Old Favorite: Beauty

Fairy tales are part of almost everyone’s childhood–from stories to movies to television. The originals are usually darker than what most of us remember, but can be fun to read, to see how different they are from are from other, more popular versions. What I love though, is when an author retells and expands the short fairy tale  into a full-length story.

Robin McKinley does that beautifully, and Beauty  is (in my opinion) her best.

* * *

Honour is the youngest of three sisters. When  she was five years old, her father tried to explain the meaning of the three sister’s names. Grace and Hope were easy, but Honour, not so much. When she scoffed and said “Huh! I’d rather be Beauty!” the name stuck, and Honour became known as Beauty.

With their mother dying not long after, Grace and Hope, older than Beauty by seven and five years, have raised their sister. Both older sisters are beautiful, graceful and kind. Beauty considers herself very ordinary-looking. She is clever though, and is able to help their merchant father with household accounts.

All the beauty and cleverness in the world don’t help though, when Father’s ships go missing along with Grace’s fiance.  All the family’s worldly goods are sold, and they load up a cart and move to the country, to a house graciously provided by Hope’s fiance, Gervain.

As they settle into life in the country, Beauty thrives.  She loves the chance to do things for herself, to garden and create things. Her sisters do the housework, while she takes care of all of the outside chores. As she becomes more independent, she’s happier than she’s ever been.  There’s only one niggling problem…the woodsnear their home where no one goes.  After Hope and Gervain marry, Ger tells her the story of the enchanted wood, and gets her to promise never to enter it.

But when it looks like Father’s missing ships may have been spotted along the coast,  he returns to the city to see if there’s more news. Before he leaves, he asks each of his daughters what they might like him to bring back for them. Hope and Grace ask for impossibly expensive things, and Beauty realizes their father is hurt by their lack of belief in him. So she asks for rose seeds or a rose cutting, something to sow around their little cottage to make it beautiful. He promises to get her roses, and sets out.

But of course, things do not go as planned, and Father comes back with a tale of horror. Stranded in a blizzard, he stumbled upon a mysterious castle in the enchanted wood.  In exchange for the chance to save his family, Father  promised the Beast in the castle  that one of his daughters would return, to live there with the Beast of her own free will. Beauty insists that it must be her, and even though her father is willing to return himself, she slips away and goes to the Beast. Soon Beauty must get used to another life, away from her family, with only a dangerous Beast, who asks her to marry him every evening, for company. Will Beauty survive her imprisonment? Will she manage to tame the Beast? Is there anything he could do that would make her say “yes”?

You know the classic fairy tale, but will you recognize the same elements in this beautiful take on the story?

* * *

Beauty was Robin McKinley’s first book…she only submitted it to one publisher and they immediately accepted it. The book came out in 1978, and was an immediate hit with fantasy readers.   It was on most of the Best Book lists for teens and young readers for 1979, and won a Phoenix Award in 1998.

Robin McKinley continued writing after Beauty, and has won both the Newbery Honor and the Newbery Award for her books. She has written another version of Beauty and the Beast called Rose Daughter, as well as stories based on Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood and some less well-known tales.

Why did I love Beauty so much? The writing is beautiful, the sense of atmosphere surrounds you, and every single character feels real and sympathetic. I even ended up loving the Beast!  However, for me, one of the best parts though is Beauty’s love for learning, and her wonder at the library she finds within the castle of the Beast.  It stands out in my mind as one of the best libraries featured in a book. Who wouldn’t want to visit it?

So read Beauty, and revisit Beauty and the Beast.  It’s in both our juvenile and teen collections, and is easily accessible to all ages. The writing is wonderful though, and may require a more advanced reader.  If you like other versions of Beauty and the Beast, you’ll love this one just as much, if not more.



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