Summer is perfect for daydreaming about far off lands and once upon a time as you relax in the sun with the ocean gently rolling in. So we’re kicking off summer at the WNBA with Folklore Fridays! This week, read about arguably the most bookish princess: Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
This year’s live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast aside (starring everyone’s favorite book-lover from the Harry Potter movies, Emma Watson, who also happens to lead an international feminist book club called Our Shared Shelf), the tale rose to contemporary attention with the 1991 Disney adaptation, which is full of anthropomorphized household objects and the self-obsessed and seemingly über-masculine Gaston. And, of course, a library.
As is often the case with folklore, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single origin. The tale became popular with the 1756 French “La Belle et la Bête” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. In this tale, Beauty asks her father to bring her a rose. The beast appears and says he won’t kill the man if he sends one of his daughters—and, of course, Beauty decides to go. They fall in love (he has a great library), but when she visits home, her envious sisters delay her. Upon her eventual return to the castle, she finds the beast dying and promises to marry him, which frees him from his curse.
Echoes of this story date further back: in Roman mythology, Cupid marries Psyche without letting her see his face. Rumors reach her that he’s a monster so she looks at him and, hurt, he abandons her. She repents, because he’s an attractive immortal, and so she (in true mythological fashion) labors until he forgives her. Though Cupid isn’t a beast, she’s trapped in his castle and she believes him, at one point in time, to be a monster—just as Belle/Beauty believes the beast to be a monster.
The Grimm brothers recorded “The Singing, Springing Lark,” in which a man’s youngest daughter asks for a lark. A lion tells the man the price will be, essentially, his daughter, so the girl marries the lion—an enchanted prince who resumes his human form. He transforms into a dove that she follows for seven years before he disappears. She asks the sun, the moon, and the winds for help. They guide her to a princess who ensorcelled the prince, but her love wakes him.
The idea of a “transforming prince” is common. Beauty transforms her beast, just as the girl in “The Frog Prince” gets her prince, with (usually) less Stockholm syndrome. In many iterations, however, Beauty is a dreamer and—particularly—a reader. The library is tipping point for her; she tolerate the beast, but when he gives her a library, he offers something precious (for a sassy take on the library, check out the Belle versus Cinderella Princess Rap Battle).
Yes, Beauty is kidnapped; though she often volunteers, it’s either her or her father—which doesn’t make it a free choice. It all goes well in the end, if you ignore the problematic start, but, again, the library plays a large role (in the more grim takes, Beauty has to complete manual labor, or follow her kidnapper for years). Is the library in recent iterations just a library (as in, does the beast just provide Beauty with a physical object), or is the library something more here: is the library analogous to freedom? When the beast offers Beauty, who has been entrapped first by society and then by his castle, a library, is he really offering her the independence and escape she desires?
Next week, read about mermaids for Folklore Friday, just in time for the Mermaid Parade!