Once upon a time there was poor man who had barely enough to feed his family. As he sat before the fire, sighing over his misfortune, he heard a knock on the window. When he opened the shutters, he found a great white bear standing in the snow. "Don't be afraid. I have come to ask for the hand of your youngest daughter," said the bear. "Only let me take her away, and you shall be paid in silver and gold." The man asked his daughter if she would consent to marriage with the great white bear. "No," she said. The man replied, "But think of your poor family. The bear shall give us silver and gold." At last she agreed. She dressed in her best rags and stepped out into the snow. "Climb upon my back," said the bear, "for we have very far to go."
Thus begins the Scandinavian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon — an Animal Bridegroom tale that bears some resemblance to Beauty and the Beast but is older, stranger, more overtly sensual than the latter story. In East of the Sun, West of the Moon, the heroine and her monstrous suitor live as man and wife before the beast's transformation. Each night the bear turns into a man and comes to the heroine's bed. She is not allowed to see his face — but at length she breaks this prohibition, lighting a candle and spilling three drops of tallow on the shirt he wears. "If only you'd been patient," rebukes the bear, revealed now as a handsome prince. "My step–mother placed a curse on me. Had you restrained your curiosity until the space of a year had passed, the curse would have lifted. But now I must go east of the sun, west of the moon, and marry the bride she's chosen for me, with a nose that's three ells long."
The heroine proves her loyalty and courage by finding her way to this distant place, transported there by the winds and carrying magic from three ancient crones. She reaches her lover's side the day before he's due to marry a troll. He's overjoyed to see her, and together they hatch a plan. The next morning he tells the troll princess, "I wish to be married in this shirt. But see here, it's marked by spots of tallow. I bid you to wash them out for me, for I shall only marry the woman who can make this shirt clean once more." The troll princess agrees, thinking that this will be an easy task — but the more she washes the shirt, the dirtier and dirtier it gets. Her maids of honor fail as well, and the prince snatches the shirt and cries, "Why, even the beggar at the gates can wash better than you!" The beggar, of course, is his own true love. She easily washes the stains away — whereupon the prince's troll step–mother bursts into pieces with her rage, the prince's curse is lifted, and the lovers are re–united.
This story is similar to "Cupid and Psyche," a tale that appears in The Golden Ass (a novel by Lucius Apuleius from the second century AD), where it's told by an older woman to a young girl being held for ransom. Psyche is a girl so beautiful that the goddess Venus grows wild with jealousy. She orders Cupid, her son, to harm the girl but he falls in love instead. An oracle tells Psyche's parents to leave her on a mountain top, for it is Psyche's destiny to marry a fierce winged serpent. Her parents protest, but Psyche knows they cannot thwart the will of the gods. She travels to the mountain top, stands bravely to meet her fate, whereupon a gentle breeze carries her to a beautiful palace. In that palace, she's tended and entertained by kind, invisible servants, and each night she's joined in bed by an unseen lover in human shape. This (unbeknownst to the girl) is Cupid, disguised as a winged serpent by day lest his mother find out that he's disobeyed her orders.
Eventually the girl grows homesick. The obliging breeze is dispatched to fetch Psyche's sisters, who travel to the palace amazed to find that she's been living in splendor. The jealous sisters convince Psyche that her lover must surely be a monster — for otherwise, they say, she would be allowed to see his face. That night, shaken by her sisters' words, Psyche takes a lamp and a knife to bed — but when she lights the lamp, she sees it's a beautiful youth who is lying beside her. A drop of oil falls from the lamp, singes his shoulder, and wakes him up. "Is this how you repay my love," Cupid cries, "with a knife to cut off my head? Return to your sisters, whose advice you prefer to mine. You'll never see me again." Whereupon the god and the palace disappear. Pregnant now with Cupid's child, Psyche sets off to search for him and eventually comes before his mother, the source of her misfortune. She humbles herself before the goddess, but Venus is not easily appeased. She sets the girl three impossible tasks, including a journey to the Underworld. With some timely help from Cupid, who still loves her, Psyche succeeds in completing the tasks. In the end, Jupiter intervenes, soothes Venus, and turns Psyche into an immortal. He then blesses the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, and their daughter, a child named Pleasure.
