Beauty by Robin McKinley
Target Audience: Adult/Young Adult
Summary: Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage. When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, "Cannot a Beast be tamed?"
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
So in the corner of the very specific sub-genre of fairy tale adaptations, Robin McKinley’s Beauty is iconic. I can’t say it’s the first fairy tale adaptation ever written, because it isn’t (I checked). But the ones that came before were few and far between, only five or so in the years spanning 1945 to 1975. Beauty’s publication in 1978 ushered in a serious increase in the writing of this kind of novel. Was it responsible for that influx? Hard to say, and saying requires relying on the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, which I’d like not to do. But we can say that after Beauty showed up on the scene, suddenly there were a lot more of these fairy tale novels floating about.
And yet, for as iconic as it is, Beauty is actually a very simple novel. It sticks really very close to the original French tale. It is the story of a family with three daughters, named Grace, Hope, and Honour. However, while Grace and Hope keep their names as they grow up, no one calls Honour Honour, because when she was five and she asked her father to explain what the names meant, she found herself dissatisfied with her name, and proclaimed, “Hmph! I’d rather be Beauty!” And so Beauty she became.
I really like this. I love how she gains the name Beauty because it shows us from the very beginning what kind of character we’re dealing with, here. Beauty has spunk. She’s spirited. And she plays into the message of this story – judging by appearances. Though, at five, wanting to be beautiful as opposed to honorable isn’t really something I can fault anyone for.
And the name comes back to bite her as she grows, for Beauty is really anything but. Her sisters are beautiful and graceful, but Beauty is short and awkward, with hands and feet that are too big and spots on her face. And she likes to ride horses and read books and has no time for romantic nonsense.
Like Dokey did in Belle, McKinley chooses to make the family a bit more likeable. Grace and Hope are not spoiled or silly or selfish. They are kind and sweet and loving. And their father isn’t foolish or overly idealistic – he loves each of his daughters and wants them to be happy. And he’s a good merchant. He takes huge risks as a merchant must if he wants to be successful, but he does right by those who work for him, including two young men who Grace and Hope eventually fall in love with.
There’s a wonderful scene between Hope and Beauty after Hope has fallen in love with a smith named Ger who helps do the ironwork for their father’s ships. Hope is fretting because she loves him, but he’s not the same station as they are, and she’s afraid her father won’t approve. Beauty’s response is to essentially tell her sister to stop being ridiculous because when has their father ever cared about anything like that. At which point Hope gets a little impatient with Beauty’s refusal to play along with the romance of the forbidden relationship. It’s a fun little scene that really shows the dynamic between the sisters.
And Ger becomes a pretty major player in the story beyond just being a side love interest, which I appreciated. When storms take out the father’s fleet of ships (and, presumably, Grace’s intended), it’s Ger who steps forward with the solution of moving to the country. He is originally from the mountains in the north, and he’s wanted to go back there. He says if he and Hope get married, the whole family can relocate and start over, and in that way, he becomes the vehicle that moves them to the country. He also serves to fill the role of a brother, which is a role that seems to get fairly consistently left out of these retellings.
The journey from the city to the mountains is quite long, especially in comparison to other adaptations, a few months as opposed to a matter of days. But once there, the family is able to adjust fairly quickly. It’s hardest for the father, but even he becomes acclimated to the new life. And for a while, they live quite happily.
And then comes the message that one of the lost ships may have made it back to port. Returning to try and salvage something of his fortune (and perhaps find Grace’s lost love) means being gone for about a year in this story, but the merchant feels he has to try. He asks his daughters if there is anything he can bring them, and Grace and Hope laughingly ask for jewels and fine gowns, as a joke (which I adore). But Beauty asks for some rose seeds, if he can find them, for she wishes to plant a rose garden, but hasn’t been able to.
And so he sets off, and they prepare for a year without him. And yet, five months later, he returns, haggard and weary, a perfect rose clutched in his hands. When they ask for an explanation, he tells them the story we expect from the father at this point in the tale, and really, the only deviation from the original is that this father didn’t have the audacity to try and claim the castle in the woods for himself. But he did pluck a rose for Beauty, and that brought the wrath of the Beast down on him.
Hearing his story, Beauty swears to go, and though the others try to talk her out of it, she is firm. When her father’s month is up, she will return.
And this she does. The initial arrival at the Beast’s palace is very similar to the one in Belle – lingering in the stable with her horse to put off the meeting as long as possible – so much so that I can’t help but feel there was definitely some influence at work. But, like I said, iconic. My own short story adaptation of Beauty and the Beast takes a lot of its cues from this book, so I can't do too much calling out.
The difference here comes when Beauty actually enters the castle – and doesn’t meet the Beast. No, the place is deserted as she wanders through it, eventually ending at a room with a brass plaque proclaiming it Beauty’s Room. She is hesitant to enter, but a breeze pops up and ushers her in. She is allowed to wash and dress and become used to her surroundings before she is led by the breeze to the main dining hall to meet the Beast.
