Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Piece 1–“Beauty and the Beastess”

Melanie Magaña

Please read the Introduction first. Then continue reading each piece in order.

Click on the following titles to be magically transported to each piece of the triptych.

2. Beast’s Beauty”                3. “Beauty’s Beginning”

1. BEAUTY AND THE BEASTESS

The Curse

Once upon a time there lived a princess.  Naturally she was beautiful, as all princesses are, but more than that, she was also kind-hearted, and smart and interested in all sorts of things.  One day, she caught the eye of an evil imp, who became besotted with her.  “Marry me!” he commanded her.  “Excuse me?” she said.  Being a princess, she was unaccustomed to strangers approaching unannounced and making demands of her, whether they were human or not.

“Marry me immediately or face the consequences!”  the imp ordered.

The princess looked around uncertainly, wondering where her retinue had disappeared to, and how she might remove herself from this unpleasant situation without hurting the imp’s feelings.

“Well?” the imp demanded.

“I’m sorry,” the princess began, “I don’t even know you, plus you don’t appear to be human.”

“What?!?” the imp screeched. “Many a successful marriage has been based on far less than that!  You’d be lucky to land a husband like me!”

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Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Piece 2– “Beast’s Beauty”

Melanie Magaña

Please read the Introduction first. Then continue reading each piece in order.

Click on the following titles to be magically transported to each piece of the triptych.

  1. “Beauty and the Beastess”                  3. “Beauty’s Beginning”

 

2. BEAST’S BEAUTY

Tale

Once upon a time, there was an extremely handsome young man who lived in a village at the foot of a mountain.  It was generally a peaceful village, whose residents laughed, loved, celebrated, broke each others’ hearts, worked, played, buried and mourned their dead, helped each other when they could, and tried to live as comfortably as possible.

All the while, the mountain watched over their lives, changing with the seasons and growing over time.  The mountain was home to lots of trees, bushes, flowers, herbs, deer, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, birds, goats, mice, and bears though not many of those, and they’d be more afraid of you than you would be of them.

Near the top of the mountain, just below the clouds, there was a cabin made from some of the trees that grew there, and quite grown over with moss.  Inside was a small living room, cozily furnished with a big stuffed chair and footstool, a big stuffed bookcase, a small table and a great stone fireplace.  It also had a small kitchen with several iron pots, its own fireplace, and a window overlooking the glade outside.  Tucked behind the kitchen was a tiny room containing a sink and a large tub, which flowed with clean, hot water at the turn of a nozzle, and a small porcelain seat in which one could do what one must and flush away the result in a trice.  This last is noteworthy because in the village down at the foot of the mountain, the residents were still visiting the backyard whenever ablutions became necessary, which was most inconvenient during the long, cold winters.

The cabin had an upstairs as well, with two small bedrooms, each with its own fireplace, bookcase, feather bed and lots of warm down blankets, necessary to endure winters on the mountain.

As comfortable as the cabin was in itself, however, its most extraordinary feature was outside, just behind it.  Where the residents of the village below had outhouses, the smells of which wafted into their open windows during the hot summers, behind the cabin stood a large, old tree, around which a narrow but sturdy stair wound, leading up, up into its boughs where sat nestled a treehouse built of the same wood as the cabin, grown over with the same moss and therefore difficult to see unless one knew to look for it.

Inside the treehouse were more bookshelves, overflowing with books, a largish telescope, and a smallish laboratory with vials and tubes and jars and dishes containing strange mixtures.  From this vantage point, the resident of the cottage could see the valley below, the mountains to the west, and the plains and river and forests between them.

It was in this canopy-ensconced perch that she read her books, mixed her herbs, drew her plans, and watched the world below.

In good weather, every few months, she would rise in the dark hours of the morning, gather some jars and vials, some books and drawings, and packing them tightly to her back, she would make her way down the mountain, passing through the village before the sunrise, on her way to the town across the river.  There she would buy supplies and meet with a group of wise people to discuss ways of making life even more comfortable for themselves, for the people in the town, the small village, and for you and me.

It was a solitary life, and quite a satisfactory one for the woman who lived atop the mountain.

At the foot of the mountain, the handsome man lived a life which could hardly be described as solitary.  He was personable and outgoing, with an infectious laugh that drew both women and men toward him, eager to bask in the glow of his company.

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Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Piece 3–“Beauty’s Beginning”

Melanie Magaña

Please read the Introduction first. Then continue reading each piece in order.

Click on the following titles to be magically transported to each piece of the triptych.

  1. “Beauty and the Beastess”                        2. Beast’s Beauty”

3. BEAUTY’S BEGINNING

Crappy Ending

“Once upon a time…” That’s how the stories opened.  And we believed it, she and I.