The three motifs common to Animal Bride and Bridegroom stories are evident in Apuleius's tale: marriage to (or cohabitation with) a mysterious non–human figure; the breaking of a prohibition and subsequent departure of the magical spouse (or suitor, or lover); and a pilgrimage to regain the loved one and achieve a more lasting union. A number of tales from the folk tradition, however, end after the second part of this cycle. These are tragic tales (or horrific ones) in which the union of lovers from human and non–human worlds cannot be sustained. The selchie tales of the British Isles and Scandinavia generally fall in this category. In a typical story, a fisherman spies a group of seals emerging from the sea. They shed their skins and turn into beautiful maidens upon the shore. As the selchies dance under the moon, the fisherman steals one of the skins. When the maidens turn back into seals and depart, they leave one seal–woman behind, for she is unable to transform herself without the magic of her seal–skin. She begs the man to return it — but he refuses, insisting she be his wife. Resigned, she follows him to his cottage and learns how to live on shore. Eventually she comes to care for husband, and she bears him seven sons. One day, however, she finds the skin — and she swiftly returns to her life in the sea. In some versions, she departs without another thought for the family left behind; in other versions, the sons also turn into seals and vanish with her. And in other variants of this tale, she joins a large bull seal in the waves. "I loved you," she calls back to the fisherman, "but I love my first husband more."
Similar tales are told of swan maidens in Sweden, of frog wives in China and Tibet, of bear women in North America, of peries (fairies) in Persian folklore, and of aspares (nymphs) in Hindu myth who take the shape of waterfowl. Yet in some stories, Animal Brides and Bridegrooms are less benign figures. In the English tale Reynardine, for instance, a young woman is pledged in marriage to a handsome red–haired stranger — who actually intends to murder and eat her in his ruined mansion in the woods. The fox–wives of Korea and Japan are beautiful, sensual, highly dangerous creatures who feed on the life energy that they slowly drain from their bewitched lovers. In The Lindworm, a story told in Sweden, a barren queen finally gives birth to two sons, the eldest of whom is a hideous lindworm (a serpent, or dragon). Before the king is told of the birth, she casts the eldest off in the woods, and the youngest son grows up believing that he is the heir to the kingdom. When it's time for the younger son to wed, the lindworm makes his appearance at court. "You shall get no bride," he threatens the prince, "until I have a mate and have lain by her side." Frightened, the king and queen agree to wed the lindworm to a slave. The marriage is performed, and in the morning the slave girl's body is found torn to pieces. Another bride is found, and then another; and each time the bride is killed.
Finally, a woman from the country steps up and offers her step–daughter in marriage. The girl is kind, beautiful, and well–loved, and the step–mother means to be rid of her. The girl prays on her mother's grave, then comes to the palace determined to be brave. She'll wed with the lindworm, she says, but her bridal chamber must first be prepared. She asks for a strong pot of lye, seven scrubbing brushes, and seven new shirts made of soft white linen. Now she is ready. The marriage is sealed, and she's left with her terrible husband. The lindworm orders his wife to undress. "Undress yourself first!" she tells him boldly. He's puzzled. "None of the others bade me do that." "But I bid you," she answers. Then the lindworm begins to groan and writhe and he soon slithers out of his outer skin, whereupon his bride takes off one of the seven white linen shirts. Again he orders her to undress; again she tells him to undress first. In the end, there are seven white shirts on the ground, and seven hideous snake skins. The lindworm is now a slimy mass. The girl takes up a scrubbing bush, and she scrubs him all over with lye until she has worn out all seven brushes. When she is done, a handsome young prince stands before her, the spell that had held him broken. He declares his love for the clever, beautiful girl who has set him free. The tale goes on from there, for the wicked step–mother has not exhausted her tricks, but in the end, the couple live happily and rule over the kingdom.
