The meaning of one of the oldest fairy tales in the world
Iona and Peter Opie, in their The Classic Fairy Tales, call ‘Beauty and the Beast’ the most symbolic fairy tale after Cinderella, and ‘the most intellectually satisfying’. It’s also one of the oldest: we can trace the archetypal versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ back some 4,000 years, making it over 1,000 years older than Homer. If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck a little, what will it take?
Perhaps such an august fairy tale of such fine vintage deserves closer analysis, since it’s clearly spoken to many cultures across a vast time span. What makes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ so intellectually satisfying (to borrow the Opies’ phrase), and why has it endured? Well, first, here’s a quick reminder or summary of the plot of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. A wealthy merchant has three daughters, the youngest of which is admired widely for her beauty, and comes to be known simply as ‘Beauty’. Her older sisters are far prouder than she is, and let it be known that they will only marry an earl or duke. When their father loses his fortune, the two older sisters find it difficult to adjust to a life of penury, but the loyal and modest Beauty sets about finding ways to help out her father around the house. Read the rest of this entry
Barely any of the hundreds of poems Emily Dickinson wrote were published during her lifetime, and indeed, while she was alive, she was far better known as a gardener than a poet. ‘New feet within my garden go’, which is about new generations setting foot in her garden while the seasons continue to roll on and roll round, reminds us of the link between mankind’s toil (working in the garden) and the vast and eternal cycle of nature which makes our achievements seem so small by comparison.
New feet within my garden go –
New fingers stir the sod –
A Troubadour upon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.
New children play upon the green –
New Weary sleep below –
And still the pensive Spring returns –
And still the punctual snow! Read the rest of this entry
On a well-known fairy tale
‘The Princess and the Pea’ is one of the shortest of the classic fairy tales. It also manages to be simultaneously one of the most straightforward and one of the most baffling. It’s straightforward because its plot is so simple, but it’s almost too simple. What are we to make of this tale of royal oversensitivity to bed-dwelling vegetables? Does the fairy tale (if it even is strictly a fairy tale at all) have any discernible moral?
It is easy to summarise ‘The Princess and the Pea’: a prince wishes to marry a princess, but he wants to make sure she is a real princess, rather than one of the dozens of royal pretenders who appear to inhabit the realm. He goes on an extensive search to find his royal bride, but he cannot be completely sure that any of the women he meets are bona fide princesses. This pickiness when it comes to courting looks set to end in perpetual bachelorhood, until one day, on a dark and stormy night, a young woman arrives at his castle, asking to take shelter inside until the storm has passed. The woman claims to be a princess, so the prince’s mother takes a pea and places it under twenty mattresses in the bed where the princess is to spend the night. Read the rest of this entry