“…and they lived Happily Ever After.”  We believed that too, every word.  But then she met Him.  She believed he was her Prince Charming, the one who would make her the princess in the fairy tale.  I thought at first that he might be too, but soon I knew better.  I don’t know if she ever really got it, but it doesn’t matter now.
The day of Isabel’s funeral dawned bright and sunny, lovely as Isabel herself.  It was ironic and completely unfair. In my head, the storms raged and the clouds hung heavy and dark, blocking every trace of the sun.  She was my best friend, had been my best friend, closer than a sister, the person who knew me best in the world.  Now she was dead.  She’d been beaten to a pulp by an unknown attacker on her way home from serving soup to the hungry at church. She stumbled home somehow, where she died in the tender arms of her grief-stricken and loving husband: that was the official story.  Bullshit!  I know damn well who this “unknown attacker” is. He winked at me during the graveside service, the bastard.

She was excited when he asked her out.  “Mags,” she said, “He’s The One!  He’s Prince Charming!”

“Really? Real-life Prince Charming?” I teased. “Does he have a brother?”

“No, only an older sister. I can’t wait for you to meet him!”

And then I met him.  He was handsome, I’ll grant him that, and he went out of his way to be charming. But this guy was no prince. There was something a little off about him and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“I don’t know, Belle,” I told her later. “I think you can do better.”

“Better? There is nobody better than William. He’s the prize at the bottom of the crackerjack box,” she effused. As for me, I thought he was the prize at the bottom of something, all right, but it wasn’t caramel popcorn. I kept my own counsel though. I’d already made my opinion known, and she was having none of it.  “Oh, Maggie, when I’m with him, I feel like I’m the most beautiful and fascinating woman in the world!  You’ll see…one day you’ll meet someone who makes you feel that way too, and then you’ll understand!”

Ok, sure, I’d never been in love.  Certainly nobody had ever been in love with me.  I couldn’t even imagine feeling pretty, let alone like the most beautiful woman in the world.  But Belle really was beautiful, and truly in that fairy-tale princess kind of way, all sweet and delicate femininity, like a dusky china doll.  And I could see why she’d feel so fascinating when she was with him; William had a way of schmoozing that made people feel important.  It was part of his charm.  But something lurked underneath that wasn’t quite wholesome, and I was always relieved when he turned his attention away from me.

Wedding

Their wedding promised to be a gorgeous affair: it would be at a swanky church on Ward Parkway, with all of William’s swanky lawyer friends attending.  His sister would not attend.  On Belle’s side there was basically just me, her brother from out West, and a few of her coworkers.  Former coworkers, I should say, since William made her quit her job.  Oh—I mean, she wanted to quit her job so she could concentrate on being the kind of wife that he needed.  At least that what she told me (and herself).  Of course she looked beautiful.  Radiant!  I’d never seen her look as happy as she did on that June afternoon, yet I felt a chill I just couldn’t shake. Continue reading

Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Re-imagining Stereotypes and Gender Roles

Melanie Magaña

[Ed. Note: At the end of this Introduction, readers are directed by links to the three pieces comprising the triptych.]

Introduction

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the story of Beauty and the Beast ever since the Disney movie put it on my radar.   On the one hand:  dancing teacups! Catchy tunes! Bookworm as heroine!  On the other hand, the underlying message to girls seems to be this:  You can change him.  If you love him enough, and if you’re good enough, you can change him.   This message is a lie at best, dangerous at worst.  No matter how jolly those dancing dishes might be, or how good or loving the Beauty is, even together they’re no match for a Beast if it turns out that he’s not Prince Charming.

William Trowbridge, poet laureate of Missouri, once introduced his work about King Kong by saying that “[King Kong] just wanted a pretty girlfriend.” That line stopped me in my tracks!  My understanding of the story was that, after being kidnapped by humans and brought to New York City to be made a spectacle of, King Kong needed a friend.  Why did it have to be “a pretty girlfriend?”  Trowbridge went on to state that King Kong was “a classic story of Beauty and the Beast, just like The Phantom of the Opera, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame…”

His examples got me thinking: how many other examples of this story live in our collective consciousness?

  • Family Guy: Brian, the family’s dog, constantly dates svelte yet busty young blonde women who never seem to notice that they’re dating a dog.
  • Knocked Up: The female lead is also svelte and blonde, yet the best date she can get is an alcoholic, pothead slacker?
  • Male rock stars who date and marry female models.
  • Any movie (or real life) featuring Woody Allen as the romantic lead.