Not all animal brides or bridegrooms are really humans in disguise. Some are magical beings who take on human shape. In an Arabic story told by Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights, there once lived a mighty sultan whom Allah had blessed with three strong sons. When it came time for his sons to marry, he sought the advice of his councilors, who recommended leaving the choice of brides to destiny. The sultan had each of his sons blindfolded. Bows and arrows were put in their hands. "Shoot," he said, "and wherever your arrow lands you shall find your bride." The first son's arrow fell at the feet of the daughter of a noble lord. The second arrow fell at the feet of the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The third son's arrow fell in the courtyard of an unknown house. The only creature who lived there was an enormous tortoise. "Shoot again," said the sultan. The second arrow landed beside the first. "You must shoot yet again, my son." But this arrow too landed by the tortoise. The sultan sighed and said, "It seems that Allah does not mean for you to wed — for see you here, this tortoise is not of our race, our kind, or our religion." But the young man cried, "All praise to Allah, but this tortoise is my destiny. I shall marry her, for I swear that my time of celibacy is over." "How can a man wed a tortoise?" said the sultan, astonished. "That would be a monstrous thing!" "I have no predilection for tortoises, it is true. Nevertheless, this one will be my bride, for it is the will of Allah," said the son, and the sultan had to agree.
The weddings of the sultan's sons commenced. The first two weddings were splendid indeed, but the third wedding was a strange affair and caused much mocking laughter. The eldest brothers refused to attend, and their wives would not help the tortoise to dress or lay her down in her bridal bed afterwards, as was the custom. This saddened the youngest son but still he faithfully honored his wedding vows. He passed the night with his tortoise bride, and every night thereafter. Whispers flew around the court. How could a man couple with a tortoise? The bridegroom would not speak, or hear a word against his bride.
Three years passed. The sultan grew ill, for his youngest son was dear to him and the circumstances of the boy's strange marriage preyed upon his mind. "Our very own wives shall prepare your food," said the eldest and the middle son. "This will tempt your appetite and bring you back to health." Each hurried home and instructed his wife to prepare a dish finer than any known — for surely the son whose wife restored the sultan's health would become the favorite. The youngest son went home and conveyed these tidings to his tortoise wife. "Do not despair," she assured her husband. "Just wait and see what happens." She sent a message to the first brother's wife. "Please be so good as to send me all the mouse dung you can collect in your house. I am preparing food for the sultan, and I never cook with any other condiment." The first wife said, "Why should I help a tortoise? There must be some kind of magic in this. I'll use the mouse dung for myself, and get the better of her." The tortoise sent a message to the second brother's wife, "Please be so good as to send me all the hen droppings you can collect in your yard. I am preparing food for the sultan, and I never cook with any other condiment." The second wife said, "Why should I help a tortoise? There must be some kind of magic in this. I'll use the hen droppings myself, and get the better of her."
The tortoise prepared a meal in a silver dish set upon on a golden tray surrounded with yellow rose petals, and she sent it to the sultan. When each of the dishes had arrived, the sultan summoned his sons to him. "I intend to give my kingdom," he said, "to the man whose wife restores my health." He lifted the cover from the first dish. The smell of rat turds was overpowering. The old man swooned, and the fetid dish was hastily removed. When the sultan recovered, he lifted the lid of the dish prepared by his second son's wife. The stench of bird droppings filled the air. "Are your wives trying to kill me?" he cried. His sons begged his forgiveness, for this mystery passed their understanding. "Try the third dish," begged the youngest son. "What, do you mock me?" the sultan demanded. "If my other sons' wives could not prepare food fit for eating, what can a tortoise do?" The youngest begged his father to try the food. At last the old sultan consented. As he lifted the lid, a scent finer than the sweetest perfume wafted through the room and every man licked his lips, longing for a taste of the morsels inside. With one bite, the old man's eyes grew clear. With the second bite, his spine straightened. With the third bite, the sultan felt younger, fitter, and stronger than he had in years. He ate every morsel in the dish, drank a sherbet of musk and snow, and burped three times to show his satisfaction with the meal.
The story goes on…two other tests are demanded of the daughters–in–law, and each time the tortoise triumphs, turning the spite of the other wives against them. Finally, the tortoise–wife is summoned to appear before the sultan and his court -and she reveals herself as a beautiful, wise, wealthy, and well–mannered young woman. The sultan, delighted, signs his kingdom over to his youngest son — and the tortoise–wife has her old shell burned so that she's never tempted to return to it.
Similar tales can be found in other fairy tale traditions, such as the Russian story The Frog Princess and the French story The White Cat — although these tales are more decorous in the depiction of the tasks, and avoid sexual conjecture. In the Russian story, the frog–wife transforms into human shape in her husband's bed; in the French tale, marriage doesn't take place until after the cat turns back into a woman. In these later tales, we're assured that the Animal Brides had actually been human at birth, changed to animal shape by a fairy's whim or a witch's curse. In older stories, like that of the tortoise wife, the bride often begins as an animal (or as a magical shape–shifting creature), consenting in the end to give up her true form in order to live in the human world.
