Retelling keeps original details, tweaks others

Beauty book review

Watching the new live-action film adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” inspired me to revisit an old favorite: “Beauty,” by Robin McKinley.

“Beauty” was McKinley’s first book, and the first of her two retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.” The other is “Rose Daughter,” which has an allegorical feel without being pedantic.

“Beauty” is an engaging and magical book, originally published in 1978.

McKinley retains some of the 18th century fairy tale elements Disney leaves behind. Beauty is one of three daughters who move to the country due to the family’s financial troubles. The father goes on a journey with the hope of regaining a small portion of their former wealth. He returns home to tell a tale of the Beast and his enchanted castle.

Her sisters are usually portrayed as selfish and vain, but McKinley departs from that and gives them kinder natures. Beauty’s relationship to her sisters demonstrates her own good character in both the original and adaptation.

McKinley also incorporates romances for the sisters as integral plot points. One beau assists in the move to the country, and news of the other is what prompts Beauty’s return home from the castle.

“Beauty” is my favorite variation, in part because of McKinley’s writing, but largely due to the eponymous character.

Beauty’s real name is Honour, and unlike her two gorgeous sisters, Grace and Hope, she is rather on the plain side. Her nickname is one of affectionate teasing, but she puts her gangly limbs and large feet to good use when the family moves into a cottage outside a village. She chops wood, hauls water and takes care of many of the heavy-duty chores.

Much of the homemaking and creating a new life reminded me of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Establishing a home and a living in challenging rural circumstances and relying heavily on family and the good nature of the nearest neighbors are themes in both.

McKinley explores the themes of the transition from wealth to poverty, from urban to rural and from the mundane to the magical. The sisters must adjust to doing everything for themselves, although there are kind neighbors to teach them.

They learn to appreciate the quiet of their cottage. Magic is hinted at in the first half of the story, an acknowledged part of reality but not of everyday life. Before her family’s move Beauty refers to the magic associated with the north in terms of long-cloaked magicians and possibly dragons.

Only when Beauty’s father returns from his journey does magic move into the forefront. The father’s journey, from the fairy tale, is due to a potential upturn in their situation. McKinley’s sisters teasingly ask for beautiful clothes and jewels, but Beauty asks for rose seeds. The rose from the castle gardens, the Beast, the enchanted forest — many well-known elements of the tale come into view.

When Beauty’s father returns from his journey, he is in a state of shock. His bags are laden with rich fabrics and fine objects better suited to their previous home. The rose he brings for Beauty is placed on the mantle and blooms until she leaves for the Beast’s castle, a choice she willingly makes. She chooses to free her father from his promise and faces the terrifying unknown for the well-being of her family.

Beauty’s other gift is roses, in the form of seeds. Here the Beast reveals some of his magic, for the roses are blooming before Beauty leaves. They climb over the cottage walls and become part of Beauty’s final sight of the cottage.

When Beauty arrives at the castle, she enters a realm of magic. Attended by invisible beings whose voices she hears whispering while on the edges of sleep, and learning to navigate the ever-changing hallways and rooms, Beauty is immersed in a new world. She finds comfort in returning to her favorite pursuits: translating Greek and Latin and riding her horse. The rest of the tale is familiar, but with its own unique flavor.

Reading retellings of favorite fairy and folk tales can be comforting — the overarching themes and plot are already known, and there are few surprises — but challenging. Each reader has an idea of how the characters ought to behave, and each author has her own vision, and sometimes those do not mesh with the reader’s idea of character or details. “Beauty” is a wonderful place for any age of reader to start exploring these retellings.

Rose Peacock, library technician at Cook Memorial Library

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