Friday, June 8, 2012

Beast by Donna Jo Napoli

Beast by Donna Jo Napoli

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Orasmyn is the prince of Persia and heir to the throne. His religion fills his heart and his mind, and he strives for the knowledge and leadership his father demonstrates. But on the day of the Feast of Sacrifices, Orasmyn makes a foolish choice that results in a fairy’s wretched punishment. He is turned into a beast, a curse to be undone only by the love of a woman.

Thus begins Orasmyn’s jounrey through the exotic Middle East and sensuous France as he struggles to learn the way of the beast, while also preserving the mind of the man. This is the story of his search, not only for a woman courageous enough to love him, but also for his own redemption.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling, with a perspective shift

So, Napoli tells us in her closing author’s note that the specific version of Beauty and the Beast that she chose to retell is the one from Charles Lamb’s collection, a version that specifies that the Beast was once a Prince from Persia named Orasmyn. And knowing that Persia is known for its roses, Napoli says, the rest of the story came to her easily.

Beast is very much the prince’s story. Our Beauty (Belle) doesn’t even show up until the last seventy pages or so (of 260). So this is very much the prince’s story.

We meet Orasmyn just before a kingdom-wide sacrificial feast. Orasmyn doesn’t hunt – it’s the one disappointment his father has in him. He doesn’t hunt, and he cannot stand to see animals slaughtered, necessary though he knows it is. And so on this day before the sacrifice, Orasmyn chooses to be one of the people who prepares the sacrificial animals, so that he doesn’t have to be the one who kills them.

And yet, even as Napoli is showing us this supposedly tender side of our prince, we see another side emerge as well. We see Orasmyn dismiss his mother at one point as silly and emotional because she offers him a book of poetry to read. He tells her in a haughty tone that he doesn’t need help in choosing his reading. And when she replies that everyone needs help sometimes, he tells her flatly, “Princes don’t.” Remember this – it will become important later on.

In case you were wondering, no, Orasmyn is not a beast at this point. He is fully human. So what horrible misdeed did he perform to cause him to be cursed? He allowed an imperfect animal to be sacrificed to his God.

Wait – what?

Okay, let’s be honest. I was a bit disappointed in that at first, too. Especially give the situation: As Orasmyn and his servant are preparing the camel for sacrifice, the servant notices that there is a tiny, thin scar on the camel’s hump. This means that, at some point, someone took fat from the camel’s hump for food. It was long ago, and the scar is easily hidden, but the edicts of the sacrifice are clear – an animal who has known pain at the hands of humans cannot be sacrificed on the humans’ behalf to God. But there isn’t another camel to offer, and if they don’t sacrifice the camel, a) people will ask why, and the servant will be punished for failing in his duties, and b) the poor of the city will have no camel meat and fat to last them through the winter. And so Orasmyn decides that, because his God is called the Merciful One, he will forgive this small transgression.

So, how is that worthy of a curse? I asked the same thing upon first reading. It seemed like a major overreaction on the part of this particular spirit against the prince.

Until, that is, you start reading between the lines. See, the reason Orasmyn made the decision he did was because he couldn’t remember exactly what the scriptures dictated, and rather than ask for help – because princes don’t need help – from one of the holy men, or take the matter to his father, Prince Orasmyn ranks the need to save face over following the edicts of his faith. So, there’s more going on here than just the camel.

So prince Orasmyn is cursed, cursed to be killed by his father on the following day, and only the love of a woman can save him. He goes to his father and tells him of the curse, and he and his father come up with a plan to thwart the spirit’s curse: Orasmyn will lock himself in his rooms the whole day and unbar the door for no one, and his father swears that he will kill no man, no matter what circumstances arise.

But, yeah, when do attempts to thwart a curse or prophecy ever work out, hmm, Sleeping Beauty? The spirit catches Orasmyn before he can make it to his rooms and turns him into a lion. And as it so happens, the king is hunting lions the next day! This bodes well!

Orasmyn has no choice but to hide in the wilderness surrounding his palace and try to avoid the hunt. Man and beast war inside him – as Orasmyn, he knows the tricks the hunters will use to lure the lions to the kill, but as a lion, his instincts are strong, and he cannot always overcome them. We see this as he eats the animal the lionesses bring down for him, eating blood and unclean flesh though his religion forbids it. Likewise, he gives into the lion’s instinct to mate with the lionesses, though the touch of a woman not his wife is also considered unclean.

