Last week’s entry was sort of traumatizing, what with all the mutilation and tragedy inherent in the original “Little Mermaid” fairy tale. This week will be a bit less tragic, but a whole lot weirder. We’ll start off in 18th century France and end up in Ancient China via a 9th century Islamic source. It’ll be fun!
So, let’s kick this off with:
The Story We Know: Belle, a bookish misfit, is imprisoned by a Beast who is actually a cursed prince. During her time with him, she gets to know the man beneath the rage and is able to help him make peace with the world, eventually falling in love with him and breaking the curse. Oh, and also, all his servants have been transformed into inanimate objects. Who sing. And dance.
The Actual Story: The story’s author has the coolest name ever, but that may just be because it’s French. But anyways, the original story is “La Belle et la Bête” written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. The expansive, sometimes rambling tale was later simplified and retold by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756. Beaumont’s version is the most widely known and the most popular because of its elegance and archetypal structure, but Villeneuve’s version offers much more complex backstory for the title characters which includes fairies (good and evil), kingdom intrigue, and hidden identities. Because it is (in my humble opinion) the better version, I’ll focus on Beaumont’s telling:
A merchant of high standing has three daughters. The youngest, Beauty, is kind and generous while her two older sisters are vain and selfish and treat Beauty like a servant girl. After a storm at sea ruins the merchant financially, he and his family are forced to relocate to a modest farm house (it’s not dreary, it’s “rustic,” the realtor said!).
After some time, the merchant learns that one of his ships made it through the storm unharmed! Excited that he may regain his fortune, he rushes off to claim it. Asking his daughters if they want a gift from the city, the two older daughters ask for finery and jewels but Beauty asks for a rose (because they were rare where they were living).
The merchant arrives to claim his ship, but learns that everything aboard was confiscated to pay off his vast debts, and so he returns home, despondent and penniless. Coming across a vast palace, the merchant enters and finds a table set with food and drink, which he enjoys. Spying a rose garden outside the palace on his way out, he takes a rose for Beauty, but is immediately attacked by a monstrous Beast. The Beast tells him that, because he stole a prized possession after being graciously offered food and drink, he must die, but the merchant explains that the rose was a gift for his youngest daughter. The Beast relents and allows the merchant to give the rose as a gift, on the condition that the merchant return to the palace as a prisoner. The merchant reluctantly agrees and the Beast gives him jewels and finery to give to his other daughters.
The merchant returns home to his daughters and tries to keep his bargain a secret, but Beauty figures it out and goes to see the Beast to speak for her father, only to learn that she is now mistress of the castle and cannot leave. The Beast treats her well and gives her everything she desires…except her freedom (womp womp). They have wonderful conversations that last for hours and his servants cater to her every whim, but she continues to miss her family. Every evening, he makes her a lavish dinner and asks her to marry him, but she refuses, keeping him squarely in the friendzone. But every night, she dreams of a handsome prince who asks why she refuses to marry the Beast. Eventually, she surmises that the Beast is keeping the prince from her dreams locked up in the castle. Try as she might, she cannot find him (because of dramatic irony).
After some time, desperately homesick, she asks to return to her family. The Beast agrees, but tells her that she must return by a certain time (he’s a very trusting Beast). He gives her a magic ring that will transport her back to his palace and a magic mirror that will let her see him.
Her sisters are happy to see her, only because they think she now has a connection to vast wealth that they can exploit (the hags). Jamming onions in their eyes, they feign being overcome with emotion and beg her to stay. Beauty agrees, but then feels guilty about betraying the Beast. She looks in the mirror and finds him nearly dead from a broken heart, lying next to the rose bushes. She uses the ring to return to his side immediately, her tears falling on his prone body. She admits that she loves him and he is transformed into the prince from her dreams. He tells her that he was cursed by a fairy when he wouldn’t let her in from the rain (which is kind of an overreaction, but alright). The two are married and live happily ever after. I have no idea how her father felt about all this since he sort of vanishes from the story partway through…maybe he figured she knew what was right for herself. So, I guess that’s ok.
The Villeneuve version isn’t bad, but it has a lot of details and subplots that aren’t really necessary, such as the backstory of Beauty which reveals that she is half-fairy (and half royalty) and was switched out with the merchant’s youngest daughter to protect her from the machinations of the fairy who was trying to marry the king. It’s just really convoluted and doesn’t add much to the emotional core of the story. Villeneuve’s Beast is also much more animalistic and brutal and not the socially stunted Beast of Baumont’s version. One is a fantasy novella, the other a fairy tale. So, it’s up to you, I guess.
