Fairy tales are an old and influential form of cultural transmission. They reveal to us what people throughout the ages have deemed significant, what ideas they wanted to preserve and communicate. By examining fairy tales, not only can we learn a great deal about human nature, we can uncover beliefs we hold about each other.
One facet of fairy tales I find fascinating is that of the animal spouse, and all the complexities of gender and sexual politics that go along with it. Almost every culture around the world has at least one, sometimes many, iterations of fairy tales about animal grooms and/or animal brides. And this particular story element is old, very old – the precursors to Beauty and the Beast for instance can be traced back some 4,000 years. The animal forms themselves range from mammals, to birds, to amphibians, to unrecognizable but disgusting creatures, and the elements of these stories vary to an extent. However, there are similarities and recurrent themes that appear to transcend regional, cultural or linguistic differences.
Stories of animal spouses were, and remain to this day, very popular. Like so many young women, I found Beauty and the Beast particularly enthralling. At the time, Belle seemed to me a likable and relatable protagonist, who was intelligent, devoured books and unlike her Disney predecessors actively rejected the pressure to get married. Then there was the Beast, a dark and brooding anti-hero, who because of his flaws not in spite of them, was far more attractive than the forgettable “Prince Charmings” of other fairy tales, who were devoid of any personality or characteristics beyond handsome. To many girls, the Beast is passionate and animalistic in a way we are drawn to—he is the Byronic hero: Mr. Rochester, Edward Scissorhands, Severus Snape and so on. It seems only pertinent to take a deeper look at fairy tales so many of us ingested in our youth.
I think it is also worth pointing out that the idea that fairy tales were intended for children is a relatively modern notion. Originally, adults were the audience of fairy tales just as often. Furthermore, fairy tales were historically dominated by women. Perault collected and developed his tales with female peers of the French salons and the Grimms procured many of their tales from female German peasants. In pre-industrialized communities, folk tales were a way of disseminating knowledge and life lessons. Often lessons for women, by women.
While fairy tales have undergone a process of “sanitization” when they were collected into literary forms, or adapted for children, traditionally they were overflowing with the same dark and intriguing concepts we humans find ourselves preoccupied with: danger, violence, taboo, sex, etc. Throughout human history cultural lessons are often taught through metaphor and allegory, because symbols and themes that fit together into an archetype are easier to understand and remember, especially in non-literate cultures. It is a manner of lesson through comparison. Rather than speak about sexuality and other problematic parts of the human experience (incest, abuse, neglect, etc) directly, we approach them symbolically. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Myth makes what was merely a principle imaginable. That is the beauty of the myth; it makes use of symbols and conveys psychological facts and truths in a tangible manner.”
And so now we dive into the symbols of these stories, that we might uncover whatever psychological facts they contain.
One of the defining characteristics of an animal groom is that his beastliness is immediately apparent and is an obstacle that must be overcome for the tale to end in happily ever after. He is painted as tragic and sympathetic, yet there is almost always a caution and danger in their courting. Animal grooms are to be pitied and yet not trusted, at least not while they remain in their beastly forms. The sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, threat of physical and sexual violence in these tales reminds us of the intimidation women feel all too often in relation to men.
As for the female character promised to a beast, when confronted with an arranged marriage to a monster she usually resigns herself to her fate and bravely submits. Rarely ever is there resistance on her part. It is only after she comes to love her animal husband is his true human form revealed.
It may appear that the moral of these stories is to refrain from judging on appearances alone and to love the person inside, yet it also serves a more insidious function. It implores women to patiently accept beastliness on the part of their partner, for it is presumed that inside there is a man worthy of compassion and love. The animal husband is allowed to be complex, flawed and redeemable, though often the female protagonist is not. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise when you consider that all of us have been conditioned to empathize with male characters, frequently in spite of their wrong-doings.
Why would we need to teach such lessons and keep these archetypes alive in our cultural awareness? Maybe to teach women to be cautious and wary, to tread lightly, but ultimately to find the man inside the beast they are bound to, and to ensure both of their happiness, as well as the success of their marriage, with her love. That is an amazing amount of pressure to put on one person, and where there is pressure there is anxiety.
