On the Beauty and the Beast and the Gospel

I have never been a massive fan of fairy tales or anything regarding princesses.  I know more about the Hardy Boys than Cinderella and Prince Charming, and I've never enjoyed stories about witless girls dressing up and swooning over charming boys with flowing hair and more brawn than brains.  My tomboy heart has always gravitated toward adventure over romance, I guess.  Now that I'm older, though, I've begun to appreciate those old fairy tales for the truth they hold apart from the sensationalized and overly girly depictions I knew when I was younger.  

A couple years ago, I read an article by Kristen O'Neal for Relevant Magazine, in which she talks about the value of fairy tales and their inherent truth.  She references Tolkien's stunning essay on fairy stories:
"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art... In such stories, when the sudden 'turn' comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through." (Tolkien, quoted here)
Tolkien argues that fairy tales set in a world outside ours allow truth to shine in through our own longing.  In the way every young woman in those stories longs for a man who will complete her and make her whole, so we broken humans long to be made whole.  Tim Keller, in a 2008 sermon entitled "Thanks Be To God", also talks about fairy tales and riffs on Tolkien, saying:
"We long to find a love that perfectly heals, and from which we can never part, and we long to triumph over evil, finally and totally.  When you are in the middle of a great fairy tale, the fairy tale lets you live, even briefly, with the dream that love without parting, escape from death, triumph over evil, are real and realizable.  That's why the stories stir us so deeply, and why we will go on reading and writing them no matter what the critics say." (Keller)
That truth and longing is what I want to talk about today.  Seeing the story of the Beauty and the Beast played out beautifully on screen resurrected all my feelings about that story and the greater story of fairy tales.  Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale, though, granted, I only know a couple, and I'm excited to share what I love about it.  Hang on, folks, it's gonna be a long one.

The conflict of the story of Beauty and the Beast is that there was once a prince whose horrible, selfish actions resulted in his transformation into a hideous beast.  He lost all of his human form, and was essentially exiled to his castle, which was also transformed – it grew dark and scary and in that part of the forest, it was perpetually winter (huh, sound like another familiar bit of fiction?).  This dehumanizing curse also affected some of the people closest to the prince, and they took on the form of objects, though they retained the ability to move and speak.  These characters are wasting away in a castle in the wintery woods, counting down the days until their punishment becomes permanent and they will harden into their forms–the objects will lose their animation, and the prince trapped within the beast will fully become the monster, never to regain his humanity.  That is, unless this horrible, ugly, terrifying creature can somehow be loved by someone.  The beast has given up hope – how could anyone learn to love him?

And yet, there is this girl who comes along, rather by chance, to rescue her father and take his place in the prison, and at once, there is a tiny little sliver of hope.  Perhaps this is the one to love the prince back into life.  Perhaps this one will love him at last.  But things happen and Belle leaves and a horde attacks the castle and a vengeful man shoots the beast, and the last petal falls from the rose and the beast dies in Belle's arms.  And it all seems irrevocably over.  But there's this thing Tolkien talked about in storytelling and in fairy tales in particular – this thing called a eucatastrophe – the idea, or the moment when it seems like everything couldn't get any worse and then it does, and then, when hope has disappeared, the whole thing turns completely around and something amazing happens and the horrible situation that couldn't be worse suddenly couldn't get any better.  That's what happens in this story.  Belle whispers those most consequential words as the beast lies cold and dead: "I love you," and everything changes in an instant.  The beast becomes a perfect man with a heart of gold and all of the objects in the castle who had a moment before turned into just a clock and just a teapot and just a wardrobe become human again and everything is made new and perfectly whole.  And yes, the story does end happily ever after.  It's supposed to.

The unlovable is made whole by love.  The ugly is made beautiful by love.  The lifeless is made alive by love.  The winter turns into spring through love.  The unlovable is loved and at once, everything changes.  

"I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one.'  I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people,' and they will say, 'You are my God.'" (Hosea 2:23)

I am unlovable and yet the one who is love loved me and made me whole.  While I was still ugly and deformed, He loved me into beauty.  He loved me into life.  If I am a beast (and I am), then Jesus is beautiful.  That sudden turn in the story that changed everything was when He decided to love me despite my unloveable-ness.  And no, He didn't have to learn to love me.  My affection didn't change his mind.  But then neither did my sin.  He loves always, no matter what.

There's this line in Tolkien's Return of the King that just gets me every time.  After everything is over and Sam and Frodo by their bravery have saved Middle Earth and almost died as a result, Sam Gamgee wakes up in Rivendell and is astonished to see Gandalf, whom he and Frodo had believed dead, sitting at the foot of the bed.  He exclaims, "Gandalf!  I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?" (930)  That line ran through my head watching this movie.  Everything sad was coming untrue.  The spell was undone by love.  And so the man and woman loved each other perfectly and the characters became human and whole and loved and lived happily ever after.

All the longing we feel, everything that thrills our weary human hearts in fairy tales does so because they are our stories, too.  There's a Prince who died to save us, his true love.  There's a King who gave up everything for us.  There's a Beauty who loves our beastly selves.  The story of Beauty and the Beast is ours, if we give ourselves over to the love of this King, this Prince, this Beauty.  
"But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.  After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life, and be satisfied (Is. 53:5+11).


Amy Shaw said...

This is really great insight! I do love how the best of stories really reflect the Gospel, even if that wasn't the author's intent.

Unknown said...

You really REALLY need to read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. In his chapter, The Ethics of Elfland, Chesterton comments on the great lessons of some of the great fairy tales. He says, "There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is lovable."

Ella said...

That sounds amazing. I heard of that essay/chapter before; thanks for reminding me of it.

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