(Full name Jennifer Carolyn Robin McKinley) American novelist, editor, adaptor, and author of picture books, young adult short stories, and young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of McKinley's career through 2003. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 10 and 81.
An award-winning author of novels, short stories, and picture books, McKinley is best known for her contemporized reimaginings of classic fairy tales, adaptations that feature independent, strong heroines who have helped redefine the roles female characters traditionally play in the children's literature genre. Often quoted as remarking that she writes about "girls who do things," McKinley was awarded the 1985 Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown (1984). Her works have been particularly embraced by feminist critics, who have applauded McKinley's continuing exploration and recontextualization of gender roles in works of fantasy and folklore. To date, her first young adult novel, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (1978), remains one of her most popular, attracting frequent praise from fairy tale scholars and favorable comparisons to the works of such authors as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, among others.
McKinley, the daughter of William and Jeanne Carolyn McKinley, was born on November 16, 1952, in Warren, Ohio. Her father served in the United States Navy and, as a result, McKinley's family moved frequently during her childhood, living in such various locales as California, New York, Maine, and Japan. An early and avid reader, McKinley quickly developed a particular fondness for fantasy authors, including the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and T. H. White. She graduated from Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine, and attended Dickinson College from 1970 to 1972. After a brief stint working as an editor and transcriber, McKinley returned to school, graduating summa cum laude from Bowdoin College in 1975 with a B.A. in English literature. Upon graduation, she took a position as a research assistant, while trying her hand at writing professionally in her spare time. Disappointed by a television adaptation of the classic fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," McKinley began writing a reinterpretation of the story as a short story exercise, but, after five months, it had expanded into a full-length manuscript. The work was accepted by the first publisher she submitted it to, and Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was released in 1978. The novel was rated by Horn Book Magazine as among the top books of the year and won positive reviews from the New York Times and several prestigious children's journals. She followed the success of Beauty with a collection of short stories called The Door in the Hedge (1981), which introduced the fantasy world of "Damar"—McKinley's version of a fictional universe like Oz or Narnia—that she later revisited in her Newbery-nominated The Blue Sword (1982) and her Newbery-winning The Hero and the Sword. In 1992 she married British children's book author Peter Dickinson, with whom she has collaborated on a collection of fantasy short stories titled Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits (2002).
In McKinley's first and best known work, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty, or Honour, as she is named in this version, is an awkward child, not a beauty, and her "evil sisters," Grace and Hope, are caring and kind. Beauty's first-person narration presents her world vividly and lyrically. The setting is a might-have-been world where witches and magicians live but where students study Sophocles and Euripides, houses have Oriental rugs, and ships sail to China. When her widowed merchant father plucks a rose belonging to the Beast, Honour chooses to go live with the Beast to save her father's life. Gradually, her fear and horror turn to pity, then to friendship, and finally to love. McKinley's next work, The Door in the Hedge, is a collec- tion of four fairy tales, two of which are retellings of classic tales—"The Princess and the Frog" and "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." McKinley's version of the former story is an unusual interpretation in which the frog and the princess are allied against an evil enchanter. "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" follows the plot of the original tale more faithfully. However, in an unusual departure for McKinley, the story concentrates on a male character, the soldier who discovers the princesses' secret. The volume's title story is a romance based on legends of children who are stolen by the fairies. The Door in the Hedge was followed by The Blue Sword, McKinley's first full-length book about the fantasy land she named Damar. The masculine-named Harry Crewe is sent out to join her brother who is serving with the Homelander army in The Royal Province of Daria, once the ancient Kingdom of Damar. She is stolen by Corlath, the native Damarian king, who sees her when he comes to the Homelander fort to seek help against the evil, inhuman forces of the North who, after many years of quiet, are threatening to invade Damar. Harry adjusts easily to life in the hills; sees visions of the Lady Aerin, the heroic queen who lived more than five hundred years before; becomes the "laprunminta," the winner of the trials for young, previously untested warriors; and is named one of the elite band of King's Riders. Bearing Gonturan, the Blue Sword of Lady Aerin, she proves to be the key to Damarian victory during the Northerners' invasion.
While McKinley has noted the influence of the works of Rudyard Kipling on The Blue Sword, she has stated that her second Damar work, The Hero and the Crown, was inspired by the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. Set five hundred years before The Blue Sword, the plot revolves around Aerin, the daughter of Arlbeth, the Damarian King. However, her kinsmen do not regard the pale, red-haired Aerin as Arlbeth's heir. When the Black Dragon Maur, a Great Dragon whose like has not been seen for many years, appears, Aerin sets out alone to meet him. Although she is successful in killing Maur, she is badly burned in the struggle. Her only hope of being restored to health lies with the immortal wizard Luthe, the same enchanter who befriended Harry Crewe in The Blue Sword. McKinley followed The Hero and the Crown with a series of short retellings of such classic texts as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, George MacDonald's The Light Princess, and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. She also published a number of short stories and edited Imaginary Lands (1985), a collection of fantasies that includes her own tale "The Stone Fey." In 1998 McKinley republished this story as a picture book, with artwork by John Clapp. Set in the world of Damar, The Stone Fey relates the story of Maddy, a shepherdess, who falls in love with a Stone Fey, a fairy with skin the color of stone.
In 1988 McKinley returned to more familiar ground, revising and reviving a traditional fantasy tale in The Outlaws of Sherwood. Rather than concentrating on the Robin Hood character, the text focuses on the other characters in Hood's band of outlaws and provides carefully wrought details about their daily lives. Throughout the novel, McKinley rejects the traditional characterization of Hood as a bold, handsome marksman, and instead portrays him as nervous, reluctant, and a poor shot. McKinley's next novel, Deerskin (1993), has inspired some critical debate surrounding whether the book should be categorized as a work appropriate for young readers. Based on Charles Perrault's fairy tale "Donkeyskin," about a king assaulting his daughter after the death of his queen, McKinley portrays the assault as a rape, and the bulk of the text deals with how Princess Lissar is able to survive the brutal attack and cope with the subsequent emotional trauma. In 1997 McKinley surprised critics by returning to the story of "Beauty and the Beast," which she so effectively mined in her first published work. However, this time, in Rose Daughter (1997), McKinley offered a completely different take on the legend than she had presented in Beauty, telling the tale of three sisters—Jeweltongue, Lionheart, and Beauty—whose widowed father loses his business and moves his family into a modest cottage in the countryside.
With Spindle's End (2000), McKinley once again revamps a classic fairy tale for modern readers; this time using "Sleeping Beauty" as her template. In the original tale, the infant princess Briar Rose is cursed on her name day by the evil fairy, Pernicia, and is taken away to a remote land, with her real identity concealed, in an attempt to escape the fairy's wrath. In McKinley's version, Katriona, a good fairy, takes the young princess away to the village of Foggy Bottom and raises her as a maid named Rosie to await her twenty-first birthday—when she will supposedly prick her finger on a spinning-wheel spindle and fall into an eternal sleep. In order to confound Pernicia, Rosie and her friend Peony exchange places on her birthday. Rosie's kiss awakens the sleeping Peony, who, in turn, marries the prince, leaving Rosie free to continue the simple life she loves and marry the village blacksmith. Most recently, McKinley has authored two new young adult works, exploring two of the most often-used fantasy fiction plot de- vices—vampires and dragons. In Sunshine (2003), Rae "Sunshine" Seddon, a young baker in a post-apocalyptic world almost overrun by vampires, is kidnapped by the fanged monsters and chained to a wall next to the sympathetic, half-starved vampire Constantine. The descendant of a powerful sorcerer, Sunshine is able to escape and teams with Constantine to stop the insidious vampire lord Bo. Dragonhaven (2007) recasts the traditional role of dragons in fantasy literature as fiendish monsters and instead portrays the creatures as an endangered species. In the text, Jake Mendoza works for the Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies in Smokehill National Park, where he studies the last two hundred remaining dragons left alive in the wild. After one of the dragons kills a poacher, Jake must mobilize to protect the beast against a public outcry and other dangers.
McKinley has been praised by both critics and readers for revitalizing classical works of folklore and fantasy through her thoughtful, character-driven adaptations. Many have applauded McKinley's dismissal of the traditional "damsel-in-distress" fairy tale plot device in favor of a more enlightened and less gender-biased portrayal of strong female protagonists. McKinley has also drawn acclaim for her skill at "world-building"—i.e., her ability to construct three-dimensional fantasy landscapes that function on both narrative and allegorical levels—which has inspired several favorable comparisons between McKinley's canon and the works of L. Frank Baum, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Rudyard Kipling. Katrin Tchana has argued that the influence of such fantasy masters as Tolkien and C. S. Lewis on McKinley's texts "are apparent in her writing and in her ability to create worlds of wonder and magic resonant with the elements of a child's imagination, yet McKinley has managed to use the traditional format to create stories wholly her own." In their review of Beauty, The Horn Book Magazine has opined that McKinley uses "a style that records Beauty's impressions and emotions accurately and precisely, and transitions from the real to the extra-real are made believable." Reviewing Spindle's End, Michelle West has commented that, "What [McKinley] has done—and what she always does so well—is to give life and depth to characters who weren't really characters at all in earlier tellings…. There is plenty here that does surprise, all of it with McKinley's characteristic gentleness, her obvious affection for the people she writes of—and writes for."
Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (young adult novel) 1978
The Door in the Hedge (young adult short stories) 1981
The Blue Sword (young adult novel) 1982
The Hero and the Crown (young adult novel) 1984
*Imaginary Lands [editor and contributor] (young adult short stories) 1985
Tales from the Jungle Book [adaptor; from the juvenile short-story collection by Rudyard Kipling; illustrations by Jos. A. Smith] (juvenile short stories) 1985
Black Beauty [adaptor; from the juvenile novel by Anna Sewell; illustrations by Susan Jeffers] (juvenile novel) 1986
The Light Princess [adaptor; from the fairy tale by George MacDonald; illustrations by Katie Thamer Treherne] (fairy tale) 1988
The Outlaws of Sherwood (young adult novel) 1988
My Father Is in the Navy [illustrations by Martine Gourbault] (picture book) 1992
Rowan [illustrations by Donna Ruff] (picture book) 1992
Deerskin (novel) 1993
A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories (young adult short stories) 1994
Rose Daughter (young adult novel) 1997
The Stone Fey [illustrations by John Clapp] (picture book) 1998
Spindle's End (young adult novel) 2000
Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits [with Peter Dickinson] (young adult short stories) 2002
Sunshine (young adult novel) 2003
Dragonhaven (young adult novel) 2007
*Includes McKinley's short story "The Stone Fey."
Michael Cadden (essay date spring 1994)
SOURCE: Cadden, Michael. "The Illusion of Control: Narrative Authority in Robin McKinley's Beauty and The Blue Sword." Mythlore 20, no. 2 (spring 1994): 16-19, 31.
[In the following essay, Cadden compares the nature of authoritative control in McKinley's Beauty and The Blue Sword as both texts move between the various "worlds" of their stories.]
In a recent volume of Children's Literature, Len Hatfield reveals how narrative authority is negotiated between the mimetic and diegetic levels of narrative in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. Hatfield paraphrases Gerard Genette's distinction between "mimesis" and "diegesis":
Mimetic authority is represented in the fictional world, while diegetic authority refers to the world encompassing the fictive one, … moving … to such matters as the text's style and organization, its relations with other texts, and finally its place in the "real" world. Mimetic authority is fictive; diegetic connects to us "out here."
Professor Hatfield reveals how the narrative pattern and authority of the last book of Earthsea, Tehanu, is a marked departure from the hierarchical, or patriarchal, nature of the first three books (61). Le Guin empowers feminine morality in Earthsea through levels of narrative to redefine the mimetic world of that text. But Robin McKinley, another writer of fantasy for children, traps two of her female heroes in patriarchal mimetic worlds because they can't take control (or won't be granted control by the author) of the diegetic level. Understanding that there are narrative levels of authority at work in both texts helps us to see where potentially restrictive narrative power rests, and "helps account for the reader's response to the shifting codes of authority in each book"—or the illusion of shifting codes (Hatfield 62).
In McKinley's two texts, [Beauty and The Blue Sword, ] the diegetic authority is revealed to us in each heroine's movement between the various fictive worlds (from, say, Beauty's first home to her second by the forest—or from that home to the Beast's castle). Diegesis refers to both the movement each protagonist makes between mimetic (or fictive) worlds in the text and the totality of the movement, or narrative direction, of the novel. Mimesis refers to the smaller worlds represented within the larger world of the story; they are the locations rather than the movement.
Gerard Genette warns anyone engaging in the study of narrative structure that he or she runs the risk of inventing systems while believing he or she is discovering them (11). The structures of the two books can be divided (whether invented or discovered) into five parts, or worlds: The Old World, The Self-Contained World #1 (or "The Real World"), The Self-Contained World #2 (or "The Dream World"), The World Bridge, and The New (or the "Synthesized") World.
The Old World in both tales is that place from which the protagonist originally comes. The Old World is the background necessary for establishing a past, but one which is too open-ended to be the location for the heroic development of the protagonist. The protagonist's move to the Real World in each tale enables her to operate and be defined in an environment easily "located"—one with discernible narrative barriers. This second world is also "real" in the sense that it is closer to the world in which the protagonists' are raised. So, The Real World is both a continuation of the established reality from The Old World and is also narratively Self-Contained.
Chapter one of Beauty provides her Old World in which Beauty's family and its history are established, and the reader learns that they will have a different life ahead; they "knew that [they] were bound for a little four-room house in a town called Blue Hill" (17); their lives would be soon very different from their current lives of affluence in the Old World. On the other hand, Harry's Old World in The Blue Sword is established with brief and largely expository flashback. Harry reminisces about her Old World as she is in transit to her new home and is off to a very different existence in her now Real World; we know that what the protagonist heads toward in each story is new and necessarily requires change. We, as readers soon interested in the protagonists' fates, make the break with them and are ready to start over with them.
