Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Through the Mouse Hole

So, my big soapbox is what I perceive as the main message of "Beauty and the Beast:" don't judge by appearances. And as I've discussed before, gender plays a huge part in how we are judged-I think that the stories our culture chooses to tell reveal that we might be comfortable with a man who looks horribly disfigured but that an ugly woman is so appalling we don't even want to entertain the idea in a story.

Historically, there are several animal bride tales to accompany animal bridegroom tales, which have all but been forgotten. I wonder if the two shared equal amounts of fame, but there's no way to measure how many times each tale or tale variant has been told.

But, here is a Czech/Russian example of an Animal Bride tale, "Through the Mouse Hole" (full text here).
First of all, I love that vague beginning: "Before times long past, there reigned a King somewhere and he had three sons." These sons wished to go out into the world, and their father approved of this, knowing their desire was to find wives, and requested that each bring back to him a present from their loved ones after a year's time. Each son agreed and decided to shoot an arrow into the air and travel in the direction the arrow fell. The eldest son went East, the second West-but the third son, Yarmil, shot his arrow into a mouse hole. His brothers teased, but Yarmil was daunted by nothing. He rode his horse straight towards the mouse hole, and was suprised that it opened up as he approached and he found himself in the middle of an underground country facing a white marble castle. A woman in white approached him with a snow-white steed in place of his own mount. Once on the white steed, the creature flew through the air to the castle.

Yarmil entered the castle and passed from room to room. He saw jewels and wonders, but no one was there. He travelled thorugh a eleven chambers and found a crystal tub trimmed with gold, into which clear water was pouring. He went from there into the twelfth chamber and found a pan of diamonds. On the pan were written the words, "Carry me near your heart and bathe me each day, so you will set free one who is bound." In the pan Yarmil lifted lid after lid until he finally uncovered an ugly toad. Yarmil's first thought was to turn away and leave the ugly toad, but he lifted the toad and put it in his bosom. "At first the touch of it chilled him thorugh and through, but the next moment he felt himself strangely happy."
Yarmil was faithful to his toad. He bathed it every day in the crystal tub. He dined on the most exquisite food, waited on by invisible servants. He played musical instruments, and used writing materials and books. He enjoyed all these pleasures but cared firstly for the toad. At first he was troubled that there was no one else in the castle, but became accustomed to his life.
Finally, the end of the year approached. Yarmil was distressed, as he knew not what gift to bring his father from a toad. But he saw a sheet of paper left for him-"Dear Yarmil-be patient as I am patient. A gift for thy father thou wilt find in the pan."
Yarmil carefully put the toad back in the pan and took out a splendid casket. Without looking in it, he travelled back on the flying horse and to his father's castle. The brothers presented their gifts.
The eldest had brought a small mirror through which the King could see his whole person. The second son had brought a mirror even smaller. Yarmil did not know what gift was in the casket-but the King pulled out a mirror no bigger than a thumbnail, through which he could see his whole person, as well as the whole great hall.
The King was very impressed with Yarmil's gift. Yarmil was glad he had been so faithful to his toad, but his brothers were jealous. The King told the brothers to return in another year with portraits of their princesses.
Yarmil was nervous about giving a portrait of a toad to his father, but returned to his toad, where he found everything as he left it before. He bathed the toad twice each day, but it only seemed to grow uglier. At the end of the year he found another note and gift for his father, which he took back with him.
The eldest son had a portrait of a beautiful lady, but his father claimed there were more beautiful in the world. The second son's portrait brought the same response. But when the King saw Yarmil's portrait, he was speechless. Then at last he said, "I had not believed in all the world such a lady was to be found." Yarmil looked at the portrait and saw unbelievable loveliness, and was once again glad he had been caring patiently for his toad.
His father sent of his sons with the command to return after one more year with their princesses, to celebrate a grand wedding. Yarmil bathed his toad three times each day, but the toad grew steadily uglier. On the very last day of the year he reached to his bosom to look once more at his toad-but the toad was gone. Yarmil searched the castle but found nothing-until he remembered the dish in the twelfth chamber. He ran there, and found a lady even more beautiful than the portrait. The princess told him that a wicked wizard turned herself and her people into toads because she refused to marry him, and Yarmil's faithful patience had freed her from the spell. The two were married and returned to the Princess' kingdom, where the subjects all rejoiced and thanked Yarmil for their freedom. "and so they all lived henceforth, happily beyond measure."

Clearly there are many parallels between this and Beauty and the Beast-the magical castle with every earthly pleasure and invisible servants, the transformation at the end. The jilted evil sorcerer is the equivalent of Villeneuve's jilted evil fairy that transformed the Beast.
Yet Yarmil's need to work patiently to free his bride is more like Cupid and Psyche and other Animal Bridegroom tales, whereas more recent Beauties simply live a life of luxury and learn to love the Beast. Yet Psyche and the heroine from "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" and other such tales have to go through more painful trials to win back their husbands, and the fault is implied to be theirs in some way. And though we meet the Princess as a toad, the King at least values her only because she is more beautiful than any other woman on earth. I'd hate to have him for a father in law.


  1. Hi! I'm Rachel :) I've noticed that too, that ugly women are rarely used in stories. That's one of the reasons I got so excited when I started the Mortal Engines series (theres a girl with a severely scarred face & in missing an eye, but she still finds love). Sadly, the series kinda deteriorated as it went on, but I still liked the fact that the author had the guts to ruin the Main girls face.

    Great article!

  2. At the same time, I like the moral that is almost there - that love is about taking care of someone, even if they get uglier or don't love you back. That love is a servant, and not a king.