Beauty: My First Fairytale Retelling

Robin McKinley’s Beauty was my first experience with a fairytale retelling. I have always been intrigued by the idea of fairytale retellings, but, for me, it was more professional than consumer – I was interested in the possibility of retelling some of the classic fairytales myself one day. And for this reason, I completely overlooked the possibility of reading fairytale retellings. Partly because I was busy reading other things, and partly because I didn’t quite know this genre existed.

Beauty reverses the classic story by making the “Belle” character ugly. Ironically, she is named Beauty. Her two sisters are the real “beauties” of the family, but, for once, these two are not the typical Disney stepsisters – they are both kind and sweet as well as beautiful, and love and admire their little sister. Personally, I thought it would be kind of interesting if, since everything is supposed to be reversed, Beauty was not only ugly but had kind of a nasty personality, but she is only described as having a bad temper.

But, of course, she turns beautiful in the end. Granted, there is something innately wrong about an ugly heroine, but still. Couldn’t the guy have fallen in love with an actually ugly girl just this once?

I didn’t wan the Beast to turn into a man! Beauty fell in love with a beast, not a man. Somehow, his changing at the end of the story feels like cheating her of the person she fell in love with. And why should Beauty be rewarded for doing something she was okay with doing?

And if Beauty is the beast, in some respects, because she is the ugly one in this version, then shouldn’t he be drop-dead gorgeous? McKinley doesn’t seem to have gotten the whole idea of switching everything around…

There were some striking similarities to Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, which happens to be my favorite. In both stories ugly heroines are the main characters, in both, there is a young girl who is offered up to a “beast” and in both stories the beast turns out to be a nice, if a little misunderstood, guy who lives in a huge castle full of invisible servants.

At first, I thought that the reason inanimate objects were moving around was because the servants were invisible – they were moving the objects, you just couldn’t see them. As the story goes on, however, I began to realize that, no, the servants were not moving the objects, they were actually moving themselves – kind of like in the Disney version. I found this unnecessary and disappointing.

Beauty reads like a Greek myth, a resemblance I thought fitting as there are numerous Greek references throughout the book because of Beauty’s extensive education.

There were these brief glimpses of brilliance and I wanted more of that! One scene in particular struck me as missing something great by mere inches. Beauty is scantily clad in a beautiful dress. Angrily, she tries to remove it, but finds that she can’t. I felt like this scene touched on the deeper themes of Beauty. Why doesn’t Beauty want to wear the dress? Why is she so upset and angry? Instead of pursuing these questions, McKinley abruptly changes directions. Beauty stubbornly refuses to leave her room or let the Beast see her in the dress. The topic is never rejoined. So why did she include the scene at all? What was the point?

I found the writing to be tantalizingly aloof; the first person perspective usually affords the reader a intimate, personal look at the characters and setting, but this was not at all the case with Beauty.

One thing that I found deeply disturbing is that one reads the whole book without ever being able to form a complete picture of what the Beast looks like. As a intensely visual reader, this is important to me – vitally important. If I can’t picture what’s happening, I quickly lose interest because the story fails to take on reality for me. It doesn’t seem real because I can’t see it in my mind. McKinley never, to my knowledge, gives a full description of the Beast. We only get bits and pieces – he’s obviously big, he has retractable claws, and the teeth of a carnivore. And he wears human clothes. This incomplete picture leaves the reader relying on mental images of Disney’s sabre-toothed lion dude. And believe me when I say that is a major turnoff.

There were definitely some moments of having to laugh at the absurdity of it all, which, really, is one of the worst things I could say about a book. It was culturally unsound at times. Beauty and her soon-to-be brother-in-law sharing the same attic, for example. Something like that simply would not happen in that culture and time period. The whole “magic” thing comes off as tacky and unrealistic – McKinley doesn’t even attempt to explain it. In my opinion this is a big flaw.

There are also several random things that don’t fit with this story. Robbie’s being lost at sea is vital to the plot but feels incongruous. It is never explained why Tom Black gives Beauty an expensive horse free of charge – is he in love with her? – and then he simply disappears from the story and never comes back. Ferdy’s character and Beauty’s elderly father’s remarriage are two other things that add to the overall feeling of disjointedness.

Are you a fan of fairytale-retellings? Do you think the Beast should turn into a man at the end of the story? What do you think of ugly heroines? Does it annoy you that Beauty turns gorgeous? How would you retell the story of Beauty and the Beast?