Q is for Quiller-Couch and the Virtues and Problems of Beauty & the Beast

Arthur Quiller-Couch was a nineteenth-to-twentieth century British writer/collector of verse who belongs to the same tradition as Andrew Lang. He concentrated more on verse than folklore, yet he did create a number of fairy tale re-tellings, among them Beauty & the Beast.

Beauty & the Beast is unlike many other fairy tales since it was originally crafted as a literary piece in its own right. Although the history is too long to go into here, the original version was written by a woman for the French salons, seventeenth century bohemian get-togethers which focused on the arts.

Quiller-Couch's version lies somewhere between Marianna Mayer and Mercer Mayer's picture book (see dying Beast below) and Robin McKinley's more extended (and more altered) YA version.

Quiller-Couch attempts to address some of the ongoing issues, such as the sisters' jealousy. (McKinley disposes of this by having all the sisters gets along, a refreshing change; Disney, of course, disposed of it by making Beauty an only child.) Quiller-Couch's text provides motivations and thought processes. When Beauty accepts the family's new poverty with good grace, the sisters snarkily point out, "You have low tastes and were born to this kind of life." When Beauty's father returns with her rose and the story of the Beast, the sisters chastise Beauty for asking for the rose in the first place; didn't she know that pearls and dresses are easier to come by?

Quiller-Couch's Beauty is naturally--*sigh*--absolutely sweet and perfect, a problem that McKinley disposes of by making her a normal, bookish teen-going-on-twenty-year old, utterly relatable to the young fantasy lovers who read the book.

Quiller-Couch uses the device of the dream (used in some versions, not in others) whereby Beauty sees her human prince when she's asleep and believes him, at least initially, to be a captive of the Beast. The problem with this device is naturally the problem of fairy tale tropes. When the dream prince begs Beauty to rescue him by "not relying on appearance," you'd think she'd say, "By George! I bet the Beast is the prince in disguise!"

Hasn't she read any fairy tales and myths?

An interesting retelling would be if Beauty did tumble to the Beast's real identity early on but wasn't able to free him because she didn't really mean it.

Generally speaking, despite some problems (one more to go--see below), the tale flows well with few of the extreme oddities that attend tales like Hansel & Gretel (in which the parents must either be exonerated or villified) or Jack in the Beanstalk (why hasn't his mother sent him to live with some relatives by now?) or Puss in Boots (why doesn't Puss simply take over the kingdom himself?).

Beauty & the Beast was constructed as a written story and the bones of that original construction show. The father has a good reason to return to the city (to see if his fortunes have revived). Beauty has a good reason to take her father's place at the Beast's table (the Beast insists on certain terms being kept). The protagonists are allowed time to get to know each other. And few writers, or Disney, can pass up the opportunity to detail Beauty's entertainments in the Beast's castle--ranging from a library filled with all the books ever written to a window that looks out on the world, allowing Beauty to pass her time watching the equivalent of television (Quiller-Couch's interesting invention) to feeding the birds and having a snowball fight.

And the final scenes are well-crafted to deliver that moment of ultimate satisfaction--no, not the appearance of the prince but Beauty's rush to return to the castle and confess her love to the dying Beast.

And then he turns into the prince and everything falls apart.

This problem is so endemic to the story that writers continue to struggle with it. McKinley's Beauty is alarmed by the prince's appearance but then recognizes aspects of her Beast in the prince. Quiller-Couch relies on the assumption that any woman would prefer a prince to the Beast--it doesn't work. His Beauty has already argued with the dream prince about her preference for the Beast. The psychological problem of Beauty settling for dream boy instead of insisting on reality leads to serious doubts about the marriage's long-term success.
Somehow the transformation works better with
a snake. Anthropomorphizing a reptile is much
more difficult than a mammal.

And Disney uses the Beast, not the prince, in its parks' parades.

The astonishing aspect of Beauty & the Beast is that like all good description, show-don't-tell, it encourages the reader to fall in love with the Beast as much as Beauty does. In many ways, Tanith Lee's version--in which Beauty is so overwhelmed by the alien Beast's handsomeness that she returns home in stunning disbelief--is most accurate. She needs time to adjust. Eventually, she returns.

My review of Beauty & the Beast (2017) can be found here.

3 comments:

  1. Dave Barry in one of his columns, talking about the Disney movie, mentions the ending kind of undoes the whole "looks don't matter" message.

    The comic book Fables which portrayed characters from fairy tales living in cognito in New York showed that the beast turned back into a beast when every beauty was mad at him. This became a running joke. The writer later made clear they are a happy couple they just fight over money sometimes.

    Was it Angela Carter who wrote a story where Beauty becomes a she-beast at the end.

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  2. Collection of human-animal tales with introduction by folklorist Maria Tartar came out this year: Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales about Human Brides and Grooms From Around the World

    Shrek converts the princess to a she-beast.

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  3. I forgot that about Shrek!

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