The first Self-Contained World in each story is one step removed from the reality of the first, the Old World, but not fantastic in nature. This world supplies the protagonist a Real World on the boundaries of the second Self-Contained World—The Dream World. For example, Beauty must promise Ger that she will stay out of the "enchanted woods" (41), and Harry learns of the "queer stories about the old rulers of Damar" (14) as a warning that one doesn't leave the safety of the base. David Woolsey claims that McKinley "firmly [grounds] the story in reality before moving to fantasy," and we can recognize that in each story the base of "reality" is set. However, the fantasy doesn't "trickle in," as he claims, but is clearly demarcated by borders in each story (130).1
Within these islands of reality we are given the opportunity to see the protagonists develop. This Self-Contained World of Reality is an anchor for the pro- tagonists—a place from which they can dream safely or, as they grow stronger and more secure, to project fantasies about what lies on "the other side" (or, perhaps more truthfully, on the side of the Other).
The second Self-Contained World is that of the fantastic—the Dream World Adventure. This world is the most developed and dwelled-upon in both stories. It is here the protagonists must contend with the powers of the masculine "kings" and carve out roles for themselves. The Dream World contrasts to the Real World in that it hasn't the advantage of being first in construction; therefore it takes on an "other worldly" quality. The Dream World shares with the Real World, however, the quality of self-containment. The reader invests most of his or her interest in the self-contained worlds because they are the site of most character dynamics—growth and action.
The transforming World Bridge is the next stage. Here each protagonist blends both Self-Contained worlds in her actions, thereby synthesizing them within herself; in this sense she seems to stand apart from and above the mimetic worlds (the fictive locations) and takes on diegetic (or super-structural) control. She does heal the split between the Real and the Dream to create the New World, though, as we shall see, at some expense to herself.
Beauty-as-World-Bridge is the movement she makes as she returns to her family's cottage and brings them to The Dream World to create The New World; Harry-as-World-Bridge is her movement as she breaks from Corlath, returns to the fort, and draws Jack and the others into the struggle of The Dream World en route to creating The New World.2 In both cases, the protagonists seem to be preparing a new, synthesized world on which should be left the feminine mark and allow for feminine power.
The last stage is the New World. This is the World resulting from the diegetic synthesis of both mimetic Self-Contained Worlds. As the Old World is open-ended in terms of the past, the New World is open-ended "to the right," so to speak, or to the future, and shares an expository quality with the Old World. The future is provided by implication; we are no longer in a self-contained environment so we must be given a sense of direction. To give us a true sense of "happily ever after" as a direction, McKinley creates a predictable mechanism (the life of a Queen after the Royal Wedding) that doesn't allow for the variation possible within a self-contained world—a world with closure and definition. The world is only open-ended in time, not in the promise of myriad possibilities; the two protagonists have a closed-ended future. We as readers, and Harry and Beauty as protagonists, make our way out of the mimetic world of the text, its own physics, and see that the "direction" of the story-after-the-story is masculine both in the physics (the place itself) and metaphysics (the diegetic authority of plot movement and masculine hero-quest which ultimately informs the stories). The New World is the unempowering home of the female protagonist in each novel. However, the very different methods of the protagonists employed in attempting to control their lives in their mimetic environments seem to have little to do with why both fail to keep real power at the end of their tales.
Control and Power within the Worlds
Beauty and Harry have different loci of control, though they both have the illusion of power. Beauty is, as Carol Christ would suggest, on something of a "spiritual quest" (Pratt 135).3 Beauty embodies an inner locus of control while Harry's is close to the "social quest," and her locus of control is defined by external action. Both protagonists differ in how they attempt to "achieve Selfhood through individual choice" (Pratt 6).
The "social quest" entails "the Self's journey in relation to cosmic power or powers. It often is interior but may also have communal dimensions" (Pratt 135). Beauty tells us as she is in her Dream World that she "liked and needed solitude for study and reflection; but [she] also wanted someone to talk to" (139) and turns to the Beast. Her inner locus of control, however, seems to keep Beauty in a position of self-possession within most worlds. Her solitude seems to have given her a will. She does not appear to be defined by the wishes of others, and she engages in atypical behavior in her Old World, Real World (Self-Contained #1) and with the Beast in the Dream World (Self-Contained #2). She is not really imprisoned—if we can believe the Beast. Beauty doesn't respond to her trap, using the methods of the trickster (Paul 198); she doesn't deceive or subvert. She neither goes "mad or silent" (Gilbert and Gubar, quoted in Paul 188) in her rooms. She is in control of her integrity and her single status, for "every night … the Beast said: ‘Will you marry me, Beauty?" And every night [she] said ‘No’" (138). She seems to be the one calling the shots regarding protocol and the Beast's status (185). In fact, she is told outright that she is the castle's mistress (131). She appears to be her own mistress, which seems to give her control as she is situated in the mimetic Dream World.
Harry's external social quest involves a "search for the self in which the protagonist begins in alienation and seeks integration into a human community where she can develop more fully" (Pratt 135). Harry's "gifts" or powers are things out of her control and are socially-defined. Kelar, the genetically passed-on gift of sight and magic, controls her. Her first experience with kelar is an eye-lock with Corlath (37) and reveals that her power is not so much hers, a possession; rather, she is its possession—at the most an alembic. Harry is constantly being defined by others, unlike Beauty—as when Harry is made a King's Rider (137) or is defined as Dick's sister (10). Harry's solitude is not like Beauty's in that Harry doesn't revel in it or even cause it. But Harry makes things happen, and it seems that her actions affect and control the lives of those around her.
Confined to a look at the first three worlds, we must conclude that Beauty's control is a spiritual, inner, feminine possession in a masculine environment; Harry's type of control is social, external, masculine activity in a masculine environment, although she is a woman. In worlds one through three, the protagonists are consistent as figures trying to control their circumstances either internally or externally, femininely or masculinely. The two female protagonists take two different paths to the same fate in identical worlds. Their methods matter not at all because they ultimately don't dictate anything; they are empty signifiers, ciphers. The seams between the patriarchal mimetic worlds, or the movements/gaps between, reveal the true power that organizes the larger text—a power diegetically superior, it will turn out, to that of The World Bridge.
Control in Movement between Worlds
When we look at the ways both Beauty and Harry make the transitions between worlds, we realize to what extent they are not in control until world four (World Bridge), when it appears they have really taken over. Concentration on transitions between worlds (diegetic issues of organization) reinforces the patriarchal nature of the mimetic worlds with patriarchal diegetic authority.
Given their new-found control, the protagonists might be able to carve out power, or change the structure of the mimetic worlds—but the larger, diegetic forces won't allow it. In this sense the two heroes are twice removed from their creator (McKinley), separated by the masculine fictive world in the text and the patriarchal diegesis that informs and ultimately supports it.
The World Bridge is where the two protagonists seem to have true control, if only for a while—where the feminine cycle is present in the predominantly patriarchal diegetical construction. It is the reflexive nature of the World Bridge that allows feminine control in what is temporarily a woman's environment. It would appear that each woman takes real control over plot movement for the first (and last) time as World Bridge—where the woman embodies, carries, bears the world itself. The location of this world is in time and action; this temporal location appears to momentarily challenge the masculine diegesis. Annis Pratt tells us that "since women are alienated from time and space, their plots take on cyclical, rather than linear form, and their houses and landscapes surreal properties" (11). Certainly the cyclical part of this model, the World Bridge, the world that works to unite worlds, creates in the reflexive synthesis what ought to be a re-defined world in which the creator is empowered.
In Beauty, our protagonist is caused to move to each world because of the actions (failures, actually) of a man. While Beauty adapts well, since she is a strong character, she is in the position of having to. In the Old World, she was a learned woman in a man's world which didn't really allow for such a thing; her father's position enabled her to live as she did. When Beauty's father's business fails, Beauty and her family are moved to the first island world under the protection and direction of the men. While Beauty makes the most of the situation and "hardens" (28) physically, she is pulled from her studies.
Another failure of her father's is what propels Beauty over the barrier of the second world, transporting her to the Dream World. While Beauty chooses to go, her choice is destined by her stubborn and strong character. She doesn't seize an opportunity but, again, she makes the best of a failed situation. Her act is honourable, but it is dictated by the action of her father.
Beauty's movement back home—a move that will bring the two worlds together, is a self-directed attempt to save her sister from making a mistake. She acts because of the already-failed actions of her father. The return home reveals to Beauty that she does indeed love the Beast, which enables a wedding to take place and the worlds to be united. Beauty appears to hold the Beast's life in her hands and her family's love in the other, in complete control. She, as World Bridge, has begun to unite the worlds through what will be the traditionally feminine virtue of Love.
Harry/Angarahad/Harimad-Sol is in even less control of her transitions than she is of her name. First, Harry is carted off to the Real World of the Outland post by her brother due to the failure of her father to provide for her. Next she is literally carried off by Corlath to the Dream World of Damar.
Like Beauty, Harry seems to take true control finally at one point—despite what otherwise seems like destiny, as Luthe tells her, "not of her own choosing" (163). Harry claims that she has "no choice" (184) in returning to the Outpost, but this is her first action based on options. She returns to the fort to unite her two worlds. She considers the relations between Jack and her two friends, Terim and Senay, and thinks to herself "the bridge could stretch to cross this chasm" (189). Knowing that she is the World Bridge, Harry recognizes that "perhaps it did not matter in what world she belonged if both worlds were marching in step" (189). Luthe tells her plainly that in her "two worlds meet" (164).
But if we look closely, these tokens of control are driven, organized, by men. The Beast allows Beauty to go and also allows her to stay as his wife. It is the very moment of synthesis, the very act of accepting the Beast's proposal which will complete the melding of the worlds, that she is moved into the New World. The fact that she has no control to stay except as Wife should signal to us that it was a male-run diegetic all along. The World Bridge isn't a place, but an action; she cannot dwell there, and neither has she been able to make of the two self-contained worlds one amicable for truly powerful women. She has to be re-admitted by the male through the marriage act. Unlike the open-ended, patriarchal New World, the World Bridge (the woman's world) has to end as soon as it begins because it is used as a tool.
Like Beauty, Harimad-Sol as World Bridge isn't in diegetical control either, or destined to live long in that Time outside the masculine authority, if she is ever outside it. Harry, as World Bridge, is a world in motion that must come to rest in a male world. Once she begins what she considers "treason," there is no way to stop the motion. Her victory at the pass would seem to be the act that unites the worlds, the reason for the end of the talk of Outlanders versus "we who love the hills" (289), but McKinley deems that Harry's wedding to Corlath is necessary for her to remain in the New World. It becomes clear that Corlath allows Harimad-Sol to leave to fulfill a destiny that, as a tool of the King, will create a stronger, more secure patriarchal world.
Control in the New World
Where are Beauty and Harry left at their tales' ends? What does "open-end right" mean to these protagonists? As World Bridges, these women serve as Healers. Their characters become one with their function and they risk a loss of Self when that function is served.4
Harry's kelar was once a gift of healing in the old days (34), and we see that she heals the wounded from the battle—healing attended to before her wedding when she is still binding bodies and worlds (240); her power was always meant to be one of service, not control. Beauty has healed her family of poverty and her Beast of lovelessness. Her success at binding wounds and worlds is observed in the last scene where she is surrounded by not only her family but by what seems a once-lost nation. She is finished as a tool. Once the two have resolved contraries by uniting them in their own persons (Pratt 111) their control is gone and they are defined by a patriarchal distinction: Queen. In marriage they have officially conceded a control they never really had and become objects, figure heads.5 One might argue that in naming her new Prince, Beauty has control (246); but there is nothing that she can name him that will come before his title. He is already named "King" and she "Queen."6
Beauty and Harry are Queens in their male worlds, ciphers in the masculine mimetic worlds thanks to the diegetic authority behind those world constructions. If Quest, as Altmann claims, is "the process of stripping off the armour of the identity we have constructed for ourselves" (150), it seems that while Harry "strips off the armour," she and Beauty both get re-dressed as roles rather than as people. Their quests benefit the patriarchal world, but not themselves as female heroes. They have been on false quests. There is no reconception of the diegetical authority informing the mimetic world. The New World may be the fruit of their labor, but those worlds are claimed as the King's children. The women were only vessels. Neither woman is the "prodigal daughter" Flieger describes: "enriched…. To be prodigal in this sense is to alter the law, to enlarge its parameters and recast its meaning" (60). The patriarchal law isn't altered or recast, although the protagonists are. We leave the protagonists in the last, open-ended world, sure we won't have to stay with them to know what will happen for "ever after."
According to Pratt, writing is "an act of defiance when it gives women archetypes" (11). But Beauty and Harry are dwelling in the masculine paradigm and will ultimately be defined by it, despite any token or ceremonial control they have within worlds and any temporal "power" in uniting them. While McKinley's texts are superb quest narratives, the quests are those of Kings to create a bigger, more secure kingdom. The Kings use the World Bridges to walk over themselves. Ultimately, McKinley's isn't Cixous' "self-speaking text," for McKinley's text knows a god, not goddess.
1. David Woolsey seems to recognize little real about the fantasy into which Beauty moves. He makes an issue of the metaphoric value of the story as "fairy tale" but fails to recognize that the fleshing out of Beaumont's tale creates fantasy rather than just metaphoric fairy tale. The story must make the fantastic real, viable, in order for us to accept it. We cannot dismiss the "fantasy" in either Beauty or The Blue Sword as mere metaphor.
2. Both stories' true transition from The World Bridge to The New World is the Royal wedding, however; McKinley's metaphysic makes the weddings necessary. The importance of this fact is treated in my later section, "Control in the New World." The Old World is lost in the original move from that world to the Real World. The World Bridge only synthesizes the two Self-Contained Worlds because only they both still exist (simultaneously and as if in different dimensions) and contain all principle characters. The Old World has past; it is separated from the others by time as well as place.
