by Robin McKinley
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 6, 2023
Edits and Addenda on February 18 and March 11
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 of those 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 which enrages 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 yet been written. 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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Posted February 18, 2023:
The grouping of these novels under the banner of Folktales probably happened well after their publication. Almost twenty years separated the first and second books, and in the afterword to Rose Daughter McKinley said she had had no intention of writing about Beauty and the Beast again, even though it had always been her favorite folktale. I had the mistaken notion this one might be about Briar Rose, aka Sleeping Beauty, but that's in the third book I'll read next month. This novel came about because a friend from New York asked her to write a short story of Beauty to accompany an art installation. Once started, she was unable to contain it to short story length, and in fact it is longer than her first novel. There are differences; Beauty was in first-person, this one in third, and unlike what you might expect, the third-person perspective gives more insight into Beauty's emotions. Even though the ending is similar, there are also marked contrasts, but I'll get to those later.
Rose Daughter received two award nominations; Locus for fantasy novel, and Mythopoeic for children's literature. I don't think that was the right category. Beauty is in her early twenties, and the story touches on several adult themes, although none are presented graphically. At most it might be considered Young Adult.
I don't recall as much magic in the first book, at least not until Beauty's father and she had been to the Beast's castle. It saturates Rose Daughter. Her mother had had a pet dragon, and dabbled in magic herself, as well as consulting other conjurers. Her father frequently consulted with someone who had a hydra as a doorman, and Beauty had received a gift of magic from a salamander. In the first book her real name was Honour but everyone called her Beauty, her sisters being Grace and Hope. Here the sisters' names seem to be nicknames, but stated as being their real ones. Lionheart is the oldest, Jeweltongue the middle child. Their mother died when Beauty was five, and later her father's financial difficulties were similar to the other versions. Both Lionheart and Jeweltongue were more upset with their fall from social status, fretting more about what their future might be, especially following both of their betrothed breaking off the engagements. Beauty was determined to help her father as much as possible, poring over his books in hopes of finding some hidden assets to be used to ward off his creditors. Her diligence paid off in the discovery of a bequeathal of Rose Cottage, a small dwelling far from the city, which none of them had ever heard of. After their long trek to claim the cottage, which is near the small town of Longchance, they find it in a shambles, exterior-wise at least, but the interior appeared to have been recently cleaned. They have no idea by whom, since villagers say no one had been on that property for many years.
In the first book Beauty was the accomplished horsewoman, but here it's Lionheart. The two oldest threw off their previous depressions and attacked new tasks with vigor. Jeweltongue proved to be a very competent seamstress, impressing her family and the village folk with her neat work and beautiful designs, demand for her work keeping her extremely busy. Lionheart worked at a nearby horse ranch, but in order to do so she had cut her hair and dressed as a man. Beauty's strengths were in gardening and animal husbandry. Her vegetable garden soon provided them with enough to eat as well as put some away for the winter they knew was coming. She also revived the cottage's many rose bushes, but after a couple of years there was a very harsh and long winter which devastated her roses. As in the previous versions, the father gets word from the city that one of his former ships had returned to port after weathering storm damage. He goes back to the city, but by that time his creditors had relieved the warehouse of any assets he might have claimed, and he sets off back home, even though a blizzard is raging. Before he had left Rose Cottage, he asked his daughters if he could bring them anything from the city. The two oldest demured, but Beauty asked, but only half-heartedly, that he bring her a rose whose cuttings might revive her garden. You know how that went.
The Beast's castle is apparently in some alternate dimension, either very close, or maybe very far away from Longchance and Rose Cottage. Beauty takes it upon herself to honor her father's oath to return, and was able to find the castle, where she meets a Beast that seems more concerned about his own dying roses that anything else. He treats Beauty with kindness, but also risks alienating her with his daily plea: "Beauty, will you marry me?" In several earlier versions, Beauty catches glimpses of her family through a magical mirror, but here it is in dreams, or at least she believes them to be only dreams, and not the truth of what is actually happening to them. Beauty is allowed to roam the castle and its courtyard, but some doors will not open for her, and she doesn't know if it is Beast or someone (something?) else that automatically opens doors that take her to approved spots. One of those spots is a three-story glass greenhouse, whose cupola is even higher than the castle itself. Through diligent work she brings Beast's rose bushes to life, always aided by invisible helpers who provide what she says she needs.
She has an affinity for Beast, but not so much that she wants to remain with him and away from her family. One particular thing she does causes her to have a very vivid vision of what her family is doing, also hearing one of the villagers telling the story of sorcerers and a greenwitch, one of which had previously lived at Rose Cottage. Another man at the same gathering tells an alternate version of those sorcerers, and during his speech, while she appears to be in the room with them, Jeweltongue sees Beauty, and calls out to her. Beauty comes back to consciousness in her bed back at the castle. She pleads with Beast to relent, to let her go back to see her family, even if it is only for a short while, but hopefully to also attend the weddings of Lionheart and Jeweltongue, which will take place on the same day in the same venue. Beast agrees, but when Beauty is back with her family she cannot recall how she got there, or where she had been, or why she might want to return, leaving her family again. What surprises her most of all is Jeweltongue and Lionheart telling her they had missed her for so long, that she had been gone seven months. From Beauty's perspective it had only been seven days, indicating the castle was also in some alternate time dimension, as well as one of space.
