Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses introduces us to a determined girl with a heart of gold who seems to be the key to ending a curse set upon a temperamental ruler and his household.
Tale as old as time, right?
While the ACOTAR series is more than capable of standing on its own as a literary work with its excellent pacing and dreamy world building, I’m particularly interested in how it compares to the original tale on which the first novel was based and how the differences might affect our perceptions of both.
Although Maas’ iteration of Beauty and the Beast incorporates elements from the original fairytale, most of us are familiar with the 1991 Disney film. As a bookish child, I remember identifying strongly with Belle’s passion for stories and the way she never truly fit in with the people in her town. I loved her compassion and indignation toward those who mistreated others. I melted over the way her influence brought out similarly beautiful qualities in Beast. His transformation from a prince to beast and back is merely a visual reminder of what the enchantress warns him of in the prologue: true beauty lies within.
Of course, none of that is surprising, since Beauty and the Beast is so much of a classic as to be archetypal, but in recent years, in particular, the tale’s messaging has come into question. Now I, personally, don’t subscribe to the idea that Belle’s affection for Beast results from Stockholm Syndrome. While there are some serious issues with Beast taking her as his captive (I won’t argue the ethics of that), I believe Belle’s change of heart toward him stems only from his willingness to change and, eventually, his attempt to remedy the hurt he’s caused. However, I wonder if there might be some dangerous implications for young people who take this seemingly wholesome moral to heart.
The ACOTAR series delves into this, though it takes some time for it to become apparent to the reader. The first novel follows much of the same structure as its inspiration. Our protagonist, Feyre, is forced to live in the Spring Court with fae ruler, Tamlin, after killing a member of his court disguised as a wolf. Much like Beast with Belle, he secretly hopes he will make her fall for him in order to break a curse set upon him and his court. Although Tamlin has more decorum and propriety upfront than Beast, there are moments of intensity, anger and aggression that peek through the cracks in the first novel. Because of his apparently growing love for Feyre, though, and the stress he is under because of the impending deadline for the curse, many of these smaller incidents are easy for readers to overlook—in fact, Feyre does, as well.
Because of the sensual nature of Maas’ novels, some of Tamlin’s behavior—pushing Feyre against a wall to bite her neck and telling her not to “disobey him” again, his fury and possessiveness regarding her—might seem par for the course. After all, rough play can be attractive to some between consenting adults, but that is not what this is. It isn’t until the second novel, A Court of Mist and Fury, that these warnings become loud, when Tamlin throws a fit and destroys his study after Feyre expresses her boundaries, and locks her inside his manor to “protect” her later on in spite of her screams.
These signs are alarming and speak for themselves as red flags for domestic abuse. But the reason I bring them up in response to our beloved Disney film is to ask this: are we teaching children to establish boundaries and protect themselves to the same extent as we are telling them to be kind to those who are not and to look for what’s beautiful inside them? Both are good lessons, to be sure. However, I can’t help but notice similarities between early Beast and Tamlin in their anger and entitlement and think of how murky the difference might be in real life, as well. How many of us have known someone who believes they can love someone enough to “change” them? Abuse is never the victim’s fault, but I wonder how much of the media we all consumed as children has conditioned us to doubt our own instincts. I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong about the film Beauty and the Beast—I still love the film and happily watch it to this day—but I don’t think heavy concepts like this are too hard for children to comprehend. I appreciate A Court of Thorns and Roses (though not a children’s series by any stretch of the imagination) for the balance it creates between a new message and the old: that although most people have some good in them and we should attempt to find it, we must grapple with the idea that often, people’s actions show us who they truly are.