Despite these things, Orasmyn hopes that if he can survive to midnight, the curse will be broken. Unfortunately (predictably), that doesn’t happen. Though he does survive – his father nearly kills him, but Orasmyn manages to escape – when the next day dawns, he remains in lion form, and now he has to deal with that. He cannot stay in Persia – he cannot hide forever, and sooner or later, he would face his death – so he makes plans to travel to India, the land of the lions. For lions, he reasons, are the kings of the animal world, and if he cannot wear a human crown, he can join a pride and be king in that way.

Except that, if that worked, this wouldn’t end up being Beauty and the Beast, now would it? The war between the lion’s body and the man’s mind continually gets in Orasmyn’s way. He doesn’t know or understand the way’s of the lion. He can’t hunt. He is a strange male, and so he cannot get any of the prides he encounters to accept him. After two years of wandering, alone, constantly in danger, he gives it up and travels back to Persia, defeated.
He needs a new plan, and it is when he encounters once more the gardens of Persia that he remembers something his father once told him about the roses of France. He remembers, too, the spirit’s words that the love of a woman would save him. So he prepares to journey to the wilderness of France, to cultivate a place to make his home, to make it beautiful and lure a woman there to fall in love with first his flowers, and then with him. He decides, too, that man must win out, and so he does what he can to return to the discipline of his religion, as much as it is possible for him.

I love the way that Napoli works in this religious aspect. Orasmyn is a devout Muslim, a religion that, when he was human, he followed as rigorously as possible. But in lion form, he often cannot, or he forgets in lieu of the lion’s needs, and this is a source of great conflict for him. Napoli writes that inner conflict very well, as well as the vacillation between hope and hopelessness, between man in control and beast in control.

In France, Orasmyn finds an abandoned castle, and makes a home there, stealing flowers and seeds and planting them. And then, suddenly one night, a strange man appears, looking for shelter from a storm. Orasmyn hides, not knowing how to approach the situation. The man eats old food from the larder and makes a fire and makes himself at home. Orasmyn watches, hidden. Until, that is, the next morning, when the man tries to take one of the roses that Orasmyn has so carefully cultivated and worried over. Then he shows himself, and the man panics and falls to his knees before the beast.

Thing is, Orasmyn doesn’t really want to hurt the man. In fact, it wasn’t until the man appeared that Orasmyn realized how desperately he missed the sound of human speech, and how desperately lonely he has been for the past three years. He wants the man to stay, to converse, and so he tries to write in the dirt, but at the sight of the words, the man panics even further, believing Orasmyn to be a demon who will punish the man’s family for the transgression of harming the roses. So he babbles his explanation, that his youngest girl wanted the rose, and he only wants to be able to offer her a gift.

This sparks Orasmyn’s interest. Taking advantage of what the man believes to be true, and of his fear, Orasmyn demands the child, or, he claims, he will visit doom upon all the man’s family. He gives him three weeks, and then he spends those three weeks preparing for a human child’s arrival. He catches a fox kit to tame for her, steals flour and sugar and yeast for her, makes all these preparations and truly hopes for the first time in years. He will be as a big cat to this young girl; she will grow up with him as her guardian, and she will grow to love him, and the curse will be broken.

Except, of course, that when the girl appears, she’s no child. She’s a woman fully grown, which was not part of the plan.

So the last seventy pages of the novel are dedicated to the Beauty and the Beast story we know, except that we get to see it from the beast’s point of view – his struggle with this obstinate, headstrong girl; his struggle to control the beastly impulses warring inside him; his struggle to find new hope when faced not with a child he can mold, but a full grown woman who resents having been taken from her family. She does not understand what he wants, and he cannot answer, because he also does not understand what he wants.

Slowly, though, they reach a tentative balance. Orasmyn longs to tell Belle everything, but he dares not – he doesn’t know what will negate Belle’s chances of breaking the curse, doesn’t know how he might be further punished for telling. But he works to show her that he is not fully beastly, and slowly, she begins to trust him. She calls him Mon Ami, my friend, and I love that in this version, his name to Belle is not Beast. She is trying to find the good, especially once she begins (I think) to suspect that he is more than he seems.

And she makes attempts. She lets him read her journal, first of all, opening herself up to him in a way that she hadn’t before, and though her words anger him often, they also help him understand her better. Although, he bristles at the idea that he needs her, as writes more than once. After that, things begin to change. She builds a hearth in the woods so they can eat together, she begins to share his prayer time with him, she reads books aloud to him.

