i'm sure you are all familiar with the story: it has different faces, beauty and the beast, east of the sun west of the moon, the polar king. it has been haunting me lately. nearly every culture has some version of it; mustn't it then hold something very important to learn?
she leaves the safety and familiarity of her home to wed a monster. he has either been threatening her family or promising them great wealth in exchange for her; either way, she does it out of duty. there is the suggestion that she never really fit in with her family anyway. she perhaps had no clear enough dreams of her own. does she accept this marriage as a sort of assumed purpose, hoping it will give some direction or definition to her life? she is young and strong and wants to test her powers. she feels she could take on a monster, perhaps even redeem him. she is eager for the chance to test herself. it is a relief, in a way, to have something to do.
her optimism and enthusiasm win him over. he treats her kindly. she begins to identify with him despite his repulsive appearance/invisibility. she feels she can be his ally, though everyone else misunderstands and fears him. it makes her feel important, special, to be the one who sees through his roughness.
but she longs to see clearly. she is confused by others' opinions and projections and needs a definitive answer about who this creature really is. has she been misled? is he truly as terrible as others seem to think? or can she trust in her own perceptions of his kindness and character? is he fooling her? is she offering her most intimate self to a monster?
so she takes her mother's advice, though he warned her not to. in the night, when he lays himself beside her in darkness, she holds a candle up to his face. she wants to see him clearly. that is not too much to ask, surely? but she is violating an unspoken agreement, the understanding that she should never look too clearly, too directly, that she should only perceive him in half-light and fumbling, that too clear an answer, too objective a look, would destroy the half-truth half-world they had established. illusions would fall in the face of what was really there.
but of course what was really there, what she sees by the forbidden light of the candle, is BEAUTIFUL. that vulnerable sleeping center of the beast, undefended and unmasked, is a god. and for the first time she knows, without illusion or pretence, that she loves him.
but a drop of wax falls and wakes him. he is furious to have been seen so clearly. it defeats him, his need to be a powerful beast, to hide behind the terror and the half-truths. he wanted to be the only one seeing. he did not want to be seen in return. so he casts her out. he takes everything with him: her possessions, her very home and the land it stands on. her daily context is gone. her illusions are gone. the monster/lover has flown and left her bereft.
she has nothing. she is cold and heartbroken and hungry. yet somehow she forgets all else, she forgives his unforgivable actions, she begins a wrenching and heroic journey in pursuit of him.
but why? why should she seek him now? why, in the face of his clear abandonment and cruelty, does she not go on and build a life for herself in other lands? isn't the onus on him now, the weight of proving himself, winning her back?
whatever her reasons--embarrassment to face her family, a lack of any other perceived purpose for her life, love--she follows him. she is told by everyone in authority that the journey is impossible. she is told that her physical body cannot go where he has gone. in some versions she learns to fly on the back of the wind. in others she is sent to the underworld, to meet the queen of the dead.
having made it to these unreachable kingdoms, she has one more battle to join in order to win him. in one version she must resist the temptation of great beauty or she will stay forever in the underworld. in another she must defeat a hideously ugly rival for her lover's affections by tempting her with beautiful dresses and golden combs. either way, vanity seems to be the final hurdle. once she has overcome it he is there, waiting to be rescued from (in one version) life with his mother or (in another) marriage to a she-troll.
her devotion has liberated him. but she has grown older and worn in her journey. she is no longer perfectly beautiful, or perfectly innocent. she has changed. she is no longer a fitting decoration for the illusory pleasure palace of their first wedded days. will he love her?
he will. they are wed. he has shed the guise of the monster forever. he brings her to the heavens to share the cup of immortality.
so who is she? (wisdom, womankind, the soul, the human spirit?)
who is he? (god, truth, man, ego, the shadow, the mind?)
why does he forsake her for looking at him clearly--although it is this action that eventually leads to his freedom?
and why is it that she is the one who must fight for his liberation, why doesn't he have to overcome any obstacles on his own? or if he does, why don't we hear about them?