3. I say "somewhat" because we won't be able to claim a true feminine quest within either story, which will become evident.
4. Harry's abduction opens up the whole issue of the role of the Dream as an illustration of the women's lack of control and stability, not to mention general discomfort and confusion, in these male-run transitions. A discussion of the role of the dreams in this study proves too extensive a digression, however. I would like to point out that dreams, memory flash-backs, and personal confusion occur in the following places in the texts: Beauty: pp. 82, 91, 191, 171, 177, 114. Blue Sword: 50, 56, 108, 123, 82, 83, 70, 200.
5. Much like Mary's condition in Burnett's The Secret Garden.
6. We are told on the penultimate page that "Corlath eyed his wife" (247). She has become reduced to her new role, unnamed, put under his eye/control.
Altmann, Anna E. "Welding Brass Tits on the Armor: An Examination of the Quest Metaphor in Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown," Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1992, pp. 143-156.
Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa," Signs. Summer, 1976.
Flieger, Jerry Aline. "The Female Subject: (What) Does Woman Want?" Psychoanalysis and … Ed. Richard Feldstein and Henry Sussman. New York: Routledge, 1990. 54-63.
Genette, Gerard. Figures of Literary Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1978.
———. The Blue Sword. New York: Ace Books, 1982.
Paul, Lissa. "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature," Signal, 1987, 54, pp. 186-202.
Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
Woolsey, Daniel P. "The Realm of Fairy Story: J. R. R. Tolkein and Robin McKinley's Beauty," Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1991, pp. 129-135.
Lynn Moss Sanders (essay date fall 1996)
SOURCE: Sanders, Lynn Moss. "Girls Who Do Things: The Protagonists of Robin McKinley's Fantasy Fiction." ALAN Review 24, no. 1 (fall 1996): 38-42.
[In the following essay, Sanders argues that McKinley's young adult novels often feature unconventional heroines who are forced to overcome difficult circumstances without assistance from traditional masculine heroes.]
Fantasy fiction is especially popular among young adolescents, both male and female, perhaps because it allows some escape from the problems of modern adolescence. If the escapist nature of fantasy fiction is appealing to young people, that quality of fantasy fiction also makes it a good vehicle for exploring contemporary social issues, including stereotypical gender roles, a subject skillfully explored by fantasy writer Robin McKinley. Although certainly it is important for young adults to read realistic fiction that shows a balanced view of gender roles, fantasy fiction can serve a useful function in allowing young readers, particularly young female readers, to imagine themselves performing feats of physical strength, something that is not required of most young people in our society, unless they are talented athletes. In fantasy fiction, physical strength and bravery are often equated, and these books allow readers to imaginatively conquer their own more realistic dragons.
In her novels of fairy tale/fantasy fiction for young readers, Robin McKinley not only emphasizes the values found in most fantasy fiction, courage and honor, she also makes an important contribution to balancing gender roles in young adult fiction and portraying female characters who are both physically strong and smart and courageous. McKinley says that she writes stories about "Girls Who Do Things" (Horn Book, p. 399). After spending her childhood as a "navy brat," and consequently having books as her only steady friends, Robin McKinley began her writing career with the publication of Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (1978) and The Door in the Hedge (1981), a collection of short stories. The Blue Sword, published in 1982, was a Newbery Honor Book, and The Hero and the Crown (1984) received the Newbery Medal in 1985. In 1988 McKinley published The Outlaws of Sherwood, and her most recent fantasy novel is Deerskin (1993).
McKinley also points out that one reason she wrote the Damarian adventures is because she "wished desperately for books like Hero " when she was a child, books that didn't require her "to be untrue to my gender if I wished to fantasize about having my sort of adventures, not about wearing long, trailing dresses and casting languorous looks into pools with rose petals floating in them as the setting sun glimmers through my translucent white fingers and I think about my lover who is off somewhere having interesting adventures" (Horn Book, pp. 403-404).
McKinley's first novel, Beauty, does not describe a heroine who fights battles and rules kingdoms, but the main character has important traits that the author develops further in the Damarian novels. The premise of McKinley's retelling of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale is that this Beauty, whose given name is Honour, is not really beautiful: she is a gawky adolescent. Beauty deals with her insecurity about her looks in the time-honored manner of many adolescent girls: she concentrates on books and horses. She tells us, "My intellectual abilities gave me a release" (p. 6); and she dreams of becoming a true scholar and reads the Greek poets to her horse, Greatheart.
Beauty agrees to live with the Beast in order to save her father's life, but it is her love for books that first helps her achieve the sympathy for the Beast that is necessary to break the spell. She and the Beast read to each other and discover a common bond in the intellect, the first step towards their eventual love. It is interesting to note that in the recent Walt Disney animated film version of "Beauty and the Beast," Belle is also known for her fondness for books, a trait which puzzles her provincial neighbors. Again, the Beast begins to win Belle's heart when he gives her his library. In this case, Robin McKinley may have helped to influence a generation of young girls into believing that one can be both beautiful, good-hearted, and intellectual.
McKinley also portrays Beauty as a fairy tale heroine with a sense of humor. Much of the humor is self-deprecating, focusing on her lack of physical beauty, but humor is also her weapon in helping her to face her destiny. This quality of McKinley's writing separates her from many fantasy writers whose tone is often too serious to be palatable to mature readers. Adolescents frequently take themselves too seriously; it is refreshing to read books for young people where a sense of humor is just as important as sword-wielding skills.
The light tone continues in McKinley's three Damarian fantasies. Although The Blue Sword clearly centers on a female protagonist, it is not until page three that we learn her name—Harry (nickname for Angharad)—and have a hint that this is a different sort of fantasy heroine. McKinley explains that she deliberately chose a name for her heroine that was "either androgynous to begin with or that could be shortened to something confusing" because "It's all part of my feeling that the gender wars are so bitter because the areas of rightness and propriety for each side are too absolutely defined; anything that muddies the line that society has drawn in the dirt and dared us to step over, is to the good, in fiction or in life" (Something about the Author, p. 137).
Harry's parents have died and she has gone to live in Daria or Damar, a colony of her Homeland where her brother is stationed in the army. She is a young woman with many of the problems common to McKinley's adolescent heroines. She had a tomboy childhood so she prefers horseback riding to embroidery; she has no particular beauty which could win her the husband she needs to make her independent in this society reminiscent of the British Empire in India. Harry's wish for adventure is realized when she is kidnapped by King Corlath of the Free Hillfolk, the original inhabitants of Damar. Harry has heard stories that the Damarians possess magical powers; and she soon learns that, in some mysterious way, she too possesses the gift of power and prophecy called kelar. In fact her gifts are equalled only by those of the King himself. On her first day in Corlath's camp, she drinks the Water of Sight and has a vision of a man fighting in battle on a chestnut horse with a blue sword. Corlath and his knights, or Riders, know that this vision explains Harry's destiny, but she comes from a society where roles for women are more limited and does not understand until later that she was the warrior in her vision.
In fact, Harry has been adopted by the greatest hero of Damar, Aerin the Dragon-Killer, the original wielder of the blue sword, a woman's sword named "Gonturun." Aerin comes to Harry in visions, and Harry is destined to repeat at least some of Aerin's heroics. She wins the Laprun trials, tests of horsemanship and swordsmanship, and becomes a Damalur-sol, a Lady Hero. Eventually she leads a combined army of Homelanders and Damarians to defeat the Northern enemies of Damar, with a bit of magical help from both Aerin and Corlath.
In The Blue Sword McKinley has obviously made a conscious effort to avoid gender stereotypes and provide her readers with an active and positive female role model. But it is in The Hero and the Crown that she tells the tale of the origins of this equal society. Aerin, the hero of The Hero and the Crown (1984), like Harry, is another awkward adolescent from an earlier Damar. Aerin is further hampered by her heritage because, although she is the King's only child and thus a first sol, her mother was a Northerner, thought by many to have been a witch, and therefore not Queen, only Honored Wife. In her search for something useful to do, Aerin stumbles on an old recipe for an ointment that protects against dragonfire, and she eventually earns hero status, if not the love of her people, by killing the Black Dragon. She is mortally wounded by the dragon, however, and leaves her home in search of a man who speaks in her dreams and says he can cure her.
This man is Luthe, a great mage or magician, who tells Aerin of her heretofore unrecognized kelar, her past, and her destiny. Luthe tells her about her mother and admits that perhaps her mother did die in despair, because "She had courage enough, but little imagination" (p. 136) and was burdened by a weight that she thought only a son might lift; but Luthe tells Aerin, "It is a weight any of her blood and courage may lift" (p. 137). Luthe teaches Aerin so that she may fulfill her destiny, to meet and defeat Agsded, her mother's brother, a great wizard and the enemy of Damar. Luthe tells Aerin that "only one of his blood may defeat him. It is true your mother wanted a son; she believed that as only one of his blood might defeat him, so only one of his own sex might, for to such she ascribed her own failure. She felt that it was because she was a woman that she could not kill her own brother" (p. 152).
But Aerin does defeat Agsded through her courage and cunning, and at least partly as a result of her physical skill. It is also important to note that McKinley spends a portion of each of these books describing the physical training of both Harry and Aerin. Neither woman is a natural athlete, but both become exceptionally skilled at fighting with swords on horseback, largely through their sweat and determination.
The Hero and the Crown is a well-written and exciting fantasy tale; it is also a love story. McKinley includes an unusual moral twist in the story by providing Aerin with two lovers—one is her mortal husband Tor, who makes her queen of Damar; the other is the magician Luthe, who waits patiently for her to live with him after Tor's death, since they are both immortal. Without going beyond the bounds of appropriate adolescent material, McKinley is also quite open about Aerin and Luthe's sexual relationship, which exists before, and presumably after, Aerin's marriage to Tor.
Recently, I taught The Hero and the Crown in my senior college-level Women and Literature class. Although most of my students are no longer adolescents, they enjoyed the book and many of them had suggestions about teaching it to young adult readers. Some of their comments, which might easily apply to McKinley's other novels, follow:
"In having Aerin slay the dragons that threaten her kingdom, McKinley destroys the myth that only male heroes can do battle with dragons, a myth that has been perpetuated since the time of Beowulf and Grendel."
"I think that McKinley's book, in many ways, could shatter and transcend some of the stereotypes that hold people down even today … while not flawless in her transcendence of stereotypes, McKinley certainly calls into question prevailing ideas of society."
"Adolescents have such a looks-oriented mentality. It is hard for them to imagine that anyone else does not feel that looks are the most important thing … when I read that ‘the helmet on her head blackened and fell away, and most of her hair vanished’ (108), I was terribly upset…. In spite of the fact that she has managed to slay a huge dragon, it is difficult for an adolescent reader to get past the fact that she gave up her beautiful hair to do so…. I think it would be a good idea to spend some time discussing the fact that what few features Aerin has which might be considered beautiful, in the traditional sense of the word, are destroyed by her dragon-killing efforts … In the end Aerin is not strikingly gorgeous, but she is queen, and two men are madly in love with her. Kind of makes beauty seem less important, doesn't it?"
"This story sticks with the very American idea that personal achievement is superior to inherited status. Aerin doesn't appreciate the position she was born into until she feels she has accomplished something worthy of earning her that place…. She also mentions … the importance of self-confidence in the process of education; that if you feel worthy and deserving and capable, you will be open to learning. This is an important topic to address especially to girls dealing with that crucial crossroads of middle-school where whatever self-confidence they might have had in elementary school is knocked out from under them. I think this book has much to say to those girls who aren't and don't want to be the beautiful Galanna, those girls who float shyly along hoping to remain unnoticed. I also think it has a lot to say to the Galannas of the world, and to all the little boys out there who would benefit just as much from a deeper understanding of the potential that girls/women have. A self-confident, productive, motivated, strong, courageous, heroic women doesn't just do herself or her gender good, but she does the whole world good."
"McKinley gives her female readers someone to admire and gives her male readers an action figure other than a male, and she shows them two men that love an athletic, strong woman…. Aerin's strength is another attribute that teenage girls need to see a role model have and use."
"An interesting aspect of the novel is Aerin's sexual maturation…. The most important point that should be stressed to young adults is that Aerin becomes a mature young woman who is confident of herself before she has a sexual relationship…. Another point that should be discussed is her relationship with Luthe. Their relationship goes much deeper than sex alone. They have a strong friendship and a true spiritual bond that teaches them both how to admit their love…. Aerin and Tor's relationship is similar…. This topic might embarrass young adults in a classroom setting, but who else is able to talk to them about the dynamics of a healthy sexual relationship?"
Sexuality becomes the centerpiece of McKinley's most recent Damarian book, Deerskin (1993) which she bases on the Charles Perrault fairy tale "Donkeyskin." In McKinley's version of the tale, the princess Lissla Lissar spends her early life completely overshadowed by her magnificent parents; but, when her mother dies (seemingly because she cannot bear to lose even a bit of her beauty to aging), Lissar's father begins to take an unnatural interest in her. Lissar, like McKinley's other female heroes, has an awkward and lonely adolescence, where her only friend is her fleethound, Ash; but she begins to show her mother's brunette beauty. After her coming-out ball at seventeen, Lissar's father publicly announces that he will marry her. When she locks herself in her room for three days, he eventually breaks in and rapes her three times.
Lissar escapes from her home and is transformed by the Moonwoman into a white-haired yellow-eyed woman that the peasants identify as the Moonwoman herself, a supernatural creature who was raped by a rejected suitor and now serves as the protectress of "young creatures, particularly those who are alone, who are hurt or betrayed, or who wish to make a choice for themselves instead of for those around them" (p. 213). Lissar travels to the palace of King Cofta, becomes one of the trainers for the prince's dogs, and she and the prince become friends.
