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Three Folktales
by Robin McKinley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 6, 2023

Beauty / Rose Daughter / Spindle's End

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Robin McKinley is the most recent recipient of SFWA's Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. I am very sure I had not read her before, even short fiction, since a search through several bibliographic sites show almost all her stories were in her own collections, not previously in any magazine, although I may be wrong about that. This page will be devoted to three of her novels, Beauty (1978) being her first, while the other two came quite a few years later. They are retellings of famous fairy tales, and most sites group them together under the banner of "Folktales." The cover images on this page are not necessarily what you will see if you click any of the purchase links, just my opinion of the best covers of each. At least one of them may not be in print, even though you might find a 'new' copy from one of Amazon's third party sellers. Each are available for Kindle, and while the first two share the same cover design, the third does not, nor do the Nook versions. Bookshop is not offering ebooks now, although they were for a while, and may again in the future. Perhaps McKinley's new stature will result in reprintings from the same publisher, with matching cover designs.

Many editions of Beauty include the subtitle "A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast" on the cover and/or the title page. My previous experience with that story was only from film and TV adaptations. According to Wikipedia, the story, or variations of it, have a very long history, possibly as much as 4000 years, and has been common in many different countries. Most of those were probably passed down through the oral tradition by traveling bards. The first written version may or may not have been La Belle et la BÍte by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. I was not able to find that at Project Gutenberg, but they do have a shorter version, supposedly abridged from Villenueve's, written by another French woman, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1748. They also had versions credited to "Anonymous" and "Unknown," and by Andrew Lang from his Blue Fairy Book (1889). Leprince's version is credited as the basis for the screenply of Jean Cocteau's 1946 film, which I watched again last night. All the stories are similar but with some slight variations, particularly the number of children in the family, and the cause of the father's financial difficulties. Sorry for this digression, but the intent is to contrast McKinley's version to the others, which I read when about two-thirds through her novel, mainly in anticipation of how her ending, or other exposition, might differ from them.

First, McKinley writes in first person, "Beauty" telling her own story. That was not her given name, it was Honour, her older sisters being Grace and Hope. At five years old she was not able to understand her father's definition of honour, and in exasperation declared, "I'd rather be Beauty!" The name stuck, even though in reality Beauty did not think that was accurate. She considered both her sisters to be prettier. Another major change is that Grace, Hope, and Beauty loved, cherished, and supported each other, whereas in most other versions the two older sisters were very cruel to Beauty. They were presented almost as vindictive as the step-sisters of Cinderella. No brothers here as there were in the other stories. I don't know how long Villenueve's might have been, but all I read were short stories at most. McKinley fills out her novel with Beauty's first-person narrative, her feelings about her father's misfortunes, the journey to their new home, the hardships of cooking, cleaning, gardening, etc, for themselves rather than being able to rely on servants as before. But Beauty and the others embraced the work as necessary, and grew accustomed to the rigors of country life. They may have lost most of their money, and definitely their social status, but they eventually reaped riches of another kind, not the least of which was the love that grew even stronger within the family, as well as for the new friends they had made.

Most of the rest of the story is similar to other versions; her father getting lost in the forest and coming upon a mysterious castle; him picking a rose for Beauty enraging the Beast; the bargain he makes with the Beast, which he intended to honor himself, but Beauty insists it is her requesting a rose that led to the dilemma, so she goes to the castle herself. The Beast proves to be less an ogre and more a cursed and lonely creature, but even he doesn't fully understand the curse, or so he claims. Every evening Beast repeats his question, "Beauty, will you marry me?" Over time it pains her to continue to say no, since she has grown fond of Beast, but she is afraid if she breaks down and says yes it will forever tie her to him, and she would not be able to see her family ever again. If you are familiar with at least the ending of the story there will be no surprises here, but if reimagined fairy tales interest you, I can recommend this. Beautifully lyrical, poignant with emotion, even a little bit of fear. Since it's just a book of words without pictures, there is no way to know if Beauty's image of herself was correct. But she did prove to have beauty of a more important kind; intelligence, curiosity, compassion, openness, friendship, and yes, love.

EDIT: The day after uploading this review I thought of something else I should have added, another difference between this novel and previous versions, one that pleased me very much. All of them have included magic of one sort of another, mainly in the invisible servants who waited on Beauty, as well as inanimate objects not so inanimate anymore. The other Beauties may have also been readers, but for Honour it was a passion, not just for learning (the Greek and Latin classics for instance), but also for entertainment. This Beast had a large and remarkable library which Beauty was free to use. She didn't recognize several of the authors, but Beast told her those books had not been written yet. Somehow he had obtained books from a future time, so Beauty got to know Dickens, Kipling, Doyle, etc. Some pleased her, but others left her too confused. The authors mentioned, as well as the majority of common names, indicate this story is set in England, as opposed to France or Germany as earlier versions had been.

The only award consideration for Beauty was after the fact. The Phoenix Award recognizes books for young readers, but 20 years after their publication, and only if the book had not received any other award originally. It did not win in 1998, but was one of two Honor Books. Next month I'll continue on this page with comments about Rose Daughter, and in March it will be Spindle's End.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author
Robin McKinley

Published
Beauty, 10/25/78
Rose Daughter, 9/16/97
Spindle's End, 5/22/2000

Awards
Detailed in review

Amazon Links:
Beauty
Rose Daughter
Spindle's End

Bookshop Links:
Beauty
Rose Daughter
Spindle's End

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