In 2017, a live action remake of Disney’s 1991 animation, Beauty and the Beast was released staring Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast and Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline [and more] in supporting roles.
Since its release [March ’17] the film has grossed over one billion dollars, making it the top earning film of the year and the 28th top grossing film of all time.
The story is taken from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s eighteenth-century French fairy tale La Belle et La Bete, and has similarities to the Grimms Brothers’ tale Bear Skin , with variants from Italy in Don Giovanni de la Fortuna and Italo Calvino’s The Devil’s Breeches . As I outline below there are resonating themes in Goethe’s Faust as well.
Of course, the moniker of this blog being Bear Skin, I cannot refuse an opportunity to examine the subtle layers of this story, its variants and its influences.
What causes this story to be so timeless and resonant? What themes and motifs strike a chord with generation after generation of viewers and readers?
A wealthy Prince is punished for his hubris one night when a sorceress comes to him disguised as a beggar. He rejects her request for hospitality and is cursed to bear the form of a hideous beast, his whole household to become inanimate objects, his lands to descend into an eternal winter and the outside world to forget all about them.
The curse is irreversible unless the Beast find someone to truly love him despite his beastly appearance. The time limit is set by a single rose, which sheds a petal every year giving the Beast only a handful of years to restore his true form.
Time passes until by some glitch of destiny, Belle’s elderly father stumbles through a lost forest pathway into the Beast’s territory. Caught by the Beast for trespassing and daring to steal a single rose for his daughter Belle, the old man is locked up in the tower dungeons.
The lone horse returns to Belle, alerting her of her father’s troubles. She urges the horse to take her to her father, and so Belle finds herself too, face to face with the fearsome Beast in his strange wintery kingdom. Bargaining the release of her father, Belle offers herself as single prisoner for her father’s crimes. The Beast agrees and Belle becomes his prisoner.
Here she discovers the house is alive with staff turned into inanimate items – clocks, dressers, tea pots and tea cups, candelabra, pianoforte, stools, hat-stands and more. The staff love and care for Belle and begin to pin their hopes upon the sweet girl for their redemption.
Indeed the gruff beast soon softens to the girl in his house, wondering if she could truly love him. Caring for his wounds after a wolf attack and sharing his love for his vast library, the two become friends and indeed for a while it seems they might truly fall in love.
Back in the village, Belle’s father tells the locals of the Beast and with pompous Gaston, stirs them up to rescue Belle. However, selfish Gaston uses the old man’s ramblings about talking chairs and tables to lock up the old man in order that the glory of slaying the Beast might be his own.
With the help of a magic mirror, Belle sees her father’s trouble and begs the Beast to let her go. Because his love for her has grown so deep, the Beast releases her and in doing so, relinquishes any hope that he and his household can ever be freed of the curse.
The villagers storm the castle to kill the Beast and are gamely held off by the army of household items defending their master.
Meanwhile, Belle arrives in the village to find and release her father. Having released him she immediately returns to the castle to defend the Beast. There she finds a showdown between Gaston and the Beast, who is mortally wounded.
Is she too late to tell the beast she loves him? Can the curse be lifted and all the land restored?
Other stories which resonate:
The Brother’s Grimm fairy tale Bear Skin, tells of a man wandering alone and lost in the woods, who is offered untold wealth by the devil in exchange for the form of a beast. At the end of an allotted time the devil would return and claim the man’s soul unless within that time, he could, even with his beastly appearance, gain the true love of someone. The man is given bottomless pockets of money, but his beastly appearance prevents people from getting close.
Can he find love? Can the curse be reversed?
An ancient German legend of Faust, later immortalised by Christopher Marlowe in The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus  and by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Faust  shows some similarities to these tales.
In this tale, an ambitious and successful scholar, Johann Faust, makes a pact with the devil to exchange unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures for his soul. He enjoys 24 years of limitless power, privilege, knowledge and influence before the devil returns to claim his soul.
In Marlowe’s version, Faustus is granted no grace and indeed refuses all opportunities to repent of his wager, due to his own understanding of the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and of limited atonement. He simply acknowledges that all men are born to sin and the destiny of his soul is set and is dragged off to eternal suffering by the devils.
Goethe’s later version had Faust saved from eternal damnation, not only by the grace of God but by the pleading intercessory prayers of Faust’s beloved Gretchen.
In each story, the plight of the Prince/ Beast is the human predicament. For all characters – the Beast, Faust and Bear Skin – all live the consequences of their selfish and foolish actions, requiring “redemption” from the wickedness they sowed.
