Robin McKinley

This will be a summer of reading, rereading, makings lists, and mercilessly shortening them as I plan literature courses for the coming fall.  Over the years, I have seen Beauty, by Robin McKinley, on so many lists of good books that I thought it was high time I read it.  I believe I opened the book genuinely open-minded and predisposed to love it. Unfortunately, it immediately felt ponderous.  I could almost hear the author thinking, “Look here, I’m creating character. I’m setting up the plot and being so terribly clever and descriptive.  The first person point of view will surely set this story off from all predecessors!”

The switch to realizing that I’d started caring a little about the characters was so sudden that I actually noted it; page 35.  This is halfway through Part I. I think it’s here that McKinley loses self-consciousness about recounting a fairytale and starts telling a story.  Perhaps she was as bored with setting the scene as I was watching her do it. Maybe she felt constricted by the necessity of getting Beauty’s family from the point of comfortable wealth to a place where things could start happening to them.  Hooray for character development!

The book is almost half over when Beauty gets to the castle of the Beast.  At last! This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Though we know what is going to happen, I was interested to see how McKinley would play it out.  Beauty’s internal struggle with captivity, Beast’s urgent need for Beauty to love him, the development of Beauty’s compassion, a conflict with her family before the nearly-too-late revelation of Beauty’s love for Beast.  

However, in the last section, McKinley squanders the little sympathy I had worked up. I know what’s coming, but there is supposed to be some kind of confrontation, if only internal.  If the story is too familiar for anxiety about how it will end, there ought, as least, to be a little suspense as to how it will come about.  Given that this is a fairytale, which means magic is a completely acceptable device, the ending was still too contrived. 

Beast has been keeping an eye on Beauty’s family through his magic mirror, and has grown fond of them.  He sends Beauty’s father good dreams about her so he won’t miss her too badly, and Beauty has good dreams about her family, all true, thanks to Beast’s powers. Beast allows Beauty a peek into the mirror wherein she sees something happening which she must tell her sister in order to save her from a tragic mistake.  Beast allows her to go home. Her family has a hard time understanding all the things she tells them about her life, but they’re just happy to see her. She does head back to the castle a bit later than intended, but everything suddenly works out, and they all live happily ever after.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a captivating and worthwhile fairytale.  It is a story of courage and selflessness. For me, McKinley’s retelling falls sadly short of captivating.  There are too many stumbling blocks for me. Beauty, whose real name is Honour, is the merchant’s youngest daughter.  She isn’t beautiful, poor thing. She’s “the clever one.” The story is that when she was five years old, her father tried to explain to her the meaning of her name.  She said, “I’d rather be Beauty,” and the ironic nickname stuck. This feels like a not-so-subtle stab at turning tradition on its head.

Often, in fairy tales, the female protagonist is beautiful.  The intent may be to highlight the value of beauty accompanied by virtue. Or it might be that a beautiful but selfish girl must learn virtue.  During the family argument over whether or not Beauty should go to the Beast in her father’s place, her reasoning is, “I’m the youngest–and the ugliest. The world isn’t losing much in me. . . my best skills are cutting wood and tending the garden.  You can get any lad in the village to do that.” The fact that she thinks so little of herself detracts from the idea of self-sacrifice. She also considers herself to be in little danger because the Beast has proven that he is honorable. Her decision seems more like resignation than courage.  

In the end, when it is apparent that the man who was Beast is actually “quite alarmingly handsome,” Beauty exclaims that she can’t marry him.  He should marry a queen or a duchess, not a “dull drab nothing” like herself. After falling in love with the hideous beast, has she really learned nothing about where true beauty comes from?  She is reconciled only after Beast leads her to a mirror (all of which had previously been banished from the castle) and she discovers that, not only has she grown taller, but she is also now beautiful.     

Beauty’s relationship with her huge horse Greatheart is sweet, but is another incongruity.  His presence runs through the story like a thread that is holding things together, but he could disappear without changing the story.  A great deal is made of the fact that, because of his size, he’s invaluable for dragging trees to cut for firewood. Then Beauty makes the previously mentioned comment that her family can get any village lad to take her place.   It’s essential that Greatheart go with her. He’s intractable without her. Well, which is it?

I stumbled over the occasional awkward sentence and questionable use of vocabulary, but was entertained by the literary allusions and the breadth of Beauty’s reading.  She refers many times to characters from mythology: King Corphetua, Aeolus, Cerberus, Persephone, Pandora. She is familiar with The Odyssey, Cicero, Sir Walter Scott, The Faerie Queen, and many other classics.  The Beast’s library also contains books that haven’t been written yet, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Kipling’s Kim, and The Screwtape Letters.   

I was baffled by a passage that takes place when Beauty is allowed to go home for a time.  Greatheart is attracted to the family’s new mare. The incident seems unnecessary, and potentially awkward for some readers or their parents.  Beauty finds Greatheart flirting with a the new mare and says, “I’m not sure a foal next summer is on the schedule.” The next morning it is discovered that the two horses have escaped from the barn. As Beauty catches Greatheart, she says, “You’ve had your fun, a proper night of it I daresay. Now you can behave.” Then Beauty’s brother-in-law says, “This should be quite a foal. I hope it takes after its daddy.”  When there is so little reference to human romance, why insert that bit for young people to have to wonder about?

This book was published in 1978.  Ages ago. I didn’t finish reading it with the feeling that I must warn everyone away from it.  But I have since been pondering my sense that it was one tentative feeler for a movement that has been steadily degrading the quality of children’s literature throughout my lifetime, and now delights in calling “evil good and good evil, who puts darkness for light and light for darkness, who puts bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)