Monday, October 1, 2012

Beast and SuperBeast: Superman and Folktales part 3, Beauty and the Beast

by Arthur Rackham

So far, I've described the tales of "Cupid and Psyche" and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." Together with "Beauty and the Beast," these stories make up what folklorists call Tale Type 425. It's essentially the story of the animal bridegroom. It's related to "Cinderella." The Grimms' version is called "The Singing Springing Lark." There's a good English version called "The Small-Toothed Dog," too.

Sometimes the beast is a weird warthog thing. By Walter Crane
That brings us to " Beauty and the Beast." It's a tale as old as time, according to the Disney film. So evidently time began in 1740, because that's when the story with that name was first published, in France. It shares a lot of the traits that we saw with "Cupid and Psyche" and "East o' the Sun." A good American version from the late 1800s is called "Rose," and it starts with a widower and his daughter. The man marries a woman with two daughters, who force Rose to do all the work while they play all day. The father goes on a trip, and asks each what they want as a present when he returns. The first two want the usual dresses and jewelry, but Rose wants nothing more than a rose. He promises to bring one. On his way home, he finds a splendid castle, empty of people but strangely with food laid out for him.

by Mercer Mayer
He makes his way to the garden, where he finds the most beautiful rose he's ever seen. He plucks it, and on the way out meets a great lion, who promises to kill him for taking the rose. The man agrees to his fate, but asks to be able to say goodbye to his daughter. The beast allows it. He returns, and when Rose learns of what has happened, she goes to the castle to plead for his pardon. When she arrives, everything in the castle bears the words "Welcome, Beauty, here!" The beast agrees to pardon the father, if she'll stay as its wife. She refuses to wed, but stays with him to keep her father alive anyway. It gives her a ring that allows her to visit her father whenever she wants, so long as she stays only a week. She does so, but her step-sisters conspire to keep her there too long. When she returns, she finds the lion sick. Not wanting it to die, she declares that she will be its wife. This, of course, transforms the beast back into a prince. She then makes her cruel step-sisters her servants in the castle, and all the people are happy.

by Katy Bratun
Again: secret identity revealed by transformation. Many versions, including the Disney film, have the woman violating an interdiction of some sort (in the film, she goes into the castle's west wing, where she finds the rose that counts the time until the enchantment is made permanent, thus learning something about him that he had to keep a secret). Tale Type 425 emphasizes the recurring motif of the search for the lost husband--which is absent from both Disney and from Superman. Instead, we get the rival for Belle's affections in Gaston. And in the superhero story, Superman can pretty much solve his own problems a lot of the time. Again, other than dealing with Kryptonite, Lois Lane doesn't do a lot of rescuing.

What does all this tell us about Superman? Well, that depends on what we want to see, to some extent. I see that Superman is really a story about marriage. Lois is always trying to marry him, or anyways she was until not too long ago. Sometimes they do get married, though in the comics version right now they're not.

Action Comics 243, by Otto Binder and Wayne Boring
Superman stories are often about transformation. That moment when he changes from Kent to Superman is frequently highlighted. The early Fleischer cartoons emphasized it, showing it in pretty much every one of them. The comics love to show it, using speed lines to show him doffing his suit and flying in his costume. The movies find all sorts of ways to put it on the screen, often just showing him running toward the camera and pulling his shirt open to reveal the shield (Smallville spent ten years building to that moment). A lot of memorable images show us that moment. The transformation is important.

Superman 165 by Robert Bernstein and Curt Swan
I place of the step-mother's (or witch's) curse, Superman is sometimes told by his adoptive parents to keep his identity secret. Sometimes he puts the curse on himself, thinking that he needs to keep his friends and family safe from villains. People speculate on it, coming up with their own rationale . But whatever the reason, he doesn't reveal who he is.
A lot of these folktales reflect the anxieties that women several centuries ago felt about marriage (and childbirth). They show us a time when women could be bought and sold, to men who might very well murder them, when bearing children was less a choice and more of a life-threatening obligation. They were stories about fearing men because men held all the power. Stories like "Bluebeard" told of the dangers (in that story, a woman is married off to a man who keeps a closet full of the bodies of his previous wives). But Superman stories have rarely reflected the Bluebeard story (except for All-Star Superman issue 2, which shows it to us through Lois Lane's paranoia, which we later learn was the result of exposure to some weird chemicals). The old stories are very much about women coming to terms with their marital situations. In "The Small-Toothed Dog," the girl has to learn manners. In the stories, she has to make up for doing the very things the beast tells her not to do (like looking into the wrong room, or seeing him for what he truly is, even when he is benevolent). There are consequences to Beauty's violation of the interdiction. In the same sense, Lois Lane is often mildly punished for her attempts to prove that Superman is Clark Kent and get him to marry her.

Gender politics and brutality has changed somewhat since the seventeenth century, but "Beauty and the Beast" is still about the same issue. Disney sort of made the story about accepting the animalistic aspects of the man. Consider the fact that on her first night in the castle, Belle does precisely what the beast tells her not to do, yet there is no real consequence for her behavior. He's the one who needs to learn the lesson, not her.

In Action Comics 243, the story is sort of about the same thing. Superman is turned into a beast, and at one point Lois even tries to turn him back by kissing him. But she assures him that she still loves him ("What do outward appearances mean?" she says at one point. "You're still the same wonderful man inside.") But he's awfully depressed about this transformation.

From Action 243
The story, spread through the three versions I've been writing about in this series of posts, seems to be about human and god interactions. There's an equation of god and animal here that's interesting to think about. The beast begins as a normal man or prince who has been transformed. But in the similar story of Cupid and Psyche, he's always a god. "East of the Sun" feels almost like a mediator or transitional tale between the two. In the end of a large number of versions, the women have to prove themselves worthy of the god.

Reading through the Showcase Presents collections of Silver Age Superman stories is fun for spotting folktale motifs. It would be hard to find any of this sort of folktale style in the more recent stories, I think. I recall the first time Clark Kent meets Lois Lane in Birthright, for example; his reaction is quite simply "Wow." She's already worthy of him. But of course, everything is different in the comics now. And there's a new movie series to rewrite their relationship for us again.

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