Revisiting Beuty and the Beast

With all the fervor around Disney’s latest live action classic, Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, it seems fitting to revisit my experience of this story. And yes, before it was a Disney animated “classic” in 1991, it was a story by Madam Prince de Beaumont, first published in English in 1783.
Years ago, I went to Beauty and the Beast, The Musical, with my kid’s. We were sitting close to the front, and Belle entered from stage-right. As the actor started singing, I had a horrifying moment as I thought they had dubbed the voice of the Disney Belle in for the actor’s voice. Just as quickly, I realized it was actually the actor. That stopped me muttering to my daughter, for there was Belle, come to life on a stage in Edmonton. She was amazing. None of us has ever forgotten that performance of Beauty and the Beast.
I’ve watched the film many times over the years. I’ve taught the story in conjunction with the film in my folktale classes, and I’ve often thought it the best animated feature Disney has ever produced. I may be a fan, but I’m also a teacher. I remind my students what happens in this story and this film—details easy to forget if you approach either just as an enthusiast.
Remember, the prince in this story is under a curse. In de Beaumont’s story, it’s a wicked fairy who curses the prince, but in the Disney film, the prince mistreats an old woman who comes to the castle in a storm. In the language of folktales, which Disney understands, being nasty to strangers is always bad news.
The Prince, now the Beast, imprisons another stranger, this time the merchant, for plucking a rose. He makes a deal with the merchant—the merchant’s life for one of his daughters. The merchant isn’t stupid enough to agree to such a thing, but he wants to say farewell to his children before he is killed by the Beast. But Beauty, Belle in the Disney film, comes to the rescue. She willingly agrees to become a prisoner so the Beast will spare her father’s life.
Disney, even more than de Beaumont, turns this story into one of burgeoning love, but it’s hard to get around the fact that Beauty, or Belle, is the prisoner of a selfish, cruel, and monstrous beast. Is the story, not to mention the film, simply romanticizing the abuse and incarceration of women?
Because I have daughters, and because I can’t help, in part, reading the story through a modern lens, I wonder how the story would go if Beauty wasn’t so willing to sacrifice herself. How’s this?
***
Beauty, or Belle, now aware of her father’s predicament, decides to act. She goes into her father’s study, where she takes his hunting rifle from where it hangs on the wall. She dresses for travel, saddles her horse, and rides away to the Beast’s castle, the rifle under her arm. When the Beast appears at the castle gates to take possession of Beauty in exchange for her father’s life, Beauty shoots him. End of story.
***
This would never work—I realize that. For one, such a fractured retelling overlooks the gradual transformation of the Beast’s character, but even more it misunderstands the fundamental nature of the story. “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale, and it has many antecedents. The story, “Cupid and Psyche” is probably the oldest form of this tale, while Asbjornsen and Moe tell a similar story in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”
These are stories of transformation, of monstrous male power that needs taming. It’s up to a young woman to take control and humanize the beast/lover. Humanizing the male monster through love, compassion, and suffering is the way for the fairy tale to resolve imbalances and return the world to a state of equilibrium. But even in the world of folktales, it’s not always possible to humanize the male monster. And everyone who goes to see Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast should bear this in mind. Just ask the young woman who married that Blue Beard fella.

October and Literacy

October has me thinking about literacy. In my job at the university, I talk to students about sentence construction, about nouns and noun phrases, about usage, idiom, parallelism, and all the grammatical stuff they will mostly forget once they leave my class. But visiting a junior high school earlier this month during Read IN Week reminded me how critical literacy is to the lives of young people. Literacy is more than just learning to read and write. It’s about understanding, self-expression, engagement, and taking part in the world in a fulsome way.
Each term, I teach classes in first-year academic writing. Almost the first thing I tell my students is that they aren’t in an English class: it’s a writing class. Of course it’s English, but I make the point about writing to derail their prejudices.
Many first-year students come to post-secondary with a misunderstanding about books and reading. For many, English class is boring, or hard, or tedious, or weird, and the professor’s opinion always counts more than theirs. In many ways, I can’t blame them. They’ve been told all throughout their school careers that books are important, and many books are better than others. Hamlet beats Harry Potter, and Pride and Prejudice beats Twilight. Perhaps so, but literacy is more than the literary equivalent of American Idle. It’s also more than having to read Lord of the Flies for grade twelve English, recognizing all the important bits, then writing an essay about the disintegration of society. Literacy involves communication in all its multitudinous forms. It includes Facebook and Twitter, texts and email; it’s about a person’s ability to function competently in a world that thrives on the dissemination of information, and her ability to sort this bloated, often self-reflexive mass of news bites, internet pages, and memes into something usable.
The kids I met earlier this month at Spruce Avenue School were all new comers to Canada. Literacy for these young people is less about popular culture than it is life. They are learning a new language in a new country. They have to learn to communicate with teachers, peers, and neighbours. I came in for part of the afternoon, and we talked about fairy tales. I told them the story of Red Riding Hood—my version of the story. They had read the story earlier in the year, and they were very appreciative. Storytelling can be one of the finest vehicles for literacy, as it puts the storyteller right in front of you. As the listener, you become part of the story, and sharing in such an experience mostly makes you want to explore more stories. Contributing in a small way to those young people’s growing experience of literacy was gratifying and encouraging—as much for me as it was for them. Hopefully, I can visit them again soon.

