THERE IS A FAMILIARITY to Beauty and the Beast that goes deeper than its roots in the myth of Psyche and Cupid, further than its omnipresence in various fairy tale anthologies, and far beyond ubiquitous princess merchandising. The version of the story most of us know from childhood can be unpacked in so many ways, but the unpackings that ring truest for modern life lie somewhere between a moralistic “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and the recognition of the moment that comes to nearly all long-term romantic relationships, where you experience a sudden flash of disconnection, and realize you are in love with a stranger, an alien, a beast. With so many ways to interpret this malleable fairy tale, the retelling options are endless; so when one looks at Robin McKinley’s 1978 novel Beauty from a 2012 vantage point, the book appears to be a fairly straightforward retelling.
And it is. Beauty, as one of the first (if not the first) novel-length, English-language retellings of Beauty and the Beast, could be straightforward and still cover new ground. The plot doesn’t deviate terribly far from what you would find in The Blue Fairy Book, the magic here is in McKinley’s details.
The eponymous heroine’s appearance and her relationship to her sisters are the biggest differences between McKinley’s story and the traditional tale. There is a rich merchant in this story, yes; but the beautiful main character is not in fact beautiful (though she grows into herself, ugly duckling-style, by the end of the book). Beauty’s given name is Honour (her sisters are Grace and Hope). As a child, she finds the concept of honor too abstract, and prefers the quality of beauty — which becomes a long-standing nickname that she finds painfully ironic in her teenage years, as she remains awkward and her sisters become truly beautiful. Beauty falls into the role of “the clever one,” immersing herself in her studies and in horseback riding.
When her merchant father goes bankrupt, Beauty’s family sells off their property and moves to a small cottage at the edge of a forest that is more haunted than enchanted. Grace and Hope are very normal women, in that they are disappointed by their family’s plummeting fortunes, but they are in no way jealous or petty toward Beauty, per the original story. The family is endearingly supportive of each other, and when the chance to recoup some of their lost wealth comes, one sister’s request for “ropes of pearls and rubies and emeralds” is meant ironically. Beauty’s requests roses — and she asks for rose seeds, notably, not an actual rose — merely to have something pretty to plant outside their aesthetically lacking cottage.
Characterization has always been McKinley’s strong suit, and her portrait of Beauty’s family is so well-drawn that the reader can’t help but mourn Beauty’s journey to face an unknown fate at the hands of the Beast; but familiarity with the fairy tale also creates anticipation. If McKinley can turn a bland, cowardly father and mean-girl sisters into a group of characters you wish you were related to, what can she do with the Beast? And though the first meeting with the him doesn’t occur until nearly half-way through the book, the slow revelation of his character and the unwinding of the mysteries surrounding the Beast dominate the whole of the work. The mystery is revealed in slow, delicious bites: the Beast is very old, and has been imprisoned about 200 years; the Beast has the ability to command the weather; the Beast is a prisoner, in a much deeper way than Beauty is.
The setting of the cursed castle is nearly a character unto itself — moving staircases and misplaced doors abounded here long before Harry Potter made them fashionable — though in theory what are seemingly the actions of the castle are really the actions of invisible servants who were cursed alongside their master. Bookish Beauty is astonished to find a library that contains books that have not yet been written — an oddity noted by the Beast, as she should only be able to see books that she would expect to see. It is an early sign that she will be able to see beyond the surfaces around her, and break the curse on the castle and its inhabitants.
And that is the theme at the heart of the book: the importance of seeing beyond. The theme turns again and again, on the notes of invisible servants, false exteriors, the illusion of wealth and privilege, the difficulty of names. When the Beast shares some of his own ability to see beyond (his use of the classic magic mirror to see past the confines of his castle, which precipitates an urgent need for Beauty to return home), the crisis comes swiftly. Beauty must choose: return to the comforts and security of home, or to forge into the unseen beyond?
I’m pretty sure you know how the choice goes, but getting there is great fun.