All of these examples led me to the conclusion that Beauty and the Beast needed a new flavor, one that women can appreciate.

The retelling and refashioning of stories is nothing new.  People have been recycling myths, legends, bible stories ever since their first telling.  The Disney movies are the most immediate examples to come to mind.  If you look at older versions of the folktales on which they’re based, you’ll see how vastly different they’ve become in order to suit the audience of the day.  Frozen is one of the more altered examples, as the moviemakers took the story of the Snow Queen who steals Kay away from his family until Gerda frees him, and they changed it to the story of two estranged sisters.

The folks at Disney are not the only ones who retell old stories though.  My favorite book ever is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which retells the Cain and Abel story in at least two different ways; Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved retells the story of Jacob and Esau, which in its essence is just another Cain and Abel story.  Anais Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown sets the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1930’s America.  Shakespeare’s stories (not exactly original when he wrote them) have been retold in countless ways: West Side Story, Warm Bodies, A Thousand Acres, and Scotland, Pennsylvania to name but a few.

Although some of the examples I’ve given seem to have taken their original tale and turned them upside down (Romeo and Juliet in the zombie apocalypse—what?), they each retain enough of the essence of the original story to make it recognizable as a universal truth, and change the details enough to be accessible to a broader audience. At the heart of Beauty and the Beast, I found the story of a person who feels fundamentally unlovable (and haven’t we all, at times?), but who is given a new mirror in which to see the self.  Have students write about their own favorite story, folktale or myth.  Here are a few ways to get them thinking about the way it speaks to them, and how to retell it to make it relevant to others in the same way:

  • Put the characters in a different setting. What would happen if the characters were part of a contemporary setting, or a futuristic one?  In Alice in Wonderland High, Rachel Stone brings Alice & company to a contemporary high school setting.  In Briar Rose, Jane Yolen takes the story of The Sleeping Beauty and sets it in Nazi-occupied Poland.  If David and Goliath lived in contemporary America, would the stoning be a literal one or metaphorical? If Icarus and his father lived in the twentieth century, would they contribute to aviation or space travel?  When they’re brought down by hubris, how could it come about?
  • Change one or more characters in some fundamental way. In Murder at Mansfield Park, Lynn Shepherd takes the loveable Fanny Price and turns her into a shrew with as many enemies as there are motives to kill her.  In The Lion King, Hamlet & cast are, well, you know!  How would the wizarding world change if Harry Potter, embittered from years of ill-treatment by the Dursleys, teamed up with Voldemort in book 1?  What if Bruce Wayne had a physical disability? What if the group in Lord of the Flies were girls?
  • Insert a character from another reality. In The Eyre Affair, someone has changed the ending of Jane Eyre to pair Jane up with St. John instead of Mr. Rochester.  Author Jasper Fforde sends Literary Detective Thursday Next into the pages to find the culprit. In Lost in Austen, 21st-century Amanda discovers a secret portal through which she can enter the world of Pride and Prejudice…and Elizabeth can enter 21st-century London!  What would happen if Katniss found herself in the forest with Hansel and Gretel?
  • Is there a minor character who might be rounded out? Jo Baker gives a compelling account of life as a servant in the Bennet household; Tom Stoppard brings Hamlet’s childhood friends to center stage in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (see also The Lion King 1-1/2). Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey, a minor character in her Outlander series, became so popular that he now has a series of his own. Many of the fairy tales give little credence to the Prince, whose only role seems to be marrying the heroine.  What might his real motivation be?
  • What happened before Once Upon a Time? What happens after Happily Ever After?  Gregory MacGuire is probably the most well-known current author for writing the story behind the story for tales such as The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Peter Pan and others; in these, he also tells these famous stories from points of view of than the main characters’. Jean Rhys does the same for Jane Eyre’s doomed Mrs. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Budge Wilson fleshes out Anne Shirley’s back-story in Before Green Gables.  As to what happens after the final page, Sandra Lerner imagines what happened in the Bennet-Darcy marriage after ten years in Second Impressions. What sort of adult might Holden Caulfield be? Or Tom Sawyer?

The above ideas barely scratch the surface of possibilities due to the myriad facets of the human psyche; what speaks to one person about a story may leave the next person cold. With the slightest change to a story as I’ve suggested, the universal truth inside each tale can become magnified, giving the opportunity for re-examination.  With re-examination, another reader may find a truth that wasn’t readily apparent in the first reading, and could meet a new literary love.

[Ed. note: The three parts of the triptych are listed below. Click each title below to be magically transported to that story.]

  1. “BEAUTY AND THE BEASTESS”
  2. “BEAST’S BEAUTY”
  3. “BEAUTY’S BEGINNING”