Stories of transformation, whether the subject be a husband, wife, sibling, child, or friend, must begin with the cause of transformation. The beasts of Beauty and the Beast tales are cursed, but this often goes beyond the act of a spell being cast—beasts are cursed with the love of those who cannot truly love them.
Scholars such as Bruno Bettelheim will talk at great length of the Oedipal nature of, for example, the love of Beauty for her father. But what stands out far more upon closer reading is the opposite problem. Mothers and fathers, as well as a horde of other inappropriate figures, fall in love with their children with alarming frequency. Punished for failing to return romantic feelings in utterly bizarre situations, children are punished by transformation, a spiteful and childish reaction along the lines of “If I can’t have them, no one can.”
In the variant which our modern “Beauty and the Beast,” is most clearly descended from, a French novel by Madame Villeneuve titled La Belle et la Bete, the Beast’s back story is very clearly developed, and one particularly striking change has occurred over the years. Most recent tellings of the story show the Beast as cursed due to his mistreatment of some innocent. In Villeneuve’s version, as in many early variants of the story type, the situation is quite the opposite. The young prince is watched over for many years, in the midst of war, by an elderly fairy. Their relationship is always close, but shifts dramatically over time; telling his story later, when the spell is broken, the prince says, “Whereas she had previously permitted me to call her ‘mama,’ she now forbade me…She wanted me to love her not as a mother, but as a mistress” (Villeneuve 200). The prince has come to love her as a mother, his own being absent, and she has always treated him as a son, a child—certainly not a lover. He is punished for rejecting her advances, and for his mother’s description of the proposed match as “absurd” (201).
The fairy turns him into a monster, commanding that he seem as stupid as he is hideous, and remain in such condition until a beautiful girl develops “such tender love for [him] that she’ll agree to marry [him]” (203). In uttering this curse, she clearly exhibits her unsuitability as a lover; not only is she a maternal figure in his life, but she is unable to imagine that anyone would love him were he not intelligent and attractive, showing that her love for him runs no deeper than this.
In “East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon,” a popular Norwegian variant of the Greek “Cupid and Psyche,” the prince finds himself in a similar position with a stepsister. Having failed to fulfill the escape clause on his curse, he must finish what he started before his detour as a polar bear. Noticing his reluctance to marry the sister in question, his troll stepmother has cursed him. As a white bear, he was to live with a woman for one year, a bear by day and a man, in bed with her, every night. If he could make it this long without her seeing his face, he would be free. But if the woman failed to meet these terms, of which she was never informed, the prince was marry his stepmother’s daughter, a troll princess with a nose three ells long (Asbjornsen).
Even in “Cupid and Psyche” itself, one can see the same element. True, there is no other bride on hand, and no actual transformation occurs—it is merely a relationship that lives only in the dark. Bettelheim claims that Cupid’s relationship with his mother, before Psyche enters the scene, is sexual, but the text does not spell this out as clearly as he implies (293). Regardless, his relationship with his mother in undoubtedly overturned by his relationship with Psyche, and he is forced to hide himself and the relationship from her anger. The transforming love that these stories are centered on is consistently preceded by a love that is possessive, obsessive, and often utterly inappropriate and immoral.
A particularly interesting case is that of Aarne-Thompson Type 510B, or “Donkey Skin.” Aarne-Thompson groups this story with the Cinderella types, and though that is sometimes accurate, it can also fit perfectly here. This is due to regional issues; 510B is a broad category, and the stories based in Northern Europe, where Aarne and Thompson worked, bear much more resemblance to Cinderella stories than those told elsewhere (Goldberg). In the case of the titular Donkey Skin, there is no literal curse. She is cursed only by her father’s romantic pursuit. Desperate to avoid an incestuous marriage, the princess tries first to set impossible conditions for her father, but when he meets them all, she is forced to flee, taking on a grotesque disguise in order to protect herself.
In the French version recorded by Charles Perrault, the princess, based on instructions from her fairy godmother, asks her father to kill and skin an enchanted donkey that excretes gold coins. When he unexpectedly does so, the princess runs away wearing the skin of the donkey, which will protect her from recognition for most of the story. In the version told by the brothers Grimm, one of her conditions is “a mantle made of a thousand skins of rough fur sewn together, and every animal in the kingdom must give a piece of his skin toward it” (76). When she runs away, of course, the princess uses this as her disguise.
Another French variant, this one by Henriette-Julie de Murat, is called “Bearskin.” This story is slightly different from those above, in that it does involve the princess actually changing into bear to escape unwanted marriage, rather than just donning a disguise. In her analysis of this tale, scholar Marina Warner notes that for female beasts “shape-shifting also shifts the conditions of confinement…[she] acquires more freedom of movement than as a young woman, and more freedom of choice” (283). While it is noteworthy that most female characters choose their own transformation, ultimately they have no more real freedom than their male counterparts. They, too, were forced into this position against their will in the aftermath of false and wicked love.