"Just as marriage between two people unites their families, so marriage between a person and an animal in myth and fairy tale joins humanity with nature," writes folklorist Boria Sax, noting that changes in the tales as they pass through the centuries have reflected the changing relationship between man and the natural world. The oldest known Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales are generally those limited to the first part of the story cycle: the romance and/or marriage of human beings and animals (or other nature–bound creatures). Tales of this sort include ancestral myths such as the Chinese stories of families descended from the marriage of humans and shape–shifting dragons, or the lore of Siberia shamans who trace their power and healing gifts to marriages between men and swans. Such tales evoke an ancient world view in which humans were part of the natural world, cousin to the animals, rather than separate from nature and placed above all other creatures.
Animal Bride and Bridegroom stories that go on to the second part of the cycle — ending with the loss of the animal lover — arise from a world view in which sharper distinctions are made between the human sphere (civilization) and nature (the wilderness). In such tales, humans and their animal lovers come from distinctly separate worlds, and any attempt to unite the two is ultimately doomed to failure.
Stories that move on to the third part of the cycle, like East of the Sun, West of the Move, end with the lovers reunited and the transformation of one or both. Such tales, notes Sax, express "an almost universal longing to re–establish a lost intimacy with the natural world" — and although the tortoise might burn her shell in order to live in the sultan's court, she brings the scent of the wild with her as she steps into civilization. She will never be an ordinary woman; she'll always be the Fantastic Bride — joining the hero to the mysteries of nature.
The history of animal–human marriage tales reaches back to legends of animal deities and their various mortal lovers, found in Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, early Greek, and other ancient mythologies. In the lore of a number of Native American tribes, the Animal People were the first people to inhabit the earth; intermarriage between them and the second people, human beings, could be a blessing or a disaster. In the Alaskan story of Sedna, for instance, a beautiful young woman is tricked into marriage with a man who is really a sea–bird in disguise; he takes her to live among the birds, where she's cold and miserable. Sedna seizes an opportunity for escape when her father comes to visit her: she hides in his kayak and he paddles away with the bird in hot pursuit. The sea gods send a storm, angry with Sedna for breaking her marriage vows. Her father, in order to save his own life, casts the girl into the sea. As she clutches onto the kayak, her father stabs her fingers to loosen her hold. Three times he stabs her with his knife, and each time that her blood flows to the sea new creatures emerge from it: the very first seals, walruses and whales. At last Sedna sinks to the bottom of the ocean, the new creatures following after her — and there she's lived ever since, joined by her father and her faithful dog. Men now pray to Sedna to send them whales, walruses, and seals to hunt. Bitter and capricious, nursing her sore fingers, sometimes she honors the hunters' requests, and sometimes she takes their lives from them, just as the sea gods once took hers.
In old folktales, marriage between humans and animals broke certain taboos, and could be dangerous, but these relationships weren't generally portrayed as wicked or immoral. Even when such marriages were doomed to failure (selchie wives returning to the sea, for example), often a gift was left behind in the form of children, wealth, good fortune, or the acquisition of magical skills (such as the ability to find fish or game in plentiful supply). By the Middle Ages, however, animal–human relationships were viewed more warily, and creatures who could shift between human and animal shape were portrayed in more demonic terms. Witches were said to have animal familiars with whom they had unnatural relations, and in some witch trials, animals were hung and burned alongside their mistresses. One of the best known Animal Bride tales of medieval Europe was the story of Melusine, written down by Gervasius of Tilbury in 1211. A count met Melusine beside a pond and fell in love in love with her. She agreed to marry on one condition: he was never see her on a Saturday, which was when she took her bath. They wed, and she bore the count nine sons — each one deformed in some fashion. Finally, breaking the prohibition, the count spies on her at her bath and discovers that she's a snake from the waist down on every seventh day. When the trespass comes to light, Melusine becomes a serpent and vanishes — appearing thereafter only in spectral form to warn of death and danger. The brutish sons are evidence here of Melusine's demonic nature — although in older versions of her story, Melusine is simply a water fairy. The emphasis of the older tales lies on her husband's misdeed in breaking his promise, thereby losing his fairy wife, rather than on his discovery that he is married to a monster.
