Folk Tales and Fairy Tales; Beauty and the Beast Case Study

Some notes on Jack Zipes’s essay Once there was a time: an introduction to the history and ideology of folk and fairy tales featured in the book Breaking the Magic Spell (1979):

He looks at the transition of folk tales into literary fairy tales. Folk tales were a means for story tellers to spread the thoughts and frustrations of the common people, the perception of nature and the beliefs of primitive cultures. August Nitschke has demonstrated that these tales reflect the needs, aspiration, dreams and wishes of the people living in the historical period in which they were told. The folk tales (and later fairy tales) feature topics such as cannibalism, human sacrifices, the favouring of the first born, the stealing of a bride, the transformation of people into animals and plants and the intervention of strange creatures which were all based on social realities and beliefs of the societies of the time. (Creatures such as nymphs, elves, fairies, giants, dwarves, and ghosts were real in the minds of the people and had a particular signification. cf pg 5/6). But the original versions of folk tales found themselves altered with each generation and communities that took hold of them over the centuries.


Interpretations of Beauty and the Beast


Hence the eighteenth century written tales are a mixture of contemporary issues, and magic and beliefs from primitive societies.

The example he gives is that of Beauty and Beast by Madame LePrince de Beaumont, where drastic changes were made to entertain aristocratic and bourgeois audiences. It was made to “legitimize the aristocratic standard of living in contrast to the values of the emerging bourgeoisie”. Belle’s family would represent the bourgeoisie trying to gain social prestige beyond their class. When the father steals from the Beast which represents nobility, Belle sacrifices herself for her father and accepts to live with the beast. She later realizes that the Beast is actually noble and kind (which teaches not to judge a book by its cover) and thus agrees to marry him. When they kiss, the Beast transforms into a handsome prince and Belle is rewarded while her despicable sisters are punished. A warning from the aristocratic Madame Le prince de Beaumont to all bourgeois who may tend to forget their place in society and aspire to a grandeur they don’t deserve. In a way, he argues the story was meant to “put the bourgeoisie in their place” (pg 9). That interpretation of the tale really shows the sort of mentality and opinions of the people in the eighteenth century. It just shows how much a tale can be changed and adapted when revised to fit a particular time period. If it were to be adapted as a film however, I doubt this side of the fairy tale would be the relevant message that would come out of it and later be remembered by the audience. It is no longer applicable to today’s society. But the story, like most fairy tales, is extremely rich in meanings, symbolism and interpretations; and it can very well be adapted for the film and TV industry and still touch and entertain people. This can be verified by the many recent adaptations of the tale: the films Beastly (2011), la Belle et la Bête (2014) and Guillermo del Toro’s current project, as well as the TV shows Once Upon a Time (2011) and Beauty and the Beast (2012).

Other interpretations include the following:

Jerry Griswold interprets the tale in terms of a biographical work with Madame LePrince de Beaumont’s experience of an arranged marriage reflected in Belle’s fear of her ‘beastly’ suitor.

We also have Bruno Bettleheim’s interpretation which deals with the theme of sexuality and a child’s oedipal attachment to their parents (a theme he argues is present in most fairy tales). He explains that this attachment is natural and can be positive only if the love for the parent is transferred and concentrated on the future lover. Beauty’s love for her father is shown in the way she cares about him, doesn’t want to marry, and sacrifices herself, joining the beast only out of love for her father. The Beast represents a male’s bestial sexuality, and although she only desires to have an asexual relationship with him, she eventually falls in love and agrees to marry him, hence loosening the ties to her father. He argues that the idea of sex, like the beast, is repugnant and disgusting at the beginning but later becomes beautiful when she finally lets go of her oedipal attachment to her father; thus teaching the child that incestuous love is wrong and unclean (an idea that is present throughout the whole of Perrault’s tale Donkey Skin). Beauty isn’t the only one to go through a change of heart as she slowly learns to love the Beast; the latter also reveals his true kindness and eventually, through love, his humanity is restored. He also argues that the tale teaches the child that a dream life is not beneficial. If we lived in a world where all our desires and needs are fulfilled it would quickly become boring and unsatisfactory much like Beauty’s life in Beast’s castle is (the moment she looks forward to most in the day is Beast’s visits and their talks).

These are interesting points of views on the fairy tale; however, a great quote from G.K Chesterton, I believe, gives an idea of what the tale may have been initially about:

There is a great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable” G.K Chesterton.


Instrumentalization of fantasy and influenced narratives:

I found the issues discussed in Jack Zipes’s essay quite interesting; a few notes I have taken may prove useful in the development of the project:

Zipes basically discusses the instrumentalization of fantasy by the capitalist culture industry (in particular in the eighteenth century). He argues that the passage from oral tales to written literary tales was a turning point. Whereas before, the telling of folk tales was a more collective activity, written literature is about individuality. The production and distribution of texts did, however, increase contact amongst people when discussing a particular story, exchanging ideas and expressing their interests. But the people who could get involved in literary activities usually belonged to the upper classes; they were the people most likely to have learnt how to read back then. Thus their tastes influenced the narratives, because to get published, the authors would prone the values of the upper classes.

He explains that the utilitarian aspect of fairy tales did not appeal to a capitalist orientated industry. Further on he declares that “mass-mediated fairy tales have a technologically produced universal voice and image which impose themselves on the imagination of passive audience”. Basically, similarly to what has been said previously, he argues that mass mediated fairy tales are influenced and manipulated into reflecting the system which produces them; however he defines this process as“elusive” and stresses it isn’t sinister.


J,Zipes. 1979. Breaking the Magic Spell: radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Heinemann Educational Books. London – quotes and ideas taken from the book, I do not own anything.

Zipes, J.D, 2006. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Taylor & Francis. (

Bowden.J., 2012. 2012: The Year of the Fairytale Blockbuster. The List. [online blog]. 26th April. Available at: [accessed February 2014]

Schaefer.S., 2013. 3 Problems with Fairy Tale Movies like ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’. Screenrant. [online blog]. 3rd April. Available at: [accessed February 2014]


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