Up to this point in the novel, there is no evidence that McKinley is writing about the mythical Damar, but in Cofta's kingdom, we hear Aerin mentioned, Lissar's golden eyes are noted (a sign of the presence of royal kelar), and the prince's hounds are clearly related to those that fought battles with Aerin. After Lissar discovers that Ossin's sister is engaged to her father, she is finally able to face her past. In a powerful scene, where her kelar is clearly evident, Lissar condemns her father for his actions and is quite painfully transformed back into her brunette self. Ossin, through his gentleness, persuades her to marry him, but McKinley is careful to show the difficulty of overcoming such a past. In the end Lissar promises Ossin to stay "for now…. But I do not know how strong I am, she said. I cannot promise" (p. 308).
Incest and rape are unusual topics for fantasy fiction, but McKinley sensitively portrays the issues involved in this difficult topic. As in her other fantasy books, she depicts a believable female hero, one who is able to overcome the demons of the past through her courage.
In The Outlaws of Sherwood, her version of the Robin Hood legend, McKinley also reverses many of the typical male/female roles. Her Robin is a reluctant leader of disenchanted Saxons; he is persuaded to head the group by his friend Marion, who, contrary to the usual legend, is the superior archer. It is also Marion, not Robin, who is reckless enough to enter the Sheriff of Nottingham's archery challenge to win the golden arrow, because she believes, as Friar Tuck explains, "Tales are as much the necessary fabric of our lives as our bodies are and legends are worth risking one's life in order to give people something to believe in" (p. 202).
Perhaps the most interesting character in this book is one created by McKinley, Cecily of Norwell, Will Scarlet's little sister, who does not appear in the original Robin Hood stories. Cecil, as she comes to be called, runs away from home to avoid the prospect of marriage to an aging Norman lord, disguises herself as a boy, and proves herself a good enough archer to join Robin's band. She manages to avoid her brother for some time; but, when her gender is finally revealed, she accuses him of deserting her: "you did not think … It was all very well for you to go around gnashing your teeth and clenching your fists about the Normans, and looking doomed and heroic—it was not you who had to marry one" (p. 165).
In Beauty, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, Deerskin, and The Outlaws of Sherwood Robin McKinley not only avoids the fantasy stereotype of the damsel in distress, she creates a new role for women in fantasy fiction. McKinley's heroes, Beauty, Harry, Aerin, Lissar, Marion, and Cecily provide different positive role models for young women and men. Her characters are winners in the eternal fantasy battle between good and evil, partially through magical help, but largely through their own physical skills as riders and swordfighters, their extraordinary courage and insight, their willingness to defy convention to do what is right, all traditionally the hallmarks of the male fantasy hero. McKinley herself has commented that it bothers her that she receives many letters from people "saying something on the order of, ‘At last! Girls who do things!’" She continues that it is her hope that "young readers who identify with Harry and Aerin and the others and wish to be like them will also realize that they are. And this should be true … of boy readers as well as the girls; both sides of our gender-specific event horizon need to be extended" (Horn Book, p. 405). And of course this should be true, because what Beauty, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, Deerskin, and The Outlaws of Sherwood are about is the freedom to choose to be oneself, and to occupy one's life with honorable endeavors.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty. Simon and Schuster, 1978.
———. The Blue Sword. Greenwillow Books, 1982.
———. Deerskin. Ace Books, 1993.
———. The Hero and the Crown. Berkley Books, 1984.
———. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." The Horn Book Magazine July/August 1985: 395-405.
———. The Outlaws of Sherwood. Greenwillow Books, 1988.
———. Something about the Author. Ed. Anne Commine, Vol. 50. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research: 130-140.
BEAUTY: A RETELLING OF THE STORY OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1978)
Betsy Hearne (essay date December 1988)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. "Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale: 1950-1985." Lion and the Unicorn 12, no. 2 (December 1988): 74-111.
[In the following essay, Hearne offers a critical reading of several different versions of the classic fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," including McKinley's recontextualization of the legend in Beauty.]
The story of "Beauty and the Beast" emerged, during the eighteenth century, from folk and literary sources that were combined into a literary fairy tale by French writers Madame Gabrielle Susanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve (1740) and Madame Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1756). Printed versions subsequently varied almost as much as oral narratives, which have included diversely active heroines and gender-reversed roles with the female as beast. An examination of the story's development reveals an organic shaping and reshaping around a core of basic elements in response to historical and cultural influences. Eighteenth-century versions are affected by the forging of folk narratives with a new literary tradition; the nineteenth century, by innovations in bookmarking and printing; and the twentieth century, by the influence of psychological interpretations, new media techniques, and mass market distribution. The following is a comparative analysis of contemporary English and American versions, based on a more complete study of the story's recreations, through several hundred years, in the form of folklore, drama, poetry, novel, film, and picture book.1 The examination of variously successful versions defines which elements of the story are crucial to its survival and shows that its resilience lies in a metaphorical strength more flexible than most interpretations suggest.
In the story of "Beauty and the Beast," a wealthy merchant with three beautiful daughters, the youngest incomparably lovely and good-hearted, loses everything through misfortune. Hearing of one cargo ship's safe return, the merchant sets out to straighten out his finances. His older girls clamor for rich gifts, but Beauty requests only a rose. After a fruitless journey, the merchant turns homeward, gets lost in a storm, and discovers a magic palace, where he plucks from the garden a rose. This theft arouses the wrath of a terrible Beast, who demands he either forfeit his life or give up a daughter. Beauty insists on sacrificing herself but becomes instead mistress of a palace and develops an esteem for the Beast. In spite of her growing attachment to him, however, she misses her ailing father and requests leave to care for him. Once home, she is diverted by her two sisters from returning to the palace until nearly too late. She misses the Beast, arrives to find him almost dead with grief, and declares her love, thereby transforming him into a prince who makes her his bride.
From 1950 to 1985, the publications and media productions of "Beauty and the Beast" have multiplied dramatically but ephemerally. Of the scores of picture book versions, only a dozen are now in print. Eight are of mediocre quality and published by small houses that cannot sustain backlists long; the other four are fine editions but still threatened by an economy that forces books out of print as soon as immediate post-publication sales drop. Mass media productions, by their very nature, are often limited to one airing. The one-act opera by Vittorio Giannini, with a moving libretto ("Beauty was a girl who lived in dreams") by Robert Simon, was broadcast on the radio in 1951; the recording is inaccessible if it exists at all, and the score almost impossible to find. An elaborate television production viewed by millions in 1977 has never been rerun.
It is tempting to speculate whether the effect of so many versions of such varied quality duplicates oral folk dissemination. Both children and adults are exposed to the story periodically and ubiquitously, with divergence expected around the given themes despite a seeming permanence or authority of printed words and celluloid images. The pattern of adaptations available to any given individual must be random when a comprehensive search over several years has found so many versions, even those mass marketed at production, difficult to attain. The adaptations examined here represent those most likely to exert the most steady impression on the most people. Yet it is probable that similar conclusions would emerge from other examples—and awesome to think of this and future generations exposed to entries in the standard Library of Congress computerized holdings printout, at present more than seven feet long, summarizing over and over,
Through her great capacity to love, a kind and beautiful maid releases a handsome prince from the spell which has made him an ugly beast. READY FOR NEW COMMAND:2
The impact of one adapter, such as Andrew Lang in the late nineteenth century, or one illustrator, such as Edmund Dulac in the early twentieth, on public awareness has been reduced not only by plurality but also by mediocrity. A substantial percentage of the versions available suffer from trivialization of images, both written and pictured. A work of essentially poetic nature is often caricatured for light comic effect or reduced to its lowest common denominator for a consumer perceived to be substandard. Some earlier versions were certainly child-conscious. The "Little Plays for Little People" series by Miss Julia Corner and Alfred Crowquill (1854) overdoes rhyming couplets and doll-like figures in its didactic, multi-fairied presentations of "Beauty and the Beast." Aunt Mary's 1856 version revises Madame de Beaumont's eighteenth-century stone statue punishment of Beauty's rivals for the benefit of penitent young readers:
Her sisters after continuing in their mortifying situation several years, were restored by the good fairy to their original shape, and by their conduct fully atoned for their past follies.
Laura E. Richards' retelling, illustrated by Gordon Browne in 1886, is cute and condescending, with Beauty harassed by sisters Gracilia and Superba. A tree narrates the story ("Long, long ago, before there were railways or radishes, and when the moon was still made of green cheese, there lived in the Kingdom of Rigdom Funnidos a rich merchant who had three fair daughters" [Richards, np]) and is interrupted constantly by some children asking questions. These occasional aberrations have always plagued the story; in 1951, Beauty and the Beast: A Play for Children sported a heroine named Jane, the merchant Mr. Clement with his nephew Mikey, and Hodge the Wizard, with everything explained (including the prince's spell) in a carefully modernized, conversational tone.
Still, in extent of distribution, most nineteenth-century versions were not dime-, drug-, or grocery-store items. Nor were they supplements to a public school curriculum. A brochure advertising the 1979 film of "Beauty and the Beast" (a 19-minute, color, 16 mm. production featuring doll-faced marionettes) announced to attendees of an educational conference that "THE BEAST will be at the Coronet booth … to meet you, sign autographs and have his picture taken with you." "Remember," advises a companion leaflet, "Beauty and the Beast can also be ordered on approval; after evaluation it may be returned if for any reason you are not enchanted by it, and your billing [$350] will magically disappear" (Coronet Films).
One publishing company, Troll Associates in Mahwah, New Jersey, customarily aims at educational and school library markets and offers a common sample of Disney-like, slapstick illustrations calculated to grab restless readers' attention and a "dumbed-down" style calculated to ease reluctant readers to the end of the book. The sisters on the first page, one thin, the other fat, are sticking their tongues out at each other.
They were not as lovely as Beauty. They were not as generous and kind as Beauty. They were too busy thinking of themselves to be thoughtful of anyone else.
This is not, in fact, a particularly bad book. There are others less competent and more boring, with the minimal feeling and individualization evident here drained out of them. The most frequent offender in the versions of the period is not poor crafting but slick blandness, making it difficult to explain to consumers what distinguishes a "bad book" from a good one. In the absence of an opportunity to experience the story at full strength, a weakened version may seem adequate. Even critics and reviewers are often unaware of the story's background or careless in evaluating new versions.
Fortunately, "Beauty and the Beast" has survived its frequent dilution and found expression through a number of recreations with staying power.3 This discussion focuses on several picture books (the story's most common vehicle for several decades), one selection from an anthology, a young adult novel, and two adult short stories appearing in science fiction and fantasy collections.
Beauty and the Beast, retold by Philippa Pearce and illustrated by Alan Barrett in 1972, has minimized details in both text and art with forceful results. Based on Beaumont's plot and characters, the story presented here reduces the number of children to three girls—"all that the story really needs," as Pearce notes in an afterword. Only the last dream, the appearance of the dying Beast necessary to the climax, remains. The merchant does not return with Beauty to the castle; she sneaks off alone one night, thereby dispersing any doubts as to the merchant's strength of character. Fathers do not give away their daughters but sometimes let them slip away when they are truly determined.
The style itself is spare (where Cocteau's mirror said "Reflect for me. I will reflect for you," Pearce's says "Show-Show"). The telling is not ungraceful, however, and Pearce has supplied some imaginative specifics of her own. The roses, for instance, first evade the merchant's grasp, setting up an element of suspense before the Beast's appearance. (The rose bled in an oral version collected in Delarue—see Appendix II.) Beauty's knife and fork spring into her hand, and the palace offers story-books, toys, Persian cats, and Spaniels; this is the first version to mention what a girl-child rather than a woman might consider treasures. But overall, the narrative relies on action, with relatively little description or dialogue, to carry the themes, and graphically Barrett has mirrored Pearce's concentrated tone in his gouache paintings.
The opening and closing cameo frames, for instance, telescope a distance of time and place—the aging father, the obedient daughter. The mottled pages and rough textures give an appearance of antiquity. The subdued colors set a foreboding tone. As the scenes progress, they remain isolated in round cameos of another place and time, but they enlarge, with colors growing more intense; still very impressionistic, the work indulges few details. The strong focus of white on a horse and on the snow-streaked wind slanting down on it, reveals the father small and helpless in the storm without face or forest outlined at all. In the full vista following it, the story would take over, with the small introductory cameos left behind as doorways. The blue gives a powerful, brooding sense of magic as it does with Mercer Mayer's 1978 book (picture-book scenes of magic are often dominated by the color blue). Shapes are implied rather than elaborated.
The Beast revealed is a frightening horror of the imagination, a fragment of nightmares, his eyes, nostrils, and fangs magnified to fill the page yet dragged downward in lines that imply pain as well as the capacity to inflict it. In only one picture does Barrett's diminutive Beauty appear with the Beast, and there the composition of the two figures shows them powerfully pulled as in a tug of war, the Beast one way and Beauty another. Barrett does not show their growth toward friendship and acceptance. He deals, as Pearce does in her written work, with only a few basic developments, but with tremendous force.
Like the first powerful portrait of the Beast, the last reflects white glints across his face to create a terrifying ghostly pallor (matching the merchant's first terror under white-smudged roses and white-smeared sky), with a midnight blue consuming him as he lies dying in his coliseumlike surrounding. The prince that replaces him appears in a burst of soft orange sparks again created by an impressionistic texture that leaves out detail in favor of central impact. At the end, the characters are put back in their frames of remote time and place, but this prince retains an animal power and roughness in his face that none of the other fairy tale princes have, and it makes for a stronger conclusion. Beauty has changed position from a submissive bowed head to a decisive, straightforward gaze. Sheered to minimal appearances, the two main characters are nevertheless rendered distinctive by Barrett's strong, stark visual suggestions.
Diane Goode's 1978 art work could not offer a more startling contrast to Barrett's. Her close translation of Beaumont's story is smooth, with full-page paintings exuding an elegant, French-court flavor. Fleurs-de-lis decorate the endpapers, and the miniature reflection of a distant land in the "O" of "Once" represents not so much an archaic time as a conventional fairyland, with green tendrils curling out of the mist into the present of a new telling. Where Barrett's colors are muted and brooding, Goode's are almost gay, sometimes affecting or even contradicting the mood of tension in a serious scene but adding luster where they are well integrated. The skillful line work is most evident in occasional black-and-white pictures, but there is careful attention to drafting throughout, with a complex maze of arches framing several compositions and other architectural features forming a prominent focus. The play of lines and space, light and shadow is subtle when it is not overwhelmed by lavish patterns of turquoise, purple, or gold in costumes and settings.
