Friday, March 02, 2007

Beauty

Beauty, by Robin McKinley
http://mindstalk.net/mckinley/

Ya/fantasy/retelling

I love Robin McKinley, and though this is older Robin McKinley, and therefore more a creature of its feminist time, this holds up well, and is a wonderful story.

Here we have the story of Beauty and the Beast, retold in novel form, and with more emphasis on developing the character of Beauty. In this story, Beauty is a rather awkward childhood nickname for a rather plain and bookish third daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her two older sisters are Grace and Hope, and Beauty's real name is Honour. This comes to have meaning later on, but we are given to understand that all three daughters live up to their given names, and live happily and peacefully with their wealthy, widower father, in a great city. Then, tragedy strikes, and in a single devastating blow, Grace's fiancée and the family's wealth disappear in a reported shipwreck. The family is forced to move from the city to a small town, when Beauty trades in her scholarly books for caring for horses and gardens. The town is on the edge of a great, and apparently enchanted forest. And, as we know will happen, Beauty's father finds himself lost in the forest and at the castle of the Beast.

And it is at this point, that we encounter the feminist revision of the story. When Beauty's father returns home with the Beast's ultimatum that either the father return to the castle in a month to be killed, or he send one of his daughters to live at the castle, Beauty is determined to save her father, and will hear no arguments to the contrary. She is portrayed as brave, rather than as a helpless victim. However, the plot being what it is, this is only moderately successful.

The castle itself is very beautifully and mysteriously portrayed. The invisible servants, and their practical banter add and element of humour, and the story is well fleshed out. We come to understand how Beauty could find herself falling in love with the Beast, and we come to appreciate the Beast himself. I particularly like the castle library which contains all the books in the world - even those that have not yet been written!

All in all, this is a very satisfying retelling of a classic tale. While some of the alterations to the story feel a little heavy handed, it is so beautifully told that I can look that over in the enjoyment of the reading experience. Still, for a more thouroughly satisfying Robin McKinley, I would direct you to Spindle's End, her retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

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