LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Teasing out the “Beautiful” and the “Ugly” in Fairy Tales and Victorian Literature

on January 31, 2013 12:10am


What is beauty? What does it mean to be beautiful? In today’s world, when we read about a beautiful daughter who was virtuous in a fairy tale we immediately assume, “Wow, what sexist, awful fairy tale and Victorian writers, just because she’s virtuous means she’s automatically the most ‘beautiful’ person on earth. And then of course since her sisters are mean and bad, they are called ‘ugly’. How ridiculous!” With this mindset then, we turn on virtue, we start criticizing it, we start speaking about it in negative ways, we start mocking it.  But is there something more here? What did these authors and tales mean when they bestowed this pronouncement of beauty or  ugliness?

Is this a modern day version of MacDonald’s “princess” theory?


First, for modern readers, what it comes down to is the fact that in our world we have reduced beauty to someone who is physically attractive, someone that looks like a model or actress.  However beauty, like the word love, is a loaded word.  Perhaps what the authors of fairy tales or Victorian writers like George MacDonald are asking us to think about is not the fact that virtues make a person “beautiful” in the way we think of beauty.  Instead acting good, being virtuous, actually having morals, makes a person beautiful.  And it is not a surface beauty, it is a radiance that comes out, it is a joy, it is something intangible and almost imperceptible but we know it’s there.  So although the media and even illustrators choose to portray the “beautiful princess” as the perfectly shaped and attractive girl, I do not think that these authors were working at such a shallow and surface level.  George MacDonald, as a Christian, would have most likely been well versed in Christian thoughts on beauty.  He surely would have been very aware of this passage from scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that says:

Thus, with this in mind, MacDonald and others in his line of thought (ie Lewis and Tolkien), are not concerned with superficial beauty; they believed in ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful and that bringing these things into your life and focusing on them could actually make a difference in your life.  That what could happen is if one thinks on what is True, they’ll become a person who is true; if they think on Beauty, they’ll become beautiful; and if they think on the Good, then they will become the man or women that they are meant to become.

Curious to read this and see how it fits in with my propositions in this post…

And what of the mean, evil, ugly characters??  In the same way that we’ve reduced the term beautiful to attractive, we’ve reduced ugly to physically unattractive.  However, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many descriptions of the physical ugliness of let’s say mean sisters in fairy tales.  It is an ugliness that exudes from inside, that taints their being, that mars the way we think of them.  Granted sometimes like in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the goblins are actually physically ugly to represent their bad behavior, but I mean they are goblins, right?! This calls to mind a scene from C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book, The Magician’s Nephew, in which Jadis, the witch, comes to life inside of the great hall.  The children notice that as they move down the table there is slowly an almost imperceptible change that has come over all of these rulers, and the corruption that they practiced has trickled into their physical appearance (which we should note, could actually happen, trials and hardships, or joys and blessings, have a way of making themselves physically evident in our countenance).  However, the queen, Jadis, is physically beautiful, but her greed, her evilness is evident to the children, and to them she becomes ugly, but no so much on the surface but a burning from the inside.  In this way there is an illumination of the danger in correlating ugliness with physical unattractiveness.

Recently this idea of the utterly beautiful but evil woman has probably been depicted best by Charlize Theron in “Snow White and the Huntsman”


2 responses to “Teasing out the “Beautiful” and the “Ugly” in Fairy Tales and Victorian Literature

  1. bgugliemino says:

    First of all I blogged this week so I’m not actually supposed to be commenting, but I thought your post was really interesting and I just wanted to add to it a little bit. One of the things I saw when I was researching for my post on Arthur Hughes was that his work (particularly his more mature work such as his paintings) was influenced by the ideas of physiognomy. Physiognomy was generally popular in the Victorian period, especially with writers, so I think it is a reasonable assumption to say that MacDonald would have been aware of and possibly incorporated these ideas. The idea of physiognomy is that outward appearance reflects personality, with specific characteristics representing specific qualities, giving the reader a way to interpret the character’s personality without the author specifically having to describe it. This actually might lead to an interpretation closer to the beauty=good and ugly=bad idea that you are refuting, because in this case physical features are directly representing personality traits (although it usually wasn’t so simple as bad characters had ugly features, and in many cases there was a change in conventions so that female characters with “irregular” features are the ones we are supposed to like the most, Jane Eyre for example, but that’s a whole different topic). Either way, I think it is something interesting to consider and it brings another way to look at the relationship between a character’s physical appearance and their personality. Great post, I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. I completely agree with your statement that the idea of modern beauty today and the ideas of good portrayed by MacDonald are different. I think the reason MacDonald portrays the princess in the story as beautiful is because he knows little girls reading the tale will aspire to be like the princess. Using the princess as a model, he can teach little girls to act in a certain way. In this case, what makes the princess a good princess and beautiful is in line with Christian morals and values. Teaching through the princess’ actions is one way MacDonald sneaks religious messages and morals into the story. The Princess and the Goblin is not as obviously religious as the Water Babies, but the author is still using the protagonist to teach children how to be a good Christian similar to Kingsley.
    However, one contrast you mentioned at the end of your post that I would like to further develop is the modern day beautiful but evil women. In the latest version of Snow White and the Huntsman starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, Theron plays the gorgeous but diabolical queen bent on destroying Snow White so that she can be the fairest in the land. Instead of being an old, ugly queen, she is portrayed as the picture of perfection and only outshined by one even more perfect.
    This depiction of the queen speaks to the modern day obsession with the dark. One of the most relatable examples could be every teenage girl’s obsession with the “bad boy.” More common nowadays, being bad is seen as an attractive and desirable trait. Being evil is fine as long as you’re beautiful. Being evil and beautiful is also justified by the modern day obsession with vampires: as long as the vampire is good-looking and has one other redeemable quality, we consider him or her one of the “good guys.”
    The latest version of Snow White still ties back to the traditional fairy tale ending of the beautiful and good conquering the evil, but in this case the evil queen is conquered not because of Snow White’s beauty alone but because of her bravery and fighting skills. I think this film is a perfect example of not only the shift of what it takes to be a princess and heroine, but also what it takes to be considered the “bad guy.”

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