‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Similar Stories
Legends of beautiful women forced to marry a hideous beast have existed for thousands of years. While ‘Beauty and the Beast’ may be one of the more popular versions, in part due to its Disney adaptation, different versions of the story are told throughout the world.
France: Beauty and the Beast
‘Beauty and the Beast’ tells the story of a girl who, whether by birth or by nickname, was called Beauty. She was the youngest of her sisters, all daughters of a once rich merchant whose wealth, whether due to bad fortune or his own poor management, had dwindled.
One day the Merchant was required to leave for work and asked is daughters if they would like him to bring them any gifts when he returned. While her older sisters begged for rich dresses and expensive furs, Beauty asked for only a single rose.
One his way home, the Merchant became lost in the forest, eventually making his way to a seemingly abandoned castle. There was food and drink, which the Merchant ate, and a bed which he slept in. As he left, the Merchant passed a beautiful rose garden and, remembering his promise, took one to bring home to his daughter. Instantly, a terrible beast appeared before the Merchant, angered that the Merchant had repaid his hospitality with theft. The Merchant was allowed to return home on the condition that he would return in three days, his life forfeit to the Beast. Upon learning what had happened to her father, and blaming herself for requesting the rose, Beauty insisted on taking his place, much to her father’s dismay.
Far from being killed, Beauty was shown to a fine room and told that she would be remaining at the castle as the Beast’s guest. Each day the two would dine with each other, and the Beast would ask for Beauty’s hand in marriage. Each day Beauty would refuse. Despite this, while living with The Beast, Beauty began to care for him, though she also missed home. Eventually she managed to persuade him to allow her to return for a visit. The Beast agreed on the condition that she would return after one week, which Beauty agreed too. While her father was pleased to see her, Beauty’s sisters were not, as they were jealous of how well she lived in the Beast’s house. They conspired to keep Beauty at home longer than the week that she had promised, so that The Beast would be angered by her broken promise.
When Beauty finally returned home, she found the castle empty. Searching it, she discovered the Beast, much weakened and miserable. Fearing that she had abandoned him, the Beast had refused food until he collapsed from hunger. Devastated, Beauty announced that she loved the Beast, and that she would marry him. Instantly, the Beast was transformed into a handsome prince, who informed Beauty that he had been cursed by an evil fairy to remain in beastly form until he could convince a beautiful woman to marry him.
Overjoyed, and to the dismay of Beauty’s sisters, the two were wed. In punishment for their jealousy and malice, Beauty’s sisters were turned into stone statues, and left to guard the doorways of their sister’s castle.
India: The Woman Who Married a Snake
The legend begins with a husband and wife who, despite many years of marriage, had yet to conceive a child. Over time the wife became more and more unhappy. One day, when the husband was praying, he heard a voice tell him not to worry, for he would have a son, stronger and more beautiful than any other man. He returned, happy to share the news with his wife.
Sure enough, after a short time passed before the couple found themselves expecting a child. When the big day came, however, the wife found herself giving birth to a snake. While the midwives were disgusted and told the wife that she should throw the child out, the wife held her son to her breast and looked after him, giving him the finest food and the most comfortable bed.
Over time, as the snake grew to adulthood, the wife became melancholy again, asking her husband why he was not doing his duty and finding their son a wife. Reluctantly, though believing that no one would wish to marry his son, the husband set out to find his son a bride. Finally, he met a man with a daughter of the right age and told him he was seeking a bride for his son. It was decided that the two would marry.
When they found out that the groom was a snake, the bride’s family wished to stop the wedding, but the bride refused. She married the snake and became a dutiful wife to him. One night a handsome man wearing a fine crown and beautiful jewellery joined the bride in her bed. The bride was terrified, but the man was quick to assure her that he was her husband. He showed her how he was able to put on and shed his snakeskin – changing between serpent and man.
The bride was overjoyed and embraced her husband. The snake’s father, who had been woken by the noise, saw what was going on and threw the snake-skin into the fire, ensuring that his son would never again take the form of the snake.
Scandinavia: The Lindworm
Like the above tale, the story of the Lindworm begins with a husband and wife unable to conceive. They were the king and queen of a small nation, and tried many times for an heir. Eventually, the Queen went to visit a witch, begging the woman to tell her how to have a child. The witch gave the woman two roses, one white and one red. She advised the queen to eat the red rose if she wanted a son, and the white rose if she wanted a girl. She also warned the queen to only eat one of the flowers, as eating two would have disastrous results.
The queen was worried by the choice, but eventually decided to eat the white rose. The flower was the sweetest thing that she had ever tasted, and she found herself eating the red rose without thinking – completely forgetting the warnings of the witch.
As the witch had promised, the queen fell pregnant. On the day of the birth, the queen first gave birth to a hideous, lindworm. The creature terrified her, however it soon fled the room, disappearing out of the window. The queen then gave birth to a second baby, a healthy prince. As she was the only one who had seen the lindworm, which had soon disappeared, the queen eventually came to believe that she had imagined the creature.
