The story of Beauty and the Beast has been around for centuries in both written and oral form, and more recently in film and video. Many experts trace similarities back to the stories of Cupid and Psyche, Oedipus and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass of the second century A.D.
The tale of Beauty and the Beast was first collected in Gianfranceso Straparola’s Le piacevolo notti (The Nights of Straparola) 1550-53. The earliest French version is an ancient Basque tale where the father was a king and the beast a serpent. Charles Perrault popularized the fairy tale with his collection Contes de ma mere l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose) in 1697. The 17th century Pentamerone is also said to include similar tales.
The first truly similar tale to the one we know today was published in 1740 by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve as part of a collection of stories La jeune amériquaine, et les contes marins (told by an old woman during a long sea voyage). Mme. de Villeneuve wrote fairy tale romances drawn from earlier literature and folk tales for the entertainment of her salon friends.
Almost half of the Villeneuve story revolves around warring fairies and the lengthy history of the parentage of both Beauty and the Prince. Beauty is one of 12 children, her stepfather is a merchant, her real father being the King of the Happy Isles. The Queen of the Happy Isles is both Beauty’s mother and the Dream Fairy Sister. Villeneuve also made various digs at the many enforced marriages that women had to submit to, and her Beauty ponders that many women are made to marry men far more beastly than her Beast. The story was 362 pages long.
French aristocrat Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont took Mme. de Villeneuve’s tale and shortened it, publishing it in 1756 as part of a collection entitled Magasin des enfants. It is pretty well the version we consider traditional today.
The story of Beauty and the Beast appears in many other cultures in different forms. Aarne-Thompson lists 179 tales from different countries with a similar theme to Beauty and the Beast. There are usually three daughters, the youngest being the most kind and pure, her sisters displaying some of the undesirable traits of humankind. Beauty often has no name but is referred to as the youngest daughter. (For purposes of identification I shall use “Beauty” when referring to the heroine of the story.) There never seems to be a mother, thus omitting the possible conflicts a mother would have allowing her daughter to leave to live with a monster and allowing a closer relationship with the father who is, in most cases, wealthy. Although the Beast takes on many guises (serpent, wolf, even pig) he is never appealing in appearance but is rich and powerful. Hidden powers seem to guide the humans. At one point the Beauty is separated from her Beast and at that time some ill befalls him. Beauty’s remorse, sometimes as simple as shedding a tear and sometimes as onerous a penance as going to the end of the earth, saves the Beast and his transformation to handsome man is achieved.