In the 15th century, a wandering alchemist by the name of Paracelsus wrote of magical spirits born from the elements of water, earth, air, and fire, living alongside humankind in a parallel dimension. These spirits were capable of transforming themselves into the shapes of men and women, and lacked only immortal souls to make them fully human. A soul could be gained, Paracelsus wrote, through marriage to a human being, and the children of such unions were mortal (but lived unusually long lives). Several noble families, it was believed, descended from knights married to water spirits (called "undines" or "melusines") who had taken on human shape in order to win immortal souls. Paraceslus' ideas went on to inspire the German Romantics in the19th century — in tales such as Goethe's "The New Melusine," E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Golden Pot," and especially Friederich de la Motte Fouqué's "Undine" — the tragic story of a water nymph in pursuit of love and a human soul. Fouqué's famous tale, in turn, inspired Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, along with other literary, dramatic, and musical works of the Victorian era. Many folklorists consider such tales to be part of the Animal Bride tradition, depicting as they do the union of mortal men and creatures of nature.
In the years between Paracelsus and Fouqué, fairy tales came into flower as a literary art of the educated classes, popularized by Italian and French publications that eventually spread across Europe. Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales were part of this enchanting literary movement. Basile's influential collection Il Pentamerone, for example, published in Naples in the 17th century, includes The Snake (a story that follows the traditional three–part Animal Bridegroom cycle), about a princess who marries a snake, loses him, and then must win him back. Later in the century, the term "fairy tale" (conte de fées) was coined by the writers of the Paris salons, who drew inspiration for their tales from folklore, myth, medieval romance, and prior works by Italian writers. Although Charles Perrault is the best known of them today, the majority of the contes were written by women authors, many of whom used fairy tales to critique the French court and restrictions place upon women of their class. In particular they railed against a marriage system in which women had few legal rights — no right to chose their own husband, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right of divorce. Often the brides were fourteen or fifteen years old, given to men who were decades older. Unsatisfactory wives risked being locked up in mental institutions or distant convents. The fairy tale writers of the French salons were sharply critical of such practices, promoting the ideas of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their Animal Bridegroom tales, in particularly, embodied the real–life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed.
Marie–Catherine D'Aulnoy, for example, one of the leading writers of the contes, had been married off at age 15 to an abusive baron thirty years her senior. (She rid herself of him after a series of adventures as wild as any fairy story.) By contrast, the lovers in D'Aulnoy's tales are well–matched in age and intellect; they enjoy books, music, good conversation and each other's company. D'Aulnoy penned several Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales that are still widely read and loved today, including The Green Snake, The White Cat, and her tragic King–Lear–type story called The Royal Ram. As Marina Warner points out (in her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers), "Romance — love–in–marriage — was an elusive ideal, which the writers of the contes sometimes set up in defiance of destiny." In the 17th century, such ideas were startlingly modern and revolutionary. Today, however, (when romantic, companionable marriage is the expected norm), the emphasis on love and marriage in the contes can seem sentimental, quaint, even anti–feminist. An understanding of the context these stories sprang from reveals them to be quite the opposite.
In the 18th century, another French woman, Gabrielle–Suzanne de Villeneuve, borrowed from the Animal Bridegroom tradition to create an original fairy tale that would become one of the best loved of all time: Beauty and the Beast. Villeneuve's original narrative is over one hundred pages long, and is somewhat different in theme than the shorter version we know today. As Villeneuve's story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fiercesome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur — a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité and magic.
Sixteen years later Mme Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened Villeneuve's story and published this new version in a magazine for well–bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat — the twisting subplots beloved by Villeneuve — to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version (and subsequent retellings) the story becomes a more didactic one. The emphasis shifts from the Beast's need for transformation to the need of the heroine to change — she must learn to see beyond appearance and recognize the Beast as a good man before his transformation. With this shift, we see the story altered from one of critique and rebellion to one of moral edification, aimed at younger and younger readers, as fairy tales slowly moved from adult salons to children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears — he poses no genuine danger or sexual threat to Beauty in these children's stories.