Beauty by Robin McKinley

Beauty - Robin McKinleyBeauty – Robin McKinley
David Fickling Books, 2003

Originally published in 1978
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

[note: this was written late at night, which shows. I hope it's not too difficult to navigate my meandering thoughts.]

I shall always have fond memories when it comes to the story of Beauty and the Beast. I know it might be considered sacrilege to some, but I was introduced to the fairy tale through Disney’s movie version of 1991. I was four, and it was the first movie I saw at the cinema. There I was, with my cousin and my aunt (who used to babysit me), and I remember sitting there, and that movie having such an impact. I don’t remember much of the theatre visit, except that the building was quite stately, and that there was a scene where (in my mind) Belle dances with the Beast in a yellow dress, in the library.

There is a reason why Belle has always been my “favourite princess”, if I were to choose one. It is her bookishness in that Disney movie. Her walking from her house, with a book in her hand and a blue dress on, dancing through the streets, being friendly to everyone, and snubbing Gaston (snubbing the annoying man who thinks he’s all that is an important part of my liking for Belle). I wanted to be her. That’s it, basically.

I was very happy to discover that Beauty, in this retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley (note that it was published many years before the Disney movie!) is also bookish. She is also, in her own estimation, not truly a beauty. It is a nickname given to her, her actual name is Honour (next to her sisters Grace and Hope). One of the wonderful things in this story is that the main character grows into both her nicknames, that she shows them to be a perfect fit, and that she slowly gains confidence about being worthy of them.

It is not that Beauty is not confident. It is her strength as a female character, that we perhaps do not associate with what we have learned to think of as “the princesses in fairy tales”, which, in part, makes this story so enjoyable. Beauty is willing to go against the grain. First, she devotes herself to studies and reading. Then, when the family has to move, she works around the house and does work that requires great physical strength. Then, when she meets the beast, she wonders, she is sometimes naive, but she also has a very strong will and she’s not unwilling to voice her own opinions. I liked her for that. Very much so.

Beauty is the kind of character that makes it easy to sympathise. Even if at times it becomes a little difficult to believe that she really wouldn’t have understood all those hints that are spoken at night, by invisible servants. Even if, having had people remark that she has grown into a great beauty, and that she does not see herself as others do, she struggles against the notion, and rejects the beautiful gowns laid out for her. Then, at the same time, I also appreciated her for that. I’d like a female fairy tale lead to reject dresses. I understand the notion of not feeling comfortable in your skin, or confident in whatever you have doubts about, despite being told otherwise. It is something many will empathise with. It is something I certainly emphasise with.

Robin McKinley does a wonderful job of setting the scenes. She spends a great deal of time describing scenery. She makes sure to evoke moods through that same scenery. She makes sure you know all the characters involved: Beauty’s father, her sisters, I could see faces accompanied with them all.

There is one thing though, that I wondered at while reading the book. For the first time while reading this, I realised how Beauty and the Beast is not just a romantic love story to swoon over (which happened, for me, here). But how there are some really problematic things going on in the relationship that is established. Sure, I loved Belle for rejecting Gaston in Disney’s version, but have I ever stopped to think that she fell in love with the person who captured her father, and then held her prisoner instead? In this story, there is the same kind of dynamic going on, to a certain extent. As The Literary Omnivore put it, it’s a little bit like Stockholm Syndrome.

I remember, faintly, that there were moments when Beauty reflected on this herself. Or perhaps, I am editing them in, in my memory, in retrospect (but I think not? Help me out here, fellow readers!). Here is a man, or beast, who lives a life of luxury, even if it is established to be an isolated and sad one, and who can offer Beauty a lot of the things that she always wanted (hello magical library with all the books ever written and yet to be written!). There are moments when I felt that McKinley handled this situation really well, with the reflections, and  the response of Beauty’s family, and Beauty actually makes conscious decisions about staying or returning to the Beast, and she makes them repeatedly.. However, there are moments when they were less overt, or when I felt the tale overrode them, where I would have loved for more questions to have been raised (the ending, for example, and Beauty accepting “the dress” were such moments). But it is a fairy tale, and McKinley makes it easy to go along with these aspects of the story, even if she makes you wonder at the same time. I guess the quality of this story is, in part, that it made me reflect on such things, even if it may not have provided all the answers.¹

I fear I might sound much too critical. The thing is, I did very much enjoy this book. I wanted to keep on reading it. I wanted to hug it close at times. Beauty is a wonderful heroine. It is not that the story is lacking, or at fault. Perhaps it is more that it opened my eyes to the narratives inherent to the fairy tale as it has been told so many times. And that is what made me think. And then, reading this as a retelling, I might think that there were moments where there might have been more subversion, even if there are plenty of moments there. In itself, Beauty does a wonderful job of expanding the story, of giving us a very detailed setting, of offering us a picture of a supportive family and strong girls. In short, it is not my favourite-favourite fairy tale retelling (but who could top Tender Morsels?), but it was wonderful nonetheless. It is definitely going on the re-read pile.

