Beauty and the Beast
The traditional tale retold
by Carol Ann Duffy
Once upon a time, there was a rich Merchant who had three daughters. The girls were just as clever as they were bella and none more so than the youngest whose name was Beauty. Her sisters were jealous of her. They swanned about going to parties and pageants and jeered at Beauty because she liked to stay at home with her books. Many suitors came to court the three girls. The two eldest trilled that they would consider betrothal to nothing below a Count, so there! Beauty, in her turn, gently thanked the eligible young men but chose to remain in her father’s house for a while yet.
One dark day, the Merchant lost all his fortune. Only the tears in his eyes were silver as he told his daughters that his wealth was gone. They must all move at once to the country and work for their living. This was a dreadful shock to the girls who had never lifted a dainty finger in their lives. Beauty got up at first light to cook, clean, make, mend, tidy, scour and scrub. But she made sure she read her books too and in less than a couple of months she was fitter and bonnier than ever. Her two sisters, however, did nothing but whine and whinge about the loss of their fine frocks and fancy friends. “And look at her,” they moaned one to the other, “how snide she is to be happy with such an awful life!” But Beauty’s father was proud of his hard-working, modest daughter.
A grim year passed then one morning the Merchant received news of the safe arrival of one of his ships that had been thought lost. The two eldest girls were in raptures and demanded a wardrobe of expensive dresses so they could shimmy back to Society in high style. Beauty privately thought that their father’s money would hardly stretch to one gown each but rather than seem to be critical of her sisters’ eager pestering she asked for a rose.
The Merchant set off to reclaim his cargo, but there were debts to be paid and legal matters to settle and, after a bundle of trouble, he had to head for home as penniless as before. As he returned through the Great Forest, a blinding snow storm, like a frenzy of torn-up paper money, raged around him and he lost his way. It was foolhardy to struggle on through the icy blizzard, but he knew if he stayed put he would freeze to death and already he could hear the bloodthirsty howling of wolves who had sniffed him out. Exhausted and on the lip of despair, he saw- Thank God!- a light in the distance and ran, ran for his life, until he reached a magnificent castle.
The doors were open. In he went to make himself known but there was no reply to his hullos. Only the fire spat and crackled and he saw that the table was sumptuously laid for one. “I hope the Master here or his servants will forgive this intrusion!” He waited and waited until it looked like all the good food and wine would be wasted so he sat down nervously and began to eat and drink. He ate with jittery gusto and after a glass of vino or four he plucked up the courage to explore the castle. He came to a room with the softest, plumpest of beds in it. He lay down, tired to his bones, and fell fast asleep.
It was late next morning when he was awakened by the rich scent of hot chocolate and sweet biscotti. He sniffed gratefully! “This castle must belong to a kind spirit who has taken pity on me! Grazzi, dear good spirit!” Outside, instead of snow, was the most beautiful rose-garden anyone with eyes under his eyebrows had ever seen. Recalling Beauty’s request, he stepped outside to pick her a rose. The sweet, heady perfume of an opening red rose drew him towards it, but as he snapped its stem he was nearly deafened by the horrifying roar of some kind of beast charging at him.
“Ungrateful man!” thundered the creature. “I have saved your life by letting you into my castle and to thank me you steal one of my roses which I prize over everything! You have one quarter of an hour before you meet death!”
The merchant fell to his knees and raised up his hands.
“My Lord, I beg you to pardon me! Believe me, I didn’t know I would offend you by picking a rose for my youngest daughter!”
“My name is not My Lord,” snarled the beast, “Don’t flatter me. My name is Beast. You say you have daughters. I will spare your life on one condition- that one of them comes here of her own free will and suffers for your sake. Swear that if none of your daughters offers to die in your place you will return here within three months.”
The Merchant had no intention of sacrificing one of his girls but he thought that by agreeing to the bargain he could at least say a proper goodbye to them. He swore on oath to return and then he left the castle with as much despair as he had entered it with relief.
By the time the moon was up, the good man was home. His daughters ran to meet him but instead of hugging them happily, he held out the rose and wept.
“Take it, Beauty,” he sobbed, “Though you cannot imagine the price I must pay for it.”
