I think I was introduced to the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast before I ever read the story. I can remember belting out “Be Our Guest” and happily putting my Lumiere puzzle together in the playroom, begging to watch our bootleg VHS version which faded from light to dark the entire 84 minutes. As for Cinderella, she made her appearance in the dress up box, changing into our “ball gowns” and running to the ballroom, and escaping just before the stroke of midnight.
Of course, the older I got the more I searched for less saccharine versions of fairy tales than Disney presented. I delved into the bloody Grimm brothers, the Hans Christian Anderson tales, and Andrew Lang’s rainbow of fairy books: blue, red, yellow, grey and so on. Beauty and the Beast remained my favorite, and I particularly loved Donna Jo Napoli’s retelling Beast, and Robin McKinley’s Beauty. I loved these, even as I began wondering why the heroines are all beautiful, good, and helped out by wizened crones.
It wasn’t until college that I was aware of more complex theories of myth and fairy tales as I got into the history and revisions of fairy tales – such as those detailed in the book Classic Fairy Tales by folklorists Peter and Iona Opie. I got interested the nuances of each story, and the various changeable details. For example, sometimes Beauty has brothers as well as sisters. Sometimes her sisters try to trick her into staying with her family when the Beast allows her to visit, other times she is merely forgetful as the time passes. I also read psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and his theory that fairy tales allow children to experience inner conflict in a safely removed. They are allowed to imagine some of their worst nightmares, that they will lose their parents, get eaten, lost, or left behind – and then they see how these things can be overcome, often by other children.
He, and others maintain that fairy tales are some of the first introductions to the land of mystery and metaphor for the child. Perhaps the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk can represent controlling adults not merely mythical giants. There is the experience that the world isn’t quite what it seems, little old ladies can be witches or benevolent godmothers.
And it was explained why all the good people are also the beautiful ones in the tales. Ugly sisters (step or not) are ugly because they have warped and twisted hearts, thinking only of themselves. The world is presented in black and white, not because it is black and white, but because it is easier to recognize what the right thing to do is in these circumstances – and these tales are told to children first, not adults first. Even if children can recognize metaphors implicitly, they can’t always see nuances of character. Why is Beast a beast? Because he had a selfish character. Why is Beauty beautiful? Because she is gentle, loving, and cares for others. In life, alas, it is not so simple to tell the crooked from the straight because there is a mixture of both in everyone.
In some ways the fairy tales are the opposite of the adage “Beauty is only skin deep.” In them, beauty is not skin deep – it goes down all the way to the bone and into the behavior. Am I going to read fairy tales to my son? Yes! Even Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast (though likely, they won’t be his favorites). But I’ll hold off on giving away what I’ve learned about them till he’s older. Or better yet, ask him what he thinks they mean.