Beauty by Robin McKinley (1978) Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley (1997)
In anticipation of the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, I thought I’d read both of Robin McKinley’s retellings and compare them. Judging by book reviews, I think it’s fair to say that Beauty is the more popular of the two, but I shall have to make my own mind up…
It’s hard to believe that Beauty was first published nearly forty years ago. I’m sure the categories of YA fiction or Fairy Tale Retellings didn't exist then, so Robin Mckinley was something of a pioneer in what are popular genres today.
The story most of us think of when we think of Beauty and the Beast is that which has devolved from the 18th-century French versions. Beauty follows most of the classic tale in its retelling of the wealthy merchant father who suffers a disastrous business failure, throwing the family into poverty; the father losing his way on a long journey, and finding shelter in a magical castle where he’s confronted by a terrifying beast who demands his youngest daughter in return for his own life; the voluntary self-sacrifice of the youngest daughter in going to the enchanted castle; the motif of the forbidden and magical rose; the beast's daily request that Beauty marries him and her daily denial.
The enchanted castle Beauty finds herself in in Beauty is so wonderful, I wouldn’t mind being immured there for a spell myself! All the cooking and housework magically done, leaving Beauty free to read to her heart’s content and to enjoy the beautiful gardens and estate - sigh! As with all versions of Beauty and the Beast, however, I still struggled with accepting that Beauty could actually want to be married to the Beast. There’s something about the bestiality element that makes me uncomfortable; I can accept her growing fondness and platonic love for him, but romantic love…? Can’t quite make that leap imaginatively. However…this retelling is faithful to the traditional fairy tale in having the Beast turn into a handsome prince at the end - phew! Now I’m happy.
I love Mckinley’s immersive style of writing; she creates settings full of sensory details, so that as a reader I quickly ‘see’ the story vividly. The secondary characters of Beauty’s family are not so developed in Beauty as they are in Rose Daughter, but we are drawn very closely into the character of the eponymous heroine by her first person narrative – and a very enjoyable character she is too – kind, clever, brave.
So nearly twenty years later Robin Mckinley writes Rose Daughter, which tells again the tale of three sisters who pass from riches to rags. In this version a mysterious inheritance of a small cottage saves them from homelessness, and so they travel into the country to take possession of it.
Strange stories surround the cottage, and strange things happen within it, notably that it has a magical rose garden that the youngest sister, Beauty, is able to revive. Roses, and Beauty’s gift for growing roses is a theme of the story. There is the familiar retelling of how the father, lost in a storm, is given shelter in a mysterious palace where he takes a single rose for his youngest daughter. This theft of a rose causes a fearsome beast to appear, demanding that he give him his youngest daughter to make amends. When Beauty does arrive at the palace, she spends most of her time in a cathedral-like greenhouse, saving the roses that are dying there, and being assisted by magical means.
The story preserves all of the familiar details of the most well known versions of Beauty and the Beast – except for the ending – more on that to come...
I loved the writing style of Rose Daughter, it is more complex than Beauty, it is denser, more mature, and rich with evocative detail. I loved the characters (and names) of the elder sisters. Every part of the story is infused with magic, and yet the characters remain very practical and down to earth. There are so many layers of imagery and themes - roses, nature, family, home. Overall it is darker and deeper than Beauty, the palace is not as friendly a place as the castle in Beauty, it’s more mysterious and eerie.
I did find the backstory of how the beast came to be the beast a little convoluted and hard to follow, and more importantly – I did not like the ending. Why? – because the beast remained a beast. I could believe in the friendship between Beauty and the Beast, I could believe in Beauty’s growing fondness and appreciation of his company, and her sympathy for him – but romantic love and marriage between a human girl and a big, hairy animal with canines? It didn’t feel right. It was fine when Shrek didn’t turn into a handsome prince, because Princess Fiona stayed an ogre too!
But this is my subjective opinion – other readers may enjoy the subversive ending, but I felt a little robbed of what Tolkien called, ‘the Consolation of the Happy Ending’. The beast remaining in the condition that he himself was miserable in ruined the happy ending for me. I would see the full recovery of the beast’s humanity to be an essential result of the breaking of the curse. Despite this disappointment, I still consider Mckinley to be one of the finest fantasy writers of our time, and perhaps it’s no bad thing to have an ending that challenges expectations, and raises questions in the reader’s mind.
And which version did I like most?
I loved them both. I prefer Rose Daughter for its greater depth of story and character and the more lyrical language, but I much preferred the ending of Beauty, as the more traditional retelling of the two.