What I Learned From Disney Princes: Beast
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
“Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking…”
“A dangerous pastime–”
I’ve always been a fan of fairy tales with all the magic, heroes, heroines, villains, monsters, etc. It’s more than simple fandom, really; it’s more like a way of life. It’s sad to me that many of us have come to see fairy tales as nothing more than cute little stories for children. Indeed, many deride stories that are too “Disney” or too “fairy tale,” because happily ever after doesn’t happen in “real” life. It’s almost as if we want our stories to be as hopeless as we find ourselves. But this has never been the purpose of myth. These stories are supposed to remind us that no matter how messed up we may be, there is always hope. There is always the possibility of redemption, even if the possibility is only a sliver a hope. And in this, Beauty and the Beast fulfills its role quite well.
Don’t turn your friends into household items
Sometimes I don’t think we realize the full extent of our choices. We live in a society where we have notions of victimless crimes, and we think that our arrogance and conceit is hurtful to no one but ourselves. But is this really the case? Dostoyevsky offers insight into the idea that our choices break the people around us. This does not mean that we are directly responsible for the choices of others. Rather, our choices impact others in ways that may not be readily apparent. In the case of the Beast, however, the consequences of the prince’s actions are immediately apparent, and they are not insignificant – his servants and staff are turned into furniture and cleaning implements, for crying out loud. The point is that when we choose to act against our nature, we affect those around us. If I suggest that salvation is ontological, as in the Saving Sarah series, then the opposite of that also has implications. If someone’s goodness can heal and save those around them, their inhumanity, and evil choices, can cause those around them to break, to descend into darkness. It is because of the unkindness of the prince, his choice to do evil, that everyone in his life is affected negatively. This really comes through in the extended version of the movie with the song about being human again. It is through the prince’s rejection of kindness, that he makes everyone around him less than human, ontologically.
Insides become outsides
Now this may seem a little odd, but go with me for just a moment. Most cultures, including the vast majority of modern cultures, believe that in some way the human person is made up of multiple facets. There is a sense that the soul, personality, intellect, or what have you, is on the inside of the person, hidden inside the body somewhere. Various traditions have speculated just where that “somewhere” is. Ancient Greeks believed it to be in the belly somewhere, while the ancient Celts believed it hides in the head. Even today we talk about the “heart” of a person and we point to the physical heart as if that’s where it is. Regardless, we can look at psychosomatic health problems wherein stress, depression, or anxiety actually cause physical ailments, and this tells us that our inner parts, the psyche (Greek for ‘soul’) has an effect on our physiology.
So, regardless of where the soul is, it is evident that the body reflects the state of the soul. If one’s soul is pure, even though he is physically deformed, he would appear as more than his physical limitations. Conversely, if the state of the soul was cruel and arrogant, the physical manifestation would take away from his appearance, though he were most handsome. His physical features may become hard and cruel. Look at Gaston, for example. He’s the standard of male physical perfection in this small town. He’s adored by everyone. Women want him, and men want to be him, as the saying goes. But his features are hard, angular, and dissonant, because the dark state of his soul hardens his appearance.
This is an interesting concept when we look at Beauty and the Beast. As the story begins, we have the young, arrogant prince, who is in fact “beastly.” When he is confronted with the state of his soul, the reality of his soul becomes manifest in his outward appearance. In short, he becomes the beast outwardly that he was inwardly. But this isn’t the whole story, because he is never completely lost. He still has some good in him. He has the capacity to learn to love, and this leads to his ultimate redemption.
Words are not enough
When Belle arrives at the castle, the Beast sees the opportunity to break the spell placed on him, but he still doesn’t understand how to do that. He thinks, as many of us do, that love is simply saying the words. But love isn’t simply about words; indeed, love is a way of life. Words are cheap and overused when it comes to love. So, how does Beast begin to love Belle? After he rescues her from the wolves, and she saves him and binds his wounds, he gives her the library (an act of love). He changes how he eats and dresses; personal hygiene is a mark of burgeoning love. He controls his temper, begins to lighten up, and begins to have a beautiful outlook on life, so much so that he ultimately gives up on the idea of breaking the original spell. He tells Belle to go to her father, even though he will be destined to remain a Beast forever. That, good people, can only be done by love.
We are saved through Beauty
There is a little considered concept in philosophical and theological circles which equates beauty with the Good. The reason they are seen as one and the same is the idea of wholeness and completion. Beauty, purity, chastity, completion, perfection: these are all synonyms for Good. To be beautiful is to be whole and perfect. It is another way to say salvation as well. Some of you will remember the series of posts on Chuck Bartowski as the Soteriological Hero that saves Sarah where I talk about the idea that we are saved through our participation in the life of the one who saves us: the soteriological hero. Here, in Beauty and the Beast, we have a wonderful example of this concept. Belle, of course, is that hero.
Belle is the most beautiful girl in the village (and that makes her the best…obviously), but it is not simply her outward appearance that makes her beautiful–though I’m sure Gaston would disagree. Here’s the thing: throughout myth, beauty has been a pointer to a transcendent reality not readily apparent to the empirical senses. There is always something inherent in beauty that makes us want to participate in it. C.S. Lewis writes about looking at a painting of a beautiful sunset that when we gaze at it, we want to be united with it. Here it is the same. Belle is the manifestation of the beauty of a whole person. Of course Gaston wants to capture this beauty for himself, to possess it and control it–which is the mark of evil (evil is always a misuse of something inherently good). This proves to be his downfall…but, back to the Beast.
At first the Beast tries to possess and control Belle in order to break the spell, but it backfires on him. In the process of coming to know her, however, he changes. Through Belle’s influence, through her kindness, her oneness with the creation (feeding the birds), her laughter, and treating the Beast like a human person (“she didn’t shudder at my paw”), he begins to change. His heart is softened. He begins to see things differently, and has–if you will–a conversion experience.He grows to the point of loving her so much that he lets her go so that she can be with her father. Ultimately, this Beauty brings him back from the dead to be his true self, fully restored, redeemed and whole.
Companion to the original: Things I Learned from Disney Princesses: Belle