Big Bad Wolves in YA Fiction


Recently, I wrote a post about Red Riding Hood—two versions of the story, and how the story gets used in popular culture. If you like folktale novelizations, Sarah Blakley Cartwright has a novel about Red Riding Hood.
But Little Red isn’t the only one who gets—or deserves—attention. Two Canadian authors—Robert Paul Weston and Thomas Wharton—have worked to re-invent the character of the big bad wolf. The wolf, of course, is the predatory villain of the folktale, and as far as I can tell, Charles Perrault’s story is the only one in which the wolf isn’t out-smarted or killed.
Weston’s Dust cityand Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabronintroduce the character of the wolf in interesting ways. In each of these books, the wolf is a sympathetic character—Henry Whelp from Dust city is a troubled teen, serving time in a juvenile delinquent centre, and trying to come to terms with his father, who sits in prison for murdering an old woman and her granddaughter; whereas Shade from The Shadow of Malabronis an otherworldly wolf that Will, the book’s main character, meets in a library, and who agrees to accompany Will on his quest.
Both henry and Shade offer ways of rereading the big bad wolf, not just as sympathetic characters, but as heroic ones. Henry is determined to follow his father’s hunches about the nature of fairydust, a narcotic available to the hominids and Animalia of the city. Dust City is an urban fantasy, full of recognizable folktale characters reinvented for Weston’s gritty city scape—Detective White, the tough, independently minded cop whose interest is justice, and Skinner, the evil crime boss, who literally has the golden touch.
Here’s a passage from Henry as he jumps on a train, escaping from Detective White:
I land on something soft. A great heap of blue fairydustmined, refined, and on its way to pharmacies all across the city. Only now it’s got an added ingredient: a big bad wolf. … I climb up on the sheet of metal and peek out through the ragged me-shaped hole.
“A bullet cracks off the train. Detective White has started shooting after all. I duck back and then, stupidly, peek out once more. But she doesn’t fire this time. She stands below, getting smaller as the train rumbles north.”
The Shadow of Malabronis the first in the Perilous Realmseries, and it’s fantasy in the Tolkienian style. Shade becomes Will’s friend and companion, and they set out with a company from the city of Fable to seek Will’s story and help him return home—if they can avoid Lotan, the servant of the Night King, who is determined to consume all stories in the Perilous Realm.
Shade’s story:
“I followed the tracks they left, to their camp,” he said at last. “I tore and killed many, and those that were left ran off, but they had pierced me with their iron in many places. I wandered, a fever burning in me. I could not hunt, could not eat. I came at last to a forest where I smelled a new scent, one that was unknown to me. The scent of folk like you. I did not know if it meant danger or not. I crept up to their dwellings, in a clearing in the woods, to see if this unknown scent meant danger. There were people there, working, talking, laughing together. I had never heard laughter. It sounded strange to me, and I think I would have liked it, but all I could feel was pain, and hate. And then I saw a child. A girl in a red cloak with a hood, going off into the forest by herself. She was carrying a basket covered in a cloth. I followed her. I was hungry, and I wanted to kill. The girl walked quickly, but I ran ahead of her and stood in her path. She was frightened, but she was brave, too. And she did not hate. I could see that in her eyes. She was not like the ghool.
“I turned and I ran. I ran without knowing where I was going, and then I came to a house that stood by itself in the forest. Good smells came from that house. Good things to eat. I could not stop myself this time. The door was open and I went in. There was an old woman there. She screamed and ran away. I let her go, and ate what food I could find. But it was too late. I felt the fever growing in me, from the iron of the ghool. I knew that no food would help me now. There was a bed in one corner. I climbed into it.
“I don’t know how long I lay there. After some time I heard a sound. The girl in the red cloak was standing in the doorway. She came towards the bed, but in the dark of the house she did not see me. She called out a greeting.  She thought I was the old woman. I stood up in the bed, ready to flee. My limbs were shaking and there was a rasp in my throat. The girl saw me then. She screamed. I leapt over her and bounded out of the door. I ran, with what was left of my strength. And when I could not run, I crawled. I heard the sounds of the girl’s folk following me. Their shouts, their anger. They were hunting for me, to kill me.”
There you have it. Two big bad wolves who aren’t so bad anymore. I highly recommend both these books, as much for how they represent folktales and folktale characters, as they offer two strikingly different versions of the wolf from the folktale. Resurrecting such villains into heroes says something about the nature of story, but more about the persistent power of folktales to continually shape our imaginations.