I know there are many more Robin McKinley books out there. I have Deerskin on the shelves, and I cannot wait to get to it (I know it is supposed to be much darker than Beauty - not that that’s better per se, it’s just if people wanted to warn me). Are there any titles you particularly recommend? I think McKinley might very well turn out to be an author of whom I want to read many books.

Other Opinions: There are many.

¹ Can I give an example of such questions the story raised? I’m inserting them as a footnote, because I couldn’t help but ramble a little. Here it is. In her post, The Literary Omnivore also remarked that in Beauty, the Beast does not seem to overcome his nature through Beauty. Instead, he is as he has mostly been. I agree with her. Instead of the Beast (as in the Disney version, which is the only one I know, and I do not know it by heart) going from a more “beastly”, more aggressive, character, to one that is “humane”, tender, and awkward, through Belle’s intercession and for her, in Beauty the Beast is mostly as he has always been (while his beastly outside mostly leads to him becoming more isolated, which is his suffering). He is willing to hope at a better life, meeting Beauty. But a fundamental change? I have seen less of that.

However, after writing that down, there springs a new question to mind. Or really, two questions. One being that that story might be problematic in itself. Beauty might have had more agency in that the Beast not only changed her, but she also changed him (more expressly), and I would definitely cheer for that. But I wonder if in that version is captured the narrative of “if you are a lovely enough girl, you can change the bad boy for the better”, which is not one which can be retold without raising question marks (but which is also part of what I loved about the Disney version. Ugh, I both love and hate discovering problematic things in favourite stories). And then there’s question two, which is the prevailing idea that love will change you at your core. Now, I am a romantic, and I do believe love changes people. But I wonder if it is a good thing if it changed your very nature? Is that romance, or a little scary? Is it not another narrative we are so often told, but that raises complex issues? Should a change always be established through finding your “true love”? Should we think of natures of being “natures”, or “cores”? I hope not, not completely. I don’t know, perhaps this is what McKinley avoids in her tale, as she seems to emphasise that both Beauty and the Beast allow something to flower when they are together, something that was already there but that they could not see? And I like that (romanticised?) idea of love, but even so, I cannot help but wonder at this idea of change through another person too? So, as I said above, this book led me to ask a lot of questions. Questions that are not part of this book per se, that did not detract from my enjoyment, but which led me to wonder and rethink some things, and, as usual, leaving me without any answers (which I do not mind, but you might think I have just wasted your time in having you read this footnote).

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15 thoughts on “Beauty by Robin McKinley

  1. Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

    I’ve been meaning to read this for ages and ages and ages. I always loved Belle for her bookishness too – I love that opening song of the Disney film, “but she won’t discover that it’s him till chapter 3″. :-) Our local amdram society recently staged this and I got to re-live the story again, loved it.

    But I have the same issue with Belle for choosing to stay with her jailor, for forgiving him for all that. I’m listening to the Phillip Pullman fairy tale re-tellings right now and I cam across this problem in at least one other story. Why are these young women portrayed like that? How can theirs be a good choice? I woudn’t want to be reading these stories to a little girl who may use one of the heroines as a role model!

    That’s my problem with fairy tales these days – I have a young son and I don’t like reading them to him because I don’t like what they teach, that the solution is to kill the bad guy, for example, and that the bad guy is always ugly or deformed. I know that the stories weren’t meant for kids and that my problem is more with popular culture, but still.

    Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment this long anywhere! :-)

    Reply
  2. rhapsodyinbooks

    Great interrogation of this story – many things I am ashamed to say that never occurred to me. …which is why it is so wonderful to have intelligent bloggers to follow! :–)

    On your footnotes, I definitely do *not* think love changes people fundamentally, although I think it can effect changes for a year or so when hormones are peaking! But I like your questions about whether love *should* change someone, or should we love someone knowing all along that we *cannot* change that person in all probability? Can we live with the lack of change?

    And finally I want to say that I think fairy tales are so enduring because they *do* incorporate so many narratives that guide our behavior, whether subconscious, or imposed. They are just endlessly interesting, and even more so when subverted in any way! I had forgotten about this retelling and now have added it to my library list!

    Reply
  3. Word Lily

    I’m familiar only with the Disney version of the story, too, and I share your attachment to Belle, and most of the reasons behind it, as well. My mom didn’t read us fairy tales when I was growing up, although she read to us nearly constantly, and I’m wondering if problems like this were part of why she avoided them. It’s a pretty dark story on quite a few levels, for sure.

    I think that love (and not just romantic love) can change people. I think there’s some truth in the adage, for example, that after years together spouses (or even a person and his/her dog) often being to look alike. One certainly shouldn’t enter a relationship hoping to “improve” another, though. And the changes I’m thinking of aren’t necessarily changes on a fundamental level, but rather: We’re all, each of us, constantly changing, and when we spend time with another person, that person, that time, influences how we change and grow.

    Reply
  4. Sam (Tiny Library)

    Belle was always my favourite Disney princess too, as I loved books and like her, wanted to travel and experience new things.
    I really enjoy fairy-tale retellings, so I’ll look out for this book. The relationship does seem very Stockholm syndrome, I never thought of that when watching it as a child!

