Saturday, January 21, 2012

Retellings Beautiful and Beastly

Classifying Fairy Tales

On Tuesday my new picture book retelling of a Grimms' fairy tale, Hans My Hedgehog, is coming out, so I thought I'd tell you a little about its history and a lot about the retelling of a more famous story, "Beauty and the Beast." What is the history of a particular fairy tale, and how did it come to take its current shape?

Folklorists actually classify the stories into types, which make sense when you realize how many variations of the same basic plot can be found in different countries. Stories have traveled the world with traders and immigrants for centuries. For example, you can find Cinderella variations set in China, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, and the American South, among other regions and lands. The most well-known approach to classifying folk and fairy tales is the Aarne-Thompson system, first published by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne in 1910 and revised more than once by American Stith Thompson.

For example, under Animal Tales, Wild Animals, we have 99 story types, including notable offerings like "Biting the foot" (#7) and "Calling the three tree names" (#9). Some story types are found in more than one country, such as "Search for the lost husband" (#425A), listed under Supernatural or Enchanted Relatives, Husband, and found in Romanian, Scottish, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek, and Mexican variations.

"Hans My Hedgehog" also falls under Supernatural or Enchanted Relatives, Husband (#441), "In enchanted skin." According to noted folklorist Jack Zipes, the Grimms mostly used a version recounted to them orally by a woman named Dorothea Viehmann, who was married to a tailor and lived in a village near Kassel in Germany. There are other German versions, however, such as "The Wild Boar" and "The Bristly Child." (Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, Norton 2001.)

From Apuleius to Cocteau

"Beauty and the Beast" has a more complex history. Did you know it was based on Roman (and therefore, quite possibly Greek) mythology? Now it has an AT classification of #425C (also Supernatural or Enchanted Relatives, Husband), but it first comes to our attention as a story told in a book called The Golden Ass by Roman writer Apuleius (second century AD). The couple in the story are Cupid (Eros) and Psyche. You can get a picture book retelling of Cupid and Psyche by M. Charlotte Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft. (Though you may dislike the theme of "curious girls get in big trouble.")

The story of Cupid and Psyche was reinvented in France by La Fontaine, by Coneille and Molière as a play/ballet, and in at least five variations by Madame D'Aulnoy in the late 1600s. At the time, fairy tale retellings were very fashionable among wealthy Parisians. In fact, Madame D'Aulnoy coined the name "fairy tales" with the publication of one of her books, "Les Contes de Fées" (1697).

Next to adapt the tale was Madame Gabreille de Villaneuve, whose version set the standard for the plot as we recognize it. Three more French adapters tried their hand at the story: Madame Leprince de Beumont, Countess de Genlis—who reinvented it as a play called Beauty and the Monster (1785), and Jean-François Marmontel—who made it the libretto of an opera scored by André Modeste Grétry (1788). (Sources: Zipes again, plus Wiki.) Is this all starting to blur together for you? Suffice it to say, the story was told and retold in literary versions in France for about a century, and this was all back when Walt Disney's twice-great-grandfather was still a twinkle in his thrice-great-grandfather's eye.

What's lost here, of course, is the storyteller who told the tale to listeners around the fire before Roman writer Apuleius came along. Though I suspect Madame D'Aulnoy's tale, "The Ram," was at least partly responsible for transforming a hunky Greek god into a misshapen beast.

Keep in mind, then, that when we talk about purity of sources, we are looking at two long series of transformations—one taking place in the oral storytelling tradition (making its way across continents) and the other taking place in the literary fairy tale tradition, exemplified by collectors/adapters such as the Brothers Grimm, Madame D'Aulnoy, Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and another famous French reteller, Charles Perrault.

My favorite variant of "Beauty and the Beast" is actually the Norwegian story retold by Asbjørnsen and Moe, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." As another folklorist, Maria Tatar, explains, "'Unlike the French 'Beauty and the Beast,' this tale includes a coda in which the daughter has to undertake a journey, outwit a rival, and demonstrate her domestic worthiness" (Tatar, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, Norton 2002). The quest in "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" gives us a more active and determined heroine, even if it does end up with her having a shirt-washing contest with a troll princess. (There's magic and blood involved, which helps.)

Jumping to the 20th and 21st centuries, we find the famous French film version by Jean Cocteau (1946). And of course, a number of picture book and MG/YA retellings.

Beauty and the Beast

MERCER MAYER is best known for his book, There's a Nightmare in My Closet, his Little Critter stories, and his illustrations for John D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain Books, but he also illustrated fairy tales, including this one. Mayer does interesting, contemporary things with perspective, cinematically thrusting characters' faces into the foreground in certain spreads. The work is ornate and intense, full of twisted trees and the suffering of a lion-like Beast. The storytelling is detailed and appealing. A classic retelling of the tale, especially as compared to some of the more docile later versions.

British author-artist JAMES MAYHEW illustrated a retelling by PHILLIPA PEARCE. Mayhew's soft-edged style emphasizes the mystery and enchantment of the tale. Like Mayer's, his Beast is leonine, only with a lot more mane. The final spread is especially nice. Pearce's retelling is clear enough to work as a read-aloud for relatively young children.

