“Tale as Old as Time”: Archetypes in “Beauty and the Beast”

Activity 1. Reading the Beauty and the Beast fairytale | Activity 2. Finding parallels in other fairytales | Activity 3. Looking at text-to-film
transition with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast | Activity 4. Finding other Beauty and the Beast archetypes | Extension Activities | About the image

There is a certain typical hero sequence of actions, which can be detected in stories from all over the world, and from many, many periods of history. —Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth

Beauty and the BeastThe idea of the hero’s journey suggests that the adventures heroes and heroines undertake in many of our beloved stories follow a similar pattern. By broadly outlining these stories, you can see they contain characters and plot elements also found in fairytales and legends from different cultures.

These characters can be fit into molds known as archetypes, a concept which psychologist Carl Jung laid out in a framework and Joseph Campbell popularized. Archetypes are template or stock characters you see reappearing in various cultures and across time, such as the hero, the villain, the goofy sidekick, or the wise elder. 

This Launchpad explores how a classic and well-loved fairytale­ “Beauty and the Beast” can be distilled into archetypes of character and plot. It offers you a guide to recognize and analyze these archetypes when they appear in other stories and mediums.

[Note for educators: the Launchpad is designed to be flexible. While it can be assigned as individual work, other activities (such as Activity 2) would also work well as small-group discussions followed by whole-class sharing. Common Core Standards alignment*]

Activity 1. Reading the Beauty and the Beast fairytale

Read this 18th-century version of “Beauty of the Beast” by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, which was published in The Young Misses Magazine in France in 1756. Respond to the following:

  • Who are the primary characters in this story? Describe each character with a couple of words or phrases. What are their defining characteristics?
  • Write a brief summary of the main character’s journey in this story.
  • Go back to the summary you just wrote and replace all of the specific details with more general terms (for example, you would substitute general terms such as “a girl” or “the protagonist” for “Beauty”). Normally, in writing we aim for precision; this is your chance to break the rules and purposefully be vague!

Activity 2. Finding parallels in other fairytales

Read one of the following versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypal tale from another cultural tradition. These stories and others like them are available in the Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts repository, edited and/or translated by D.L. Ashliman at the University of Pittsburgh.

What revisions would you need to make to your answers from Activity 1 in order to accurately reflect the fairytale you just read? Do that now.

Here are some questions to consider after reading:

  • Compare and contrast the characters in this story with those in the French version. How are they similar? In what ways are they different?
  • In your opinion, which of these similarities and differences are most noticeable or significant? Be ready to point to specific places in the text that support your answer.

Activity 3. Looking at text-to-film transition with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

The archetypal story of “Beauty and the Beast” was transformed into an animated feature film by Disney in 1991.

Watch the clip of the 1991 film trailer

View the film, pay special attention to the scenes where “Belle Meets the Beast” and "Belle returns Home."**

Compare what you see in the 1991 Disney animated feature film with the LePrince de Beaumont version of the tale you originally read in Activity 1.  

Here are some questions to guide your comparison:

  • Pay attention to how the trailer sets up the contrast between Belle and the Beast as “opposites.” How would you describe Beauty in this story? What about the Beast?
  • What particular moments in the clip give you that impression?
  • How do these descriptions differ from the ones you recorded in Activity 1?
  • Who would you identify as the antagonist in this version of the fairytale?
  • Thinking of what you saw in the trailer, what adjective or phrase would you use to label the tone of this film? How does that tone measure up to the tone of the story by Madame de Beaumont from the first activity?

**Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition. Walt Disney Studios: September 20, 2016
Run Time: 92 minutes
The full script of the film is available, if you would like to access the text version.

If you would like to more deeply investigate criticisms of the Disney film and discuss how the archetypes in the story have been modified to better suit the societal values of the time, complete the extension activity linked below: Belle as a "new kind of Disney heroine."

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Activity 4. Finding other Beauty and the Beast archetypes

The archetypes of the beautiful, good-hearted girl and the wild, monstrous man reappear in a variety of forms in art and entertainment today (including the live-action remake of the Disney film, starring Harry Potter actress Emma Watson as Belle). List the aspects of the “Beauty and the Beast” tale you recognize in the following examples. What traits of the archetypal “the beauty” and “the beast” characters are emphasized, and what has been left out? Why might those choices have been made by the writer, composer, or director?

Film

Live Performance/Music

Literature

  • Wuthering Heights, novel by Emily Brontë: “He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears.” (Chapter 12, here)

If time allows, find your own representations of “the beauty” and “the beast” archetypes in contemporary art, advertisements, television, etc., and use them to consider the same questions. What helped you recognize the archetypes in these works?

Extension Activities

Belle as a “new kind of Disney heroine”

In this article from Time, Beauty and the Beast screenwriter Linda Woolverton discusses her efforts to make Belle a “new kind of Disney heroine” who would be a role model for young girls, in contrast to Disney princesses like Snow White, who embodied the gender roles of the 1930s. Look at the linked video and article, then write a paragraph to answer each of the subsequent questions. How does the original French story reflect the expectations of women at the time? In what ways could Belle be considered a “feminist upgrade”? Would you say Belle is a good or problematic role model for girls today?

In the director’s chair

You are acting as a director in charge of a remake of a theatrical or film production of Beauty and the Beast. Think about how the archetypes of “the beauty” and “the beast” fit into modern life. Outline how you would update the Beauty and the Beast story for today’s world. Then, elaborate on this plan. Feel free to be creative as you like in your response–you can choose to sketch a storyboard, write verses to a song you’d want in your film, write an essay, act out a scene, choreograph a dance, etc.!

*The activities in this Launchpad align with the following Common Core Standards for ELA Reading Literacy for grades 8 and 9–10:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.7: Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9–10.7: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment. 

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ABOUT THE IMAGE

Beauty and the Beast. Walter Crane (British, Liverpool 1845–1915 Horsham). Engraved and printed by Edmund Evans (British, Southwark, London 1826–1905 Ventnor, Isle of Wight).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.