Then he told them his terrible tale. At once, her elder sisters rounded on Beauty viciously. So much for her pride! She couldn’t just ask for pretty dresses like they did. Oh no! Miss Goody Two-Shoes had to distinguish her stuck-up saintly self and now she would be the DEATH of their poor father. And look at her! Completely dry-eyed! How callous! How heartless!
“Why should I shed any tears?” said Beauty. “If the monster will take any one of us three then I will volunteer to quench his fury. Earning my father his life will prove my love for him.”
“Don’t even think of it,” cried the Merchant. “I am old and my life is nearly done. I cannot accept this precious gift.”
But Beauty would not be dissuaded and he had to agree. Her two sisters were well pleased because Beauty’s goodness drove them crazy and they were glad to be shot of her And when the day came for Beauty to leave, they had to scrub at each other’s hard eyes with an onion to squeeze out a few tears.
The Merchant and his youngest child journeyed to the castle and discovered in the great hall there a table plentifully laid for two. “The Beast wants to fatten me up before he devours me,” thought Beauty. At last the Beast stood before them and Beauty recoiled at his sickening appearance, but promised she had come of her own free will.
“You are good,” said the Beast, “and I appreciate this, honest man. Get on your way now and take this chest of gold to buy costly silks for your other daughters. Don’t ever think of returning here.”
The Beast vanished as suddenly as he’d appeared.
“Oh, Beauty,” croaked the Merchant, “I am scared half out of my wits for you. Let me be the one to stay!”
“No,” said Beauty firmly and to comfort her father she smiled warmly and hugged him. But the wretched man cried bitterly when he left his beloved child.
Now the poor girl was all alone for her last few hours. She wandered through the fine castle, noticing every charming thing. Before long she came to a door above which was written her own name. Inside was a wonderful collection of books that made her gasp with pleasure. Her eye fell on a book of gold. Inside was written:
Welcome Beauty. Have no fear.
You are Queen and govern here.
Say your heart’s desires aloud,
your secret wishes. Don’t be proud.
“My only wish is to see my father.”
No sooner had the words left her lips than she noticed a mirror and was amazed to see within it her father arriving home, safe but almost broken with grief. Her sisters were pretending to share his sorrow but they could barely keep the satisfaction of getting rid of Beauty off their faces. A moment later the image faded and was gone.
That night Beauty was treated to a splendid musical concert but she didn’t see a soul. Despite everything, she felt strangely at peace and drifted out into the garden to luxuriate in the perfumes of her favourite flowers. A gross and hideous noise made her jump and she couldn’t stop herself exclaiming with shock as she found herself staring straight into the hot, ravenous eyes of Beast. Blood dripped from his teeth and in his jaws was the raw flesh of a fresh-killed animal. Beauty froze. Beast’s naked shape cringed in unspeakable shame and a heartstopping wail filled the night as he fled.
Beauty could not remember how she had got to her bedchamber that night. When she awoke in the morning she though the whole frightful incident had been a nightmare. But there was a note on her pillow which read “From now on you shall walk in the gardens undisturbed.”
The next night at supper, to Beauty’s horror, Beast was there, dressed in his best velvet capa. He was courteous and polite and Beauty noticed that he tried his best to display excellent table manners. But the noises he made when he ate disgusted her and she couldn’t hide this. Beast hung his head and said:
“Forgive me, Beauty.”
She could tell he meant it and she swallowed hard and nodded. But Beast saw that she hadn’t touched her food and said:
“If my presence distresses you, I will leave at once. Do I revolt you?”
“I cannot lie. You do. But I know you are very... good natured.”
“Yes. Even so, I am a monster.”
“There are plenty who deserve that name more than you do. I prefer you to someone who conceals a twisted heart behind an upright form.”
“I am grateful to you.” After a pause the Beast continued, “Beauty? Will you consent to be my wife?”
Beauty gagged at these words and it was some time before she summoned the nerve to answer him. But at last she said shaking, “No, Beast.”
The poor monster hissed dreadfully, like a thousand snakes, and the whole castle echoed. He withdrew at once, leaving Beauty to suffer a tangled knot of revulsion and compassion.
