In writing on fairy tales, there’s often a functionalist bent to the analysis. This means that tend we view fairy tales as fulfilling societal need: they contribute to the stability of a group or culture. In this way, characters and predicaments become allegories: practice for situations we may face ourselves in real life, or a form of ‘safe’ role play. Red Riding Hood is not about hiking in the forest; it’s a warning about wolves, about prostitution, a tale of sexual awakening, and so on, and so on.
I like this kind of analysis. It’s important because it dives under the smooth-looking surface of fairy tales, and stirs up a surprising turbidity. It makes us question unspoken assumptions (why is the youngest child always the special one?), and highlights the significance of story-telling in learning. However, I don’t think it’s always perfect. By our very framing of fairy tales in this waysomewhat didactic way, orientated around adherence and cohesion—I think we sometimes lend them a static quality that they don’t always deserve.
One of the things I adore about fairy tales is their malleability. The wonder and frisson you get from someone playing with and reinventing well-known tales is a truly unique, very special feeling (when it’s done well, that is ). And yet, we often assume that this reinvention is purely the prerogative of modern writers. Not so, I cry! We have been playing around with fairy tales, bending their archetypes to our will, for their entire written history (and there’s no reason to think the oral pre-history would be any different).
For example, do you know that the first written version of “Beauty and the Beast” clocked in at over three hundred pages? And the Beast didn’t even transform at the end? Obviously, times change. Fairy tales present something of a moving target in this regard; by focusing on one particular version, you risk an analysis that may be a bit of an over-reach, or lacks the societal punch it once had. We also—even in this age of screen-based media—tend to focus on the narrative. But fairy tales have a visual history nearly as rich as their written ones.
When you take a look at this visual history, that malleability I mentioned—of themes, characters, atmosphere—becomes quickly and deliciously apparent. Especially in stories where what’s described is something ambiguous and variable, something that changes over time, something embedded into much of our communication and latter-day stories. Something like beauty, or beastliness.
Throughout many, many versions of “Beauty and The Beast”, there are a few key motifs and scenes that have remained constant. Let’s take a look at one of the most iconic scenes in the story—the merchant’s unwise decision to steal a flower, and his subsequent, terrifying confrontation with the beast.
Consider this version from 1875 by William Crane. This Beast is resplendent. Both merchant and Beast are facing us, Crane inviting the reader to marvel at his monster. And marvel we do; this Beast is an awe-inspiring figure; a cavalier with a golden poniard, wearing his wealth like a Dauphin. He has an elegant, confident posture, declamatory almost, strangely jovial. Surprisingly human in a lot of ways, and yet, look at that head! Undeniably beastly. Trotters mix with tusks, a snout coupled to ass-like ears. File that away: we’ll be seeing heads like that again.
In the very same year as Crane, Eleanor Vere Boyle was doing something quite different. Boyle’s illustrations strive for mood, they are ambiguous and dark; older in the fashions they portray, and yet newer in style.
The first glimpse we catch of her Beast is electrifying. Looming out of this blackness—almost part of it himself—is the Beast, a disembodied, huge head, mouth agape. No tusks this time but rather two, massive, sabre-teeth. Compared to Crane’s debonair monster, what Boyle has chosen to show us is a true animal.
The catlike connotations here are impossible to ignore. The Beast’s posture and limbs do not evince the clean humanity of so many other representations. This is one of the most distinctly bestial illustrations, and it highlights another side to the Beast; something to be feared, certainly, but also something to be tamed (note, also, the head).
The next major representation of the Beast came in 1889 and, after Disney’s, is arguably the most popular. Henry Justice Ford, a twenty-nine year old illustrator, had formed a partnership with folklorist Andrew Lang. Their first book together; The Blue Fairy Book, featured Beauty and The Beast, and—like Lang and Ford’s works in general—it would come to be considered one of the definitive versions.
Ford’s style with these illustrations is rudimentary, unevolved compared to the massive leaps it would take in later years, but there is still so much to marvel at.