And almost immediately, Beauty defies the expectations on her in this story. He asks if she has come of her own free will, and she says that she has, and when he professes himself obliged, she quips back that he shouldn’t be, as he didn’t really give her much choice. She’s here of her own free will because it was that or let her father die, so it’s not as if she’s doing this out of the goodness of her heart.
I love it. I love this first meeting because again, we see Beauty’s spirit. She tells it like it is, even to this Beast who could easily kill her. She isn’t cowed, she isn’t silenced; she is as passionate and forceful as she can get away with being. The fear and panic don’t really set in until a) he asks her to marry him, and b) she finds herself locked in her room that night.
And where with Belle and Beast, the time spent in the castle took up less than a third of the novels, here it makes up the bulk of the book. We really get a detailed look into Beauty’s life with the Beast. We meet the breezes who serve her and get into arguments with her over what she will wear each day. We see her coaxing birds and butterflies to her window where before, there were no living creatures to be found. We see her trying to acclimate herself to a world with impossible magic working in it every day.
There is one scene that I would say was taken from Disney if this book hadn’t been published a good dozen years before the Disney animated film came out, so maybe it was the other way around (arches inquisitive eyebrow in Disney’s direction), and that’s the scene in the Beast’s library.
This Beauty is very like the Disney version of the same character in terms of her spirit and her bookishness, though McKinley’s Beauty spends more time reading Plato and Greek myths in their original language than fairy tales. But they both value intelligence, love to read, and are completely blown away when the Beast makes a gift out of an amazing and impossible library. Beauty in McKinley’s version makes a comment when she first sees it about how she didn’t know there were that many books in the world, and the Beast replies that, technically, there aren’t. Because it’s a magic library, and it contains all the books that haven’t been written yet. Personally, I want to go to there. I want to find myself on the shelf, and then finish the Heroes of Olympus series without having to wait for Riordan to finish the last three books.
But I digress.
Point is, we spend a lot of time watching the progression of the relationship between Beauty and the Beast, a progression that, honestly, was begun long before they even met. One of the scenes I love most in this book happens when Beauty first announces her intention to go live with the Beast. They’ve just opened the saddle bags and found his gifts, which include a box of rose seeds. Beauty laughs, and says that at least the Beast has a sense of humor, if nothing else. I love this scene because it shows us that, already, she’s connecting with him more empathetically than anyone else.
This connection does nothing but continue as the story progresses. And though there are certain things that mar her happiness – the Beast’s continued marriage proposals and the voices of invisible servants that Beauty can hear at night just before she falls asleep – for the most part, Beauty is happy, if homesick.
That homesickness overwhelms her once and only once, and it doesn’t end the way we might expect. In the original story, when Beauty asks to return home for a visit, the request is granted, but here, it isn’t. Here, the Beast tells Beauty that he cannot let her go, hinting that her stay with him is, at least in part, beyond his control. The truth that she will never see her home or family again overwhelms her, and in her panic, she faints. The Beast catches her before she can fall, but when he goes to put her down, she clings to him and won’t let go, though of course she isn’t aware of it.
This presents an interesting turn in the relationship, for when she wakes to find herself in his arms, she panics again, and he desperately tries to explain that it wasn’t his doing. This war within Beauty has interesting consequences. Suddenly, she is able to perceive more clearly than ever the magic that surrounds the place. She can hear her invisible servants more regularly, and she can sense when the Beast is close. Because she accepted the Beast on some level, she has begun to accept the magic that exists there as well.
And that’s when the dreams start. Beauty begins to dream of her family, her sisters and father, and when she questions the Beast about the dreams, he acknowledges that they are true visions. Through the dreams, she learns that Grace is on the verge of accepting a young minister’s proposal, though she has never forgotten the man she once loved but believes dead. And Beauty then learns that Grace’s love is, in fact, still alive, and has just made port with his wrecked and wounded ship. He’s seeking for Grace, but it will be months before he makes it to the mountains where they are, and by then, it will be too late.
And this is why Beauty finally asks to leave. For after her first request, she resolved to be content and never ask to return home again. But now, now there is something more than her desires at stake. Now, she begs to be allowed to return home and tell them this truth, to keep Grace from making a choice she’ll regret forever. Unhappy, the Beast allows her to go, but she must return in one week, he says, or he will die.
And this, for me, is where McKinley’s storytelling starts to weaken. Up to this point, this is an incredibly strong novel. But from here to the end . . . it’s just a little lacking, and I think it’s because, from here to the end, she tries too hard to keep to the original story. The problem with that is, the end of the original story is supremely lacking, too.
