Beauty and the Beast (Continued)

by Terri Windling

An American television film of the story, made in the 1970s and starring Walter C. Scott as the Beast, notably failed to make any improvement on Cocteau. Robin McKinley was so enraged by this production that she sat down and wrote her first novel, Beauty, in response to it.Like Cocteau, McKinley understood the importance of grounding magic in realism, and of using clean prose to echo the clean lines of the old folk stories. McKinley lengthens the tale into novel form without cluttering it with spurious detail. She takes a few liberties with the original material (Beauty’s sisters, for instance, are sympathetic),yet she stays faithful to the spirit of the original. Her heroine, unlike most versions, is a gawky, horse–mad, intelligent young woman whose name is a gently ironic one. Beauty’s time in the Beast’s castle is particularly well–rendered, and her raptures over the Beast’s library (containing works from the future by Browning and Kipling) were surely the inspirationbehind the book–loving Bella of the Disney film. McKinley was quite young when she wrote Beauty. Twenty years and several novels later, she found herself attracted to the tale once again — looking at it through new eyes of experience and maturity. She then wrote the novel Rose Daughter, a new rendition of Beauty and the Beast.Reading the two novels side by side is a fascinating experience, and both books are highly recommended.

Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle

Angela Carter is another writer compelled to explore Beauty and the Beast. Carter understood how to work with the adult themes in fairy tales better than any other modern author, and her early death from lung cancer has been a blow to the field of mythic arts. In addition to editing folklore collections, Carter wrote a series of dark, rather gothic stories based on fairy tales,collected in The Bloody Chamber and (posthumously) in Burning Your Boats. Elements of Beauty and the Beast and other animal bridegroom motifs are vividly rendered in two of Carter’s best stories: the poignant "Courtship of Mr. Lyon," and the sensuous "Tiger’s Bride." In the latter, a profligate father loses his lovely daughter in a game of cards,and delivers her up to a wealthy masked man who imprisons her in a crumbling mansion. This is a subversive treatment of the theme, smooth as black velvet and sharp as a thorn. In both stories, Carter is careful to sustain the Beast’s charisma to the very end.

"Rusina, Not Quite in Love," an enchanting novella by the Italian writer Gioia Timpanelli, published in Sometimes the Soul, transplants Beauty and the Beast to Sicily. An impoverished painter marries a rich, hideously ugly man in order to pay off her father’s debts. . .andfinds the princely soul hidden by the beastly exterior. Susan Wilson’s novel Beauty also features a painter in the heroine’s role. Set in New England, it’s an interesting novel, if not an entirely successful one.

Illustration by Charles Robinson

Tanith Lee’s story "Beauty," published in her adult fairy tale collection Red As Blood, takes Beauty and the Beast beyond fairy tale forests and into the far future. Lee retains the magical rose, the wayward father, the two sisters, and the monstrous suitor who must not be refused. But the Beast in this case is an alien being, and the climax of the story is a clever one — the transformationcentered on the heroine and her ideas about herself and her life. Lee returns to the theme in her chilling dark tale "Beast," (published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), mingling Beauty and the Beast with elements of Bluebeard and Mr. Fox. Wendy Wheeler’s "Skin So Green and Fine" (published in Silver Birch, Blood Moon) is an unusual take on Beauty and the Beast, incorporating Haitian voodoo and spirit possession into the taleof an innocent baker’s daughter married to a mysterious man and taken to live on an isolated sugar plantation.

Jane Yolen is a woman who has worked with fairy tale themes for many years in the roles of fiction writer, academic, and editor of folklore collections. Yolen’s meditation on Beauty and the Beast comes in the form of an evocative poem, "Beauty and the Beast: An Anniversary" (first published in The Faery Flag). The poem is from Beauty’s point of view, years after the event of the story,reflecting on her years with the Beast and their solitary, childless lives. English folk singer June Tabor has recorded a beautiful rendition of Yolen’s poem on her CD Against the Streams, highly recommended.

Beast by Donna Jo Napoli, is a rich, unusual, beautifully crafted version of the tale. Inspired by the Persian fairy tale tradition, Napoli’s hero is an Islamic prince transformed by a curse into a lion. Fleeing his father’s lands, he makes his way to an abandoned chateau in France — where a merchant, a rose, and a courageous young woman bring the story to its proper conclusion.The novel was published for Young Adult readers, but its prose and psychological depth recommend it to adults as well.