And yet, always, he is aware of the beast barely in control. He is aware always of the need to feed, of the ways in which he sees all living things, including Belle’s fox cub, including Belle herself, as meat that can be eaten. He is aware of Belle as a woman, and the beastly desire to mate with her that both overwhelms and disgusts him. As she becomes more open with him, he becomes more and more filled with self loathing for what he is and the struggles he cannot overcome, and so when she asks to return to her father, he lets her go, hoping the absence will help.

In the three weeks she is gone, he undergoes new preparations. He plants a new garden for her, he plucks the feathers of ducks and geese so she can have a more comfortable place to sleep. He smokes meat in the smokehouse she built. He realizes that he has fallen in love with her, and he needs her to come back more than he has ever needed anyone – which he hates and scoffs at as weak because he’s a prince, and he doesn’t need anyone.

And then she doesn’t come back, and he realizes she isn’t going to and that all his hard work has been for nothing, and that he’s so tired of this constant fight, and he can’t go through all of this with another girl. It has to be Belle, and if it isn’t going to be Belle, then that’s it. He’s done.

But then she does come back. And she finds him close to death, and she tells him that she returned because she missed her life with him, because he needs her more than anyone ever has, and this time when she says it, he doesn’t bristle at the idea. He finally admits and acknowledges that, yes, he does in fact need her, and that’s okay. It’s okay for him to need someone else.

And yeah, she admits that she loves him and the curse breaks, but personally, I don’t think her loving him was entirely the reason.

And . . . that’s where we end. He’s human for about three lines, and that’s the end of the book. It’s very abrupt.

Napoli does a lot of interesting things with this story, that make filling out the checklist an interesting challenge. But here goes.

Stronger protagonist? Well, I meant Belle. I meant the Beauty character in the story, and if we go by that definition, then . . . no, not really. I mean, she’s fine, and I don’t want to slap her, which is an improvement, but there’s not really too much to her, and I don’t fully understand some of her motivations. She’s a good enough character, but she doesn’t stand out that much to me. However, I find I don’t care that much. Because this isn’t her story. It’s Orasmyn’s. It’s the beast’s. Belle in this adaptation is really a secondary character, and for a secondary character, she’s fine. As a secondary character, the gaps that would be unpardonable in a main character don’t bother me. So, no, this point doesn’t get a check, but the lack of one doesn’t count against the book, either.

Backstory for the prince? Definitely. And I love what Napoli’s done here. First of all, the Beast character is other to us not just because he’s a lion, but also because he comes from a background that is foreign to me as a reader and likely to majority of the rest of her readers as well. Orasmyn is a Persian prince, a practicing and devout Muslim. So he has customs and practices that are strange for us to read about, but also help us to understand his struggle and his shortcomings. I love that what Orasmyn has to overcome is his own pride, his way of viewing the world from a position of privilege. I love that the conclusion he has to come to is not just becoming capable of being loved, but also that it’s okay to need people and it’s impossible to live an entirely solitary life. Originally, I wasn't entirely behind the reason for the curse, but it grew on me, especially reading between the lines. So firm check here.

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return. Nope, not really, but again, it didn’t bother me because this isn’t Beauty’s story.

Stronger relationship between Beauty and the Beast. I’d say so. I love the progression we see. That Orasmyn’s original plan is a kind of seduction that then falls apart completely. In the beginning, she is a means to an end. A way to break the curse, and that’s all. But as he gets to know her, that changes. I think him falling in love with her was completely unexpected. I think that caught him off guard, which I love. I also absolutely adored the blending of the two religions. Belle is French, and so a Catholic, while Orasmyn is a Muslim, but they find the similarities, and eventually build into their daily routine a shared prayer time that is a marvelous hybrid of the religious practices of both. It’s the hippie liberal in me that loves the message that two people from such different faiths can acknowledge that they worship the same God.

Message that beauty comes in many different forms? Again, not really. But the message of connectivity that the novel relates is just as strong a message.

So, despite meeting only two of the five check points, I enjoyed this novel, and I felt it was well done. Parts of it dragged a bit, and I wanted more out of the end, but overall, I was pleased with the read. It’s a fascinating perspective to explore, and I applaud Napoli for writing it so well.   

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