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 world within the perimeter of brambles. And she will love the creator of this magic. I will win the love of a woman and undo the pari’s curse.”
Orasmyn’s ordeal isn’t over, but he has become more comfortable in his skin. Roaming in the forest, he muses that, “Instantly my spirit transforms; away from the castle my needs and pleasures belong to the lion that I am. Alert. Powerful. I am at home in these woods. And it feels good.”
Then, one snowy night, a lost merchant wanders into the castle. The visitor breaks off a precious rose branch, the Beast reacts with anger (and calculation), and soon Beauty, the man’s youngest daughter, comes to make amends for her father’s theft.
The rest of the novel describes the relationship that unfolds between Beauty and the Beast. For me, the strengths of this section lie in the shifting emotional tensions between the characters and the insights we gain about each one. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for anyone to empathize with Beauty, a young woman willing to sacrifice herself for her beloved father. However, by tracking the Beast from the very beginning of his struggles, Napnoli allows us to understand exactly what is at stake for Orasmyn, and how hard he has worked to be worthy of regaining his true form. We know he’s a Beast. And we’re as adament as he is that Beauty should come to love him. Through Orasmyn’s eyes, we gain a fresh perspective on his beloved: the courage she draws on, daily, to live with a Beast; the mental flexibility she musters in order to judge Orasmyn by his actions rather than his appearance; the unforced respect she shows for his customs, and the effort she makes to interpret them.
After grievous mistakes, sorrow, and suffering, true love prevails. It’s all the sweeter because we have watched the Beast and Beauty earn their victory.