The Enduring Beauty of ‘Beauty and the Beast’
To say that the story of Beauty and the Beast has been around for a long time is somewhat of an understatement. Though variations of the story weren’t published in book form until the 18th century, researchers believe that some elements of this widespread fairytale are at least 4000 years old.
So what’s this story all about and why has it endured to our day? Many details and plot twists have been added and changed over the years, both in literature and in film, and this muddies the water a little in trying to get to the heart of the tale. For instance, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, in her 1756 version, seems to add her own moralistic twist to the story to make it about what young women should look for in a husband. In this version, after Belle leaves Beast and returns to her father, she has the following thoughts rush through her mind after a bad dream in the middle of the night:
“Is it his fault if he is so ugly, and has so little sense? He is kind and good, and that is sufficient. Why did I refuse to marry him? I should be happier with the monster than my sisters are with their husbands; it is neither wit, nor a fine person, in a husband, that makes a woman happy, but virtue, sweetness of temper, and complaisance, and Beast has all these valuable qualifications. It is true, I do not feel the tenderness of affection for him, but I find I have the highest gratitude, esteem, and friendship; I will not make him miserable, were I to be so ungrateful I should never forgive myself." (Yes, Belle has two sisters and also three brothers in these earlier versions).
This moral lesson about choosing a virtuous husband appears to be a twist added by Beaumont and not a part of the core story (in fact, in some ways it is actually contradictory). The much lengthier version by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, published in 1740, undoubtedly added many new features to the fairytale as well, and if you’re up for wading through it you’ll see the clear influence of 18th-century French society. More modern versions have naturally incorporated their own elements, and for the sake of time, I won’t get into the recent controversy regarding the character of Lefou in the 2017 Disney film. Plenty of others have written about that. Besides, Lefou and Gaston don’t appear as characters until the 1991 Disney animated version and are therefore secondary to the main purpose of this article. By the way, in earlier versions Belle’s two envious and arrogant sisters, not Gaston, are the primary villains. In the end, they are cursed and turned into statues which stand in front of the palace. Nice.
So putting all the peripheral details aside, what’s at the heart of this story? In short, Beauty and the Beast is about a brave young peasant who through love and sacrifice brings redemption and new life to those who are in danger and under a curse. This is seen in part when Belle willingly substitutes her life in order to save her father, though she personally has done nothing wrong or deserving of death. However, it is most vividly displayed in the relationship between Belle and the Beast. Due to his own pride and selfishness, the man who was once a prince has lost his humanity and has become a hideous and foolish brute. It is only through the true love of the humble and selfless Belle that the curse is broken and the prince’s humanity is restored. That is the heart of Beauty and the Beast which truly makes it a ‘tale as old as time’ because it is a faint picture of an even greater story.
It is a true story of people who were created to live as members of the royal family, as princes and princesses, under the good reign and rule of the greatest King the world has ever known. Yet through their selfishness and pride, they brought a curse on themselves and on the entire kingdom, all of creation. This is our story. We were made as humans to show the beauty, love, and splendor of our Creator and to enjoy unending happiness with Him. That’s what Scripture is getting at when it says we were created in His image and likeness. To be human, in the fullest sense, is to image God. Sadly, we all miserably fail at imaging God. Indeed, His image within us has been broken and marred because of sin, and like Beast, living under the curse, none of us experiences what it means to be fully human. It is only through the loving sacrifice of a humble, selfless, and brave young peasant, that our full humanity can be restored. This is what Jesus has done to rescue us from the curse of sin and death and it is only through his sacrifice that we can be restored and experience new life.
Jesus is the only man who lived his entire life as a perfect human, we could say that he shows us what it means to be human in the fullest sense. As we trust in Christ we are being remade into his image. In other words, we are becoming fully human again. This is why Paul calls Jesus the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29), it is only in and through Him that we become a part of a restored humanity. Though we rebelled and became marred by the ugliness of sin, in love, Jesus brings us back to the Father, making us sons in the royal family once again. This is true even now for those who have trusted in Jesus. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation already (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, we still wait for that future day of full restoration. Notice how John the apostle puts it:
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
1 John 3:1-3 ESV
So why has the story of Beauty and the Beast endured? I suspect that deep within our hearts something about it resonates with our sense of what is true. Our natural tendency may be to think of ourselves as Belle, but if we are honest we’ll come to grips with the reality of our beastly selfishness and pride. Like the Beast, we are incapable of lifting the curse and our time is running out. Thanks be to God for our loving and humble King Jesus, who is more than able to set us free from our condemnation and restore our full humanity.
Nathan Cedarland is a servant-leader of Kaleo Grays Harbor, a church plant in Aberdeen, WA. He is passionate about God, his family (his wife Julissa and their five kids), his church family, equipping the Spanish-speaking church throughout the Americas, and film-making.