Yes, it's a JAN BRETT book without decorative borders! This retelling (by the illustrator) is more mannered than some of the others, with nice touches like all of the servants being animals. In a move away from the lion approach, Brett's Beast is a boar, which makes him extra beastly. A single piece of silhouette art about three-fourths of the way in works well. And take a look at those gowns and hairstyles! I found it interesting that the story is told in summary until the merchant steals the rose, when we start getting some dialogue. The retelling is competent, though the illustrations are better.

ANGELA BARRETT is one of my favorite illustrators. Her Beauty and the Beast is retold by Brit Max Eilenberg at some length, entrancingly. The artwork is often small, serving as a backdrop to the text, but when the larger pieces come they tend to be striking. Barrett makes her Beast a narrow, black, cat-like creature with a touch of demon and a sweeping brush of tail. Be sure to look at some of the details of the strange home the artist envisions for the Beast. (See illustration above.)

Well-known middle grade fantasy writer LAWRENCE YEP teamed up with illustrator KAM MAK to give us a Chinese version of the story, The Dragon Prince. The beast here is an enchanted dragon prince and, in a motif that turns up in other folktales, one of the heroine's malicious sisters manages to take her place for a time. Yep is a very good storyteller, of course.

There is also a small edition of the Beauty and the Beast story retold by SAMANTHA EASTON and illustrated by RUTH SANDERSON. (Sanderson is known for painting from live models, ordinary people.) I'm not crazy about the trim size and the retelling isn't particularly amazing, but some of the paintings are quite nice. Sanderson goes with the lion look for her Beast.

BARRY MOSER teams up with Nancy Willard (who won the Newbery in 1982 for her poetry collection, A Visit to William Blake's Inn) to create a novella-length Beauty and the Beast. Moser's stark pen-and-ink pieces give a darker feel to the story than it would otherwise have. Some of them resemble portraits—the Beast reminds me of Mr. Hyde and is the scariest in this entire bunch of books. Naturally, Willard's retelling is masterful.

Recognized paper artist ROBERT SABUDA has done "A Pop-up Book of the Classic Tale," an intricate rendering with a stained glass look.

As for MG/YA versions, Newbery medalist Robin McKinley has retold the story twice, once in Beauty and again in Rose Daughter. Alex Flinn sets the tale in a modern city with her book, Beastly (recently made into a movie), while Donna Jo Napoli chooses a Persian—and then French—setting for Beast, a mature retelling recommended for older teens.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

MERCER MAYER illustrated the Norwegian version of this story, as well, with his wife Marianna doing the retelling. The paintings, one per spread, are rich and show a Russian/Eastern European influence. Some have a slightly static feel, more decorative than active, but others have more drama, and all combine beautifully to do the story justice. Mayer's troll princess is priceless, and his wife's retelling is clear and compelling. I was surprised to note that Mayer deliberately went with part of "The Frog Prince" in the early pages of the story rather than using the more traditional Norwegian bear as an alarming bridegroom.

P.J. LYNCH has done some beautiful illustrations for classics such as A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi and for fairy tales such as The Snow Queen and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. (His artwork for Amy Hest's When Jessie Came Across the Sea is also lovely.) Note that the retelling is straight from Asbjørnsen and Moe, or at least, from the 1859 translation by Sir George Webb Dasent. It's a more detailed rendition than we might expect to see today, but it's very well done. There's a rather pensive feel to Lynch's heroine, and his North Wind practically storms off the page. I also like the striking use of the polar bear and an illustration that shows the lassie alone in a dark wood. As for the troll princess, she actually gives Mayer's troll a run for her money. Watch for the shirt-washing scene, where the spread is positively overflowing with hideous trolls.

BARRY MOSER worked with Nancy Willard again on this story, or rather play. The little-known script in book form is 61 pages long and could, of course, be acted out by a school class. Some of the dialogue is written in rhyme. It's a quirky but well-crafted version of the tale.

GISELLE POTTER illustrated a Greek variation of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" that I've mentioned on Book Aunt in the past, Mr. Semolina-Semolinus. The retellers are Anthony L. Manna and Christodoula Mitakidou. After a unique start which completely bypasses the beast section—replacing it with a princess named Areti who cooks up her own boyfriend out of semolina, sugar, and almonds—we get the last section of the Norwegian story, more or less. Areti goes on an arduous quest to save her beloved from the selfish queen who has stolen him. This clever, slyly funny and rollicking tale makes a few words go a long way.

LAUREL LONG and JACQUELINE K. OGBURN tell the story with a twist, too, in The Lady and the Lion, illustrated by Long. (See also their previous collaboration, a gorgeous tale called The Magic Nesting Doll.) Lush, Middle Eastern-inspired paintings complement a story in which an evil enchantress kidnaps the lion after he is turned back to a man. The lady rescues her prince in a rather truncated version of the quest and confrontation from the Asbjørnsen and Moe version. You'll find that Ogburn's retelling is more spare than some of the others in this pleasing take on the Beauty and the Beast story. (See illustration above.)