Despite the strong drawing, the lion never looks truly fearsome. In fact, he appears, in his magnificent robes, as worried as Beauty and her father. The sisters, on the other hand, show a genuine petulance, and the small, rouged tautness of Beauty's face is affecting. This is a formal, almost flowery portrayal of the story much in accord with Beaumont's elevated sentiments and poles away from another picture book version published the same year.
Mercer and Marianna Mayer's re-creation is a dramatic blend of adaptation and illustration that has immediate appeal. The plot structure is close to Lang's Villeneuve-based version than to Beaumont's, with the dream sequence included and the sisters' punishment curtailed from their turning into stone statues to their simply envying Beauty's happiness. Dialogue is a mainstay, with each character explaining instead of explained, as in Beauty's reassurance after the merchant's fall:
Don't worry, Father. You'll see—it will be a new life for us. I will love to live in the country. It will be as though we were having a vacation all year long.
The sisters vociferously protest their fate and weasel out of chores. And to Beauty's persistent questions about his day, the Beast retorts angrily,
I hunt. I prowl the woods for prey. I am an animal after all, my lady! I must kill for my meat. Unlike you I cannot eat gracefully.
Although their development stays on a symbolically abbreviated plane, Mayer's characters nevertheless assume more reality than stock types, and their rela- tionships develop accordingly beyond a statement of roles. In their evenings together, Beast emerges as something of a magician as well as a vivid storyteller, justifying Beauty's growing rapport with him. She herself is attached to a tiny red bird with whose loyal affection she identifies: "Often she would take the little bird from its cage, letting it fly free. Though the windows were open wide, it would never leave the tower" (23).
Both the conflicts and commentaries are direct. The Beast's confrontation with the merchant explicitly defines each.
"I would never allow my daughter to take my place!" protested the merchant. "Kill me if you must." But the Beast refused. "It must be your daughter's choice. If she will not come, then at least go to your family and say good-bye. If you do not return I will come and find you."
Later, the old woman of her dreams admonishes Beauty: "Your prince cannot return to you … since he has failed to make you his wife, you must really love him" (31). The Beast himself explains his enchantment.
When I was a boy I was very vain and quite proud. My palace was filled with servants and everyone honored me and did my bidding. One day an old hag came begging at my palace gate. I showed her no pity, she was so ugly. The sight of her did not move me and I sent her away without food or money. As she left she warned that I would spend the rest of my life wandering in my fine palace without a friend till someone could find beauty in me. I laughed at her; but when I returned to my palace, I found it empty. I have been alone ever since.
Although the text is fairly long, it moves quickly and is faced on every page with an absorbing depiction. Mercer Mayer's story-art has almost a filmic effect, its series of images presenting the tale independently from (though in this case harmoniously with) the words. Details both define the action and heighten the symbolism. In a striking example of the latter, the Beast is connected to ancient cultures through numerous Egyptian figures of animistic worship appearing as statuary in his palace: Ba, the bird-symbol for the soul; Anubis, the god of the death; Wadjit, the cobra goddess. Peering from the back of Beauty's room is Isis, goddess with cow's horns who brought the dead fertility god, Osiris, back to life and doubled as mother/life-giver and enchantress with powers to cure the sick—obviously a parallel to "Beauty and the Beast" in Mayer's iconography. (Apuleius, author of "Cupid and Psyche," was initiated into the cult of Isis, a fact noted by von Franz in her introduction to A Psychological Interpretation of the Golden Ass of Apuleius .)
One scarab joins Beauty's cloak only inches away from another hanging around the statue of a lion like those guarding certain pyramids. The bridle of the Beast's horse is also decorated with a scarab. In the first glimpse of Beauty's house, a crucifix hangs on the wall; in her first glimpse of the Beast's palace, an ankh holds the same position over her head. These symbols blend sufficiently into background shadows or graphic details of the story to elaborate without intruding.
There is a propelling movement to the pictures. The drama of emotions mounts urgently with the Beast's appearance. The first pictures show a peculiar foreshortening of figures, a caricaturing of faces. The dominant color in the earlier spreads is brown. But with the Beast comes a dominance of deep blue, first introduced in the approach to the castle and running through most of the scenes with a magical setting. Here Mayer deepens the mood and realizes his character more completely. There's great suspense in seeing the Beast's clawed figure, its face left to the imagination, leaning over the vulnerably sleeping father.
The Beast's face is no disappointment—a lionish visage of fury, with glowing eyes and unrelenting snarl. There's no trace of cuteness, but rather real anger. By contrast, the father's down-turned mouth and rolled—up eyes seem almost farcical. The flow of feeling in the illustrations is as marked as the pace of action. The foreboding in Beauty's backward glance against the wind is justified in the next scene pressing her confrontation with the Beast. Tension reigns in somber colors and in the Egyptian funeral symbols already mentioned. The Beast is calmer but has lost none of his threatening stature. By contrast, one sees Beauty at her most vulnerable in the next striking composition stressing her tearful payment of her life for a rose.
Mayer's invention of "whatever Beauty wants" stresses her loneliness within the wealth, but for one bird to talk to—a pronounced contrast to the raucous parrots of past versions. The castle has many Gothic elaborations, which, though they usually focus on the main character and on their relationships, occasionally overwhelm them. Mayer's dream sequences are appropriately static, interrupting the dramatic development that resumes with Beauty's urgent journey home to her sick father.
The sequence of the Beast's impending death is a study in sorrow. From blown roses to surrendered paws, he lies entwined by wintry vines and gnarled roots. Beauty for the first time sees the Beast vulnerable as he weeps into the mirror, and in one of the most poignant and intimate of all the various artist's reconciliation scenes, she puts her face on his for the acceptance kiss. Because the scene is so powerful, it is hard to follow. Indeed, it is impossible. The prince pales by contrast. The Beast has been dearly accepted on his own terms and one wishes a bit of him, at least, were left.
The lion visage seems dominant in Beasts of this period, and Michael Hague's illustrations for Beauty and the Beast are no exception. His version appeared first in a calendar and small press book (Green Tiger) accompanying a retelling by Deborah Apy, and was widely distributed in a 1983 hardcover edition. However, where Mayer was preoccupied with Egyptian religious creatures half animal, half human, Hague elaborates his scenes with motifs in a Hellenic/Christian dichotomy. Greek statuary adorns the Beast's palace. The ram horns (reminiscent of D'Aulnoy's "Le Mouton") thrusting through the Beast's leonine mane parallel the horns atop a bust of Pan, the figure central to the Beast's secret garden, which also shelters an antlered deer and horned goats. The unicorn featured in this version seems a sentimental addition, though theoretically it bridges classical nature worship and Christian tradition. Christ raised the horn of salvation and dwelt in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Beauty, whose lap the unicorn seeks out, is a virgin offering salvation to a soul incarnated in a beastly form shed at death. Although never explicitly spelled out, the allegory of purification and resurrection is clear through associations.
The unicorn is only one of the inventions that Apy has injected into a 64-page version combining features of Jean Cocteau's 1946 film with the traditional Beaumont structures. The sisters are decorated with names, Jeanette and Adelle. They discuss at length the virtues of peacock feathers and the drawbacks of a simple sister. Dialogue of a much more elaborate nature than Mayer's stretches the story here, punctuated by an occasional marvel such as the butterflies (Psyche is the Greek word for butterfly as well as soul) that burst from the trunk appearing on the merchant's return with the rose and the bad news.
"It is magic, Father. It must have something to do with the Beast…. Here, Father, is all that my sisters asked for," said Beauty…. "It must mean that things are as they should be, even if we don't understand them. Don't you see, Father, this is a sign that things will be well."
In the dreams appear the usual fine lady and the prince, apparently drawn from the Villeneuve/Lang version, and a small unicorn that grows in the course of the story to maturity and appears in carving on a chest and on Beauty's bed. The aviary and palatial entertainments also find their way here, along with a balcony scene in which Beauty's physical attraction to the Beast becomes tangible as they dance. Several passages seem directly lifted from Cocteau: "At the top of the glass were written the words ‘Reflect for Me,’ and, at the bottom, the word ‘I Will Reflect for You’" (29). Later, the Beast enters Beauty's sleeping chamber with blood on his hands from a kill (39), and Beauty's description of him to her father echoes the filmscript almost word for word.
Sometimes he's funny and makes me laugh. Other times, though, he seem so very sad that I must turn away from him so as not to cry myself.
But now he makes me want to burst out laughing, sometimes; and then I see his eyes and they are so sad that I turn my own away so as not to cry.
The sentence Beauty speaks next is the same in both versions, "‘Certain forces obey him, other forces command him.’" (Apy 56; Cocteau 252) Whether Apy is unconsciously drawing on a literary tradition established by Cocteau or simply plagiarizing is open debate.
Hague's paintings, too, reflect the influence of other children's book illustrators: Rackham-like wood-creatures in the forested maze where the merchant is lost and Beauty later rides; a dream fairy figure strikingly akin to Dulac's, in a similar pose before a tent-like canopy around Beauty's bed—both supported by clouds. Cocteau's death-scene swans appear in Hague's as well. Hague incorporates nice touches of his own, however: Beauty is surrounded by a flock of humdrum geese in her noon-day barnyard; two of the same birds, ethereal in night flight, wing over her head as she dances with the Beast. Hague's scenes are predominantly dark, almost Gothic, with intense flashes of color and refined texturing of drapery, foliage, marble, wood, stone, feathers, fur, and other contrasting surfaces. Striking compositions centralize the main characters in an artful variety of postures more memorable than the faces.
Less romantic than Hague, Mayer, or Goode's interpretation is a 1985 picture book by British artist Warwick Hutton. The text is a dignified retelling of Beaumont's version, as well distributed from page to page for reading aloud as Marianna Mayer's, with less modern dialogue. Hutton is a master of lighted landscape and light-filtered interiors, striking examples of which appear in each painting. He builds the father's ride into an ominous situation with boulder-black clouds, one fork of white lightning extended in the wind against the horse's white tail, white bones of another horse (or perhaps the Beast's prey), on the left and the eerie green-under-gray of a coming storm. All this is heightened by a too—distant rift in the clouds behind and in the deep shadow ahead. The serpent on the ground could only be deadly.
Hutton's restraint in color, even in showing the garden, and in line, even in showing the father's emotional expression, is marked in contrast to Mayer's depiction, which is so exaggerated. This Beast is a darkly vague hulk. His few frontal closeups suggest features of a gorilla, close in evolutionary developments to humans. In his first appearance, the lighting effect comes straight from a circled sun, and the shadows thrown make a brilliant composition. The Beast is thrice threatening for his back's being turned; and the peacocks, along with their towering-hedge replicas, make a kind of play on reality, pointing at the kneeling victim. They are an inventive contrast to Dulac's parrots and Mayer's one red bird.
The palace features a patterned mosaic of Eastern splendor, cool in the shadows and well lit by the sun; but for all the wealth, it is fine-lined, carefully shaped, and never cluttered, or overstated. Hutton shows with clarity and grace what it's like to be alone. Beauty's isolated figure, dwarfed by the palatial grounds over which she looks with her back to the viewer, projects a total silence and stillness. The Prince's amazed expression at being transformed offers a contrasting hint of humor. Hutton has walked a fine line between distance and involvement, keeping the tone of personal romance subsumed in formal patterns.
The 1983 collection of 11 Perrault and two Beaumont stories translated by Angela Carter and illustrated by Michael Foreman cast "Beauty and the Beast" into a half medieval, half futuristic mode, with castle and costumes out of the Middle Ages and a one-eyed monster that suggests a mutation from science fiction. A newt and frogs gather at his dying moment, and there is not a rose in sight. Brownish purples and dark blues dominate the three full-color paintings bleeding off 8″ × 11″ pages. A skull decorates the candlestick whose flickering light cast a shadow of the Beast in a sketch above the opening paragraph. The castle looms with an ominous face of window-slits and toothy gate. The goblet and dainties set before the viewer, who is forced into a frontal view of the Beast from Beauty's perspective, are noticeably missing from the Beast's place. He sits at the table with nothing before him but his reptilian hands. Yet his decline below moonlit topiary is still poignant.
Beauty and the merchant are almost unnoticeable in these pictures, as is the inch-high prince sitting up in the illustrated strip bordering the story's end. It is ironic that this most grotesque of Beasts should accompany a demure translation of Beaumont's story. And it is interesting that Carter has included a related Beaumont story, "Sweetheart," which overtly moralizes about a prince turned beast until he can learn to be good, do what he is told, and find a mate with the same virtues.
Many noted children's book illustrators, including Roger Duvoisin (Virginia Haviland, Favorite Fairy Tales Told in France, Little Brown, 1959), Hilary Knight (Macmillan, 1963), Alice and Martin Provensen (Provensen Book of Fairy Tales, Random House, 1971), Errol Le Cain (Rosemary Harris, Doubleday, 1980), and Francesca Crespi (Little Box of Fairy Tales, adapted by Olive Jones, Dial, 1983) have undertaken picture-book or anthologized versions of "Beauty and the Beast," and even Maurice Sendak has offered a swashbuckling version of the Beast in a playbill poster for a one-night Broadway production of Stuart Ostrow's experimental play, Stages (1978), available in Michael Hearn's Art of the Broadway Poster (1980).
