McKinley: Beauty

From: Karen Chan <>
Date: Sat May 22 1999 - 01:31:00 PDT

21st May, 1999. 6:18 p.m.

I thought I would post this in case anyone is interested.


	The creation of a contemporary, first-person young adult novel from a
fairy tale could raise a host of technical problems for the novelist and
objections from devotees of traditional lore. Beauty, A Retelling of the
Story of Beauty and the Beast was included by American Library Association
committees in both the Notable Children's Books and the Best Books for
Young Adults lists for 1978. It was Robin McKinley's first novel, written
in the throes of a negative reaction to the television adaptation starring
George C. Scott, in which McKinley felt that the point had been missed and
the aesthetic thinned. The story, she maintains, is about honor. Honour is
her heroine's real name, given to match her two older sisters', Grace and
Hope, by a mother who does not survive the birth of baby Mercy, who also
dies. In the tradition of the story from its origins, Beauty is a nickname,
but one bestowed here, ironically, on a five-year-old who cannot comprehend
the concept of Honour and requests Beauty instead, an appellation retained
into a gawky adolescence.
	For a 247-page novel, the cast is compact, with secondary characters
introduced and developed naturally within the context of the traditional
plot. Grace, Hope, and Honour (called Beauty) Huston are the sisters. Their
father, Roderick Huston, is a shipwright/merchant and carpenter. Robert
Tucker is a sailor and fiancÚ of Grace; Gervain Woodhouse, an
ironworker/blacksmith who marries Hope. Greatheart, a horse given to Beauty
by a family friend, leads her to the palace of the Beast and keeps her
company there. Lydia and Bessie are two breezes who attend Beauty in the
	A few minor characters make brief appearances essential to McKinley's
revisions: Ferdy, whose first kiss repels Beauty in a reaction that
presages her resistance to admitting love for the Beast; Pat Lawry, who
courts Grace in Robbie's absence; Mercy and Richard, twins born to Hope and
Gervain; Merlinda Honeybourne, Gervain's widowed aunt, manager of the Red
Griffin and Roderick Huston's eventual wife; and Orpheus the canary, who
cheers the company throughout their resettlement in the country. All but
Orpheus further the theme of male/female relationships, and the canary
serves as a link with the birds Beauty later coaxes to her palace window -
a sign that her involvement is weakening the Beast's enchantment.
	There are no villains here. And where fairy-tale brevity benefits from the
Beast's initial and terrible impression to lend tension to Beauty's
dilemma, it is McKinley's task to maintain that tension through a longer
work in which the Beast's essential nobility quickly becomes apparent. The
conflict, of course, is shifted to an internal level with Beauty's rite of
passage. It seems ultimately fitting that modern teenage fiction should
emerge from an old tale of the journey into maturation.
	To sharpen this focus, McKinley has altered the father's weakness and the
sister's villainy (those faults shifted the onus of responsibility away
from Beauty's self-determined choices), in much the same way that
Villeneuve either omitted or explained away the family flaws. All three are
paragons of integrity, as are the girls' suitors, their virtue fortunately
relieved by practical, down-to-earth humor and genuine affection. Beauty
herself is strong-willed to obstinate, plain and thin, a tomboy passionate
only about animals and books. She is a smart, adolescent ugly duckling,
with everyone else's assurance that she will eventually turn into a swan.
True to life, Beauty believes only her own critical assessment. She is as
deprecatory of her physical appearance and as apprehensive of mirrors as
the Beast (there are none in her room at home nor in the palace of the Beast).
	The narrative, covering Beauty's fifteenth to eighteenth years, is
structured into three parts. The first establishes the family background
and situation, the courtship of the older girls, the loss of the ships (and
with them, Grace's fiancÚ), the auction of goods, the removal to Gervain's
childhood home in the north country, his marriage to Hope and prohibition
not to enter the reputedly enchanted forest behind their home, the birth of
their twins, and the father's trip to the city to recover one ship, from
which he returns with a rose. In section two, the father tells his story of
finding the Beast's castle and picking the fateful flower, after which his
saddle-bags are opened to reveal rich gifts. Beauty determines to go back
in his stead after the month's reprieve and dreams twice of the castle as
she prepares to depart.
	The third and last part comprises more than half of the book, beginning
with the farewell of father and daughter at the castle gate and ending with
her declaration of love for the Beast and the celebration. With unexpected
holding power, McKinley amplifies descriptions of Beauty's settlement into
life at the palace, the development of her relationship with the Beast, her
homesickness and desperation to tell Grace of Robbie's return (seen through
a magic glass, or nephrite plate, belonging to the Beast) before another
suitor proposes, and the visit home, which convinces Beauty of her love for
the Beast and delays her return until almost too late. The reader knows
that Beauty must finally accept her own physicality and release the Beast,
but the questions of how and when raise anticipation and even anxiety
during Beauty's last ride, when the Beast's magic weakens and she must find
him on the strength of her own love.
	Sustaining the plot are the book's compatibly blended point of view, pace,
style, tone and theme. The first-person narrative lends immediacy, fosters