A Return to Red Riding Hood


Red Riding Hood is one of those characters that most people recognize. But many don’t realize how many versions of this story exist, and they think of it as a story that’s mostly for kids. It isn’t—not really.
The version with which most people are familiar is the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap.” It’s the version my students know, and the one that has Little Red eaten by the wolf and saved by the woodsman. Interestingly, “Little Red Cap” is actually two stories in one: the first in which Red is eaten by the wolf, and the second in which she and her granny trick the wolf into climbing down the chimney into a pot of boiling water. On the other hand, my students are always surprised when reading Charles Perrault’s version of the story, in which Red takes off her clothes and climbs into bed with the wolf. Granted, Perrault has something specific in mind with his story, but the scene comes no less as a shock.
The story gets adapted and retold endlessly in popular culture. From Disney’s 1943 short, Red Hot riding Hood, to the live action version from Fairy Tale Theatre, hosted by Shelley Duvall, to the Chanel No. 5commercial with Estella Warren, and Red’s appearance in Disney’s Into the Woods from 2015. And this says nothing about the many variants of the story in print, and the 2011 horror film by the same name. You can find my version of the story here.
What, then, is the fascination with this story? Bruno Bettelheim claims Red Riding Hood is a story about sexual readiness, while other scholars claim it’s a story about rape. Whatever the reason, the story speaks to primal fears and primal appetites—a far cry from that glass-slippered heroine who has as much a place within popular culture as her dark twin.
So you don’t have to go looking for it, I’m including here the moral from Perrault’s version of the tale. And yes, he includes a moral, just so we are sure to understand Little Red’s fate.
“Moral
Children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up young ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant red riding hoods and all. Now, there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.”

Snow Wite and Who? How Not to Read a Folktale


This term, I’m teaching a course in the folktale. We’re looking at stories by Grimm, as well as young adult novels that make use of folktales in interesting ways. Michael Buckley’s The Sister’s Grimm, Thomas Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabran, and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart are three of the novels we’re looking at later in the term.
Talking about folktales can be tricky—even in the classroom—because people have such different ways of looking at these old stories. It’s been more than two hundred years since the first publication of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Children and Household Tales, but these stories continue to get told, retold, and reimagined in print and film. Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella, directed—no less—by Kenneth Branagh, is due for release in March of this year.
More and more often, clever commentators want to read these stories realistically—with  a touch of irony. The underlying joke seems to be that a postmodern culture is too smart to be suckered by stories about princes and princesses who get themselves into all sorts of trouble, and who invariably live happily ever after. The sophisticated reader is expected to get the joke. Who, after all, could be taken in by such ridiculous stories? Funnily enough, Disney has made billions from reimagining these stories on screen, and endless numbers of parents and children alike have given up their time and money to watch them again and again.
Reading folktales is challenging, and I sometimes fall into the trap of reading them realistically—against my better judgement. It’s always best to remind myself these are stories—stories to be told and heard, stories that speak to some fundamental human desires and anxieties, and, most of all, stories to be enjoyed. Here’s what happens if you try to read a folktale such as “Snow White” realistically.
Excerpt from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by the Brothers Grimm:
But Snow-White kept growing, and kept growing more beautiful, and when she was seven years old, she was as beautiful as the bright day, and more beautiful than the Queen herself. Once when she asked her mirror:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is fairest of us all?”
It answered:
 “Queen, thou art the fairest in this hall,
But Snow-White’s fairer than us all.”
Then the Queen was horrified, and grew yellow and green with envy. From that hour on, whenever she saw Snow-White the heart in her body would turn over, she hated the girl so. And envy and pride, like weeds, kept growing higher and higher in her heart, so that day and night she had no peace. Then she called a huntsman and said: “Take the child out into the forest. I don’t want to lay eyes on her again. You kill her, and bring me her lung and liver as a token.”
How not to read this folktale:
This is a story about a little girl, and it mostly seems to be about abuse. It clearly identifies Snow White as seven years-old. Is it her fault she’s beautiful? The queen is nothing short of psychotic for wanting to kill Snow White and then eat her liver and lungs. Being jealous of a child is weird enough, but this queen is clearly a narcissistic psychopath.
Snow White isn’t killed by the huntsman (as instructed by our psychotic queen), but she is abandoned in the forest, where she eventually finds seven strange little men living together in a little house. Not only do these little men not contact the authorities about this lost child, they agree to let her stay as long as she will work as their house slave, doing all the cooking and cleaning. This is like trading one form of abuse for another.
I’m also getting confused—is Snow White still seven years-old? She has to be. The story doesn’t say anything about years passing, or Snow White getting older
And then the crazy queen hunts Snow White down. This kid is either completely stupid, or she just doesn’t learn from people wanting to kill and enslave her. The queen arrives at the house of the little men. First, she convinces Snow White to try on some strangling lace, then to wear a poisoned comb, and finally to eat a poisoned apple. This kid does not get it.
Snow White apparently dies twice, but the little men revive her. The third time she’s really dead—or at least mostly dead. The little men set her up in a glass coffin, where she lies on a hillside for a long, long time. This is where things get really disturbing. Presumably Snow White doesn’t age, as she’s mostly dead. This prince fellow comes along and falls in love with her—with a mostly dead child in a glass coffin. This prince is more psychotic than the queen. That’s it—I’m not reading anymore.