Roses and Transformations

“These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. . . . We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.” – G.K. Chesterton

After yesterday’s delightful romp through the mildly feminist Disney version, I thought today we might consider some other, more subtle aspects of Beauty and the Beast. Yes, I do have more to say about my favorite fairytale. Most of the fairy stories we heard as children are charged with hidden truth and unseen power. Jung, Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and of course, Chesterton, all wrote essays on the importance of fairytales. And for me, there is no more compelling story than Beauty and the Beast. From the moment we catch a glimpse of that fateful rose in the garden of the enchanted castle, the tale wraps us in a web of complex human relationships, forcing us to look deeper inside ourselves and other people to find the elusive and sometimes surprising truth of who we really are.

One of the story’s most central and compelling themes is the exploration of our relationship to people and things that are different from ourselves (the philosophical “other”). Beauty’s first reaction to the hideous beast is transfixing horror. Both his appearance and his actions (she is his prisoner for life because of her father’s trivial crime) tell against him. He is the last being in the world she could ever love. However, as she spends time with him, learns to understand him better, and constantly dreams cryptically of his alter ego, the handsome prince, her fear and loathing fade into acceptance and even affection. Still, her growing feelings for the Beast cannot find their full form or expression until she is faced with the possibility of losing him. Only when she rushes back to the castle to find him nearly dead does she realize (as she is in the act of declaring it) that she loves him.

That love for something she once found hateful is what transforms him into something that it makes sense to love. On some level, this is true for all of us. We become loveable by being loved. Whether the love comes from another person, from God, or even from ourselves, when we feel loved and worthy, we become better and happier. The really important change is inner, but the inner change usually produces an outer change as well. Mormons will remember the classic film of Johnny Lingo, who loves and woes the outcast Mahana, even though everyone else thinks she is ugly. When they come home after their honeymoon, nobody recognizes the beautiful woman with him. Johnny Lingo explains at the end, “Many things can happen to make a woman beautiful, but the thing that matters most is what she thinks of herself.” That’s the beast’s side of the story.

Beauty’s side is even more interesting. Partially forced by circumstances, but partially as a result of her inner strength of character, she takes the courageous step of reaching out to someone she has every right to hate. Her efforts at understanding and showing courtesy allow her to learn a powerful lesson, as she realizes that there is more to him than what first appears, and begins to love him for what she can see within. Before the Beast can be transformed, Beauty must transform herself into someone who can see below the surface and love beyond the appearance. In her eyes, the Beast has changed before he ever changes. All the things about him that once seemed so different and alarming are now dear and familiar.

This has obvious implications in marriage. Any man and woman, no matter how compatible, will find one another’s quirks and foibles at least a little beastly on occasion. Seeing beyond and loving anyway are crucial elements to keeping the beauty in a relationship.

I have also found Beauty and the Beast applicable in intercultural settings. Consider the view that many Americans have of the Arab world: a shadowy, fanatic, violent, terrifying beast. And which is the appropriate reaction? Should we follow Gaston into the night, holding our torches high and chanting, “kill the beast!” Or could we find some inspiration in an old story and learn to see beyond the fear? Is there perhaps something hidden inside that we might learn to love? Ten years ago, I spent some time in the enchanted castle that is Syria, and I live now in Tunisia’s lovely castle by the sea. Although those who read this blog well know that the experience hasn’t been all roses for me, I have truly found much to love.

Fairytales are for all times, and all places, and we can always find ourselves richer for reading them again. If you haven’t experienced Beauty and the Beast in a while, don’t watch the movie. Go check out a beautiful illustrated version from your local library (you’ll find them under Dewey decimal call number 398, for those in the United States). If you want something a little longer, my favorite retelling as a teenager was Robin McKinley’s Beauty, from which Disney drew much of the inspiration for the movie. The Nordic version is East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon, which retains many of the elements of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, the original inspiration for Beauty and the Beast. Tam Lin is a fascinating Scottish version, in which the heroine must hold tight to her fairy lover as he changes forms over and over. Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read, is based on this variation. If you’re just not into fantasy, you can also find definite echoes of Beauty and the Beast in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. Happy reading!

photo credits: rose/tower, cupid/psyche

What do you think?