August 11, 2020

The Other (Better) Beast Story, by Kitta MacPherson


Editor’s note: Despite having read The Blue Fairy Book, by Andrew Lang, I didn’t recall “The Wonderful Sheep.” Kitta’s moving, inspiring essay will send me to read it again. I know you’ll enjoy this as much as I did.

A sweet, innocent girl is abandoned to danger. A mysterious, wealthy, anthropomorphic beast appears. Broken promises provoke grave consequences.

With such beguiling story elements, the fairy tale called “The Wonderful Sheep” might seem destined for popularity. Yet, it has long been overshadowed by a similar story, Beauty and the Beast.

While both appeared in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book in 1889, it was the Beauty tale about a girl forced to live with a hideous, wild beast to save her father’s life, first written by the French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, that would go on to enjoy enormous, enduring popularity. (Editor’s note: The de Beaumont version, which is still very well known today, was shortened and rewritten by de Beaumont, and published in 1756, 16 years after the first written version by de Villeneuve.)

In the house where I grew up, however, the darker “wonderful” sheep story of a cast-out princess rescued by a large, talking ram by the French novelist Countess D’Aulnoy ruled as our favorite. More than any other fairy tale—and I love many—this story of a king cursed to be a sheep and his undying love for a special girl stood out to me precisely because of its pathos. From Jesus Christ, the Christian “Lamb of God,” to the Greek zodiac’s primary symbol, Aries the Ram, sheep are powerful signs of goodness in world culture and have always entranced me.

As a child, I believed that I loved the Sheep story because sheep were my favorite animals. They were sweet and approachable. I wanted to hug their thick, curly coats. They would never dream of snarling.

I also knew—because she read it more often than any other story—that the tale held tremendous power over my serious, intelligent mother. She wept as she read it aloud, growing increasingly upset near the end, her musical, soprano voice dipping to a flat alto.

Tales like Sheep and Beauty, based on what folklorists describe as animal bride or bridegroom stories, have a tenacious hold on the human imagination, spun by cultures worldwide since ancient times. The 2,000-year-old book The Golden Ass by the Roman novelist Apuleius about a man magically transformed into a donkey inspired many later writers, from Boccaccio to Shakespeare.

But the 1740 Beauty story and D’Aulnoy’s decades-earlier tale end differently from one another, which helps explain the public's continuing fascination with Beauty and my family’s devotion to the other. Stalled by evildoers, the Beauty returns from a visit with her ailing father just in time to save her dying Beast, providing a happy ending.

In contrast, Princess Miranda, who insists on leaving the sheep king twice to visit family, forgets him the second time. Soon after, he dies, brokenhearted.

Why did the Sheep story affect my mother so deeply and why did she read it—repeatedly—to her only daughter? Was it a warning? A lesson?

My mother, a talented starlet who appeared as a cast member on “The Today Show” in the 1950’s, married a brilliant and (she would later discover to be) troubled man after WWII. Dad had returned to her as a decorated officer for his service as a lead navigator for the U.S. Army Air Force, but he had secretly become a raging alcoholic. Dad then was the opposite of the wonderful Sheep: a human on the surface but a monster underneath.

You couldn’t blame Mom for missing the signs. As Dad would later admit, he was an overachiever and good at hiding his disease—working all week, excelling in his role as an attorney at the U.S. State Department, and drinking for much of the weekends. Because he wasn’t stupid enough to be drunk during a date, she didn’t suspect anything. But soon after they married, Mom quickly discerned his pattern of weekend drinking and inevitable blackouts.

Mom knew nothing about addiction and thought only that her new husband was sad about losing some war buddies and would get over it. His self-destructive pattern went on for years, intensifying, never abating, coming to a terrifying head one fall weekend when Dad forced his wife (six months pregnant),  my older brother, and me into his turquoise Buick. During a terrifying, 90-minute, drunken ride from our home in Oyster Bay, a charming hamlet on the North Shore of suburban Long Island, east to a swanky seaside destination, Sag Harbor, he drove at breakneck speed, weaving between lanes on the Long Island Expressway, nearly crashing several times.

My brother remembers my mother’s shrieks, Mom’s pleas to pull over. I recall nothing. Many years later, Mom revealed that when we arrived at our destination miraculously intact, she was shaken but never more self-aware, and told him she was leaving him and taking the children unless he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. She meant it. He did what she asked.

***

In her 1995 book, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, the late scholar Marie-Louise von Franz noted: “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.”

Now, decades later, I believe my mother was working out her own personal conflicts as she read to me, aided and encouraged by the other-worldly story. As von Franz indicated, fairy tales speak to us, the story’s archetypal subjects instinctively understood because they are rooted in us: the actions of both humans and non-humans in the stories representing a distillation of our own human thoughts and desires.

“The Wonderful Sheep” is riveting because it is replete with profound ideas that only sound simple. Love is powerful. Appearances are deceiving. Men can be beasts but are capable of much more. Women often want to leave. Women exert unseen power. Love is a balancing act.

