Fairy tales serve our culture as far more than stories to amuse children. Carl Jung, Bruno Bettleheim, and Steven Sondheim (by means of Into the Woods) help us understand that storybook characters from Peter Pan to Cinderella tell us about ourselves and our inner lives. They are worth revisiting. Like the central figures of literary masterpieces, like our own friends and family, the characters in fairy tales offer new insights every time we return to them, see their images in our minds, muse anew over their mysteries.
I had heard the story of Beauty and the Beast for years. The recent Disney movie prompted me to search out a video of Renoir's black and white classic for comparison. (Seeing this film, Greta Garbo, herself a myth, reputedly said at the end, when the Beast becomes just another Handsome Prince, "Gif me back my Beast.") I even bought a picture book version of the tale.
The standardly accepted insight of the story is, of course, that appearances are deceptive. But from my latest reading, I had an entirely new experience with Beauty and the Beast, seeing a new slant on the old tale.
I began to examine the tale as a dramatization, a mythic depiction, of the identity challenges encountered by young women today. This time around, instead of seeing Beauty and her Beast as two different entities, I looked at them as two halves of one individual, and in particular, of the young woman. It may be illuminating to reflect on Beauty and the Beast as symbolic of conflicting gifts that young women may claim or may leave unclaimed. We use a variety of labels for this cosmic and universal dichotomy of gifts: yin and yang, heart and mind, animus and anima, intuition and cognition, the female and the male principles. Whatever the terms, we know that as human beings, we are born with the full set of potentialities -- with right and left brains, with the capacity for logic and for intuition, for action and for receptivity.
Beauty, you remember, got her name because she was quintessentially lovely and kind. And life goes well for Beauty as long as her father's home is blessed with wealth. But when the Wheel of Fortune take a downward turn, life becomes more difficult, and Beauty finds herself the drudge of the family, working hard in the fields while her two sisters grumble and weep.
When her father journeys to the seaport in hopes of retrieving part of his former fortune, beauty asks only that he bring her a rose. She longs for a rose because the farm now yields only cabbages, which feed the body but not the soul, the creative impulse. However, Father's hopes are dashed; apparently neither Beauty nor the patriarchy can return to the past. A storm drives Father to seek refuge in the Beast's palace, where he receives from his unseen host all the comforts ordinarily offered by Beauty. A fire awaits, as well as a sumptuous meal, a comfortable bed, fine garments to replace his soaked clothes. Thus, from the beginning, the Beast mirrors Beauty, in what they have to offer to the father and to the world.
Before riding off in the morning, Father picks a rose. The Beast, unseen til now, appears, enraged and fearsome. In one version of the tale, Beast says, "How dare you harm my roses? A rose that's cut can only die." Beauty wants a rose to feed her soul. But separate the rose from its roots, and death results. This key line speaks to the consequences of separation and alienation within ourselves. For cutting the rose, for this separation, says the Beast, Father must die. Today, philosophers, psychotherapists, and educators, from Marion Woodman to Thomas Moore, warn that our culture is threatened by separation, at the mercy of the animus, the aggressive force, the mind powers without a soul. They insist on the urgency for the individual and the society of integrating anima and animus, mind and soul, justice and mercy. In the fairy tale, even as he decrees justice, Beast offers a merciful solution to this separation of mind and soul: Father will be spared if one of his daughters will come to live with the Beast.
When Beauty and her father return to the palace as promised, Beauty greets the Beast with the words, "Good evening, my lord."
"Good evening," replies the Beast. "But do not call me 'my lord,' for I am a beast and you must call me so." The beast -- the cognitive powers, the left-brain talents, the male principle, call it what you will -- has long dwelt in the palace and held the dominant position. Throughout the centuries in our culture, in men and in women, this side of us has commanded the lion's share of attention, admiration, encouragement, and resources. It has been enthroned; it has ruled. But there seems to be an irony: that palace has been a prison, and that half life a beastly life, just as Beauty's half-life has been impoverished. The Beast rules the palace, but he is still a beast. And he knows the truth.
As Beauty begins her life in the palace, she discovers herself to be strangely at home. The picture book version say, "Each [room] provided a delightful new entertainment for her, as if her tastes were already known." [italics added]. Of particular interest, the text describing her bedroom reads: "A beautiful bird [the peacock] led her to her bedchamber, and Beauty saw that the room was filled with her favorite things and was thoroughly comfortable." Beauty is very comfortable in the Beast's palace, including the bedroom (symbolic of sexuality), because it is where she belongs -- in the place of full sovereignty and full empowerment.
The Beast himself looks fearsome to Beauty, of course. Many young women have seen the scary face of that particular beast. Embrace the Beast -- manifest the talents traditionally decreed as "male"-- the message says, and you too will be ugly: aggressive, a show-off, a threat, indeed, a monster. The Beast, however, knows the truth. The two sides of a human being must be unit ed for a full life. Both principles are necessary to every one, male and female, for all have been denied permission to use the full range of powers. Despite having a Most Favored Gender status, and the liberties that go with that status, men, like women, suffer for being separated from part of themselves. Without the Beast, Beauty led an impoverished life. And with Beauty, the Beast led an impoverished life. One sector of our culture tells women we must marry to be truly happy; another tells women they can't be happy if they are "just house wives and mothers." In reality, of course, the marriage that matters is the inner union, oneness with oneself, feeling at home in both parts of one's psyche.
