As many people know, I double majored in Creative Writing and German Language/Literature, which allowed me to take a special interest in fairy tales and Disney adaptations. Dismembered feet, bald princesses, gouged out eyes, children burned alive–my people don’t hold back! In celebration of some of my favorite fairy tales and my top five favorite Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast, I’ve asked Eben to speak more about the topic of the Animal Bridegroom.
A recurring feature in fairy tales, and these days in books and movies, is the Animal Bridegroom. In tales such as Beauty and the Beast, which is probably the most famous but far from the only example, a young protagonist is given to an animal or monster as a life mate. Over the course of the story, the protagonist learns how to live with the beast, in spite of their many troubles, finally falling in love with the beast and seeing it at last in human form.
In many ways, this was the traditional love story because it was traditional love. From the point of view of the Bride, she was given over to someone she didn’t know, forced to be with them, and expected to work out how to not only live peaceably with them but to start a loving and functional family with them. Marriage was often a terrifying ordeal. And many cultures came up with interesting ways to ease the transition. The Spartans famously dressed up their daughters in male armor and had the groom abduct them in the dark, which supposedly helped the groom but didn’t do much for the bride.
In fiction, we’re constantly playing with this arrangement. Even in very real world literary stories, the metaphor of the misunderstood beast, the monster that the protagonist must make peace with, lurks in the dark shadows. It may be alcohol. It may be a dragon. But the movement from fear to acceptance to love is meant to reflect a basic journey of the human psyche.
Life does not exist without pain. But suffering is a choice. That’s the basic lesson in the progression of the Animal Bridegroom and as we learn to live with our pain, the suffering we put aside lets the world transform into a better place, even though nothing but our perceptions have changed.
In the “Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun,” the groom only turns into an animal after their love is disapproved of, then he disguises himself to thwart customs, and it is the Sun and Moon, the heroin’s parents, who turn monstrous to destroy the relationship. In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Belle falls in love with the Beast long before he turns human but only after they first start butting heads. In my personal favorite, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” love and the transformation practically co-occur, after which the husband is abducted and the bride must save him. In one of the iterations of the story of “The Snake Husband,” the young woman has to crack her snake husband on the head with a tool before he turns human and they can fall in love. So the love and change in perceptions can happen at nearly any point in a story.
When you see a feature like this, that can take place anywhere in the story and still function, it’s a good clue that you are dealing with a fundamental building block. Orson Scott Card, who, in spite of his politics, is a superior teacher of writing, came up with the MICE quotient to talk about these fundamental building blocks of story. MICE stands for Milieu (Setting features), Idea (The controlling concept from which the rest of the story is extrapolated), Character (The web of character personalities), and Event (Core Plot). He called it a quotient because you have to have all of these features for a successful story, but you mix them in different amounts depending on the type of story you are trying to tell.
Animal Bridegroom stories are usually, at their base level, Idea stories. The Beast, or whatever form you choose to depict as the foil for your main character, is the monstrous other. That is the controlling metaphor for the entire tale: the other in the relationship is so frightening it is the same as being forced to cohabit with a monster–so we’re going to actually make it a monster. Every other decision and feature in the story flows from this choice. The setting is meant to reflect the monster’s power and difference. The desires and fears of the characters are all based around moving toward or away from the monster. And the plot is all about how to integrate this monster that has suddenly appeared in the protagonist’s life.
Thematically, Animal Bridegroom stories were about sexual awakening and partnering. This is why you’ll nearly always see predominantly masculine traits among the animals. There aren’t deer or other prey animals as the grooms. This was absolutely to reflect the gender binary of western culture. They’re always predatory, powerful, and dangerous. Note in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, that the Beast is actually frequently stylized as a very masculine handsome human presence, he is only beastly in intense moments where Belle is supposed to be frightened. The rest of the time he’s actually drawn as attractive, very symmetrical, and more pet like as he is feeling more docile.
This was Disney consciously manipulating the feelings of the audience to bring them toward liking the Beast visually at the points in the story we were supposed to feel drawn toward him. And in the frightening moments, all the lighting and emphasis is on his unnatural features: claws, bentness, and giant teeth. While we can’t do the drawing, we can do the same with descriptions. Describing the negative aspects in the moments of terror and the pleasant aspects in the moments of attraction. And note that in the middle as they come together, the beastly traits are no longer frightening but disadvantages. Beast is suddenly clumsy and in need of Belle’s help, instead of terrifying and powerful.
For your own work, to create Animal Bridegroom stories or essentially any story that is Idea centric, that’s the sort of work that you have to do. All things have negative and positive aspects but you focus on the negative aspects to push not only the Protagonist but also the audience away from liking the idea. You use positive aspects to beckon the Protagonist and the audience toward your idea. And everything you do, all your scenes, have to reflect those choices and that movement. By placing emphasis on negative or positive in particular sections of the story, you guide the essential journey toward what you are trying to awaken.
By moving positive reception by the Protagonist toward the beginning of the story, you are essentially arguing for societal instead of personal acceptance. The Protagonist (and the audience through them) is able to see past the beastliness when no-one else can, the work then becomes getting everyone else to accept the positive qualities that only the protagonist can see. By moving positive reception by the Protagonist toward the end of the story, you are arguing for personal instead of societal acceptance. Everyone else accepts the relationship as viable but the Protagonist has to learn to integrate the difficulties of this relationship into their psyche. Putting acceptance by the Protagonist in the first quarter makes it all societal while putting acceptance in the last quarter makes it all personal.
Most stories, though, choosen between the second and third quarter, requiring a bit of acceptance from both. Beauty, in Beauty and the Beast, learns to receive Beast positively in the second quarter, so she has to spend the third quarter trying to convince everybody else that Beast is worth loving. In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” the heroine learns to love her bear in the third quarter of the story, but that means that the second quarter has to be taken up with effort by her parents to push her and her bear together, even though that is depicted as a negative, because it still is from the point of view of the protagonist’s psyche.
To make it simple, whichever you do first, you have to do the other one next. And again this isn’t just with Animal Bridegroom tales. This is the basic format of Idea-centered stories. If you’re writing about a new technology in a hard sci-fi story, it’s still about choosing which is the greater effort, convincing the personal in-group of the main characters to accept the technology and its repercussions or convincing the wider out-group, usually represented by just a few characters, to accept the same. And if you’re writing a tragedy instead, then it is about simply reversing acceptance to rejection.
Finally, remember that there are no rules, only guidelines. Especially when it comes to the traditional binaries and rituals of these old tales. I wrote my own adaption of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Spinward of the Sun, Handed of the Moon,” with two male characters. The fundamental exploration is about relationships and how frightening they are, no matter what that relationship is and no matter how accepting or disapproving society is.
Thank you to Eben for his amazing post! You can check Eben Mishkin out on his blog emptymanuscript.tumblr.com or his website ebenmishkin.com. His short story, “Spinward of the Sun, Handed of the Moon,” will appear in the sci-fi fairy tale anthology Circuits and Slippers, out September 29, 2016.