"Tale as Old as Time"

Beast - Donna Jo Napoli

What is it about "Beauty and the Beast"? There is something about the tale, even the Disney version of the story. I know it's Disney, I know. I know the Disney movie ends with the girl who wants "more than this provenical life" getting married. But there is something about it, even in Disney form. Maybe, the Disney success is because of the artwork and music, or because Belle likes to read, or because Belle does, in fact, save the Beast at the end."Cinderella" may be the most cultral diverse fairy tale, but "Beauty and the Beast" seems to be more famous.

 

I know that the B&B tales are believed to be, in some circles, stories that get women, young girls really, use to the idea of marriage, especially marriage to a stranger. I've read various versions; my favorite by far being "East of the Sun, West of the Moon". I've read several French versions (those salon ladies went to town on this tale), including the one where the prince is turned into a beast because he turns down the sexual advances of the fairy. I've read some of the novel length treatments, including Robin McKinley's two versions, both of which are excellent.  Most of these stories are told from the woman's point of view and very little is told about Beast. 

 

Napoli changes that with her book Beast. Most of the story focuses on the adventures of Beast prior to his meeting his Belle (don't worry, that's covered in the book as well). Perhaps the most compelling sequence of the book, as well as the saddest, is when Beast, here in the form of a lion, tries to get use to his new form. He knows that he can no longer be with people, so he tries "hanging" with the lions. This does not work. He is not a lion born, but a lion made and this brings a host of problems. What Napoli seems to be doing with this sequence and the back story is showcasing what it means to belong as well as what it means to be an animal or human. For the Beast is not an animal, even if he is no longer wholly human. The Beast tries to become the total opposite of what he was prior to his transformation, and this doesn't quite work. It can't work because while we change, we never fully lose what we were at any given point. What Beast is trying to do for much of the book is combine the animal and human part of what he is, the dual side that most people have.

 

Napoli's book has been challenged and banned in various schools. This is undoubtably due to the Beast's behavior. He gets rather friendly with two female lions. While this raises eyebrows, as I am sure it was intended to, it does make sense. Take a horny seventeen year old, put him in the body of a lion, and then present him a female lion in heat. What do you think he is going to do? What comes across quite clearly in the rather subdued description is the Beast's uncertainity and uncomfortness with what he has done. Here, it seems that Napoli is going back to the old story, but instead of dealing with the question of marriage, it becomes more a question of sex. She seems to be addressing the questions of revulsion, pleasure, and embarassment that surrond the sexual act.

 

It makes a rather interesting inversion of the actual tale.