a reader's identification with the protagonist, and allows a candid look at
Beauty's internal journey. The Beast shows mature perceptions, developed
during his two hundred years of brooding alone in the palace, on their
first meeting, when he tells her he would only have sent her father home
unharmed had she undecided not to come to the palace herself.
	"You _would_?" I said; it was half a shriek. "You mean that I came here
for nothing?"
	A shadowy movement like the shaking of a great shaggy head. "No. Not what
you would count as nothing. He would have returned to you, and you would
have been glad, but you also would have been ashamed, because you had sent
him, as you thought, to this death. Your shame would have grown until you
came to hate the sight of your father, because he reminded you of a deed
you hated, and hate yourself for. In time it would have ruined your peace
and happiness, and at last your mind and heart." (#10)
	But Beauty's knowledge, limited to an honest if impetuous intuition at the
book's beginning, develops through her solitude at the palace and her
experiences with the Beast, as evidenced in self-examinations that slowly
raise her to the Beast's level of awareness.
I had avoided touching him, or letting him touch me. At first I had eluded
him from fear; but when fear departed, elusiveness remained, and developed
into habit. Habit bulwarked by something else; I could not say what. The
obvious answer, because he was a Beast, didn't seem to be the right one. I
considered this. (P. 170)
	Without becoming too confessional, these insights bond the reader to
Beauty as she progresses through nightly more difficult denials of the
Beast's proposal to taking his arm and finally realizing her feelings in
face of the family's animosity toward the Beast.
I knew now what it was that had happened. I couldn't tell them that here,
at home with them again, I had learned what I had successfully ignored
these last weeks at the castle; that I had come to love him. They were no
less dear to me, but he was dearer yet. (P. 215)
	The frequency of vivid scenes keep Beauty's development from dwindling
into a diary. A confrontation she forces between her horse Greatheart and
the Beast, whom all creatures fear, is gripping. Beauty's discovery, in the
library, of future books that have not yet been written and her attempts to
understand Robert Browning or to envision modern inventions referred to in
other works is quite funny, as are the struggles of the two attendant
breezes to outfit her like a lady. Her encounters with the Beast are
natural, as often light as moving.
"It's raining," I said, but he understood the question, because he answered:
	"Yes, even here it rains sometimes.... I've found that it doesn't do to
tinker with weather too much.... Usually it rains after nightfall," he
added apologetically. (Pp. 141-142)
	The occasion on which she feed him her favorite dessert, however, proceeds
from a touching note to a powerful confrontation - the last barrier she
throws up against him before her vision (literally, in this case) begins to
clear for a new sensual awareness.
	A deceptively simple style blends drama with detail. Part of the book's
appeal is certainly its descriptions of a life anyone might long for -
leisure spiced with high cuisine and horseback riding, with learning for
learning's sake thrown in at will. These descriptions are by turn specific
and suggestive, allowing readers to luxuriate in a wish-fulfilling
existence but leaving room for them to grow their own fantasies. The
marvels of palace life are quite explicit.
I returned my gaze to the table. I saw now that it was crowded with covered
dishes, silver and gold. Bottles of wine stood in buckets full of gleaming
crushed ice; a bowl big enough to be a hip bath stood on a pedestal two
feet tall, in the shape of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders; and
the hollow globe was full of shining fresh fruit. A hundred delightful
odours assailed me. At the head of the table, near the door I had entered
by, stood a huge wooden chair, carved and gilded and lined with
chestnut-brown brocade over straw-coloured satin. The garnet-set peak was
as tall as a schooner's mast. It could have been a throne. As I looked, it
slid away slightly from the table and turned itself towards me, as another
chair had beckoned my father. I noticed for the first time that it was the
only chair at that great table, and there was only one place laid, although
the table gleamed to its farther end with the curved backs of plate covers,
and with goblets and tureens and tall jeweled pitchers. (Pp. 107-108)
	Other passages leave a strategic amount of information to the reader's
imagination. During Beauty's first conversation with the Beast, she sees
only his 'massive shadow' (p. 113), heightening a dread that peaks when he
finally stands to reveal himself. Even then, only his body is delineated;
the specifics of his face are implied by Beauty's reaction.
"Oh no," I cried, and covered my own face with my hands. But when I heard
him take a step towards me, I leaped back in alarm like a deer at the crack
of a branch nearby, turning my eyes away from him.... What made his gaze so
awful was that his eyes were human. (P. 116)
Bit by bit, through references to long white teeth and tangy fur, readers
can construct an image of the Beast, but it is largely their own.
	There are twists of humor throughout dialogue and description that balance
the darkest hours of both Beauty and the Beast for a tone alternately sweet
and bitter, ingenuous and sophisticated. Underlying all the various shades
emotion, however, is a sense of inevitable destiny, the fairy-tale security
that all will be well in spite of threats and confusion. The roses Beauty
plants in winter bloom to comfort her before she leaves home. A griffin on