The prince grew up and eventually it became time for him to marry. However, when he set out to find a bride, he found his path blocked by a terrible lindworm. The lindworm insisted that he be found a bride before the prince. Returning home, the prince told his parents what had happened. The queen confessed that the lindworm was the prince’s twin. As the elder brother, the lindworm should be married before the younger. The king began looking for brides for his eldest son, but each princess brought before him was devoured by the lindworm. Eventually the king found the daughter of a poor shepherd and claimed her as his son’s next bride.
Despairing, the shepherd’s daughter met a witch, the same witch who had given the queen the roses. Armed with the witch’s knowledge, the shepherd’s daughter put on dozens of shifts, and went to meet her husband.
The lindworm insisted that the girl remove her shift, and the girl insisted that she would only do so if the lindworm also shed his skin. The lindworm agreed. Each time the girl removed a shift, the lindworm shed a layer of skin. Finally, the girl was down to her last shift and the lindworm was weakened, she grabbed whips, dipped in lye, and beat the worm with them. Once that was done, she bathed him in milk, and took him in her arms.
Exhausted, the girl fell asleep. When she woke, rather than holding a dreadful beast, she was instead cradled in the arms of a handsome prince.
Japan: The Monkey Groom
The Japanese legend of ‘The Monkey Groom’ ends far more poorly for the animal groom than most other legends, especially considering the monkey does nothing particularly malicious or wicked at all.
One day an old man was attempting to gather roots, but they were buried deep, and he was unable to dig up even a single one. A monkey appeared beside the old man and offered to pull up the roots for him. The man agreed, saying that if the monkey managed to pull up some roots, he would even offer the monkey the hand of one of his daughters. The monkey agreed, saying that he would come to the house to collect his bride in three days. While the old man had been the one to offer his daughter as a bride, he had not expected the monkey to actually want to claim his bride, or to be capable of collecting any roots at all.
Despondent, the old man returned home. He summoned his oldest daughter, informing her of the deal and asking if she would be willing to marry. His oldest daughter refused. He summoned his second daughter and asked if she would consent to the match. His second daughter also refused. Not expecting her to agree, but resigned to ask, the old man summoned his youngest daughter and asked whether she would be willing to marry the monkey. To his surprise the youngest daughter agreed. She only asked that her father give her a few things to take into her marriage – 50 pounds of rice and a heavy mortar and pestle to grind it. Surprised that the daughter would request so little, the old man agreed.
After three days, the monkey game to claim his bride. Going with him, the youngest daughter asked him to carry the rice and mortar. As they walked to the monkey’s home, they passed along a deep canyon, through which ran a beautiful river. Sakura trees lined the canyon, their long boughs dangling over the river. Stopping, the girl asked that the monkey bring her a branch from the tree. The monkey agreed. As he climbed, the girl requested that he climb higher and higher, until he reached the weak branches at the top of the tree. The branches broke, and the monkey fell into the river, the heavy mortar and rice dragging him down.
Freed from her husband, the girl returned home to her father.
Ghana: The Girl and the Hyena
Rather than a story of a beast that is secretly a man, the Ghanaian legend of ‘The Girl and the Hyena’ instead features a man that is secretly a beast.
There was once a proud and beautiful girl who rejected the suitor that her parents chose for her, declaring that she would choose who she would marry. When a handsome man arrived in the village the girl was instantly smitten, declaring that he was the only one who she would marry. The man agreed, and soon the two were wed.
As the newly wed couple spoke, the man asked what the girl would do if they squabbled on the road. The girl replied that she would turn into a tree to escape him. Her husband replied that he would know that it was her. The girl then said that she would turn into a pool of water, and her husband replied that he would still know her. The girl finally said that she would turn into a stone, and the man said that he would know her even so. Before the girl could reveal the next form that she would take she was chided by her mother who had been listening. Her mother told her off for telling her husband all of her secrets.
The next day, as the couple were travelling to the husband’s home he transformed into a hyena and attempted to devour his new bride. Fleeing, the girl turned into a tree, a pool and a rock, each time being discovered by her hyena-husband. Finally, she took on the shape that she had not had a chance to tell him. though the hyena searched, he was unable to find her in this secret form. Eventually, the hyena grew afraid that hunters from the girl’s village would discover him and fled. Relieved to have survived, the girl returned to her human shape and returned to the village and her family.
These are only a few of many, many similar legends. In an Italian version, the beast is a pig, born that way due to a fairy enchantment given to his mother before he was conceived, while in a British version a girl is forced to marry a dog who then turns into a handsome man.
As well as appearing in myth, stories of a beautiful young girl with a ‘beastly’ husband are common tropes in fiction, both literally and metaphorically. In ‘Jane Eyre’, the young Jane became engaged to Rochester who, while human in appearance, was beastly in personality and had to change his ways in order to be worthy of Jane’s love. Meanwhile in Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Shape of Water,’ protagonist Elisa falls in love with a strange fish-man held captive in the lab where she works. The Dark Romance genre is also full of people falling in love with werewolves, vampires and even zombies – often their relationships allowing the supernatural creature to either cling to or regain their humanity. While the legend may be told in different iterations throughout history and across the world, the overarching story remains similar, and continues to be highly popular to this day.