Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite fairy tale. Favorite Disney movie, favorite Robin McKinley fairy tale retelling, favorite original tale … basically, I’m a fan. So you can imagine that I was beside myself excited when Disney announced their live-action remake of my favorite fairy tale. And yesterday, I finally got to see it.
It’s been a while since I wrote about fairy tales, so many of you probably don’t know that I’m not just a fan of Disney. I love the original tales as well. In many cases, I like them more than the lighter, tamer, happier versions. It’s hard to believe there was a time when it was considered normal to read children bedtime stories where stepsisters hack their own toes off, children throw witches in ovens, and princes fall from towers into thorns that blind them.
They weren’t just creepy stories for kids, though. Fairy tales represent a rich folkloric tradition passed along and refined by both male and female storytellers. And plenty of research has gone into documenting these stories’ histories, discussing their role in society, and cataloging the different styles. Beauty and the Beast, for example, is 425C in the Aarne–Thompson classification system. It’s one of a surprisingly large number of animal groom fairy tales and most likely has it’s roots in the story of Cupid and Psyche.
Fairy tales have always generated discussion and debate. This time around, people are talking about bestiality and wondering why this “tale as old as time” has endured for so long with such twisted ideas at its roots. But if we equate the Beast with an animal we miss the point of the tale. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim believed the “animal groom” stories were “intended to reassure virginal brides about sex” (i.e. he seems scary, but once you get to know him he’s not so bad).
Beauty and the Beast goes deeper than most tales of this sub-type, though. What we know as Beauty and the Beast was first written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. In this earliest version, as in subsequent versions, the Beast has to prove himself worth loving. Read more →
I listed Lorna Doone as a re-read on my Classics Club book list, but suspect I hadn’t actually read an unabridged version before. I didn’t remember whole pages worth of conversation written in dialect or so much time spent building John and Lorna’s childhood relationship in the first half of the book. Pretty sure I read a copy that modernized the dialogue and skipped straight to the most exciting action. That’s probably why the book felt so long this time through, though I was thoroughly enjoying it by around the half-way point.
Grounded In History
Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore is a historical novel published in 1869 and set in the late 1600s. I hadn’t realized before re-reading it how much the novel borrows from real events. My falling apart ex-library copy (published in 1943) even includes pictures of the locations Blackmore references. The brief introduction written by Basil Davenport states, “Blackmore made good use of his schoolboy memories of Devon; the outlaw Doones, the De Whichehalse family, the highwayman Tom Fagus and his mare, and even the mighty John Ridd, have at least some foundation in fact, while the book is full of local historical allusions, like the bales of wool that were used to repel bullets at the siege of Exeter Castle.”
The historical grounding is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this classic novel. It soaks through every page in tiny details, sweeping historical allusions, and our narrator’s word choice. Though I had a little trouble getting really “into” the first half of the story, it’s not because Blackmore isn’t painting an immersive world. Since this is a first-person narrative, we get to see the world through John Ridd’s eyes. And John isn’t shy about sharing his opinions on everything from farming to women to outlawry. It really feels like we’re there listening to John tell the story as he lived it.
Outlaws As Villains
We’ve all read stories where the outlaws are romanticized. Stories with dashing rogues, defensible pirates, and code-following outlaws fill our collective imagination. Not so in Lorna Doone. Even beloved highwayman Tom Fagus must mend his ways and conform to law and order before securing his happy ending. The more prominent outlaws in the story, the Doones, are decidedly cast in the role of the villain. Rather than seeking to romanticize and excuse the outlaws à la Robin Hood, the story focuses on rescuing Lorna (and by extension the romance plot) from them.
Several times, John talks about the Doones as a fixture in the neighborhood. The surrounding people have gotten used to them and they’re willing to put up with certain things. Since the Doones are a noble family, their neighbors consider it their right to steal sheep, run off with a few unmarried women, and even kill people who get in their way. The Ridds and their neighbors even resent external efforts to bring the Doones to justice, partly because they fear pay-back if/when the Doones win and partly because the Doones just seem to belong. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy about having a nest of outlaws in their backyards.
But What Does It Mean?
Though tolerated and occasionally defended, the Doones are viewed as a local plague, not as tragic heroes or admirable figures. They eventually cross a line and are wiped out by the very people who put up with them for so long. Interestingly, all this happens at a time of political unrest in Britain as a whole and there are numerous tongue-in-cheek references to political corruption and the failures of the nobility. I suspect that on some level at least, we’re meant to identify the overtly lawless Doones with the more subtle legalized injustice running through the British government. And we’re to root for the common man of good sense rising up to put an end to his “betters” ruining the country.
On a more obvious level, Lorna Doone really is a simple romance novel. And while there are plenty of romantic novels I enjoy more, I do love the story. John and Lorna aren’t my favorite literary characters, but even the fact that I didn’t like them 100% is in a way a testament to Blackmore’s writing. Though John is telling the story and he worships Lorna, Blackmore manages not to present either as unrealistically idealized “perfect heroes.” It reads like the honest account of two real people navigating romance in a world of outlaws. And that makes for a good story.
Though I’m an avid reader of British classic literature this is only the second George Elliot book I’ve read. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan at first. I felt like the story spent far too much time on trivial details while skipping over scenes I would have expected more focus on (like weddings). But even when I was tempted to skim some sections I realized I would loose the plot thread if I missed even a few paragraphs and by the last 100 pages I felt everything coming together. It’s a much tighter story than I’d first given it credit for.
Middlemarch chronicles the lives of a quite a large cast of characters, but Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate are the main characters. Interestingly, they are not love interests for each other. Rather, their stories parallel each other and intertwine in unexpected ways that you really don’t start to appreciate until close to the end.
