A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast
by Robin McKinley
“I finished rereading the Iliad and started the Odyssey; I still loved Homer, but Cicero, whom I read in a spirit of penance, I liked no better than I had several years ago” (McKinley, 157).
I’ve read some of her books before and I had always meant to read her retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.” So when I couldn’t find Watership Down at a local library, I happened to see this one and thought: Hey, why not?
I really liked Beauty. Or more precisely, I could relate to her, which isn’t common among characters, book or otherwise. I’m not nearly as outdoorsy as she is while she’s living in the country, nor am I as fond of horses as she is. But her ordinary looks coupled with her love of reading and the Classics felt like someone reflecting my own interests.
This relatability also made me realize that living in an enchanted castle like the Beast’s would be wondrously grand. No worries about money, endless books and the free time to study and read and write, and a beautiful garden that doesn’t need any pruning or watering.
The plot was pretty basic. Although it did make me realize that the certain plot points of “Beauty and the Beast” are a bit odd.
First, the premise of a woman trapped with a beast (admittedly a very nice one) until she realizes she loves him and agrees to marry him. Why would she want to marry him as a man if she would marry the beast? What exactly did she expect when she agreed to marry the beast? How did she love him? Was it romantic? Or did that flourish after he was human? Did sexual attraction come after he was human? Is there any sexual attraction between Beauty and the beast? (These are just general questions for the tale type, not this one specifically.)
Second, I was a bit baffled by the Beast’s fury about loosing his rose and then his graciousness to Beauty. Wouldn’t he still want some kind of compensation? It’s as if, once she appears, the rose and his indignation over it being plucked are forgotten. This is partly a general critique of the tale type, but also applies here in regard to the Beast’s behavior and claim that he wouldn’t have harmed Beauty’s father.
As for this retelling specifically… I enjoyed it. Except for two things.
One, I felt that the Beast’s death and Beauty’s realization (and later expression) of love were a little anti climatic. The Beast appears to be dead but once she says his name he’s fine and everything seems to be returning to how it was before she left. Then she tells him she loves him, that she’ll marry him, and the curse is broken. Overall, her expression of love wasn’t that bad — her realizing it was a very gentle and subtle action — but it felt a twinge inconsequential after the ease with which the Beast was saved from death. I just felt disappointed that all Beauty had to do was say his name and he was well again.
Second, throughout the book Beauty is persistent that she’s no beauty; it’s a humorous nickname. She likes plain and ordinary things, for the most part. I liked that aspect of her personality. But by the end, she has turned into a beauty like her sisters. Her hazel eyes are “clear and amber, with flecks of green” and her mousy hair has become “a pale coppery red” (242).
On top of that the Beast’s castle is now even more magnificent. There are servants and she sees her family and a train of others coming to the new palace. Everyone is dressed in rich splendor. There is beauty and riches everywhere. It was the first time I could see how happy endings, with marriages to princes and lives in grand castles, might not always be the best endings.
I suppose it felt disingenuous to what Beauty had stressed the whole book. It felt like they went from enchanted splendor to extravagant splendor. I think part of the problem was that there wasn’t any strong conflict, other than Beauty’s feelings for the Beast. Her sisters were never jealous of her wealth. There was no mob. The most tense moment was when Beauty was searching for the Beast. So the reward she got at the end – marriage, riches, kingdom – felt overly extravagant compare to what she had endured. Maybe that’s it.
Also, I might have been biased, as this was one of the happiest scenes in the book for me:
“When spring came I dug up the garden and planted it, and weeded it, and prayed over it, and fidgeted; and almost three years of lying fallow had agreed with it, because it produced radishes the size of onions, potatoes the size of melons, and melons the size of small sheep. The herb border ran wild, and the air smelled wonderful; the breezes often stirred the piney, mossy scent of the forest with the sharp smell of herbs, mixed in the warm smell of fresh bread from the kitchen, and then flung the result over the meadow like a handful of new gold coins. I pruned the apple trees—there were also the remains of an old orchard, and a few of the trees were still productive—and high hopes of the next winter full of apple jelly” (40).
What I loved about this section, which takes place prior to her father’s night at the Beast’s castle, was the sense of progress and accomplishment. Even though they are poorer than before, they are growing a new richness and a new life. I loved that sentiment. But by the end, Beauty and her family are probably wealthier than they were before. I guess, the idea of Beauty’s life ending in riches and a palace was not exactly what I had in mind.
source edited for better definitions
None (I wasn’t noting them down.)
“I had forgotten more of my Greek and Latin in the nearly three years I’d been away from them than I liked to admit” (137).
McKinley, Robin. Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. Print