Showing the world their powers can be hurtful and even dangerous to young women. But, as writer Anne Wilson Schaaf explains, women are caught in a Catch-22 in any case. Our culture places its premium on the white male system. However kindly, courteously, even gallantly a woman may be treated, she remains, in our culture, not quite the premium product. She is a discount brand. And if she does try to offer to the world the full range of her gifts, showing herself to be both sensitive and smart, gentle and strong, intuitive and brilliantly logical, merciful and just -- she becomes something worse than a discount brand, she becomes a cheap imitation of the real thing, and she is often called a variety of R-rated names. Given that choice, many girls and women choose to reject half of themselves and settle for being only what the culture gives them permission to be.
Back at the Palace, the Beast proposes marriage again and again. For a long time, Beauty declines. But at last, charmed by his gentle manners, his lively mind, his obvious love for her (not to mention that very interesting household staff he employs and the presence of many more roses than cabbages on the estate), she agrees to live with him forever. (She won't agree to marry him, not being ready for that much of a mixed marriage, as she sees it!) She asks one last favor: that she may visit her father. The Beast agrees but insists that she return in one month, else his heart will break. Returning home, Beauty experiences all the distractions and temptations one might expect.
Don't overlook this part of the story. It tells us something important about ourselves. To work at becoming all we can be, to strive for the union of heart and mind, conscious and unconscious, of light and shadow, is demanding labor. Rewarding, yes, but challenging and difficult. The traditional fairy tale does not explicitly tell us what it requires for Beauty to learn to live with and love the Beast, but there is another story about the couple which does just that. At this point, let us focus on the fact that it is much easier to "stay at home," not to make the soul journey, not to go in search of the hidden life within us. It's easy to keep on doing what you've been doing, especially if you get rewarded for it. If you're Beauty (or Lazy, or Dopey, etc.) it's easy to fill your days with shopping and clothes and dancing and hours at the spa in the mall. If you're Brainy, it easy to lose yourself in books and computers and competition for scholar ships. How often the gifted in our culture keep doing what they do so well but at the expense of their personal lives, their relationships, even their sanity! And so Beauty is almost tempted to overstay her holiday, to for get where she is going in her life.
Just in time, she returns. Without her, the Beast has succumbed to his heart-sickness and is near death. Beauty finally gathers the courage needed to make a commitment and say the M-word. She realizes the depth of her love and says she will marry him. And with that pledge, the fearsomeness of the Beast vanishes to reveal -- Did we doubt it? -- a handsome prince. The spell has been broken! Any they live happily ever after.
The traditional fairy tale focused on the separation of the opposites and on the magic of the union. The contemporary television version of the story ("Beauty and the Beast") focuses on the hard work of staying unit ed, of keeping mind and soul, anima and animus, truly wedded in an imperfect world. Here, Beauty is Katherine, an attractive and brilliant woman, successful in the larger world as a crusading journalist. The Beast is Vincent, a monster, part man and part ravening lion. In this variation of the traditional tale, both are fully developed people. Each embodies mind and soul, each is brilliant and sensitive, giving and receptive. Vincent reads poetry, tends outcast children, heals the wounded. Katherine lives in the larger world, the skyscraper world of accomplishment and prestige, while Vincent makes an underworld (a brilliant image of the unconscious) in tunnels beneath the city, hiding from those above.
The strong subtext of the television series seems to be that these two belong together; these two love bravely and deeply, despite the struggle. We cannot imagine that Vincent and Katherine will live "happily ever after." Keeping what they have takes work and care and courage, and there is always danger. At the same time, the program, via good scripting and intelligent acting, makes clear that what these two have is worth the effort. The integration of opposites within the psyche is a lifelong task, not something accomplished and completed, like learning "Fur Elise" or mastering Lotus 1-2-3.
Out of all this talk of fairy tales, what can we take to the classroom? First, a clear vision of the power of images. Via poetry and pictures, legends and myths, photographs and songs, images often reach places that facts and statistics and logic cannot touch. Images of fully-realized men and women are empowering, life-giving. Second, it may be useful to hold tenaciously to the Beast's warning: "A rose that's cut can only die." As living creatures, we have our roots beneath the ground, in the dark, in the dirt, amid the worms and the maggots and the slugs. To pretend otherwise is to risk losing the authentic self, to turn away from the Shadow. We have thorns, which can pierce and draw blood. And we have petals, soft, perfumed, and beautiful. Theorists and practitioners emphasize that as long as we do not cut our selves off from any part of ourselves, we can grow and thrive. but cut off from any part of ourselves, the result is a soul-death.
As I see things after rethinking this fabled story, the wedding of Beauty and the Beast in our world has not yet happened, but the engagement is still on.