Etienne Delessert's 1984 picture book, which mistakenly attributes the story to Madame D'Aulnoy, is accompanied by sophisticated, surrealistic paintings that will challenge junior high students to plumb both art and story. Illustration, book design, and format are coordinated to lead perceptive viewers through the symbolic overtones. Single- or double-page spreads focus on dramatic highpoints featuring a griffin hideous one moment and vulnerable the next; at times, he peeks in miniature form over or at the framed text. Natural elements such as a storm, night, or flower are personified with human faces, while social acquaintances rejecting the family after its loss of wealth appear with serpents' heads. Implications of resurrection surface in a phoenix figure. The drama of color and action coupled with subtleties of humor and sadness invite close involvement.
Every picturebook version has its followers:
I liked the story because it showed that things that may seem mean and furoshoise [sic] outside can still be loving, efectionet [sic] and caring just on the inside as a human.
(David Ward, third grade, Forest Glen Elementary School)4
… or its detractors:
I didn't like it becouse [sic] it was boring. I lost my attanchon [sic] to the story. By the time it was done I was picking my shoe.
(Anonymous third grader, Forest Glen Elementary School)
Three-year-olds have been absorbed by the emotional drama of Mercer Mayer's adaptation. Primary graders and older elementary school children respond to increasingly complex versions.
Since 1978, adolescents have been captivated by Robin McKinley's novel Beauty. The creation of a contemporary, first-person, young adult novel from a fairy tale could raise a host of technical problems for the novelist and objections from devotees of traditional lore. Beauty, A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was included by American Library Association committees in both the Notable Children's Books and the Best Books for Young Adults lists for 1978. It was Robin McKinley's first novel, written in the throes of a negative reaction to the television adaptation starring George C. Scott, in which McKinley felt that the point had been missed and the aesthetic thinned. The story, she maintains, is about honor. Honour is her heroine's real name, given to match her two older sisters', Grace and Hope, by a mother who does not survive the birth of baby Mercy, who also dies. In the tradition of the story from its origins, Beauty is a nickname, but one bestowed here ironically on a five-year-old who cannot comprehend the concept of Honour and requests Beauty instead, an appellation retained into a gawky adolescence.
For a 247-page novel, the cast is compact, with secondary characters introduced and developed naturally within the context of the traditional plot. Grace, Hope, and Honour (nicknamed Beauty) Huston are the sisters. Their father, Roderick Huston, is a shipwright/merchant and carpenter. Robert Tucker is a sailor and fiancé of Grace; Gervain Woodhouse is an iron-worker/blacksmith who marries Hope. Greatheart, a horse given to Beauty by a family friend, leads her to the palace of the Beast and keeps her company there. Lydia and Bessie are two breezes who attend Beauty in the palace.
A few minor characters make brief appearances essential to McKinley's revisions: Ferdy, whose first kiss repels Beauty in a reaction that presages her resistance to admitting love for the Beast; Pat Lawry, who courts Grace in Robbie's absence; Mercy and Richard, twins born to Hope and Gervaine; Melinda Honeybourne, Gervaine's widowed aunt, manager of the Red Griffin and Roderick Huston's eventual wife; and Orpheus the canary, who cheers the company throughout their resettlement in the country. All but Orpheus further the theme of male/female relationships, and the canary serves as a link with the birds Beauty later coaxes to her palace window—a sign that her involvement is weakening the Beast's enchantment.
There are no villains here. And where fairy-tale brevity benefits from the Beast's initial and terrible impression to lend tension to Beauty's dilemma, it is McKinley's task to maintain that tension through a longer work in which the Beast's essential nobility quickly becomes apparent. The conflict, of course, is shifted to an internal level with Beauty's rite of passage. It seems ultimately fitting that modern teenage fiction should emerge from an old tale of the journey into maturation.
To sharpen this focus, McKinley has altered the father's weakness and the sisters' villainy (those faults shifted the onus of responsibility from Beauty's self-determined choices), in much the same way that Villeneuve either omitted or explained away the family flaws. All three are paragons of integrity, as are the girls' suitors, their virtue fortunately relieved by practical, down-to-earth humor and genuine affection. Beauty herself is strong-willed to obstinate, plain and thin, a tomboy passionate only about animals and books. She is a smart, adolescent ugly duckling, with everyone else's assurance that she will eventually turn into a swan. True to life, Beauty believes only her own critical assessment. She is as deprecatory of her physical appearance and as apprehensive of mirrors as the Beast (there are none in her room or home nor in the palace of the Beast).
The narrative, covering Beauty's fifteenth to eighteenth years, is structured into three parts. The first established the family background and situation, the courtship of the older girls, the loss of the ships (and with them, Grace's fiancé), the auction of goods, the removal to Gervaine's childhood home in the north country, his marriage to Hope and prohibition not to enter the reputedly enchanted forest behind their home, the birth of their twins, and the father's trip to the city to recover one ship, from which he returns with a rose.
In section two, the father tells his story of finding the Beast's castle and picking the fateful flower, after which his saddle-bags are opened to reveal rich gifts. Beauty determines to go back in his stead after a month's reprieve and dreams twice of the castle as she prepares to depart. The third and last part comprises more than half of the book, beginning with the farewell of father and daughter at the castle gate and ending with her declaration of love for the Beast and the celebration. With unexpected holding power, McKinley amplifies descriptions of Beauty's settlement into life at the palace, the development of her relationship with the Beast, her homesickness and desperation to tell Grace of Robbie's return (seen through a magic glass, or nephrite plate, belonging to the Beast) before another suitor proposes, and the visit home, which convinces Beauty of her love for the Beast and delays her return till almost too late. The reader knows that Beauty must finally accept her own physicality and release the Beast, but the questions of how and when raise anticipation and even anxiety during Beauty's last ride, when the Beast's magic weakens and she must find him on the strength of her own love.
Sustaining the plot are the book's compatibly blended point of view, pace, style, tone, and theme. The first-person narrative lends immediacy, fosters a reader's identification with the protagonist, and allows a candid look at Beauty's internal journey. The Beast shows mature perceptions, developed during his 200 years of brooding alone in the palace, on their first meeting, when he tells her he would only have sent her father home unharmed had she decided not to come to the palace herself.
"You would?" I said; it was half a shriek. "You mean that I came here for nothing?"
A shadowy movement like the shaking of a great shaggy head. "No. Not what you would count as nothing. He would have returned to you, and you would have been glad, but you also would have been ashamed, because you had sent him, as you thought, to his death. Your shame would have grown until you came to hate the sight of your father, because he reminded you of a deed you hated, and hated yourself for. In time it would have ruined your peace and happiness, and at last your mind and heart."
But Beauty's knowledge, limited to an honest if impetuous intuition at the book's beginning, develops through her solitude at the palace and her experiences with the Beast, as evidenced in self-examinations that slowly raise her to the Beast's level of awareness.
I had avoided touching him, or letting him touch me. At first I had eluded him from fear; but when fear departed, elusiveness remained, and developed into habit. Habit bulwarked by something else; I could not say what. The obvious answer, because he was a Beast, didn't seem to be the right one. I considered this.
Without becoming too confessional, these insights bond the reader to Beauty as she progresses through nightly more difficult denials of the Beast's proposal to taking his arm and finally realizing her feelings in the face of the family's animosity toward the Beast.
I knew now what it was that had happened. I couldn't tell them that here, at home with them again, I had learned what I had successfully ignored these last weeks at the castle; that I had come to love him. They were no less dear to me, but he was dearer yet.
The frequency of vivid scenes keeps Beauty's development from dwindling into a diary. A confrontation she forces between her horse Greatheart and the Beast, whom all creatures fear, is gripping. Beauty's discovery, in the library, of books that have never been written and her attempts to understand Robert Browning or to envision modern inventions referred to in other works is quite funny, as are the struggles of the two attendant breezes to outfit her like a lady. Her encounters with the Beast are natural, as often light as moving.
"It's raining," I said, but he understood the question, because he answered:
"Yes, even here it rains sometimes … I've found that it doesn't do to tinker with weather too much…. Usually it rains after nightfall," he added apologetically.
The occasion on which she feeds him her favorite dessert, however, proceeds from a touching note to a powerful confrontation—the last barrier she throws up against him before her vision (literally, in this case) begins to clear for a new sensual awareness.
A deceptively simple style blends drama with detail. Part of the book's appeal is certainly its descriptions of a life anyone might long for—leisure spiced with high cuisine and horseback riding, with learning for learning's sake thrown in at will. These descriptions are by turn specific and suggestive, allowing readers to luxuriate in a wish-fulfilling existence but leaving room for them to grow their own fantasies. The marvels of palace life are quite explicit.
I returned my gaze to the table. I saw now that it was crowded with covered dishes, silver and gold. Bottles of wine stood in buckets full of gleaming crushed ice; a bowl big enough to be a hip bath stood on a pedestal two feet tall, in the shape of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders; and the hollow globe was full of shining fresh fruit. A hundred delightful odours assailed me. At the head of the table, near the door I had entered by, stood a huge wooden chair, carved and gilded and lined with chestnut-brown brocade over straw-coloured satin. The garnet-set peak was as tall as a schooner's mast. It could have been a throne. As I looked, it slid away slightly from the table and turned itself towards me, as another chair had beckoned my father. I noticed for the first time that it was the only chair at that great table, and there was only one place laid, although the table gleamed to its farther end with the curved backs of plate covers, and with goblets and tureens and tall jeweled pitchers.
Other passages leave a strategic amount of information to the reader's imagination. During Beauty's first conversation with the Beast, she sees only his "massive shadow" (113), heightening a dread peak when he finally stands to reveal himself. Even then, only his body is delineated; the specifics of his face are implied by Beauty's reaction.
"Oh no," I cried, and covered my own face with my hands. But when I heard him take a step towards me, I leaped back in alarm like a deer at the crack of a branch nearby, turning my eyes away from him…. What made his gaze so awful was that his eyes were human.
Bit by bit, through references to long white teeth and mangy fur, readers can construct an image of the Beast, but it is largely their own.
There are twists of humor throughout dialogue and description that balance the darkest hours of both Beauty and the Beast for a tone alternately sweet and bitter, ingenuous and sophisticated. Underlying all the various shades of emotion, however, is a sense of inevitable destiny, the fairy-tale security that all will be well in spite of threats and confusions. The roses Beauty plants in winter bloom to comfort her before she leaves home. A griffin on the ring (and later necklace) given her by the Beast looks powerful but not predatory. In spite of Beauty's association of the Beast with the Minotaur when Gervaine first tells her of the rumored enchantment, the mazes she encounters at the castle simply mirror her own internal loss of direction.
I dreamed of the castle that Father had told us about. I seemed to walk quickly down halls with high ceilings. I was looking for something, anxious that I could not find it. I seemed to know the castle very well; I did not hesitate as I turned corners, went up stairs, down stairs, opened doors….. . . . .
… I found myself in the castle again, walking through dozens of handsome, magnificently furnished rooms, looking for something. I had a stronger sense of sorrow and of urgency this time; and also a sense of some other—presence; I could describe it no more clearly. I found myself crying as I walked, flinging doors open and looking inside eagerly, then hurrying on as they were each empty of what I sought.. . . . .
I walked across more corridors, up and down more stairs, and in and out of more rooms than I cared to count…. I soon lost my sense of direction, and then most of my sense of purpose, but I kept walking…. After a while, perhaps hours, I came to a door at the end of a corridor, just around a corner….. . . . .
Nearly every day we found ourselves traveling over unfamiliar ground, even when I thought I was deliberately choosing a route we had previously traced; even when I thought I recognized a particular group of trees or flower-strewn meadow, I could not be sure of it. I didn't know whether this was caused by the fact that my sense of direction was worse than I'd realized, which was certainly possible, or whether the paths and fields really changed from day to day—which I thought was also possible.. . . . .
"I can't seem to keep the corridors straight in my head somehow, and as soon as I'm hopelessly lost, I turn a corner and there's my room again. So I never learn anything. I don't mean to complain," I added hastily. "It's just that I get lost so very quickly that I don't have the chance to see very much before they—er—send me home again."
It is Beauty's inner pressure and the Beast's need that tell time; there are no clocks in the palace. Like Cocteau, McKinley is intrigued with different dimensions of reality. The space, time, and logic of the Primary World are suspended in the Secondary World. Beauty's bridging of both requires some adjustment.
You look at this world—my world, here, as you looked at your old world, your family's world. This is to be expected; it was the only world, the only way of seeing, that you knew. Well; it's different here. Some things go by different rules.. . . . .
… it was slowly being borne in on me that my stories about the castle and my life there had little reality for my family. They listened with interest to what I told—or tried to tell—them, but it was for my sake, not for the sake of the tale. I could not say if this was my fault or theirs, or the fault of the worlds we lived in.
And as Cocteau admonishes, only true believers can know a world other than the mundane. Beauty's sisters are too pragmatic even to receive a message from the Beast. Her father accepts the dreams sent to comfort him by the Beast, and Gervaine believes in the rumored enchantment of the forest and in Beauty's fate after she has drunk from the forest stream. Beauty herself develops her already strong instincts into a sixth sense so sharpened that she can not only see, hear, and smell the ordinary more keenly but also divine the invisible: envision the Beast in his palace from her country house without a magic glass (211); understand her attendant breezes' gossip.
As the mysterious becomes familiar, it is less awesome. One reviewer accused McKinley of fettering archetypes with concrete realization, of reducing the larger-than-life to normal. Another critic countered this charge with a defense of the book's fairytale facets, quoting Tolkien on the creation of a Secondary World.
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.
(In Tolkien, "Tree and Leaf" 74-75)
Fairy tales assume belief, on either a literal or symbolic plane. Fantasies assume only a suspension of disbelief; the rest is a matter of persuasion. As McKinley told me when I interviewed her in 1983, it was her determination to make the story immediate to contemporary readers, to keep the fantastical effect to a minimum and thus obey the rules of convincing fantasy.