Again, the head dominates our picture. It is huge, literally elephantine; gleaming white tusks leaping out of the swarthy face. Compared to the coloured, modulated tones of both Crane and Boyle, Ford’s style is dirty, almost confusing. There is much of the man-like here, and with it, a connotation of lycanthropy.
This Beast—without the head—is a warped man: arms and hands have thickened and coarsened, hair sprung out of them. These hands—the uniquely human, and an important motif that comes up time and time again—stand out of the picture; contrasted and surrounded by white, lines of focus leading us to compare them with the merchant’s delicate, hairless metacarpi. The upturned, jester-like sleeves carry a suggestion of buffoonery, but also of the ill-fitting, that the beast has grown out of these clothes like a werewolf, like a hulk. There is an implied metamorphosis right from the beginning also a very important element.
Edmund Dulac, with his gorgeous watercolors, brings a sense of delicacy to proceedings that has hitherto been lacking. This is not a large Beast, nor a particularly bestial one. Dulac has given him an almost totally human body, and while there is a large head, it’s not very monstrous. The real signifier of beastliness here comes back to the hands.
Look at them: the faintest suggestion of humanity has been jettisoned. This Beast is saddled with a lion’s paws; long, bony and pale. The elements of humanity and transformation are probably most visible at this point, because Dulac’s Beast is so human. The paws—the only real signifier of beastliness—are not the melange we have become accustomed to. They come straight from a lion; they don’t match the human body they are attached to. Looking at this image, we can sense that something is not right, where are his real hands?
These two things together—hands and heads—are what the illustrators are using to denote beastliness. The Beast’s body, in image after image—for all its irregularities—is a predominantly human one. This is what makes the Beast so different from the other, purely animal fairy tales. His humanity is always intimated both in the narrative, and in the image.
Take away that head and those hands, and you are typically left with human clothes, human postures and human accoutrements, creating a visual dissonance we can’t help responding to. Seen in this context, is it any wonder so many illustrators—including the Disney artists—enlarged the head? It is one of the few, and the most potent symbols for the Beast, showing us, that whatever else his body might say, however human the clothes covering it—this is a monster.
My last—and favourite—image of the Beast comes from Arthur Rackham, the seminal Victorian illustrator. Caught plucking the fateful rose, the merchant—his colour scheme matching the wintry outside—stares at the Beast, hand caught halfway to his mouth in a mixture of shock, wonderment, and fear. Our eyes, too, are drawn to the Beast. He stands in the foreground, indigo nightdress leaping out from the muted colour scheme, his lines clean and sharply contrasted. Unlike the merchant, however, we are deprived of a full frontal view. What does he see? To us, Rackham only offers the merest hint. A mannish shape, with a grotesque, troll-like foot. A bear’s claw, outstretched next to the merchant’s spindly fingers. A bulging eye, a hint of whiskers, and a portly shape.
This image of the Beast—powerful, visually alluring—ultimately is a cypher. For the thematic centre of his picture, Rackham has left us with us with nothing more than some tantalising hints. Viewing this arresting but mysterious expanse, we are forced to imagine beastliness for ourselves. And in this respect, I think Rackham’s image highlights what I first started talking about: malleability.
Despite a story, and a picture, it ultimately lies with the reader to decide which expressions are roiling across that shattered visage. The responsibility—and opportunity—to define what makes a Beast lies with us. As children we might see it in claws, fangs and whiskers. As adults we might see it in politicians, soldiers, or family—just as the Beast does when Beauty forgets about him, pining in his castle.
This is why I think it’s so important to recognise ambiguity and malleability when we think about fairy tales. The “Beauty and The Beast” that you read might be an allegory for arranged marriage amongst that new class, the bourgeoisie. But my Beauty and the Beast could be about women exploring and accepting their own beastliness, and so on, and so on.
After all, fairy tales themselves teach us that what seems set in stone can often be freed and restored to life. When a story seems moribund or staid, perhaps it just needs the right storyteller, or the right listener.
For a stack more illustrations and analysis, you cannot go past SurLaLune Fairy Tales.
Patrick Garson lives in Sydney, Australia. He also occasionally writes about fantasy tropes on Australian political blog, Larvatus Prodeo.