In Search of Cupid and Psyche: Myth and Legend in Children's Literature

Beauty and The Beast

The following images are from picture-book retellings of "Beauty and the Beast" done in various periods by artists of varying reputations. Their interpretations range from the sentimental to the dramatic, from naturalistic to artificial, from naive to sophisticated. As to be expected, each illustration reflects the aesthetic values of the culture in which it was created: A late Victorian pleasure in fabric, color and decoration inheres to Walter Crane's 1870 illustration; the work of Edmund Dulac bears the influence of an Asian aesthetic in its pallid, delicate colors and long, slender calligraphic lines so prevalent in illustration during this period. In sharp contrast, the lumpy pastiche of Nilesh Mistry's picture communicates the contemporary impatience with grace and composure: Beauty's twisted features assure us of the depth and sincerity of her emotion. (Just as the balletic, spread-eagle stance of Walter Goble's Medievalist Beauty assured readers in 1897.) Just as Japonisme, or Medievalism, or Naturalism convince their respective audiences of the reality or importance of the illustration, so also does the accepted or self-evident importance of the content of the illustration reaffirm the reality or importance of the artistic style. While this is easier to see in sacramental art, in which the religious devotion valorizes the style of representation, it is no less true of the secular--without some kind of balance between technique and concept, we find ourselves in the presence of kitsch.

Beauty Discovers The Dying Beast

More in the manner of religious art and music than parody or kitsch, the following styles of presentation derive their power from the credibility of the myth underwriting this image from "Beauty and the Beast,"--the power of bold confrontation and self-surrender implicit in Psyche's stolen glimpse of the sleeping god, or, what Eliade terms sudden apprehension of the sacred.

Of course, the poignancy of the scene in which Beauty discovers the dying Beast points at Beauty's deep affection for the wretched creature's welfare (a far cry, it would seem, from Psyche's timorous and terrified suspicions); and the reader's pleasure suggests our anticipation of the unlooked for joy that Beast's transformation will soon bring Beauty, whose intensity will be as great as her momentary anguish--obviously different from the cruel suffering awaiting Psyche; and, of course, while the Beast's metamorphosis back into a prince does not represent the form of Cupid's reactive flight, which he defers only long enough to tell Psyche 'I told you so,' its very oppositeness gives it a distinction and moment it would otherwise lack.

In an important sense, the Beast's transformation supplies the interpretation to Cupid's text, and, in this respect, both text and interpretation (or, category and token) are enhanced in relation to the other. Strangely, the myth valorizes and thus completes imagery that divides itself away. Speculating upon the ways in which the stories meaningfully relate will precisely delineate the reasons for their appeal. While viewing the illustrations below, consider the following points. Also, compare these images with representations of Psyche gazing upon the sleeping Cupid, which can be found at my website on images of Cupid and Psyche:

Points To Consider

Goody Two Shoes Picture Book [ca. 1870], illustration by Walter Crane.

The Favorite Book of Nursery Tales, 1893, illustration by Anonymous.

The Blue Fairy Book, 1893, illustration by H.J. Ford.

The Ideal Fairy Tales, 1897, illustration by Anonymous.

The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales, 1910, illustration by Edmund Dulac.

The Fairy Book, 1913, illustration by Warwick Goble.

1915, illustration by Arthur Rackham.

Beauty and the Beast, retold by Jan Carr. 1993, illustration by Katy Bratun.

"Beauty & the Beast", The Illustrated Book of Fairy Tales, 1997, illustration by Nilesh Mistry.