The next version also falls into the realm more of fantasy than of faerie. Angela Carter's 13-page story, "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," published in 1982 in a collection called Elsewhere: Tales of Fantasy, Vol. II, has a modern setting of English country manor and London hotel suite. The characters are only four: Beauty, her father, the Beast (Mr. Lyon), and a liver-and-white King Charles spaniel that figures strategically in the plot (an interesting addition in light of the British variant of 425A, "The Small-Tooth-Dog"). The narrative, covering midwinter to early spring, begins with Beauty waiting for her father, but his car is stuck in a snowstorm. Entering the wrought-iron gates of "a miniature, perfect, Palladian house that seemed to hide itself shyly behind snow-laden skirts of an antique cypress (121), the father shelters within to find himself welcomed by the spaniel with whiskey, roast-beef (thick-sliced and rare) sandwiches, and a telephone placed at his disposal. On his way out, he sees one last perfect rose clinging to a wintery bush and steals it. "At that, every window of the house blazed with furious light and a fugal baying, as of a pride of lions, introduced his host" (124).
Beauty's father pleads his case and shows the Beast a photograph of Beauty, whereupon father and daughter are commanded to come to dinner. At dinner it is suggested that her father's business problems will be reversed with the help of the Beast's lawyers if Beauty accepts country hospitality while her father proceeds to London. Forcing a smile, she agrees and spends the winter in luxury. Her growing companionship with the Beast terminates abruptly with her father's summons to London high society, to which his success has restored him. Beauty remembers the Beast but abnegates her promise to return until one day the bedraggled spaniel appears and urgently shepherds her back to the dying Beast, whom she kisses, transforms, and marries.
Carter has grafted the old onto the new here with some brilliant writing and subtle structure maneuvers that render her abbreviated account effective. There is even space for a few telling descriptions, as in the opening forecast.
Outside her kitchen window, the hedgerow glistened as if the snow possessed a light of its own; when the sky darkened towards evening, an unearthly, reflected pallor remained behind upon the winter's landscape, while still the soft flakes floated down. This lovely girl, whose skin possesses that same inner light so you would have thought she, too, was made of snow, pauses in her chores in the mean kitchen to look out at the country road. Nothing has passed that way all day; the road is white and unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin.
Later passages are trimmed but synchronized for maximum impact, especially in the repetition of rose and lion images.
The aura of timelessness, underscored by these changes from past to present and vice versa, imbues, even overwhelms, present-day trivia; "… he knew by the pervasive atmosphere of a suspension of reality that he had entered a place of privilege where all the laws of the world he knew need not necessarily apply …" (122). The lion's-head knocker is made not of brass, as he first thinks, but of gold, with agate eyes. The spaniel waits for him on a Kelim runner. The Beast himself appears as a "leonine apparition" in a step back from the action, literally a double-spaced break in the text.
There is always a dignity about great bulk, an assertiveness, a quality of being more there than most of us are. The being who now confronted Beauty's father seemed to him, in his confusion, vaster than the house he owned, ponderous yet swift, and the moonlight glittered on his great, mazy head of hair, on the eyes green as agate, on the golden hairs of the great paw that grasped his shoulders so that their claws pierced the sheepskin as he shook him like an angry child shakes a doll.
Beauty, later caught up in a swirl of London activities, is "so far away from the timeless spell of his house it seemed to possess the radiant and finite quality of dream and the Beast himself, so monstrous, so benign, some kind of spirit …" (13). Beauty herself at first possesses the timeless quality.
The camera has captured a certain look she had sometimes, of absolute sweetness and absolute gravity, as if her eyes might pierce appearances and see your soul.
The reader is aware only of this inner beauty until she begins to be corrupted by empty society and sees in the mirror a "lacquer of prettiness"—accompanied by Carter's first real physical description of her. It is a far cry from her reflection in the Beast's eyes, when "she saw her face repeated twice, as small as if it were in bud" (128).
She perceives early on that "her visit to the Beast must be, on some magically reciprocal scale, the price of her father's good fortune" and refers to herself once as "Miss Lamb." She is also aware that this "restful time"—with its dinners of grilled veal, the rosewood revolving bookcases stocked with French fairy tales, the glass bed and fleecy towels, the "pastel-colored idleness"—is more than a holiday. For after their surprisingly easy conversations each night, he helplessly declares himself.
As she was about to rise, he flung himself at her feet and buried his head on her lap. She stayed stock-still, transfixed; she felt his hot breath on her fingers, the stiff bristles of his muzzle grazing her skin, the rough lapping of his tongue, and then, with a flood of compassion, understood: All he is doing is kissing my hands.
Always, she flinches from his touch, and even in tears at their parting, cannot drop upon his shaggy mane the kiss to which she feels moved. Her subsequent freedom fills her both with relief and a "desolating emptiness," which she rushes to fill, ironically, with flowers and furs. Yet there is no hesitation when the spaniel comes. The magic is almost dead in her heart as well as in the spring garden she finds unblooming, the house desolate.
The care taken with the last scene makes it one of the few transformations consistent in power with earlier portions of the story. Beauty flings herself on the dying Beast.
When her lips touched the meat-hook claws, they drew back into their pads and she saw how he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers. Her tears fell on his face like snow and, under their soft transformation, the bones showed through the pelt, the flesh through the wide, tawny brow. And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all the beasts.
From the first "dawning of surmise" on his face when the Beast sees Beauty's photograph to the understated triumph in his concluding request for breakfast, his gentleness and power are well-tempered. The "happily ever after" statement, too, offers a perfectly contained telescopic view: "Mr. and Mrs. Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals" (133).
Carter's success in "updating" the story without losing its timeless quality is carried one step farther by Tanith Lee in her futuristic "Beauty," a 40-page selection from a collection called Red as Blood that was included in The American Library Association's 1983 list of Best Books for Young Adults. This version features an essential difference, however, in addition to the science fiction elaboration of setting. The focal transformation is clearly and overtly Beauty's, never the Beast's, and is completely inner. The Beast's physical form is a matter of revelation and permanent acceptance.
The characters include Mercator Levin, his three daughters—Lyra, Joya, and Estar—and a nameless alien residing on Earth. The narrative is sectioned into four parts, starting with Levin on his way home from a successful space voyage. Upon docking his cargo, he receives the dreaded green rose, a summons rarely but irrevocably handed to earth families by powerful resident aliens for a son or daughter of the household. The homecoming party (it is Levin's 155th birthday) becomes an occasion for selecting which child will go, but the decision is quick. Lyra is a precocious musician committed to career and lover. Joya is four month's pregnant. Estar, the restless spirit never at home in her own family or society, fills all the omens; she had even, ironically, asked her father to bring her a rose from his travels. There follows the background story of the aliens' mysterious requests and their victims' apparent freedom, contradicted by the increasing sadness of these select young people on visits home that eventually cease altogether.
In the second section, Estar leaves home confused and enraged, settles into the alien's estate, and after a month of refusing to see him, finally invites a confrontation. He is completely covered, in deference to humans' reaction to his kind's reputedly hideous form, but Estar discovers a telepathic rapport with him unlike anything she has known. Over the course of conversations, dinners, and walks in the garden, she grows to love him.
The third section sees her back home for a visit, during which she feels isolated from her family and finally anxious to get back to the alien. Deeply disturbed by her own and her family's uncertainty about the alien's ultimate motives—specifically whether he will become her lover—she asks him to reveal himself, something Joya has urged to relieve Estar's state of anxious limbo. When he does, she returns to her family—at the beginning of the last section—in speechless shock, which they and the reader attribute to the horror of the alien's appearance. Nevertheless, she is drawn back, and only at the conclusion does the reader learn that the Beast is so strangely beautiful that Estar cannot hope to be loved in return.
Then he reveals to her the story of her own birth and the real reason behind the alien's residence and summons. Their perfection, it seems, had led to sterility until a method of embryo implantation, secretly done in women who miscarried and awoke from a drugged state believing themselves lucky enough to have retained their babies, resulted in children with physical attributes of the host body but souls of their alien parents. Eventually these children grew into a restless maturity that signalled, via the aura of a rose planted at their birth, the time they should return to their real culture and a companion with whom, because of their physical alterations, they could bear children that would survive. The restless Estar has found her rightful home and perfectly compatible mate.
The environmental adornments distract very little from the essential themes of the story. Household robots, ultimately equipped transports, weather control, the man-made mountain and dwelling of the alien are all more scene-setting than interfering, to the author's credit. Tapes, consoles, and serving mechanisms echo libraries and palatial conveniences of past versions. A voice-bead hovers "in the air like a tame bird" (Lee, "Beauty" 179) or comes "to perch on her fingers, … a silly affectionate ruse … that it was somehow creaturally alive" (196) in reflection of consoling creature-companions in Beauty's previous isolations.
The garden receives its symbolic emphasis, with a twist, in descriptions of illuminated flowers from another planet "mutating gently among the strands of terrestrial vegetation" (183):
Three feet high, a flower like an iris with petals like dark blue flames allowed the moon to climb its stem out of the valley below.. . . . .
Alien roses, very tall, the color of water and sky, not the blood and blush, parchment, pallor and shadow shades of Earth. She walked through a wheatfield of roses….
The summons rose itself, "slender as a tulip, its petals a pale and singing green" has "no thorns, or rather only one and that metaphysical, if quite unbearably penetrating" (170).
It is not so much the details of the story that create its self-conscious tone, but a jug-saw-puzzle effect manipulating readers towards the protagonist's "raison d'Estar" (178). The pieces of the puzzle, however—both the story-within-a-story subplots and the build-up of suspense—are cleverly fitted. Through Levin's foreboding, the apprehension engendered by the alien's suggested hideousness, and Estar's reactions themselves, one is prepared for but still intrigued by her fate, a quality of the earlier fairy tale.
Levin's foreboding begins immediately on the first page with his consideration of Estar, "ill-named for a distant planet, meaning the same as the Greek word for psyche" (168). He worries about her inability to express or fulfill herself, in sharp contrast with his other two daughters. "She did not reach to kiss him as the others did, restrained, perhaps inhibited" (172). Her life seems as uncertain as her birth—she was nearly aborted. Her preferences in dress, decoration, and reading run to the archaic.
Aware that she is a misfit, she is not yet prepared to be sacrificed to the unknown. The reader suffers her anxiety through artfully planted disclosures. It is rumored that the aliens
covered their ugliness with elegant garments, gloves, masking draperies, hoods and visors. Yet … there were those things which now and then must be revealed, some inches of pelted hairy skin, the gauntleted over-fingered hands, the brilliant eyes empty of white, lensed by their yellow conjunctiva.
When the alien finally appears to Estar, "Not a centimeter of body surface showed," leaving her to speculate the worst. At dinner, "the blank shining mask" (184) rearranges itself disconcertingly as he eats, the visor "constructed of separable atoms and molecules" (183). Even his voice is distorted by some mechanism to avoid its offending her kind.
The reactions of Estar herself to an unknown threat range through stages of self-knowledge: confusion, fear, control, honesty, and understanding. At first she defines the issue as one of power: she is angry that there is no choice. But then it appears she is "not a slave, not a pet. She was free as air" (181). When she tells the alien she wants to return home forever, he senses instantly it is a lie to herself. She does not want to leave the table. The fear of the sexuality to which her love would inevitably lead causes her to let it go unrecognized. She plays hide-and-seek games to elude him, but he simply does not appear. Her plans to escape become daydreams in which he finds her. She dreams of him before his uncovering and after. She experiences the strangeness of her own home, where she has become an alien. There, her face takes on the pain common to other victims.
The expression of the children of Earth sacrificed to monsters or monstrous gods, given in their earthly perfection to dwell with beasts. That dreadful demoralizing sadness, that devouring fading in the face of the irreparable.
But of course, she is really coming into her own and "unable to reveal her secret…. They would not realize her sadness was all for them" (208).
Sexuality is acknowledged overtly as a key issue from her father's and sisters' direct inquiries, through her own conflicts, to the minute description of the alien unmasked.
The hirsute pelt which covered his kind was a reality misinterpreted, misexplained. It was most nearly like the fur of a short-haired cat yet in actuality resembled nothing so much as the nap of velvet. He was black, like her sister Joya, yet the close black nap of fur must be tipped, each single hair, with amber; his color had changed second to second, as the light or dark found him, even as he breathed, from deepest black to sheerest gold. His well-made body was modeled from these two extremes of color, his fine musculature, like that of a statue, inked with ebony shadows, and highlighted by gilding. Where the velvet sheathing faded into pure skin, at the lips, nostrils, eyelids, genitals, the soles of the feet, palms of the hands, the flesh itself was a mingling of the two shades, a somber cinnamon, couth and subtle, sensual in its difference, but not shocking in any visual or aesthetic sense. The inside of his mouth, which he had also contrived to let her see, was a dark golden cave in which conversely the humanness of the white teeth was in fact itself a shock. While at his loins the velvet flowed into a bearded blackness, long hair like unraveled silk; the same process occurred on the skull, a raying mane of hair, very black, very silken, its edges burning out through amber, ochre, into blondness—the sun- burst of a black sun. The nails on his six long fingers, the six toes of his long and arched feet, were the tint of new dark bronze, translucent, bright as flames. His facial features were large and of a contrasting fineness, their sculptured quality at first obscured, save in profile, but the sequential ebb and flare of gold and black, and the domination of the extraordinary eyes. The long cinnamon lids, the thick lashes that were not black but startlingly flaxen—the color of the edges of the occipital hair—these might be mistaken for human. But the eyes themselves could have been made from two highly polished citrines, clear saffron, darkening around the outer lens, almost to the cinnamon shade of the lids, and at the center by curiously blended charcoal stages to the ultimate black of the pupil. Analogously, they were like the eyes of a lion, and perhaps all of him lionlike, maybe, the powerful body, its skin unlike a man's, flawless as a beast's skin so often was, the pale-fire edged mane.
Here, too, is a religious aspect that appears strongly throughout the story to the last page (along with the sensuousness of the acceptance kiss). Estar loves the alien "spontaneously, but without any choice" (208), in exact parallel with Protestant theological explanation of predestination. Those without grace—the family and friends of the saved—do not understand.