Thematically, Middlemarch explores the nuances of marriage (among other things. It is, after all, 800 pages long). This aspect of the novel brings to mind the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The main characters’ marriages happen for various reasons and become unhappy in different ways. Dorothea’s was made because she wanted to marry, and support, a man whose mind she could admire. Her husband wasn’t actively trying to deceive her, but he wasn’t at all the person she expected and turned out to be far more small-minded than she. Lydgate married because he fell in love with Rosamund, who married him because she expected him to rise socially. When he didn’t become her mental image of who he should be, she stopped loving him and Lydgate discovered he was trapped trying to make her happy while struggling to not completely abandon his dreams.
There are also three happy marriages made in this novel. And that gets us to the first part of Tolstoy’s quote: “Happy families are all alike.” Middlemarch’s happy marriages have one thing in common — they start from a place of honesty. The man and woman have known each other for years, neither is trying to deceive the other, and their expectations of their spouse are (at least mostly) realistic. It’s kind of sweet to see how the two marriages that take place near the end of the story develop throughout the novel. The two unhappy marriages are made quickly and soon deteriorate, but the ones that we see grow and develop over several years end up thriving.
After reading the first 700 pages or so with a fairly low level of engagement, those last hundred pages made me not want to put the book down. My two month investment with this book (I started it at the beginning of November and took a couple breaks to read shorter books like Heartless) was more than paid-off with the conclusion. This might seem weird to say for a book that’s 145 years old, but I don’t want to say too much more and spoil it for you. Sufficient to say everything really does go together and there’s a satisfying ending in store if you keep going through all 800 pages.
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I’ve been quite fond of Shakespeare since high school. Freshman year I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and then read the play for extra credit. I loved it so much I choose to read it again the year we studied British literature, along with Taming of the Shrew (my mother’s choice) and As You Like It (recommended by a teacher).
Since homeschoolers can pick their own curriculum and my mom hated reading Shakespeare’s tragedies when she was in school, I didn’t get a hold of those until college. There, I discovered Hamlet was almost as good as Henry. Almost, but not quite. When I took a Shakespeare class where the professor included Henry V on his syllabus I was in literature nerd heaven.
The only strange thing (to me at least) about this whole Henry obsession is that it took me so long to read Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two. In these plays, the character I knew as noble King Henry V is the riotous Prince Hal. I did put them on my Classics Club book list, but I probably wouldn’t have read these plays for another year or so if I hadn’t decided on a futuristic/sci-fie re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad for my NaNoWriMo novel (click here to learn more). I’d seen them, though, in BBC’s The Hollow Crown.
This brilliant adaptation is remarkably faithful to both Part One and Part Two (it leaves out more scenes and changes a few parts of Henry V, but that play’s not the topic of our post today). I enjoyed reading the Henry IV plays, in part because of associating the on-paper scenes with what I’d seen in The Hollow Crown. Here’s a small clip of Tom Hiddleston as Henry, but you should really check out the series and watch it for yourself.
For reading Part One, I picked up a copy without annotations or notes. I was rather pleased with myself that I didn’t feel like I needed them. This is also the play I enjoyed most. It feature a more straight-forward and active story line, and more scenes with Prince Hal. I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s main plots and noble characters to the sub-plots and more comedic characters, and that held true for these history plays.
Part Two follows the Henrys less and I’m glad I had a Folger edition to read for that. There were whole sections of Falstaff’s speeches that left me puzzled (the notes made me feel better, though — apparently scholars can’t figure out some of his lines either). You need this play to get from Part 1 to Henry V, but it’s my least favorite of the three.
Whether or not you already love Shakespeare, I’d recommend starting with The Hollow Crown if you’re interested in these plays. They’re really meant to be seen and heard more than read. I suspect the man who begged pardon of his 17th century audience for daring “On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” as Henry’s life would approve of the scope film provides for storytelling (Henry V, 1.1.11-12).
Do you like books? What about surprise packages arriving on your door full of goodies? Or getting the chance to make someone else’s day?
If any of that sounded good, you’ve got to join us for the Ninja Book Swap. I tried it for the first time this spring and it was fantastic. Not only do you have the opportunity to give and receive books, you get to tell all your friends you’re a ninja. There’s literally no down-side.
Here’s how it works: you sign-up on the Ninja Book Swap website, say “Hi” on the blog or Bex’s Twitter if you haven’t swapped before (just so she knows you’re real), answer a few questions, and give them a link to you book wish-list. Then, you’re matched with two other people. One will be sending you a package (you don’t know who this is) and the other is who you’ll be sending a package to (they won’t know who you are).
The rules ask that you send your book swap buddy one book from their list, a gift you think they’ll like based on the questions they answered, and a note telling them who you are and saying “Hi.” You can also send more if you want and dress-up the packaging to make it special (which I highly recommend). Try browsing #ningjabookswap on Twitter for ideas of what people have done in the past.
Registration for the Ninja Book Swap opened on Saturday and will stay open until October 2. I hope you’ll join us! Here are all the links you’ll need for more information:
Check out this article I wrote for Femnista’s Shakespeare issue (and perhaps a few of their other articles while you’re at it)! It’s always a pleasure to write for and read this online magazine/blog.
I have no trouble answering the question, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” (though it sadly isn’t asked very often). My answer has been Henry V since I first read it in high school. I grew up immersed in classical tales of adventure and heroism–stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, legends about Robin Hood and King Arthur. In that context, my affection for Henry V comes as no surprise.
“Noble Harry,” as Shakespeare dubs the character, is the quintessential heroic figure. He’s a man of action, a brilliant soldier, a king committed to justice only where he cannot show mercy, a believer in God’s sovereignty, and a romantic figure in his wooing of Kathrine. Shakespeare is far too talented a storyteller to leave even his heroic figures one-dimensional, though. There’s much more to Henry’s character than being a perfect king.