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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Allure of the Beast and Our Fascination with Monsters


As I start this blog, I have Pandora Radio playing and “Gollum’s Song” by Howard Shore just started. I originally intended to simply answer the question posed in the comments of last Friday’s blog of why I prefer the bestial beast over the handsome prince in Beauty and the Beast, but this song reminds me that the answer to that question touches on something beyond the bounds of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. After all, Beast is not that only monstrosity that has riveted the human imagination.

Gollum, Grendel, Nessie, werewolves, vampires, Cyclops, Cerberus, Humbaba, King Kong. The list of monsters in our culture and literature goes on and on. It began with such ancient stories as The Epic of Gilgamesh and continues to today. Without a doubt, the concept of monsters played a role in prehistoric man such as found in the Lascaux cave paintings and will continue to terrorize and fascinate us long into the future.

Monsters and the beasts of our imagination come in many guises beyond the obvious differences in appearance. There are the deadly, horrible ones that we must conquer: Cyclops, the Minotaur, and Humbaba. Their like are common in the epics of long ago; though, they have never died out fully in our imaginations.

Then there is the beast to be tamed. Perhaps this comes from our tendency as humans toward domestication. We overcame the wolf and made him our most loyal friend among beasts. We subdued the terrifying boar and conquered the skittish, wild herd animals that we now consume for food and materials such as wool and leather. It is in our nature as a species to seek out the frightening, the deadly, and the competition and either destroy or subdue it.

We do this with nonliving things as well. It is the drive behind science, to understand the world and all its frightening, uncontrollable components. Understanding and the belief in control makes us, like our ancient ancestors, feel safe and dominant. In conquering the beasts and the unknown, we conquer our fear.

Then there is the beast with the touch of humanity, and it is in this category that Beauty and the Beast’s eponymous Beast resides. I believe this type of beast derives from two impulses in us as a species. First, we compare everything to ourselves. We attribute human thoughts and motivations to our pets. We tend to view the world as reacting to us, and for all we’ve moved past the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth, in many ways, we still act as if we are the center of the universe. So why not also see ourselves in the monstrous and dark things in our world, especially when they come from our own minds?

Secondly, this sort of beast derives from the darkness we observe in ourselves. When for millennia, we have seen and experienced the atrocities we inflict upon each other, it is impossible not to occasionally classify ourselves as monsters. Is it not easier to depict human cruelty and viciousness, human hatred and baseness in the guise of a physical beast than to look at our own reflections and know such things exist within?

But with this, it is also human nature to dream and hope and to believe in the possibility of creating a better world, however we choose to define that. Thus, some of our monsters we redeem. In so doing, we enforce the idea that humanity is also capable of redemption. I do not believe we could survive as a civilized world without this hope of salvation and a better future. It is one of the key elements, in my opinion, that drives us to excel, create, and constantly seek to better ourselves and our world.

So why do I like Beast better in his bestial form? Beyond the simple facts that he is far more interesting as a character and demonstrates greater personality, it is because I see his redemptive potential. I see love, patience, and time wear away the rough edges of his heart and reveal a hidden inner goodness. He is a symbol of hope in the sense that he represents the potential of excellence in us, something I would like to see in others and myself and in my world in general. For me, the greatest of achievement of man as an individual and a species is the ability to love and earn love in return, and I mean something beyond the mere surface of the pleasant emotion of love.

But when Beast turns into the handsome prince, he becomes foreign. He is perfect, and perfection can repel. Whether it is our tendency to turn on the good and the perfect and to scorn it or simply the shame of knowing we are nowhere near achieving such an ideal, as a culture, we tend to deride the perfect hero and embrace the flawed one. Take a look at the heroes in our movies the past few decades to get a good idea of what I mean. The handsome prince no longer appeals to our preferred image of a hero. Beast comes much closer.

What do you think? Why do you believe our fascination for monsters and beasts exists? Do you prefer Beast in his bestial or princely form and why?

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