When my mother read the Sheep story to me, she was still in the early stages of her marriage, my father working to fight his very real demons, diving into his participation in AA, and using his intellectual prowess to explore his spirituality through writers like the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Mom was steadfastly in love, but was probably also aware that, at any given moment, she might need to leave.

A month after our traumatic car ride, Mom went into premature labor, giving birth to a second son, Mark Ross. Weighing 7 pounds, 7 ounces, the only-ever dark-haired MacPherson child fought to live for seven hours. In those days, the early 1960s, there was nothing to be done. His not-yet-fully-developed lungs failed while my parents watched him turn blue and suffocate.

My parents’ marriage lasted 53 years. Dad built a successful post-State Department career as a corporate attorney, and never stopped his efforts to be sober, regularly attending AA meetings until he died at the age of 89. Like the Sheep, it turned out, he couldn’t live without Mom, who had “left” him when she passed on the year before.

My mother’s tears each time she read the fairy tale to her small daughter were both a warning and a lesson. In our favorite fairy tale and in our own lives, there were not and would never be any lucky breaks. Decisions were and would forever be life-or-death matters. She endorsed the story’s potentially conflicting values to love fiercely but to act decisively and accept the consequences. By bestowing this wisdom on her princess, she consigned me to a life that would be both difficult and worthwhile.

***

Bio: Kitta MacPherson is an award-winning science writer who has worked in daily newspapers and at Princeton University. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Copperfield Review, Mused, Medium, and on the Dirty Spoon Radio Hour. She teaches English at St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, N.J

20 comments:

Unknown said...

Thanks to Kitta MacPherson for sharing her mother's emotional connection to "The Wonderful Sheep." Fairy tales speak to virtues, like love and trust, that we all struggle with in relationships. I've never read "The Wonderful Sheep," but Ms. MacPherson's essay has inspired me to find a copy of the tale!

Wendy L. said...

Beautifully written and very moving! Thanks for sharing.

Kitta MacPherson said...

Thank you for the wonderful comment!

Kelly Jarvis said...

This was beautiful! I love that your mother shared both the story and her tears with you, and I love the way you both have used the tale to reflect on the nuances of your own lives. I have never read this story, but you have inspired me to do so!

Lynden Wade said...

This is really insightful. I'm fascinatined too by the beast groom stories, and agree that, like all the fairy tales, they speak to our subconscious. Thank you!

Unknown said...

To my wonderful big sister,
This story was a difficult, sublimely-written gift. I didn't know I would start the day with a healthy cry, but I do feel better now :-).
Love,
Glenn

AMOffenwanger said...

Thank you for this deep interpretation of the tale. This has given me a new perspective on the story, which I did not like much on first reading it. The primary reason for that (and the reason it's usually losing out to "Beauty and the Beast") is that it ends not "happily ever after", but tragically. "What do you mean, he *dies*?!?" Mme D'Aulnoy does that in more than one of her stories (for example "The Yellow Dwarf"). Personally, I prefer happy endings, but your story of how deeply meaningful this tale is to your family had given me a new appreciation for it.

Katew said...

This story brings tears (good ones) to my eyes, too!

Katew said...

The animal bridegroom stories seem to get everyone’s attention. They speak to powerful forces inside of us.

Katew said...

It’s a good one! I hadn’t read it either.

Katew said...

I’m pretty much in the same boat on this.

Benedict's Journalism said...

Reading this moving piece makes me wish again I had spent more time reading fairy tales myself and with my sons. My own mother, who suffered the loss of five infants, never read to me much. I think she was far too busy with four children all under two years apart. My father did read. And how I savored those times. I love this story about love, perseverance, strength and stories. Thanks Kitta.

Katew said...

I’m so sorry for your family losses. Kitta’s work was deeply moving. It was a real pleasure to publish it.

Wolfchick3 said...

This essay was GREAT! It was amazing to see the sentimental value fairy tales could have, especially such an obscure tale no one has heard of. Matched with Kitta’s bravery to share her story, the essay became inspiring. It inspired me to dig deep and see more than an entertaining or tragic story. It inspired me to see how a stories can help me grow. Despite their ending, because even in tragedy can we grow.

Thank you Kate for publishing this essay, and thank you Kitta for your work.

Katew said...

I have had fantastic luck with the nonfiction, considering how few I’ve received. Kitta really hit a home run with this!

Katew said...

I have had fantastic luck with the nonfiction, considering how few I’ve received. Kitta really hit a home run with this!

Kitta MacPherson said...

Thank you all for your beautiful, insightful words. And thank you, Kate, for creating this fabulous forum for the creation and exploration of fairy tales. The writing process is so interesting. I had originally planned to write about the loss of my husband (and I will do so eventually), but the story of my mother and father is what was typed by my hands. Talk about the subconscious!

Katew said...

It was the story you needed to tell! The best part of this job is giving people a chance to share their lives and voices through fairy tales and their analysis. It’s why I do this. It really is mostly a great deal of fun.

Unknown said...

What a great essay. Thoughtful and provoking and reaffirming the importance and relevance of fairy tale narratives in our lives.

Katew said...

We don’t just love fairy tales. We need fairy tales.

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