the ring (and later necklace) given her by the Beast looks powerful but not
predatory. In spite of Beauty's association with the Beast with the
Minotaur when Gervain first tells her of the rumored enchantment, the mazes
she encounters at the castle simple mirror her own internal loss of direction.
I dreamed of the castle that Father had told us about. I seemed to talk
quickly down halls with high ceilings. I was looking for something, anxious
that I could not find it. I seemed to know the castle very well; I did not
hesitate as I turned corners, went up stairs, down stairs, opened doors.
(P. 82)
I found myself in the castle again, walking through dozens of handsome,
magnificently furnished rooms, looking for something. I had a stronger
sense o sorrow and of urgency this time; and also a sense of some other -
presence; I could describe it no more clearly. I found myself crying as I
walked, flinging doors open and looking inside eagerly, then hurrying on as
they were each empty of what I sought. (Pp. 91-92)
I walked across more corridors, up and down more stairs, and in and out of
more rooms than I cared to count... I soon lost my sense of direction, and
then most of my sense of purpose, but I kept walking... After a while,
perhaps hours, I came to a door at the end of a corridor, just around a
corner. (Pp. 109-110)
Nearly every day we found ourselves traveling over unfamiliar ground, even
when I thought I was deliberately choosing a route we had previously
traced; even when I thought I recognized a particular group of trees or
flower-strewn meadow, I could not be sure of it. I didn't know whether this
was caused by the fact that my sense of direction was worse than I'd
realized, which was certainly possible, or whether the paths and fields
really changed from day to day - which I thought was also possible. (Pp.
"I can't seem to keep the corridors straight in my head somehow, and as
soon as I'm hopelessly lost, I turn a corner and there's my room again. So
I never learn anything. I don't mean to complain," I added hastily. "It's
just that I get lost so very quickly that I don't have the chance to see
very much before they - er - send me home again." (P. 142)
	It is Beauty's inner pressure and the Beast's need that tell time; there
are no clocks in the palace. Like Cocteau, McKinley is intrigued with
different dimensions of reality. The space, time, and logic of the primary
world are suspended in the secondary world. Beauty's bridging both requires
some adjustment.
You look at this world - my world, here, as you looked at your old world,
your family's world. This is to be expected; it was the only world, the
only way of seeing, that you knew. Well; it's different here. Some things
go by different rules. (P. 177)
It was slowly being borne in on me that my stories about the castle and my
life there had little reality for my family. They listened with interest to
what I told - or tried to tell - them, but it was for my sake, not for the
sake of the tale. I could not say if this was my fault or theirs, or the
fault of the worlds we lived in. (P. 210-211)
And as Cocteau admonishes, only true believers can know a world other than
the mundane. Beauty's sisters are too pragmatic even to receive a message
from the Beast. Her father accepts the dreams sent to comfort him by the
Beast, and Gervain believes in the rumored enchantment of the forest and in
Beauty's fate after she has drunk from the forest stream. Beauty herself
develops her already strong instincts into a sixth sense so sharpened that
she can not only see, hear, and smell the ordinary more keenly but also
divine the invisible: envision the Beast in his palace from her country
house without a magic glass (p. 211); understand her attendant breeze's
	As the mysterious becomes familiar, it is less awesome. One reviewer
accused McKinley of fettering archetypes with concrete realization, of
reducing the larger-than-life to normal. Another critic countered this
charge with a defense of the book's fairy-tale facets, quoting Tolkien on
the creation of a secondary world.
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even
insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure
the perception of, scientific verity. One the contrary. The keener and the
clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will make. (#11)
Making enchantment "believable on its own terms and by realistic standards"
(#10) is perhaps simply making the jump from fairy tale to fantasy. Fairy
tales assume belief, on either a literal or symbolic plane. Fantasies
assume only a suspension of disbelief; the rest is a matter of persuasion.
It was McKinley's determination to make the story immediate to contemporary
readers, to keep the fantastical effects to a minimum and thus obey the
rules of convincing fantasy. (#13)
(Betsy Hearne, _Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old
Tale_, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989, pp. 106-110.)
#10. Robin McKinley, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the
Beast (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 115. Page numbers after the
quotations in the following discussion refer to this source.
#11. Tolkien, "Tree and Leaf," 74-75
#12. Julie Brookhart, "Beauty, a New Version of an Old Tale," unpublished
paper, University of Chicago, 1979, 20.
#13. Robin McKinley, interviewed for this study, 1983.
Karen Chan ICQ 2293920
"'The rule is," said Vertue, 'that if we have one chance out of a hundred of
surviving, we must attempt it: but if we have none, absolutely none then it
would be self destruction, and we need not.'"
(C.S. Lewis, "The Pilgrim's Regress")
[To drop McKinley, tell:  unsubscribe mckinley]
Received on Fri May 21 05:44:52 1999

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