We live in an age obsessed with retellings, although I don’t think that retelling older stories is particularly unique to our culture. We are watching superheroes return to film and television by the dozen. Older classics are being remade with varying degrees of success.
It’s no surprise that fairytales are getting the same treatment. In fact, I think it should be taken as a matter of course that fairytales are going to get retold. When we hear that yet another fairytale remake is coming out, we might sometimes roll our eyes a bit and wonder that authors or screenwriters cannot seem to come up with original material.
And yet, fairytales in essence are stories that have been retold by one culture after another, being passed down from one generation to the next to receive new accoutrements to fit that particular society’s perceptions of what a fairytale hero or heroine should be, how a villain should act, and so forth. No fairytale is meant to be a static thing, so I have never had a problem with fairytales retold.
Now, fairytales retold badly – that is an entirely different matter. I suppose poor retellings are as much a part of the tradition as good retellings, but “newer” does not equal “poorer”. An older or “original” story is not automatically better. I will be the first to admit that I adore the Disney version of Rapunzel and loathe the earlier Grimm’s story. Let’s face it, the earlier version of Rapunzel was not much of a role model and the whole story is one depressing event after another. Disney brushed over quite a lot of nasty material in old fairytales, and I don’t think it was a bad judgment call. Even I can admit that talking mice are more enjoyable than severed toes (see the Grimm’s version Aschenputtel for that charming addition).
As much as I loved Rapunzel by Disney, I was never a fan of the animated Cinderella. Cinderella always seemed to me to be a weak sort of heroine. She sings and dances and frolics with her little animal friends and lets her stepmother and stepsisters run all over her and never has a good reason for doing so. The prince is just a stuffed shirt. We never hear them speaking to each other, and the only “spark” we see between them is the dance they share. Yawn.
However, the latest live-action version of Cinderella blew me away, and I have new respect for the character. Instead of being a wishy washy character, she has personality and spunk and inner strength. The movie was a treat to watch and I liked the animal sidekicks, which is always a plus.
But this post is meant to be a review of a book, and I haven’t even gotten there yet! What I have been trying to say is that I don’t think we will ever tire of seeing fairytales retold, even badly, as long as every so often a story is done right, and Robin McKinley’s novel Beauty does just that.
As you have probably guessed, Beauty is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. When I read a fairytale retelling, there are two things that I want from it – two seemingly contradictory things, because I like to be difficult:
- I want a story that has the beloved essentials of the familiar tale
- I also want something original, new, interesting, unique that makes this story its own story and not “just another retelling.”
It’s difficult to get that right. I am always impressed when an author does so, and I think McKinley manages it.
The story is set in that indistinct “once upon a time” somewhere that a proper fairytale deserves. We understand that it is set in this world, although we aren’t sure precisely where. We get a sense of a late medieval but perhaps later sort of setting with kings and castles, but also a thriving middle class of merchants and craftsmen.
We begin the traditional motherless Beauty who loves her father dearly, the usual instigator for the plot of Beauty and the Beast, but there are some interesting twists that distinguish it from the very familiar Disney version as well as from the older versions of the story. Beauty is not traditionally beautiful at all. Her name is a nickname, not meant ironically or cruelly, but affectionately. She goes through the novel accepting the fact that she is a plain girl, strong and capable and intelligent, but not remarkable to look at. The book is told in the first person from her perspective.
Beauty also possesses two older sisters who are much more traditionally beautiful. However, they are also very lovely and kind people and all three sisters get along, which I did not expect. The sisters don’t have very strong personalities, but they don’t need to for the purposes of the story. The book does spend a good deal of time before Belle goes to the Beast’s castle giving the reader a sense of the family around her and what she has to give up when the time comes.
The Beast and the enchanted castle and its inhabitants are very well done. I felt absorbed into the magic and mystery of the forbidding place, and McKinley’s interpretation was familiar yet still her own. The rapport between Beauty and the Beast was believable, more so in my opinion than many fairytales that operate on the “love at first sight” concept. The novel takes place over a span of years rather than days.
And I should mention that there is a magical library in the novel, which I consider indispensable.
Thematically, the story explores the idea of true beauty in a delicate and thoughtful way. Not only the Beast, but Beauty herself, must come to understand how inner beauty relates to outer beauty. Neither character see themselves as pleasing to the eye, and while the phrase “beauty is the in the eye of the beholder” is frightfully cliché, it serves well as a theme here. The redemption at the end is not just the Beast’s but also Beauty’s.
It is a beautiful story, an interesting story, well crafted and rewarding – everything that a fairytale retelling ought to be. I have read several of McKinley’s novels and enjoyed them all, but this is definitely my new favorite.