New to Me: Beauty

Fairy tale retellings often feel like a dime a dozen.’  Whether they’re modernized or grounded in the past, gender flipped or boundaries blurred, the heart of the fairy tale must remain.’  Otherwise, the retelling feels cold and disconnected, lacking all the magic of the original story.’  But sometimes, a retelling gives the fairy tale a new complexity and shading.

Robin McKinley
Published 1978

The youngest daughter of a shipping merchant, Beauty is happiest with books and horses.’  Neither of those care how you look, and Beauty knows she’s plain, especially compared to her beautiful older sisters.’  But when their father has a catastrophic business failure, the whole family must leave the city and move to a small village.’  Everyone works hard to survive, in the little house by the dark enchanted forest.’  No one should go into this forest, but during a snowstorm, while taking a shortcut, their father gets lost in the woods.’  In the middle of the forest, he finds a magnificent castle.’  He is served by invisible servants who provide clothing, food, a warm bed.’  But at the end of his visit, he decides to pick a single rose for Beauty.’  And that one action will change Beauty’s life.’  For in exchange for the rose, the Beast that lives in the castle demands that either her father, or one of his daughters, come to live with him.’  And Beauty cannot let her father do this.’  Staying with the Beast, Beauty is exposed to a life of luxury, of learning.’  And although she comes to have a friendship with the Beast, she wishes that he wouldn’t ask her the same question after dinner every night:’  “Will you marry me, Beauty?”‘  She can only say no to him, and she can tell how much it hurts him.’  It’s only after disaster and heartbreak that Beauty is able to give him a different answer.

McKinley’s first novel takes the time to lay the backstory of Beauty and her family.’  While it is only forty pages before the traditional beginning of the story–the father’s encounter with the Beast–those forty pages does much to establish not just Beauty, but her whole family.’  We see that Beauty’s sisters are not stereotyped as beautiful but shallow and mean; in fact, they’re both kind, generous women, very willing to help shoulder the household tasks that the three girls have to perform.’  We learn that Beauty’s father is kind and devoted to his family, although perhaps a bit too fond of business risks.’  Even characters that are briefly seen are sketched vividly.

An intriguing aspect of McKinley’s retelling is that Beauty’s nickname is an ironic one.’  Beauty describes herself as plain, with light brown hair and brown eyes.’  Compared to Grace and Hope, her beautiful sisters, Beauty knows that she will have to make the most of her other talents.’  And while her nickname stings at times, at least it’s better than her given name of Honour.’  While her sisters reassure her that she’s just a late bloomer, Beauty doesn’t believe them.’  Once she lives with the Beast, she dismisses his compliments as well.’  It’s not until the end of the novel, when Beauty can see herself in a mirror for the first time in years, that she realizes that they were right: she is beautiful.’  Because she never considered herself as pretty, Beauty instead focused on her brains because it allowed her an escape from the superficial world of the city.’  Once the family moved to the village, she worked so hard that she was too tired for reading, yet this was also another skill that she developed.’  Beauty, by the time she goes to stay with the Beast, is an intelligent, sensitive young woman, unafraid of hard work.’  It’s just as much these qualities as her appearance that makes the Beast fall in love with her.’  And it proves that Beauty’s nickname reflects more than her physical aspects, but her character.

Touches of the fantastic highlight the world of the Beast.’  There are magic roses that are in perfect bloom for a month, and rose seeds that can grow and bloom a week after being planted.’  There are invisible servants that serve every wish of the Beast or anyone in the castle.’  And there is a very large library, that contains many books: some of them not yet published.’  For someone like Beauty, a bookworm denied, the library holds great appeal, and not just for the books for the future.’  As she is able to read and study, she has the chance to develop her mind even more.’  It’s the library that allows Beauty and the Beast to start building their friendship.

A retelling that will strike familiar chords with teens, thanks to the use of similar ideas in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, McKinley’s additions to the original story are welcome ones.’  By removing the unrealistic sweetness of the fairy tale’s heroine, Beauty features a strong, well-rounded young woman, one who is able to see past the exterior of the Beast and fall in love with his soul.

Published by

Melissa Rabey

I'm a teen librarian for a library system in Maryland. I became a librarian because I love books, I love technology, and I wanted to connect people with those two things. I'm happy that I get to do all this and even more.

2 thoughts on “New to Me: Beauty”

  1. I have enjoyed a few of McKinley’s other books recently: The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, and I am in the middle of another of her fairy tale re-tellings, Spindle’s End. These are all lovely, they feature strong women who go against stereotypes, fully described settings, and captivating prose.

    These are great books. Even though they were published between 10 and 30 years ago, they should continue to find homes being read by teens who love fantasy. Pass them on!

    I’ll be sure to read Beauty next!

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