I told you I am into fairy tales this year. 🙂 Hope’s review of Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley convinced me to pick this one up and soon. Although it has been on my radar for years and years, I had never read this positively captivating story. The best way I can describe my reaction to this one is the phrase swept up. I fell into the story from the first chapter. It’s the story of Honour, nicknamed Beauty, who is the self-proclaimed “ugly duckling” sister of Grace and Hope. They live a charmed life with their widowed father. Grace and Hope are the belles of every ball and Beauty enjoys all the intellectual stimulation her father’s coffers will afford her by way of books and free time. Unfortunately, disaster befalls the family and they are forced to retire to a remote village. Life is hard but settles into a pleasant equilibrium of work and togetherness until something frightening and mysterious happens. Beauty’s father stumbles upon an enchanted castle in the woods where he plucks an enchanted rose from the beautiful grounds of the castle to take back to his daughters. The master of the castle, a beast, demands his life in the payment for the rose, or the life of one of his daughters.
Everyone knows this story, probably, but everyone doesn’t know it told as beautifully as Robin McKinley tells it. This is a description of Beauty’s countryside garden after her family’s circumstances are reduced:
When spring came I dug up the garden and planted it, and weeded it, and prayed over it, and fidgeted; and almost three years of lying fallow had agreed with it, because it produced radishes the size of onions, potatoes the size of melons, and melons the size of small sheep. The herb border ran wild, and the air smelled wonderful; the breezes often stirred the piney, mossy smell of the forest with the sharp smell of herbs, mixed in the warm smell of fresh bread from the kitchen, and then flung the result over the meadow like a handful of new gold coins.
Another strength of McKinley’s prose is the strong characterization. We really get to know not only Beauty, but her father, the Beast, and even her horse, Greatheart:
By the time Tom had come and gone I had trained poor Greatheart to go in harness; I was much more conscious of the loss of his dignity than he was, for he had the sweetest of tempers. There wasn’t, as it turned out, very much training to it; Ger traded a mended plough for some second-hand harness that could be patched and enlarged to fit our huge horse; and I put it on him and told him to go forwards and he went. He understood almost by instinct the difference in strength and balance of pulling a weight instead of carrying it. Father built a small wagon for him, and Ger strengthened it with iron fastenings and added some ropes and chains for grappling big logs. The horse developed the white marks that come from wearing a collar in the dark dappled grey hair of his shoulders; but perhaps Tom Black had been right, because he did not seem to miss carrying the King.
This book is a magical delight, and I’m eager to read more of Robin McKinley’s stories. Highly Recommended. (1978)
Read my review of Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown here.