To Love and to Honour: A Review of Robin McKinley’s “Beauty”

“I was the youngest of three daughters. Our literal-minded mother named us Grace, Hope, and Honour, but few people except perhaps the minister who had baptized all three of us remembered my given name.”

As a very young child, Honour renames herself “Beauty,” a nickname which sticks despite the fact that she is hardly the beauty of the family. An awkward young woman in high society, Beauty’s chief interests are horses and books, and she dreams of going away to university and burying herself in Latin and Greek. Her dreams, like those of her sisters, are shattered when her father’s hard-built merchant business is wrecked by a storm at sea. The family must go north, to the wild country with its whispers of magic and its very real hardships, and start life anew.

There, on the edge of a dark forest where no life dares to stir, the familiar story of Beauty and the Beast truly begins.

From the first chapter onward, Robin McKinley’s Beauty is a rich and engaging read. I read it many years ago as a young teenager, and had forgotten everything about it except that I thought I liked Rose Daughter better (McKinley’s second version of the fairy tale). But I picked up a worn copy of Beauty from a local thrift shop, and at long last, over the Christmas holidays I found time to read it. It’s been revisiting me ever since, the way rich and lovely stories do.

Though it shares many details with Disney’s animated movie (which it predates by a good 20 years), McKinley’s version of Beauty and the Beast is quieter, finding its strength and poignancy in the very real joys and struggles of its characters. From Beauty’s blacksmith brother-in-law, who cares for the whole family by the sweat of his brow, to the sisters who love and live so sacrificially, to the heroine herself, the characters do what is right, what is true, and what is truly beautiful. When Beauty explains the origin of her nickname, the Beast responds, “I welcome Beauty and Honour both, then. Indeed, I am very fortunate.”

Beauty is a fantasy, and supposedly a children’s novel, but it delighted me as an adult, and its most fantastic scenes still hold the warmth of real life. I could wish for some of the luxury Beauty finds at the castle, where invisible servants tend her every need and a vast library allows her to study for hours. (“I didn’t know there were so many books in the world,” Beauty says; and the Beast answers, “Well, in fact, there aren’t.”) But it also highlights quiet joys–cups of tea, beautiful sisters, good men, newborn babies, and the altogether worthwhile pursuit of love.

My shelves are full of books that I have yet to read, but Beauty will remain where I can reach it–and read it–again.







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