BEAST. The novel’s one-word title puts us on notice: in this version of Beauty and the Beast, it’s the Beast who will be telling the story. Donna Jo Napoli’s memorable fairy tale retellings often feature a misunderstood or marginal character as the protagonist: Hansel and Gretel’s witch in The Magic Circle, the enchanted frog in The Prince of the Pond. Unsurprisingly, recounting known events from an unexpected point of view refreshes a classic plot line. Even readers familiar with this tale of opposites attracting will encounter a very particular hero. A tender-hearted reader of battle stories, the Beast is devout, preoccupied with his family’s status and responsibilities, acutely aware of women. He’s also, a hunter. A killer. A Beast.
Besides creating unconventional viewpoint characters, Napoli is a master of atmosphere. Beast is set in Persia and France, a nod to previous literary and oral variations. Prince Orasmyn, the Beast in question, owes his name and nationality to a mention in Charles Lamb’s 1811 poem, “Beauty and the Beast.” The choice of setting allows the author to present a Muslim worldview, rare in YA novels. While frequent asides explaining foreign words tend to slow the action, the payoff is a deep immersion into an unfamiliar world.
As the story opens, the self-styled “scholar prince” strives for right action and judgment. Unfortunately, Prince Orasmyn’s mistake during a solemn ritual offends a pari, or fairy. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that she turns the young man into a lion. Then the vengeful creature laughs at him. “Only a woman’s love can undo the curse. And no woman will ever love you,” the pari gloats.
Flawed hero, check. Vivid setting, check. Fairy curse, check. Napoli goes on to flesh out details other chroniclers only hint at. Orasmyn’s anguish at his transformation is explored in sensual and sometimes excruciating detail. Within hours of waking up as a lion, Orasmyn’s faith in his own integrity is stripped away. Against the ideals of his religion and upbringing, his lion body swiftly mates with two female lions, eats (forbidden) bloody meat, and forgets to pray. To the prince’s horror, his new body is consumed by physical sensation and urges to be satisfied, whatever the captive human mind thinks about the process. (Since the fairy’s curse hasn’t erased his intellect, Orasmyn spends a lot of time thinking.) Meanwhile, his punishment lasts and lasts, as the former prince struggles to bring mind and body into agreement.
It’s a tough gig. As writer and folklorist Terri Windling notes in her essay on the tale, “The Beast’s own task is patience, and the reclaiming of the human within himself.” Orasmyn hates that his “animal” impulses continually overrule his human mental preferences. He also recognizes that unless he uses his body’s instinctual knowledge, his human mind won’t survive long enough to fret over the situation. While engaged in the daunting task of reconciling his two selves, Orasmyn travels through Persia to India and, eventually, to France. There he finds a deserted chateau and devotes himself to cultivating roses for the pleasure of the woman he trusts will come. A woman, he hopes, who “will love the whole magical...read more