Not that long ago it was common for women everywhere to share an anxiety about arranged marriages they were powerless to control or prevent. A woman did not have a choice in the matter and could end up as easily with a husband who was cruel as one who was kind. These fairy tales of animal husbands can be viewed as are a form of indoctrination, meant to encourage a woman to accept and play her role as dutiful wife, with the hope that her love will soothe and satisfy any man’s “beastly” nature, or his intimidating sexual presence.
As others have put it:
“The tales in the Beauty and the Beast group number among the most eloquent testaments to women’s struggles, against arranged marriage, and towards a definition of the place of sexuality in love. The enchantments and disenchantments of the Beast have been a rich resource in stories women have made up, among themselves, to help, to teach, to warn.” -Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde
“The grooms in arranged marriages may well have been perceived as noxious by their young brides, who, full of anxieties about marrying, are taught their culture’s lessons about the sacrifice of female desire and/or the transforming power of love. Older versions of these tales stress female acceptance of male sexuality and the civilizing effect of female virtues on brute desire.” -Donald Haase, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales
As for animal brides, they tend to fall into two types: tricksters or captives. This dichotomy fits into a larger trend of the roles women are permitted to play in all fairy tales, not just the ones with animal spouses. “When it comes to female roles the message [fairy] tales convey is that there are only two types of women: the helpless and the malicious.” Thus we end up with either animal brides who are malicious in their active desire to seduce or trick a man into a relationship, or those who are helpless captives of a forced marriage.
In contrast to animal grooms, the beastliness of trickster animal brides is a secret that is discovered later, after she has tricked or seduced an innocent man. Popular examples of this type of tale are the kitsune “fox spirits” or crane wives of East Asia. Usually when her true nature is discovered she leaves, abandoning the marriage despite whatever love or children she might leave behind. These stories portray active women with sexual agency as untrustworthy and manipulative, teach us to be wary of cunning women, to be suspicious of their secrets.
Much more common though than trickster animal brides are tales of captive ones, such as selkies, the swan bride, or even mermaids. In tales like these the beastliness of the animal bride is stolen from her, often represented by a magical piece of clothing, so that she can be captured, possessed and domesticated by a besotted man. In some tales she actively tries to escape her abduction, but more often she passively accepts the forced marriage. Either way, when the opportunity to escape is presented to her, or when she regains whatever item allows her to transform back into her beastly form, or when the husband breaks a taboo (strikes her, is unfaithful, spies on her, etc) she returns to her true form and former life.
I find it odd that these stories are presented in such a way that encourages us to sympathize with a protagonist who falls in love with a creature not meant for them and who seeks to capture and possess the target of their desire. Based on the narrative of these stories, we are led to feel sorry for them when their animal wives abandon them. This oddity is likely a product of other anxieties or psychological facts we hold in our cultural awareness, “Tales of animal brides […] may embody women’s desires for autonomy and equality in marriage; they may reflect male fantasies of domesticating and subduing female power; and they may reflect male anxiety about desertion by females.” Fairy tales reflect back to us our own anxieties, insecurities and fears. All the while they are bolstered with our cultural ideals, even if those ideals uphold stifling gender roles, or other forms of oppression.
As long as we’ve had language people have used stories to seek an understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The themes, archetypes and concepts found within these tales evolved over the generations to teach cultural norms, as well as characterize beliefs about human nature. What then does it say about our beliefs, this dichotomy? We portray animal grooms as men trapped in the form of a beast – creatures who look and act like monsters, but to everyone’s relief, are actually human after all; while we portray animal brides as beasts trapped in the form of a beautiful, human woman – creatures who look like women, but to the dismay of everyone, especially the men who desire them, are actually monsters.
 “Myth Became Fact,” in The Grand Miracle, C.S. Lewis
 Henal Patel, Gender Roles Indoctrinated Through Fairy Tales in Western Civilization
 Donald Haase, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales
Photo Credit: “Beauty and the Beast” by toolkitten