In Bear Skin and Faust, an arrogant or lost man is seduced by the devil to engage in a wager for his soul, for a time period during which power and privilege is offset with a beastly appearance and loss of true relationships.
In Beauty and the Beast, The Prince’s hubris leads to a living “hell” – he retains his majesty but becomes an unlovable creature. He finds his actions not only ensnare him, but affect those around him, poisoning those he was in a close relationship with [household] and even the nature and the land in which he lived.
Each major religion or faith system seeks to address this challenge facing humanity – what is wrong with us, what ails our relationship with each other and with the environment and what is the solution?
According to Hindu teaching, humans are reborn endlessly, living the consequences of the sins of each of our lives finding no release unless we purify ourselves of attachment and hubris. According to Buddhist teaching, karma for our deeds follows us within this life time and into the next. Nirvana is found through renunciation and meditation.
In most wisdom teachings of the ancient world, human hubris affects our community and the natural world in which we live, immutably harming relationships and the environement.
According to the Hebrew faith, humans were created in perfect harmony, beautiful and noble but because of hubris, lost their innocence and became wanderers in the earth, wearing the skins of animals and becoming more and more depraved. Not unlike the story of Bear Skin or of Beauty and Beast, humanity is cursed to live out the consequences of their vice and greed, until something or someone shows them true love and redemption.
As is often outlined in this blog, the “hero journey” is one in which a “hero” experiences a death trial which they are reborn from, providing salvation for their community.
Here too we have Belle, a girl willing to sacrificially take the place of her father and become imprisoned to the fearsome beast in his wintry castle. There the Beast learns to love her to hope that one day she could love him too.
His test comes closest to his own point of redemption when he is challenged to let Belle go, essentially surrendering any chance of being restored. This act of surrender shows greater love than any show of power could. He allows her to go and return to him, freely expressing her own love in return to him in his dying hour and turning back the curse.
So too, the Hebrew account of the Fall of man, is countered by the appearance of a “second Adam”, one who surrenders his own freedoms and life to reverse the curse that befalls all humans wearing “skins of animals” and cursed by broken relationships with each other and the environment.
This love story restores humans into their former glory, Princes and Princesses, and restores the eternal winter to spring and brings joy where there was mourning.
Having recently absorbed a whole season of Netflix-original Bloodline, that’s 13 hours of television viewing in the space of a few weeks, I have been impressed upon by, not only the marvel of on-demand long-form drama, but also the importance of the genre of tragedy.
Bloodline is thriller-drama based around several generations of the Rayburn family. It focuses on the return of black-sheep Danny, to the Rayburn home in Florida Keys on the occasion of the 45th wedding anniversary of his parents. Several decades of lies and family secrets are slowly uncovered, leading to greater and greater treachery and ultimately, tragedy.
Percy Shelley in his essay, “A Defense of Poetry” famously stated,
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Tragedy is an interesting example of such legislation, as the catharsis it offers is often a reaffirmation of just desserts for hubris. Protagonists of tragedy rarely emerge unscathed, and if they do their lessons are sorely learned.
A theme of Bear Skin is how the hard stuff of life such as conflict, tension, pain, sorrow, and misunderstandings can be redeemed through story. Story tellers combine these raw elements with a character journey and use the readers inherent sense of justice to create a crescendo of crisis.
Resolution then occurs through catharsis or emotional release, often through the payoff required by justice. If our protagonist is not, as it were, caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer worse through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.
Why tragedy then? Why do we or anyone want stories about people suffering? Tolstoy, Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights old all knew the power of tragic narrative.
Tragedy presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer.
By creating a degree of separation, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players, and to process internal behaviour change, without deep self-mortification.
Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime – and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew.
Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.
On October 8th, 2014 the first post for Bear Skin was made. Fear and Exhilliaration expressed my trepidation starting a blog, beginning to put my thoughts out into the world to be read.
Since then, the blog has gathered over 110 followers, 150 Facebook fans and over 8300 hits from around the world. While it’s still small, writing this blog has given me great pleasure, arguably more pleasure for me than for the readers!
Nevertheless, the one year marker is a chance to pause and thank YOU for being a part of that.
Hello all from the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Jennifer from Bear Skin, this week week has been fortunate enough to have had some time travelling around the South Island of New Zealand with her best mate Tamlyn. As a Tokein fan, this trip is exciting beyond words.
Mountains, snow, white water rivers, gorges, mysterious forrests, wide plains – New Zealand has it all.
I fully recommend any lover of literature and story to travel to the scenes of stories they love and re-imagine it all again.
This is a message from the author, Jennifer to you. Thanks for following and reading.
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