    Reply
  5. zibilee

    I also love this fairy tale the best, and would love to read this one. It seems as though McKinley really took the tale to greater heights with this tale, and I love that Beauty didn’t lose her bookishness. I would have hated that. The fact that you bring up Stockholm Syndrome also intrigues me. This book sounds fascinating to me, and it would be great to read it and then come back and read your thoughts again. Off to check the library!!

    Reply
  6. Christina

    Oh, how I love Robin McKinley! Deerskin is very good but very dark, as you mentioned. Actually, it’s not that the whole book is dark, but there is one extremely heartbreaking and disturbing event that occurs fairly early on.

    If you want more fairy tale retellings, McKinley also did a version of Sleeping Beauty called Spindle’s End that I really like. She also went back to Beauty and the Beast with Rose Daughter, which is a bit more complex than Beauty, as I recall. But my favorite book of hers has to be The Outlaws of Sherwood, a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. It’s absolutely wonderful, and there are some really great women in it!

    All that said, I love all of McKinley’s books, and I think any of them would be great reads! (Although Dragonhaven is probably her weakest novel to date, and Sunshine is quite different from the rest of her work.) I hope you visit her work again soon! :)

    Reply
  7. Jenny

    I seriously hissed “Yessssss” when I saw this post pop up in my Google Reader, and your post was even better and more interesting than I was expecting. IRIS. Why are you so relentlessly GREAT.

    To your footnote’s point — I like this version of Beauty exactly because Beauty and the Beast don’t particularly change each other. Instead they just suit each other very precisely. They like the same jokes and they like reading together and the books haven’t been written yet! The books haven’t been written yet! It’s so extremely cool.

    Robin McKinley is a mysterious author to me. I really love the books of hers I love, but they are comparatively few. Beauty and Sunshine are dramatically the best two. I’m also fond of Deerskin, and Pegasus might end up being a mild favorite too if I reread it a few times (but not necessarily). But basically it’s those three, Beauty and Deerskin and Sunshine, and her other books are sort of boring to me. :/

    (This is so much making me want to reread Beauty, but I don’t have it with me here in New York. Bother bother bother.)

    Reply
  8. Susan

    I’ve read Deerskin – very interesting, though it was several years ago, so I have to reread it again. I just read Spindle’s End and blogged about it for my first Long-awaited Read. The ending was problematical, and I wasn’t sure how to address it without giving the ending of the book away. I need to address it though, so I will be doing a follow-up post tonight, as Selkies came up at work today too. (no I don’t work in that kind of environment, this was over lunch!)

    I enjoyed your review very much, and you raise an interesting point about Beauty and The Beast. For me, the story has always been about seeing what is underneath the skin to the real person. I think Beast has a right to hold the merchant – he did steal from him after all – but he doesn’t kill him. Instead he offers him a choice….and from that Belle learns she has a choice too, I always thought of this as the fairy tale about how real love looks beneath the surface to the person who’s really there. It’s a comment of course on beauty in our society, and how we prize beauty (looks) over invisible graces like charity (which the beast shows time and again), faith, and in this retelling, Honour. In the Beauty and the Beast myth everyone plays both roles, though the sisters never take the chances they get to learn to be beautiful through action.

    I’m glad you raised these points, Iris! Ok, off to do my post now…..And you might like Spindle’s End, which I really enjoyed – it features talking animals and of course, the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty.

    Reply
  9. Christy

    I have meant to read more Robin McKinley. The only one that I have read is Sunshine, which I really liked (especially the first two sections) and some parts still stick in my head and that was from a couple of years ago.

    Reply
  10. Jeane

    Beauty has always been one of my favorites, but then I read it at a young impressionable age and was enthralled. I didn’t notice at all any of the problems you had with it, never analyzed it so deeply. But I did feel, after reading it again years later, that the ending was so rushed and suddenly tied up, rather confusingly if you ask me. I’ve read quite a few of her other books and the endings always seem a bit problematic to me that way. I think my second-favorite is Sunshine and oddly feel opposite to Christina- I really like Dragonhaven but never could get through Outlaws of Sherwood- and I tried it twice!

    Reply
  11. Brooke

    As Beauty and Beast was also a favorite of mine as well, I’d love to read McKinley’s take. In fact, I’d love to read McKinley’s take on anything as I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about her novels. You’ve raised some interesting questions and I think fairy tales are such a great source of moral conundrums and other debatable issues.

    Reply
  12. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    Did you ever continue with Beauty & the Beast the show on the CW right now? I’d be curious your thoughts on it! I’ve been pretty pleased with how they’ve handled most stuff and the relationship is still deliciously angsty which I am not ashamed to admit I enjoy.

    Reply
  13. Wendy

    From an early age, upon reading The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley became one of my favorite authors… I definitely recommend you delve into her work again – my favorites are a bit different from some. I still love The Hero and the Crown, but I’ve become fond of Chalice, as well as Sunshine. Strong heroines in each make them so worthwhile! :) Happy reading!

    Reply

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