother. The lady from the dream tells the Queen that Beauty and her prince love each other truly, and require only her blessing to be married. The Queen happily gives it, and Beauty and her prince live happily ever after.
Villeneuve’s version of the story emphasizes Beauty’s agency and the bond between the characters. The Beast is kind, conscientious, and strives to be worthy of Beauty’s love. Beauty loves him for who he is from the start, but must learn to overcome the deception of appearance. It is not until a strong, genuine love has formed between them that the happy ending is achieved. This, truly, is a fairytale romance of which it is worth dreaming.
Of course, “Beauty and the Beast” did not originate with Villeneuve; as with all folklore, the stories go back beyond recorded history, and it is in the repetition and retelling of them by different people in different cultures at different times that we gain insight into what is valued and desired. Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” draws on the classical story of Eros and Psyche, but there are differences of emphasis and focus between the traditional telling of the myth and Villeneuve’s fairytale version.
Another Strange House and Feast: Eros and Psyche
The mortal Psyche is a woman of such great beauty that people begin to worship her instead of Aphrodite. Unsurprisingly, Aphrodite is not a fan of this, and sends her son, Eros, to hit Psyche with one of his arrows and make her fall in love with something hideous. However, he accidentally scratches himself with one of his arrows. He falls in love with Psyche and refuses to carry out his mother’s command.
Psyche’s father, wondering about his beautiful daughter’s marriage prospects, consults an oracle, who warns him that Psyche’s husband will be a monstrous creature feared even by the gods. Dressed in funeral attire, Psyche is sent up to a rocky cliff where Zephyrus whisks her away toward her fated husband.
She arrives in a strange grove with an exquisitely beautiful house. It seems to be abandoned, though the tables inside are covered with food and drink. She spends her day feasting alone, surrounded by jewels and golden decorations. That night, in the darkness, someone comes to her bedroom, and warns her that she cannot try to see him. The days pass like this: alone and surrounded by splendor during the day, and accompanied by a gentle stranger in the dark of night. She grows fond of the companion she cannot see, though she still knows nothing about him.
After a time, Psyche wishes to visit her sisters, and though Eros is reluctant, he allows Zephyrus to take her. When her sisters see the fine things her mysterious husband has given her, they grow jealous, and give her a lamp and a dagger so that she may see and kill the monstrous creature to whom she has surely been wed.
On the night of her return, Psyche lights the lamp and sees not the fated monster, but the beautiful form of Eros. Startled, she spills hot oil on him. He wakes and flees, and though she tries to follow him, she is lost.
Psyche wanders for a time, until she realises that she must make amends with Aphrodite, who holds Eros captive. The goddess sets Psyche to three trials, all of which she completes. The fourth trial sends Psyche to the underworld to obtain the beauty of Persephone in a box. Though she successfully leaves with it, curiosity overpowers her and she opens the box, which sends her into an enchanted sleep.
Eros escapes his mother’s house and wakes Psyche, returning the sleep charm to the box. Together they present the trophy of the final trial to Aphrodite, and Eros appeals to Zeus to protect them. Zeus gives his blessing, and the wedding feast of Eros and Psyche is solemnised with ambrosia, which gives Psyche, and their love, immortality.
There are similarities in story beats between the myth and the fairytale: the enchanted palace, the captive prince, the blessing from above. Though love in the myth is an enchanted desire, Villeneuve’s tale is one of strong friendship grown into love. Both stories are fantastic and beautiful, but it is the differences that tell us what kind of story the teller means to share.
“Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t have a monopoly on swoon-worthy fairytale romance; the Slavic tale “The Pigeon’s Bride,” the Armenian “Clever Anait,” and the Scandinavian “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” are just a few of the fairytale love stories to which it is worth returning. It would be foolish to claim that all fairytales tell love stories worth emulating, but it is just as foolish to claim that all fairytales tell bad romances. Humanity is just as capable of fulfilling, joyful love as it is of the opposite, and there is just as much room in our stories for happiness as there is for woe. I think we could all use a moment of focusing on a good fairytale romance right now.
While researching for this piece, we found a delightful blog entry about a Carribbean version of Cendrillon, and the illustrations created for the book:
Victoria Audley is a writer and folklorist with degrees in philosophy and museum education. She has performed at the Texas Renaissance Festival as a Highland dancer and as the White Swan. When she isn’t writing ghost stories and fairytales, she can be found baking, reading, and attempting to convince the neighbourhood cats to let her pet them. She currently lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, with her husband and twenty-one fake crows.