Time passed. Compassion grew like a rose and the weed of revulsion withered. Beauty had spent three contented months in the castle. Each evening Beast came to her and they were good companions, talking, reading or listening to music. She had grown used to his grotesque features and eating problems and instead of dreading his visits would find herself looking at the clock to check when he was coming. Only one thing troubled her. Every night before she retired, the monster asked if she would be his wife. One evening she said to him:
“Beast, your question makes me anxious. I wish I could agree to marry you, but I can’t. I shall always be fond of you as a friend. Please try to be happy with that.”
“I ought to be happy as we are because I know how badly I’m afflicted. I value friendship, too, but I love you, Beauty, deeply and tenderly. Promise me this: you will never leave me.”
Beauty coloured and answered truthfully that she promised never to leave him. Then she added:
“But if I don’t see my father again, I shall never be happy.”
“I would rather die than make you unhappy.”
“I swear to you that I will return in one week.”
“Then you shall be there in the morning,” said Beast. “When you want to come back to me, lay this ring on a table before you fall asleep. Arrivederci, Beauty.”
When she awoke the next day, Beauty was in her father’s house which was still out in the country despite the gold that Beast had given. The good man thought he would die of shock and happiness when he saw his treasured Beauty again. He summoned her two sisters who had moved to town with their new husbands. They were both deeply unhappy. The eldest had married a gorgeous gentleman, but he fancied himself so much he never looked at her. The second had wed a man famed for his wit, but he only used it now to torment and torture his wife.
Beauty’s sisters nearly fell down with envy when they saw her dressed as a princess and glowing radiantly.
“Sister,” hissed the eldest, “I have an idea. Let’s try to keep Miss Perfect here for more than a week and, who knows, the stupid monster will be so angry she didn’t keep her promise that he’ll eat her.”
“Excellent,” agreed the other, “We must show her as much kindness as we can.”
They managed this so well that their younger sister was truly touched and when the week was over she was easily won over by their tears and entreaties.
So the family enjoyed more precious days together, but as each one passed Beauty felt more and more anxious about deserting Beast. It wasn’t just that she’d broken her promise- she longed to see him again. She caught herself thinking about his kind heart and his thoughtfulness. She remembered the desolate look in his eyes when she turned down his offer of marriage. She was sorry he was so hideous, but she thought, “It’s not his fault. And I know I’d be much happier with him than my sisters are with their husbands. I might not love him in the way that he loves me, but we are good friends. I can’t stand making him so unhappy.”
So she put her ring on the table and went to bed.
When she awoke the next morning she realised that she felt true joy at being back in Beast’s castle. She dressed in her lovliest gown and counted the hours and minutes until evening. But the castle held only silence and there was no Beast. Fearful about his disappearance and distraught that she might be the cause of it, Beauty ran weeping and crying all through the castle. Beast was nowhere. She lit a torch and ran into the garden, desperately calling his name.
At last, she found him, motionless, cold, sodden, under a rose bush. Beauty flung herself upon him, afraid he was dead, and pressed her heart to his as her tears blessed his face. “I thought I had lost you,” gasped the Beast, “but now I am seeing you for the last time, I can die happy.”
“No, Beast!” sobbed Beauty. “My dear, dear Beast, please don’t die. This terrible grief I feel tells me that I cannot live without you. I thought we could only be friends but now I know... I love you, Beast. Ti voglio bene.”
As Beauty uttered these words the whole castle burst into light and was filled with sweet music. Beauty stared in wonder but when she turned back to Beast he was gone. At her feet lay a man. Although he was handsome and well-made, she asked anxiously, ‘Where is Beast?”
“You’re looking at him,” he smiled. “Let me explain. Because I was too proud and arrogant to properly rule my kingdom, I was cursed by a powerful spell to take the form of a Beast. The spell could only be broken if an honest and true woman would willingly agree to marry me. There was only you in this whole wide world generous enough see my repentant heart and be won by it. I offer you my hand and with it my crown.”
Beauty, surprised and delighted, gave her hand to the charming Prince and together they returned to the castle. Her family had been taken there and she ran to her father’s arms. But when she turned to her sisters, they turned into statues, paralysed by jealousy and condemned to stand before their sister’s castle gates, watching and watching her happiness.
FROM BEASTS AND BEAUTIES (DUFFY/SUPPLE/STILL; FABER 2004, ISBN 0-571-22669-8)
© copyright Carol Ann Duffy