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, East by Edith Patou, and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George are three notable MG/YA versions of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon."

And So...

Traditionally, the story of Beauty and the Beast has been used to teach girls to be self-sacrificing or to stifle their curiosity. The Romans and then the French certainly seemed to appreciate those lessons. In our day, we emphasize Beauty's loyalty to and patience with an unappealing, unhappy young man. The meta-lesson has been said to be about the so-called gentle sex taming the rougher one, but ultimately, I think we as a culture love the story for reasons of simple human kindness. And don't forget Beauty's courage!

As for Hans My Hedgehog, he's a close cousin to Beauty's Beast, only his story includes more peasant humor and class conflict. (The original shows a king tricking Hans because he can't read.) What kind of girl would marry a young man who is half hedgehog? An honorable one. And the princess's integrity pays off when the spell on her prickly husband is broken.

All of us feel like beasts sometimes, and all of us hope to be loved for our hearts, for the truth of who we are. Perhaps any time two people form a match, the answer for men and women alike is to look for beauty within the beast.

Update: Two more books have come up in the comments. Thanks to Rebecca Donnelly for reminding me of a Barefoot Books version of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" (with two other tales mixed in) called The Princess and the White Bear King, retold by Tanya Robin Batt and illustrated by Nicoletta Cecolli. And Megan tells us about East of the Sun & West of the Moon, retold and illustrated by László Gál, which she says is very colorful and dreamy.


Linda B said...

Wow, what a comprehensive post of all the lovely 'beauties'. I enjoyed your background, new information for me about the classifying of folk tales, and also the group of different approaches of telling the tale. I have read Robin McKinley's two books & recommended them often to students, and now will check to see if I can find some of your others. Congratulations on your book coming out; it looks like a sweet tale. Hedgehogs bring out our best feelings so I am already wondering how you create some reluctance on the part of the princess.

Brimful Curiosities said...

We are currently reading The Lady and the Lion. How I wish it was still in print. Long's illustrations are incredible.

Brandy said...

I love when you do posts like this! I think I have read every version of a particular tale, but no, you always manage to make me aware of one or two I've missed.

I love Beauty and the Beast mostly because it is derivative of the myth of Eros and Psyche. (It is also why the myth Turner created for Queen of Attolia is my favorite from those books. And how she incorporated it into the story part of why I like that book so much.)

I can't wait for our copy of Hans to arrive! Now I'm off to look for these books you have told me of.

KateCoombs said...

Linda--Thanks! I'm very fond of Hans, but I have to admit that in "real life" it might be a little rough to marry a guy with a hedgehog head. :)

BC--Yes, Long's illustrations are simply gorgeous!

Brandy--I had forgotten the tale in QofA! And thanks for mentioning Eros; I'll add the name to my info about Cupid and Psyche.

Tanya said...

Excellent, thorough post! Mariana & Mercer Mayer's version is my favorite picture book retelling. Have you read Robin McKinley's "Beauty" is my favorite chapter book version (

Had a thrilling moment at work (Barnes & Noble) yesterday when I saw three copies (a lot for a new picture book at my little store) of HANS on my cart to be shelved! I gave them a prominent face-out and plan to read it at story time! Congratulations again on a beautiful book!

KateCoombs said...

Tanya--isn't the Mercer Mayer version wonderful? And yes, I've read Beauty. It's so interesting to compare it to the author's second take on the story, Rose Daughter. It was written 15-20 years later, as I recall.

Thanks for telling me about B&N. They're a little unpredictable, so I'm glad to hear they ordered Hans. And thanks for the face-out and congrats!

Unknown said...

Hans looks wonderful! I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. And thanks for this great rundown of Beauty retellings.

Rebecca Donnelly said...

Thank you for this very informative post! You've mentioned several books I'm going to have to try to add to my library's collection. Another nice picture book version that works in elements from three different tales, including East o'the Sun, is The Princess and the White Bear King by Tanya Robin Batt.

Megan said...

Fascinating post! I will have to track some of these down. :) One of my favourite versions of East of the Sun, West of the Moon is illustrated by Laszlo Gal...very colourful, dreamy images. Congrats on the new books too- can't wait to read them.

KateCoombs said...

Thanks, Mary!

Rebecca and Megan, I will have to look for those versions. I'll add them to the post in an update, too. And I just ordered yet another version! :)

Yellow Brick Reads said...

Wonderful post. I love the way you trace the evolution of the tale. I hadn't known the source tale so lessons were learnt too!

In case of interest, Angela Carter provides two intriguing adaptations of the beauty and the beast story in her book The Bloody Chamber ( a word of caution, these are not for children). The Courtship of Mr Lyon runs on fairly traditional lines while The Tiger's Bride contains a surprising outcome as beauty gets more in touch with her beastly side.

KateCoombs said...

Interesting, YBR! Robin McKinley's first version runs along traditional lines, as well, but her second one is about Beauty learning to love the Beast as he is, not trying to change him.

Abba said...

For a nice alternative retelling of Beauty and the Beast, I would recommend "His Black Wings" by Astrid Yrigollen. Its B&B set in a steampunk world and has some excellent character development and plot twist.