Saturday, 15 December 2012
Seasonal reading 7- Beauty by Robin McKinley
Well, Christmas needs a pantomime, and most pantos are based on traditional tales, after all!
Beauty lives with her sisters, Hope and Grace, and her widower father, in comfortable circumstances. Her father is a merchant, and while Hope and Grace are happy to live like proper, beautiful young ladies, Beauty (whose real name is Honor) is a plain, bookish girl, who loves her family and her horse, Greatheart.
However, life changes for Beauty when her father's fleet of ships (one captained by Grace's fiance) are lost in a storm. They sell up and move with Hope's husband, a blacksmith, to a remote village. Beauty's father is happy to start again as a carpenter, and the girls learn to cook, keep chickens and, in Beauty's case, help out in the forge.
Then one wintery day Beauty's father gets lost returning from the city through the forest, which they have all been told is dangerous. He is carrying with him a rose, which, when Beauty puts it in water, drops one petal. When Beauty picks it up, she sees that it is gold. The girls' father then tells them of his seeking shelter at the mysterious, empty castle, where he is waited on by invisible servants. On leaving in the morning, he remembers his promise to bring Beauty some rose seeds, and he picks the rose mysteriously growing in the castle garden, despite it being midwinter. Then the Beast appears, angry at what he sees as Beauty's father's dishonouring of his hospitality, and extracts a promise that Beauty will come and live in the castle if he spares the old man's life.
From this point, the story is the familiar one from the traditional tale, but with some twists: the Beast's library contains not only all the books ever written, but those not yet existing, which is a fantastic idea! Beauty and the Beast bond over books. The invisible servants gossiping and (unsuccessfully) trying to control Beauty through clothes are fun to read, as well.
I like also the way that Beauty's position in the Beast's castle is an uncomfortable one: she is a prisoner, even if she is an unwilling one, and since the novel is told in the first person, her frustration, loneliness and homesickness are very clear to us.
This was Robin McKinley's first novel, first published in her native USA in 1978. It's a wonderful seasonal read for 10+. McKinley revisited the Beauty and the Beast story in Rose's Daughter, a more unsettling book, probably more suited to older readers.
I had the Overture to Philip Glass's score for Cocteau's La Belle et Le Bete running through my head as I read this book. Its rather icy beauty is perfect for this time of year.
Posted by Ali at 08:00