And now, we leap across the world for:
The Story We Know: Noble street rat Aladdin meets and falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Jasmine, but he has no hopes of ever actually marrying her because she’s a strong independent woman who don’t need no man (but she does kind of like him). Also, he’s not a prince, so… But anyway, the Sultan’s advisor, Jafar, uses Aladdin to get a lamp for him, but things happen and Aladdin ends up trapped underground with the lamp. Discovering that it is actually a MAGIC lamp with its very own Genie, Aladdin is given three wishes. He uses his first wish to become a prince and woo Jasmine, but all the while, Jafar is plotting to get the lamp back and have the Genie’s power for himself. It’s the best Disney movie ever.
The Actual Story: I feel like whoever originally came up with the story didn’t know much about the Far East because it’s set in China…but like no one in it is actually Chinese. The characters are Muslim and have Arabic names (Aladdin comes from the Arabic Alā’ ad-Dīn which means “nobility of faith”).
But moving on, One Thousand and One Nights is a beautiful collection of folktales hailing from the Middle East and Western Asia. They’re arranged amid a frame story in which Scheherezade, one of the most fantastic female characters in all of literature, saves her life by telling a vicious king, Sharyār, a series of tales, ending each night with a cliffhanger so that instead of killing her as was his wont, he keeps her alive so as to hear the rest of the story. I’m pretty sure Scheherezade was one of the writers on Lost, actually.
“Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp” is one such tale. Now, it’s doubted whether or not it was actually originally part of the collection (since many versions of these tales have existed in many forms throughout the centuries) and the most common collections to be found today were actually translated and edited by Europeans who may have added in some Middle Eastern folktales from other sources (Thanks bunches, Antoine Galland). But it is a genuine folktale from the region and so we’ll go with it. I’m using Sir Richard Burton’s translation because his is pretty complete and true to the source material (plus it totally offended everyone in 1885 for its frank sexual content, so it’s fun).
Ok, to the story: Aladdin is a “scapegrace and ne’er-do-well” child of ten-ish whose father has died (literally as a result of Aladdin’s vexing idleness). His mother spins thread to support them, but they’re not doing well. Then this fellow from Morocco, a Maghrabi or magician, comes by and claims to be Aladdin’s uncle (yeah right) and showers Aladdin with gifts and stuff…and then takes him out of the city and opens up a cavern in the ground and tells him that there is great treasure hidden underneath and only Aladdin can reach it. He’s not to touch anything he sees until he finds a special oil lamp. Then he can grab all he can carry. Aladdin is hesitant, but the man gives him a magic ring and says that it will protect him. So Aladdin does so and finds the lamp and then loads up his pockets with gemstones which are sitting on trees like fruit. He gets so loaded that he can’t climb out and asks for help, but the Maghrabi tells him to throw the lamp up. The lamp is buried under all the gemstones and he can’t reach it and so the Maghrabi seals him inside in a fit of rage and frustration.
Aladdin prays to Allah to save him and while doing so rubs his hands against the ring the magician gave him. This releases the ring’s Familiar (a minor jinn or genie) who brings him above ground. Aladdin returns home to his mother and gives her everything. When she goes to polish the lamp, she releases a much more powerful jinn who gives them everything they desire. Life is good.
This is getting long so I’m going to zoom through the rest. Aladdin sees the Sultan’s daughter, Badr al-Budur (whose name means “Full Moon of Full Moons”) and uses the lamp jinn to get them together (outwitting the king’s advisor who wants the princess to marry his son) but the Maghrabi from the beginning returns and steals the lamp (and Aladdin’s palace and the princess) and so Aladdin must use the ring jinn to rescue the princess from him (even though she’s awesome and has already poisoned the Maghrabi, feigning actual love for him and slipping something into his drink). Then the Maghrabi’s brother seeks revenge on them, but Aladdin kills him and they all live happily ever after.
It’s a long tale and I totally didn’t do it justice, but it’s pretty awesome. Now, I’m not sure if I’m crazy, but I know I read another variation wherein Aladdin had to get a lotus ring off of the tail of a nine-tailed tiger and it was that ring which helped him escape the cave. I might be crazy because I’m pretty sure that was actually a coloring book…but anyways, it was cool. It may also be an element in another of the tales that I’m mixing up with this one. But you should totally read One Thousand and One Nights if you can because not only are they a wonderful window into Muslim history and culture, but they’re a lot of fun to read out loud (if you can find a good translation that at least tries to render the poetry of the original Arabic).
Alright, I’ll leave you alone. Next week, we’re tackling The Lion King and Pocahontas!