For reasons I don’t entirely understand, Beauty puts off telling Grace the truth of why she came home. This doesn’t make sense to me, since the need to tell Grace that her intended is still alive was the whole reason for the urgent return in the first place. And despite coming to the conclusion that she is out of place in the little house and misses the Beast greatly, she allows herself to be convinced that saying she’d stay a week means she can spend the seventh day with her family and go back to the Beast on the eighth, and there won’t be any harm done.
Which isn’t true at all. Which she realizes in a dream, and so leaves in the middle of the night. She spends most of the next day lost in the great woods, trying to find her way back, but she can’t. It isn’t until nightfall that she finally locates the road and makes it to the Beast’s castle, now empty, desolate, falling into ruin. Which is never fully explained, and it actually bothers me a little.
See, I’ve always been a bit dissatisfied with the explanation of the original story that the reason Beauty has to return is because the Beast will waste away without her. That message rankles a bit, the idea that life without a one true love isn’t worth living. And yes, okay, the Beast has been a Beast for two centuries and she was his last hope, and if she leaves, he can’t go through all that again, so he gives up, I get it. I do. But here, it’s not just the Beast – it’s everyone, for some reason. His castle is full of invisible servants, and when the Beast starts to die, somehow, they all disappear and the castle starts to self-destruct, I guess? I mean, you can intuit that it’s tied to the curse, but we don’t get an actual explanation, and that bothers me.
It’s also just a little too easy once Beauty finds the Beast. He’s on the verge of death, but she appears and apologizes and confesses her love, and suddenly . . . he’s better. Not human yet, just better. Magically. Sits up and is like, awesome. Great, thanks for that, guess I’ll live now. Like he wasn’t just about to die moments before. Maybe it’s my utter abhorrence of passivity, but to me, it kinda reads like the Beast was just throwing a sulk-fest. Maybe that’s unfair. But still.
And, just like in the original, the curse isn’t broken until she agrees to marry him, and that also rubs me the wrong way a bit, putting the emphasis on marriage as opposed to love, but meh, whatever. The real problem for me in this ending comes in that it just goes on too long. The curse is broken, and then there’s like, still five pages of novel left, where we get lots of exposition about how Beauty has now become beautiful but didn’t notice because she refused to look in mirrors, and how there’s a priest around in the castle somewhere who will marry the Beast and Beauty as soon as he remembers how, and how her family is now, somehow, being magically transported to where they are, but we get next to no exposition on the things I want to know – like why the Beast was cursed in the first place. Also, she says, “I love you and I’ll marry you,” and then two pages later, he asks her to marry him, which seems . . . redundant.
All in all, much as I wanted Beast last week to deal with the aftermath a little more, after reading this ending, I appreciate Napoli’s a bit more than I did, because McKinley deals with the aftermath too much.
But, ending aside, I do really like this adaptation. It’s a classic, and it reads like one. It’s simple, but it’s simplicity works for the story being told. McKinley draws her characters very well. So how does it stack up on the checklist?
Stronger protagonist? Check. Beauty is marvelous. I adore her. She’s active and kick-ass and spunky and just brilliantly well done.
Backstory for the Prince? Yeah, not really, and it’s kinda irritating. She almost gives it to us, but this whole issue of the curse, which is central to the novel and really built up along the way gets a dismissive, eh, this thing happened to my family, but they were good enough that it didn’t effect them, and then I came along and was not so good, but that’s really all the more vague exposition I want to give you. I know I set up this big reveal, but meh. Not really important anymore. I was really frustrated by the lack of curse explanation, in case you couldn’t tell.
Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return? Marginally. I mean, yes, it is stronger than the original story, as the logic she reasons under is pretty sound. He said she could stay a week. To me, that means seven days with family and travel back on day eight. On the other hand, though, Beauty knew she should go back, that she was stretching it by staying another day, so I’ll give it a check, but only just barely.
Stronger relationship between Beauty and the Beast? Check and check and check. This McKinley did really well. I loved watching the friendship develop and unfold, and I loved the first moment when Beauty thinks about how she loves the Beast, and then stops short, because she couldn’t really mean love love, right? Right? It’s very well done, because if there’s one thing McKinley can do, it’s paint fantastic relationships.
Message that beauty comes in many different forms? Yes. Though part of me wishes that Beauty hadn’t grown into her beauty in the end, the rest of me adores that the fact that she became classically beautiful eventually couldn’t have been less important to the story, and I love that Beauty had to learn to see her own beauty, as well as that of the Beast’s.
Overall, this book is iconic and well known for a reason. Yes, it has it’s weak spots, but it does improve on the original tale in almost every way. The ending is a little bit lacking for me, but the rest of the book makes up for it. The book is elegant and well done in its simplicity, and if you’re going to get started in the sub-genre of fairy tale adaptations, you could do worse than starting here.