While Beauty and the Beast gained popularity from its adaption by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, it was originally a lengthy literary fairy tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. I know of two English translations online: one by Ernest Dowson and one in Four and Twenty Fairy Tales by J. R. Planché. Planché’s version is slightly bowdlerised; he changes ‘Will you sleep with me?’ to ‘Will you marry me?’
Madame de Villeneuve’s story contains a lot of details that do not appear in later adaptions, including information about the Prince and why he was cursed, Beauty’s secret family history, and fairy politics. One aspect that I always found puzzling was an ordeal that fairies would go through to gain power and prestige: they would ‘become a serpent’. Supposedly this was an extremely dangerous undertaking, but I never understood exactly why. Did they become a dragon or a normal snake? Why was it dangerous? Did they have to fight someone or something? Well, I was reading Prince Lutin (translated as Prince Sprite, Prince Ariel and various other names) by Madame d’Aulnoy and I may have found a clue.
I found Prince Lutin to be a rather unpleasant tale with an unlikeable hero. The main character, Leander, courts a woman names Blondine because it is expected of him. She is uninterested in him and never gives him any indication that she likes him. He discovers that she has a rival and sneaks into her bedroom when she is meeting him. Furious to see her favouring someone else, Leander beats up the rival and leaves the court, reproaching Blondine as if she’d been unfaithful to him.
Later, when Leander meets his ‘true love’, he basically turns into Edward Cullen. He spies on her invisibly and leaves presents around, causing her to fear that she’s being haunted. Naturally, it’s all just fine and she falls in love with him without even properly meeting him.
However, what interested me about the story was the fairy helper. Early on, Leander comes across a snake about to be killed by a gardener. On a whim, he decides to save and look after it. The snake turns out to be the fairy Gentille. She explains that everyone in her race must become a snake for one week when they turn one hundred. They lose their magic powers and cannot protect themselves.
Was this what inspired Madame de Villeneuve’s serpent test in Beauty and the Beast? Is it so dangerous for the fairies because they no longer have powers, and because as feared and reviled creatures, snakes were in danger of being killed if a human being came across them?
A similar circumstance occurs in Anguillette by Henriette-Julie de Murat (also in Planché’s Four and Twenty Fairy Tales). In this story the transformation occurs for a few days every month, and can be any animal. Anguillette, the fairy of the title, becomes an eel. Like Gentille she is captured and in danger of being killed, but is rescued by a kind princess.
I’ll be keeping my eyes open for further disempowered fairy-animals in literary fairy tales.