Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite fairytales. It’s a gripping story of courage, compassion, and the transforming power of sacrificial love.
With Disney’s live-action version hitting cinemas this month, I thought it would be fun to review several novel-length versions of this classic tale. Although there are other folk tales and myths with similar themes, the first published version of the story was written by a woman–Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve–in mid-18th century France. If you’ve never read it, please do yourself a favor: go to your local library this week and find a re-telling of the original tale. My favorite is Max Eilenberg and Angela Barrett’s exquisite Beauty and the Beast. It’s a visual and literary feast that fits perfectly into a 15-minute coffee break or quick bedtime read.
Then, if you are only able to read one of the novels I mention here, let it be Robin McKinley’s Beauty. First published forty years ago, it’s a classic that has stood the test of time. Fairytale novelizations have enjoyed tremendous popularity in recent years, but McKinley (an American now living in England) was one of the pioneers of the genre. I first “discovered” this novel as a young teenager, after having exhausted the entire fairytale section of my library. I was immediately drawn in by its first-person narrative, and the way it fleshed out and breathed new life into the familiar story. From the very first chapter, I found myself rooting for the plucky heroine, who, despite the tremendous odds stacked against her, continues to face the world with courage and curiosity. It’s a tale I continue to return to: a delightful, dazzling read.
The relationship between Beauty and the cursed Prince is intricate, tender, and perfectly paced. One of my favorite elements of this novel, however, is Beauty’s own internal and external transformation. In a castle without mirrors, she stops paying attention to her perceived “ugliness.” Freed from her concerns of how others perceive her, she matures into a lovely young woman, full of honor, compassion, and a zest for life. The story is rounded off by a joyous, deeply satisfying conclusion.
Nearly twenty years after writing Beauty, Robin McKinley created a second, very different version of the tale. Rose Daughter is lush, sensuous, and carefully composed. It plays more with the story’s basic elements, is rich in symbolism, and develops significantly more background: Beauty, for example, possesses magical gifts inherited from her mother, and her two sisters, with whom she is quite close, play a much more vital role. In this version, Beauty faces the seemingly impossible task of restoring the Beast’s dying rose garden: a symbolic encapsulation of his own hurting, dying heart. McKinley is an avid grower of heirloom roses, and the gardener in me loved these passages!
Rose Daughter is much darker and more complex than McKinley’s earlier novel. The presence of evil is felt much more strongly, starkly contrasted against luminous scenes of water and light. There’s a deeper sense of a spiritual battle being waged, and a threat of impending doom. It’s a beautifully written story–though perhaps not as richly satisfying as its precursor.
As Old As Time, by Liz Braswell, was published by Disney-Hyperion just last year. It’s the third in Braswell’s series of “twisted tales,” giving a novelist’s make-over to classic Disney films (her other two are based on Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin). Each one of Braswell’s novels begins with a “what if?” premise, adding another layer of abstraction to an already abstracted tale. Still, it makes for a beguiling read. As Old As Time prompts the reader to ask, “What if Belle’s mother cursed the Beast?” It weaves together the varying perspectives of Belle, her parents Maurice and Rosalind, and the Beast/Prince. The first third of the book is utterly delightful, pulling in lots of amusing detail from the animated Disney film. Braswell manages to use spoken lines from the film in a natural, believable way, and cleverly solves some of the odder bits of the Disney version (e.g., if the Prince is nearly twenty-one and has been under a spell for ten years, that means he was just a child when the enchantress cursed him. Why curse an eleven-year-old boy, and why does the West Wing portrait depict a grown man?).
Then we get the “twist.” Belle touches the Beast’s enchanted rose, and instead of breaking the curse, she inadvertently completes it. For the remainder of the story, Belle and the Beast must race against time and ever-increasing dangers to solve the mysteries underlying the fates of their families and the kingdom.
The dialogue is well-written, the scenes are vivid, the pacing (for the most part) well-constructed. However, unlike the earlier film version, there is no outside transformative grace: it is up to the lead characters to save themselves from a treacherous world as best they can. Although I’m not fond of deus ex machina fantasy, in which every problem the characters face is neatly or miraculously solved, I missed the sense of good magic found in other versions of the tale: here it’s mostly magic gone wrong, or forcibly stifled. Still, the references to French culture, food, and art were loads of fun. And the characters each have a vivid, distinct persona. I especially appreciated Braswell’s depiction of Maurice as a strong, resourceful, and loving father: though eccentric, he’s not at all the bumbling lunatic that the villagers suppose him to be. And the Beast exhibits heroic sacrifice, not only for Beauty, but for all the people of his kingdom.
And now–time to stop reading this post! Go hunt down one of these fascinating novels to read at home, and then come share your opinion here–or recommend another version that you’ve enjoyed!