Robin McKinley’s retelling of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is a quaint and idealistic vision of the old story. Everyone loves a fairy tale, but not everyone can re-imagine one and have it feel as classic as McKinley. Disney doesn’t hold the market on recreating a fantastic tale. For those of us who grew up with the Disney retellings of classic fairy tales there will certainly be parts of this narrative that differ from what we expect when we think of Beauty and the Beast. Those, however, who are more acquainted with the original tale will find little variation, but a beautiful adaptation.
The tale focuses on a young girl who was originally named Honour, but at her insistence at a very young age was nicknamed Beauty. However as she grew this name became inappropriate, at least in her own eyes. Beauty is a bookworm and prefers the company of old languages and learning to parties and playmates. Her older sisters treat her kindly, but are themselves social butterflies. They are the daughters of a wealthy merchant and have been living a life of apparent luxury until news comes to them that all of their merchant ships appear to be lost at sea.
Fortunately for the distraught family, all hope is not lost. Hope, one of Beauty’s sisters, had recently become engaged to a blacksmith, Gervain Woodhouse, and together the family moves to his old hometown to start life over more simply. Things are hard at first but not long after moving they receive news that one of the ships has made it back to port. Beauty’s father must leave to take care of the sale of the merchandise, so he leaves his family with promises to return soon.
Here is perhaps where the story is most familiar. When the father does indeed return he is bedraggled and silent. His daughters and son-in-law can tell that something has gone wrong, and when they eventually get the story from him they can hardly believe it. The father had gotten lost in the woods and had come across a castle unlike any other. The snow didn’t reach it and when he entered his whims seemed to be taken care of by invisible servants. Spending the night, he began to leave the next day when he saw a rose bush. Remembering that the only thing that Beauty had asked for were some rose seeds, he picked one to take back to her since he had been unable to find any. This one action is what sets the story we recognize in motion.
The father is suddenly confronted by the Beast, who after some pleading finally allows the man to go, but on one condition. The father must either return in a month by himself or bring one of his daughters to take his place. Of course the daughters are all very upset by this, but Beauty volunteers to take her father’s place. At the end of the month, father and daughter return to the castle and Beauty begins her existence as the prisoner to the Beast.
McKinley’s retelling of the story gives me a much better idea of how Beauty could indeed fall in love with the Beast. While Beauty and the Beast as done by Disney is one of their better movies in my opinion, McKinley’s Beauty has more depth and heart to it. Beauty doesn’t just pity the Beast, she genuinely begins to feel for him. When she is allowed to return she misses him. There is no angry mob from which she needs to save him, but time. When the Beast lets her visit her family he informs her that if she is not back in a week he will die, and towards the end of her week she realizes she can’t live with that possibility. She’s in love.
Overall, it is a simple and beautifully written story. It is at the same time familiar and new, full of heart and hope. If you think that reading a story you already know will be boring and unimaginative think again. If ever you enjoyed fairy tales as a child, or even just the Disney movies, you’ll adore this book.