Like Cinderella, the tale of Beauty and the Beast is one of the best known stories in the world. Variants of the tale appear in numerous cultures. Aarne-Thompson classifed the story as "The Search for a Lost Husband" type 425, with "Beauty and the Beast" receiving its own subtype of 425C. This tale type is one of the most extensively studied by scholars which is understandable in part because so many tales fit into the category.
The tale of Cupid and Psyche (AT 425A) is considered by many scholars to be one of the first literary fairy tales. Written by Lucius Apuleius in the second century A.D., he relates the story in his novel, The Golden ***, as an old wives' tale told by an older woman to a young woman who is being held hostage for ransom. The tale features many characters from Greek/Roman mythology, although earlier records of this tale are not known. You can read three versions of the tale on the Tales Similar to Beauty and the Beast Page. The tale is a direct ancestor of the French Beauty and the Beast tale. It bears even closer resemblance to East of the Sun and West of the Moon (AT 425A), another animal bridegroom tale which I have annotated on SurLaLune. Cupid and Psyche was translated into English in 1566 by William Adlington and was well-known throughout Europe. For example, John Milton refers to the story in his Comus, first performed in 1634 and published in 1637.
The first version of Beauty and the Beast appeared in 1740 by Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve. She wrote a novella length version of the story which appeared in La jeune ameriquaine, et les contes marins. Her audience was not children, but her court and salon friends who enjoyed sharing stories for entertainment. Scholars suppose that Villeneuve derived her story from traditional oral tales and "Le Mouton," a story by another court lady named Madame D'Aulnoy whose home was the site of one of the best known literary salons in that time.
Villeneuve's version contains many little known elements and does not end with the transformation of the Prince. She spends too much time discussing warring between the fairies, the parentage of the protagonists, and the reason for the curse on the Prince. Also, the transformation from beast to prince does not occur until after the wedding night. Villeneuve's version also contains dream sequences in which Beauty is told by the Prince in his true form to look beyond appearances and rescue him. She, of course, does not understand his message and must fall in love with the beast before she comprehends his full message. Note: The best English translation of de Villeneuve's entire story can be found in Jack Zipes' Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales. This book is out of print, but can usually be found in larger libraries. The story is not available in the paperback edition of the book, Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales (Amazon.com link). The shorter version by de Beaumont is available in both editions.
The next version of the tale appeared 16 years later in 1756 by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont. Beaumont considerably shortened Villeneuve's novel into a short story which ends after the Prince is transformed. The extra storylines are omitted. This version is the best well-known and most used as the basis for later interpretations of the tale. Beaumont's version has weak areas, just as Villeneuve's version has. Beaumont assuredly had a younger audience in mind and her story is more didactic, concentrating on Beauty's virtue. She maintains the magical atmosphere well, but her message is clearly that industrious, self-sacrificing young women will find the most happiness just as Beauty does at the end of the story. Also missing are the dream sequences found in Villeneuve's version.
Scholars propose that Beauty and the Beast is a literary tale based on folk tale elements which reentered the folk culture with the literary elements added to it. In this way, the story returned to the oral tradition almost entirely as a brand new story. This gives Beauty and the Beast a considerably different history from many other tales.
The version of the story which I have annotated comes from Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book (1889). He attributes his version to de Villeneuve, but his version is actually an interesting mesh of de Beaumont and de Villeneuve. He favors de Villeneuve's elements of the story, but edits out much of the extra dialogue concerning the fairies and genealogies which de Beaumont decided to leave out of her version, too. The dream sequences are intact, however, which I wanted to include in the version I annotated. To read de Beaumont's version, I highly recommend either Jack Zipes' translation of the tale in Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments or D. L. Ashliman's online version at this external link: Beauty and the Beast.