Robin McKinley has won a Newbery Award for The Hero and the Crown, as well as a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword. However, it is her first published book, Beauty, that has been a favorite of mine since I first read it. I have always loved fairy tales and have really enjoyed the growing genre I'll call fairy tale re-telling. Ella Enchanted, a spectacular book by Gail Carson Levine is probably the most famous in this genre. For those of you who saw the movie, the book is completely different and please, please don't judge the book by the movie... Gail Carson Levine also wrote a series of short stories, now published in one hardcover volume titled The Fairy's Return and other Princess Tales, or in two paperback volumes titled Princess Tales, Volume 1 and Princess Tales, Volume 2. These are fabulous, feminist retellings of popular fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, The Princess and the Pea and Cinderella as well as lesser known tales like Toads and Diamonds and the Golden Goose. Some Friday I will give all of these books a proper review, but if you love fairy tales the way I do, rush out to find them the minute you finish reading Beauty.
Written in 1978, Beauty is the first, or at least the first widely popular, novel to take a traditional fairy tale and provide an in depth exploration of the characters and plot as well as humanize the characters, even those who are not human. If you have seen the animated Disney version of this fairy tale, McKinley's book will leave you with no doubt that folks at the Disney Studios were reading her book as they wrote the screenplay for their movie. McKinley creates such a complete and detailed world that you feel as though you are watching a movie as you read.
From the first page of the book, it is evident that McKinley is up to something special. The narrator of the book tells us that she is the youngest of three daughters, Grace, Hope and Honor. However, when, at the age of five she discovers that their names are more than names, she asks her father what the meaning of "honor" is. Displeased with his answer, she replies that she would rather have been named Beauty, and the name sticks. While she does prove true to her name by making an honorable sacrifice later in the story, she does not grow into her nickname until the end of the book. Unlike her sisters, Beauty is not beautiful. She is plain looking and her hands and feet are large. And she loves books and learning above all else.
This is one of those books where you know the ending without having read it. Despite this, McKinley makes every word compelling. Beauty's journey from resigned but frightened prisoner by choice to compassionate, loving companion is rich and irresistible. I had to stop myself more than once from detailing the whole plot in this review and will force myself to a short list of the qualities of this book that are most brilliant. As a narrator, Beauty is thoughtful and honest. Whether she is comparing her ungainliness to her sisters' loveliness or struggling to overcome her fear at being trapped in the Beast's castle - not because she is scared of the Beast himself, but because she has an innate understanding of what it means to be free. Despite the lavish clothes, sumptuous food and opulent surroundings, she is not lulled into acceptance of her fate. That is what makes this story so ultimately satisfying - McKinley has found a way to keep Beauty independent in mind and spirit and make her slow growing love for the Beast genuine and hard won. She does the same for the Beast. Despite the fact that, beginning with her first night in his castle, every evening after dinner he asks Beauty to marry him, her agreement thus breaking the enchantment, it never once seems as though the Beast is asking her solely or even mostly to break the spell. The preparations he undertakes before Beauty journeys to the castle make it clear that he has an understanding and appreciation for her unique character and an awareness and concern for her interests and pursuits, as evidenced by the rows of bookshelves and well stocked desk that she finds in her bedroom upon her arrival. As time passes, Beauty realizes that, while she knows she must say no, it saddens her to have to reject the Beast's proposal night after night as her connection to him deepens.
Here are a few other aspects of the book that I think are worth noting. Unlike the help transformed into household objects in Disney interpretation, the servants in the Beast's castle are invisible, noticeable only as breezes and almost inaudible "tsks." As Beauty settles into the caste, bringing back the humanity that has been missing for so long - noticing the lack of wildlife on the grounds, she scatters birdseed outside her window and attracts birds - she finds she can hear more of the invisible servants conversation than just the "tsks" and she gains a small understanding of the curse that has befallen the beast and why no one can speak of it. Back to the topic of the humanity that Beauty brings with her, there is a profoundly moving scene where, after sharing a rainy morning in the library reading out loud to each other, Beauty leaves for her daily walk through the gardens with Greatheart once the rain subsides. Not wishing to part company with the Beast, she invites him to join them, despite what he has told her about the effect he has on other animals. She convinces him to meet them in the garden and, as she walks to the stables she begins to realize what a frightening situation she is about to put her beloved horse into. McKinley describes Beauty and Greatheart's tense walk across the courtyard to where the Beast waits masterfully.
As in the traditional fairy tale, a crisis occurs and Beauty finds she must return home to her family. The Beast knows how deep Beauty's connection with and love for her family is and, as a way of comforting her, sends Beauty dreams of her family so that she does not lose touch with them entirely. Thus, she knows of the crisis and knows what must be done to resolve it. The Beast agrees to her wish to return home, but asks her to leave after a week. Being away from the castle and with her family again and seeing them prosper gives Beauty the perspective to reflect on and accept her true feelings for the Beast. Returning a day late, she finds the Beast near death and begs him not to die, professing her love for him and wish to marry. This breaks the spell and a handsome, regally dressed man stands before her. Shocked and alarmed, Beauty looks for her Beast. When he explains the curse to her, she says she cannot marry him. He deserves to marry a more beautiful, noble born lady and owes her no debt for breaking the spell. The servants, still enchanted for the time being, magically dress Beauty in one of the beautiful gowns she had always refused to wear and the Beast takes her to a mirror, which had formerly been banned from the castle, to show her that she has become truly worth or her name - both her names.
So, my heart is on my sleeve now. I am a hopeless romantic and that is why I love fairy tales and why I love Beauty. I tried not to go on about the book too much, but I have. Oh, and I forgot to mention my favorite part of the Beast's castle - a library that contains every book ever written and every book TO BE written! Beauty gets to read the poetry of Robert Browning, one of the Beast's favorites, as well as some Arthur Conan Doyle, Dickens and T H White's The Once and Future King, though she still prefers Mallory's Morte d'Arthur.
Almost 20 years later, Robin McKinley returns to the story of Beauty and the Beast with a new retelling, Rose Daughter. While I have not read it, reviews say it is different enough from the first retelling to be worth reading. I know I will.