A major change from the previous book is there is no mention of Beauty's love for reading. Instead it's mostly her love and talent for gardening. The ending is both the same, and different. When Beauty is able to remember the portent of the rose she brought back to Rose Cottage, she returns to the castle, barely in time to save the dying Beast. She tells him she loves him, and of course she will marry him, at which point he revives. But before that, she had heard the voice of the greenwitch, the one who had bequeathed Rose Cottage to them, informing her of the consequences of her choice. Her choice is for Beast to remain as he his, and still marry him, for to have him return to his former self might pose other problems. Because of her love for him, everyone else accepts Beast, her family and the other villagers. And there is a triple wedding on the same day, in the same venue, which is a smaller glass greenhouse which somehow arrived at Rose Cottage when Beast brought her home. Sorry for so much synopsis, but considering everyone already knows the story it made more sense to highlight the differences. I assume the castle disappearned, not needed anymore since the sorcery had been broken, and Beast and Beauty were perfectly happy living at Rose Cottage, while Jeweltongue and their father move to her husband's house, and Lionheart does the same, marrying the second son of the horse rancher. It is not revealed if all lived happily every after, and that's fine, since it would make it just another fairy tale instead of the very rich story of love, friendship, and perseverance. If you need to choose between these two similar but disparate retellings, make it this one. Or both, your choice. I don't think either will disappoint.
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Posted March 11, 2023:
When I first learned Robin McKinley would be the latest SFWA Grand Master, I figured I would sample some of her work, but wasn't sure it would appeal to me. The two previous Folktakes, both retellings of Beauty and the Beast, were enjoyable, and there were enough changes from the traditional story to keep them interesting. Now we come to Spindle's End, which reworks Sleeping Beauty in remarkable ways, with many changes from any other version you may have read or seen in film or TV. Because those changes include the climax and ending, I don't want to say too much. Even so, I recommend it highly, but my other comments will be more general in nature rather than specific. McKinley is certainly not the first to reimagine fairy tales for the modern reader, nor will she be the last. In the past few years I've read several, and I am sure there are many others I have not read. Each writer approaches the work in different ways, emphasizing different aspects of the story, and changing character dynamics. McKinley flips this one on its head, which makes Rosie's story exciting and unpredictable. That is the name she is given by her adoptive family. In truth, on her name day, the princess was given 21 names, the first of which is Casta, the 20th is Iris, with the last being the hyphenated Briar-Rose.
Katriona is a minor fairy living in Foggy Bottom, in the far northwest of the country, in The Gig, Lord Prendergast's domain. It is his home of Woodwold depicted on the book cover, rather than that of the King's castle. Katriona's Aunt is their village's most accomplished fairy. She is known affectionately as Aunt by everyone, and I can't recall any other name given. Word of the princess's birth spread throughout the land very quickly, including to Foggy Bottom, since a few of Aunt's robin friends nest right outside the Queen's chambers. It had been decided that representatives of every village would get an invitation to attend the name day ceremonies, not just other royal families as was traditional. Katriona draws the winning lot in Foggy Bottom, but due to the distance from the capital, her journey on foot took over a month. Her return took even longer. Katriona had begun to doubt she was a real fairy, although she was able to work a few charms learned from Aunt. Her true talent was beast-speech. She could talk to animals, and she could understand them. After she returns to Foggy Bottom with the princess, she loses that talent, although Rosie picks it up, but I'm not telling how and why that happened.
So we have the princess in hiding, in the home of fairies, but Rosie's growth and development, her education, and the friendships she develops are quite different than you might expect. Another change is that the evil sorceress who has cursed the princess is not Malificent, but rather Pernicia, who had harbored a resentment against the royal family for hundreds of years. Instead of all the spinning wheels of the kingdom being destroyed, it is decreed that the spindle, whether made of metal or wood, must be changed to one with a dull, blunt end, rather than a sharp point. Katriona's friend, the wainwright Barder, created an extra job for himself by carving spindle ends, and he later taught Rosie to whittle them. Rosie had already become fascinated with horses, and worked with the blacksmith Narl, who was also the village's horse leech, but Rosie's talent for that far exceeded his. Rosie is kept in the dark as to her true identity, and the village is as well, by several charms and spells cast by Aunt. But as it was stated several times, not all magic lasts forever.
Some of McKinley's other books may be more her original creations, but might still be considered folktales. In the months ahead I'll be reading the books about Damar, which is mentioned here as if it was historical. The Queen came from another country, one that Deerskin is set in. In addition to that, Rosie mentions reading stories about a queen who fell in love with the king's favorite knight, which is probably about Guinevere and Lancelot. The fairy Ikor talks about Caerleon, which I learned while reading Nicola Griffith's Spear is speculated as being the true location of Camelot. I even began suspecting Ikor was actually Merlin (who is also mentioned), but either he's not or it wasn't revealed to be so. Any of those, along with many others, can be blended into new and fascinating stories, since fairy tales are the embodiment of humanity's spirit, our hopes and dreams, but also our fears and anxieties. Until we get to the end, if there is an end to the story, we can't know what the fates will decide. As a character says here, when he is trying to figure out how he fits into the narrative, "It is not a story with the happy ending already written and waiting for us to turn the pages."
McKinley's narrative talents are superb. The characters are well drawn, their development logical, even though at times also unexpected. Descriptive detail of the country and its traditions are meticulous, including the various levels of magic, which is both desperately needed and feared. We do get a happy ending, several as a matter of fact, but there is no guarantee they will be ever after. I'd love to read another book that follows how the new Queen's reign might differ from before, and a prequel for Katriona and Aunt would be welcome too. Alas, that probably won't happen, so I'll have to be content to fill in the blanks myself. And look forward to more of McKinley's literary magic. Now I just have to decide which book will be next.
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