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The Beauty and the Beast

Over a century before the Brothers Grimm began publishing their fairy tales, a group of disa ected women found their voice in literature, producing some of the most-loved stories of all time
TALE AS OLD AS TIME? Anthropologists believe that Beauty and the Beast may be 4,000 years old

Once upon a time, in a kingdom not too far away, a woman sat down at her desk to write. From her pen flowed the tale of a young girl named Belle, the daughter of a merchant who finds himself lost in the woods. He stumbles upon a palace and is welcomed by a hidden figure, who offers him a lavish feast and a bed for the night. The next day, the merchant plucks a rose from the garden to give to Belle, but is suddenly confronted by a terrifying beast. For taking his most prized possession, the beast tells him, he must give his life. After begging for mercy, the beast allows the merchant to leave – but only if his beloved daughter returns in his place.

The story was La Belle et le Bête – or Beauty and the Beast, as we know it in the English-speaking world – published in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. In the years that followed, the shoots of the fairy tale were twisted and twined around the pens of many other storytellers; first by Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, who published a much shorter version for children the following decade. The first movie adaptation, directed by Jean Cocteau in 1946, introduced talking mirrors and enchanted candelabras, as well as the character of Avenant, Beauty’s arrogant suitor. It was this version that would eventually form the bare branches of its most famous retelling – the 1991 Disney animation.

But who sowed the story’s seed? Like all fairy tales, its roots reach far deeper than the paper on which it was first written. Though it’s impossible to trace their origins to a particular time and place, we do know that humans were telling stories as soon as they were able to speak – or perhaps, even before, through sign language. These ancient tales were used to communicate knowledge, warn about dangers or explain the inexplicable. They often formed the basis of mythologies, which were transcribed by the literate elite and became part of a structured belief system.

Among the illiterate, non-religious (but often moral) stories were shared. Magical folk tales were passed down verbally from generation to generation, largely by women, peasants and slaves. They told stories of giants and monsters, princes and wicked step-mothers, wizards and talking animals. These could be differentiated from the legends that became popular in the medieval period, which were believed to be grounded in reality; even ones containing mythical beasts, like St George and the Dragon (which originated in 11th-century Georgia) were thought to be true.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Discover the real King Arthur with our exclusive article from archaeologist Miles Russell, who believes that the legendary figure was in fact a Dark Age warlord. Elsewhere, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell go head to head, take a look at life on the Thames in the Victorian era, and learn about the forgotten storyteller who wrote one of our most-loved fairytales.