And when she no longer moved among them, they would regret her, and mourn for her as if she had died. Disbelieving or forgetting that in any form of death, the soul—Psyche, Estar (well-named)—refinds a freedom and a beauty lost with birth.
Estar's death, referred to repeatedly—"she felt as if some part of her had died" (196), a drugged sleep "aping the release of death" (198)—ends in resurrection. Her redemption comes through confirmation of her Otherness.5
The determined, humorless intensity of the vision is especially marked in contrast to light incorporations of the story in mass market versions, mentioned earlier, or teenage romances that arbitrarily use the story's themes at a superficial level. Halfyard and Rose's Kristin and Boone (1983), for example, centers on a television production of "Beauty and the Beast" in which adolescent actors become involved with each other and their physically deformed director. Barbara Cohen's 1984 Roses plumbs the story somewhat more deeply in a modern parallel of the father-daughter-suitor triangle, with the suitor role divided into two characters. The Beast is a hideously deformed middle-aged florist who hires beautiful young Isabel in seeking redemption for a death he once caused an actress resembling her. High school senior Rob understands Isabel's fear of physical closeness to be a result of her mother's early death, seeks to overcome it with loving patience, and wins his suit.
Certainly the metaphors for self-acceptance and reconciliation with the Other that appear in "Beauty and the Beast" are commonly borrowed. In 1982, millions of children around the U.S. caught their breath in hushed sorrow as a small boy cried over the dying form of his ugly, extra-terrestial friend. The same children clapped and cheered with released tension as the beast's heart, dead by all measurement of medical machinery, relit suddenly into a bright throbbing red at the boy's words, "I Love You." The terrifying unknown had been transformed into the affectionate familiar. In the film E.T., the motif of "Beauty and the Beast" rose like a phoenix and captured the imagination of yet another generation.
Scores of picture books, including the Caldecott Award-winning Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (Goble, 1978), an illustrated native American legend about the human adapting to the animal—reveal intriguing parallels with "Beauty and the Beast." The very problem of spiritual versus materialistic values—a theme central to the story—is enough to turn the art forms of a computerized world that seemingly threatens literary tradition back to the fairy tale for plot, characters, and motifs.
The archaic force of Barrett's paintings, the nostalgic fairyland of Goode's, the Egyptian symbolism in Mayer's, the classical/Christian iconography in Hague's, the medieval setting for Foreman's, the Persian splendor of Hutton's are all efforts to reach into the past for better understanding of the present in terms of the story. There are indeed stronger religious overtones in the versions of this period, notably Mayer's, Hague's, and Lee's, than in any other. Love as the only possible resurrecting force is a theme of unequaled importance in a nuclear age.
The three women—McKinley, Carter, and Lee—who have extended the tale into fantasy and science fiction have focused more than any other writers on the kinship between Beauty and the Beast. Their concept of the relationship is not so much the romantic courtship of old, as a deeper connection out of loneliness for both characters. Since the Beast is obviously an alien to society already, it is Beauty on whom they concentrate, a person who seems to have been tai- lored for social fitness but in fact feels alienated or isolated (although both McKinley and Lee's sister figures are supportive and never ostracize Beauty). Lee's Estar (like Gabrielle Villeneuve's Beauty in the eighteenth century) is not even the Merchant's real daughter, and it is her version that most radically projects the alienation theme to a conclusion of Beauty's permanent separation from family and earth environment for her coupling with an untransformed alien.
This is a curious update of Cocteau's identification with the alienated Beast and one resolved quite differently. Where his ending whisked the two away in glamorous flight, Carter and McKinley show a settled couple who have reached an accord with equal measures of sympathy and humor. One walks in the garden with their old dog; the other prepares for a marriage that graces the long hard testing of having lived together and squabbled as well as having dined elegantly at nine.
In all three, the exercise of maturation for Beauty seems less a release from Oedipal involvement than an adventure in self-discovery that goes beyond traditional self-acceptance. Honour Huston, the future Mrs. Lyon, and Estar Levin are all strong protagonists who deal with fate willfully in spite of their vulnerability. The eighteenth century's liberation of Beauty from Psyche's physical captivity and emotional bondage in "Cupid and Psyche" is paralleled here with greater force.
Each writer varies characters, events, viewpoints, and details of the Beast's habitat with imaginative relish but cleaves to the central characters, narrative structures, and images: the leading cast of Beauty, Beast, and Merchant, the rose, the seasonal cycle, the city/country foil, the garden of confrontation and knowledge, the journey of maturation, the magical tides of time, space, and dreams. Each has tried to retain fairy tale within fantasy.
The question arises, with a growing trend toward variation on the story: when is a remodelled version no longer the same tale? Whether the variations are textual, with realistic or fantastical elaboration, or visual, as in the contemporary plethora of picture books illustrating Beaumont's basic story, "Beauty and the Beast" is still identifiable by its core elements. Each year adds more versions: Anne Carter's retelling illustrated by Binetter Schroeder in 1986; Mary Pope Osborne's adaptation illustrated by Winslow Pinney Pels in 1987; the popular 1987 CBS television series about a misfit in underground New York who loves a beautiful lawyer. The tale's survival through so many re-creations would seem to demonstrate the fact that plurality does not dissipate a story but may in fact be healthy and even essential to its continuation. Living things change. Printing and reproduction have not frozen these tales. Before printing, every telling varied around a central pattern. Now multiple printed and illustrated versions vary around a central pattern. Acting, dancing, filming, painting, cartooning have not decreased the imaginative power of the story.
Roger Sale in Fairy Tales and After seems to idealize the oral tradition as a high point after which the literary became self- and audience-directed. The old tradition bearers, Sale claims, shared "a power that has been lost or debased in the latter days" (45). Yet there is little evidence that storytelling in non-literate cultures is not audience- and self-directed. Texts do not include body language, tempo, nuances of successful or unsuccessful adjustment. Storytelling at its best has always been a sophisticated craft, whatever the medium. The technological era is similar to the oral tradition in many ways. There are simply too many parallels across time among storytellers, whether they are talking, singing, acting, writing, painting, or dancing, to identify some set point of development or deterioration in the total artistic spectrum.
Jane Yolen contends in her provocative essay "American Cinderella" on Disney's version of "Cinderella" that "the magic of the old tales has been falsified, the true meaning lost, perhaps forever (in Dundes 303). Although she cites persuasive evidence from current media, the effects of mass market dissemination on the shaping of a story may not justify such a sense of doom. We have developed a fairy tale about fairy tales, that in print or on film they become culturally, textually, and graphically fixed. Some critics, including J. R. R. Tolkien and Bruno Bettelheim, have even deplored the illustration of fairy tales as further limiting them to a frozen confine (Tolkien 95; Bettelheim 59-60). Of course, what can become fixed is, by implication, fixable, perfectable. The version of the tale closest to the oral tradition, or most compatible with a set theory, or best suited to an aesthetic definition, or simply dearest to a childhood memory is the truest. This assumption of an ideal, in either form or meaning, is not necessarily a bad thing and may in fact figure in the story's perpetuation. Yet the power of radically different versions, the elastic nature of story, is undeniable and common to printed as well as oral versions.
Following this tale through its first centuries of printed history, in the countries that shared the earliest and greatest impact of its publication, shows that literary versions have varied in storytelling patterns reflective of oral tradition. Certain central elements of structure have supported a range of differences in style and meaning. Stories pass back and forth between oral and literary traditions, are told, written down, read, remembered, retold. Books go in and out of print. Celluloid deteriorates, the image from which it is made falls out of fashion. A film is considered old after 10 years. A book is considered old after 25 years, rare after 75. Over the course of a hundred years, literary versions differ substantially. By folkloristic standards that is a short time. We have barely arrived at a point when enough time has elapsed to allow perspective on a story's development in literate societies. Cartoon versions can make a story affecting—or disembowel it. The criticism of popularized versions is sometimes justified. But powerful new forms accompany them as well. There is also the growing factor of mass production; as more of everything becomes available, good as well as bad, quantity itself comes under fire as potentially depersonalizing. Many criticisms of cheap, gutted, or bowdlerized versions seem based on an objection to something originally commonplace—now accepted because of age and tradition—becoming newly commonplace.
Folktales are not always profound or even coherent, much less moving. No telling is above modification. Wilhelm Grimm's tidying up tales to suit society had an impact as pervasive as Disney's. And the Grimms, needless to say, didn't "fix" them, either in the sense of freezing them or in the sense of achieving a terminal ideal. It was the Grimms' versions that touched off rebellious new forms such as Anne Sexton's fairy tale poetry or Tanith Lee's fictional reworkings. The strong story is greater than any of its tellings. The core elements remain because they are magnetic to each other, structurally, and to people, variably but almost universally.
To some extent, scholars of the fairy tale have added their voices to the storytellers. Interpretations vary as widely as versions of the tale: Freudians, Jungians, Marxists, feminists have all attributed different meanings to it. Usually these meanings are both insightful and contradictory; sometimes they are limited by an attempt to fit story into theory rather than generate theory from story; and often they do not take into account the tale's multiple variants. Whether it appears in the form of a Buddhist moral tale, a Scandinavian folktale, a French romance, an English chapbook, or an American picture book, "Beauty and the Beast" has a nucleus of elements that has survived cultural, historical, economic, and aesthetic change. The flexibility of the metaphor allows for a range of adaptation and interpretation. The story has outlived many theories and will outlast many more.
1. Hearne, "Beauty and the Beast": Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale (U of Chicago P, 1989) explores the origins and variations of the tale through two and a half centuries.
2. "Notes," Library of Congress catalogue printout under most "Beauty and the Beast" entries.
3. I have examined the area of publishing economics and its impact on fairy tale dissemination in a paper called "Booking the Brothers Grimm: Art, Adaptations, and Economics," Book Research Quarterly, Winter 1987, 18-32.
4. These two remarks were among many written in response to several school library sessions in which a librarian read aloud different picture book versions of "Beauty and the Beast."
5. The tale of "Cupid and Psyche" had also inspired a religiously charged novel by C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (San Diego: Harcourt, 1956), with an ending dominated by Christian mysticism.
Apy, Deborah. Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Michael Hague. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.
Beauty and the Beast. Aunt Mary's Series. New York: McLoughlin Brothers and Co., 1856.
Beauty and the Beast. Coronet Films. 1979.
Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Etienne Delessert. Mankato, Minnesota: Creative Education Inc., 1984.
Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Hilary Knight. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Karen Milone. Mahwah, New Jersey: Troll Associates, 1981.
Beauty and the Beast. Produced by Shelly Duvall. A Faerie Tale Theatre Production, 1984.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Knopf, 1976.
Briggs, Katherine M., and Ruth L. Tongue. Folktales of England. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1965.
Carter, Angela, ed. Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales. Translated by Angela Carter and illustrated by Michael Foreman. North Pomfret, Vermont: Victor Gollancz/David & Charles, 1982.
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Carter, Anne. Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Binette Schroeder. New York: Potter/Crown, 1986.
Cocteau, Jean. Beauty and the Beast. Film, 1946.
———. Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.
———. Beauty and the Beast: Scenario and Dialogs. New York: New York UP, 1970.
Cohen, Barbara. Roses. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, 1984.
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Delarue, Paul, and Marie-Louise Tenèze. Le Conte Populaire Français: Catalogue Raisonne Des Versions de France et des pays de langue française d'outremer; Canada, Louisiane, Ilots française des États-Unis, Antilles françaises, Haïti, Ile Maurice, La Réunion. Tome Deuxième. Paris: Éditions G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1964.
Dundes, Alan, ed. Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982.
Fast, Jonathan. The Beast. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.
Goble, Paul. Buffalo Woman. Scarsdale, New York: Bradbury Press, 1984.
———. The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses. Scarsdale, New York: Bradbury Press, 1978.
Gray, Nicholas Stuart. Beauty and the Beast: A Play for Children. Illustrated by Joan Jefferson Farjeon. London: Oxford UP, 1951.
Halfyard, Lynda, and Rose, Karen. Kristin and Boone. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
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Hearne, Betsy, "Booking the Brothers Grimm: Art, Adaptation, and Economics." Book Research Quarterly, January 1987, 18-32.
Holme, Bryan, ed. Tales from Times Past. New York: Viking Press (A Studio Book), 1977.
Hutton, Warwick. Beauty and the Beast. New York: Atheneum/A Margaret K. McElderry Book, 1985.
Jones, Olive, ed. Beauty and the Beast. Little Box of Fairy Tales, illustrated by Francesca Crespi. New York: Dial, 1983.
Lang, Andrew. Blue Fairy Book. Revised and edited by Brian Alderson from the 1889 edition. New York: Viking, 1978.
Le Prince de Beaumont, Madame. Beauty and the Beast. Translated and illustrated by Diane Goode. New York: Bradbury Press, 1978.
———. Le Magasin des enfans, ou dialogues entre une sage gouvernante et plusiers de ses élèves de la première distinction. Par Made. Le Prince de Beaumont. Londres: J. Haberkorn, 1756.
———. The Young Ladies Magazine, or Dialogues between a Discreet Governess and Several Young Ladies of the First Rank under Her Education. 4 vols. in 2. London: J. Nourse, 1760. (A sequel to the Young Misses Magazine)
Lee, Tanith. "Beauty." Red as Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. New York: Daw Books, 1983.
Lenkoff, Irene. Beauty and the Beast: Yes & Know Invisible Ink Fairy Tale Storybook. Louisville Kentucky: Lee Publications, 1980.
Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. San Diego: A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1956.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
Mayer, Marianna. Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Mercer Mayer. New York: Four Winds Press, 1978.
Opie, Iona and Peter. The Classic Fairy Tales. London: Oxford UP, 1974.
Osborne, Mary Pope. Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Winslow Pinney Pels. New York: Scholastic, 1987
Pearce, Philippa. Beauty and the Beast. Illustrated by Alan Barrett. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972.
Provensen, Alice and Martin. The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales. Random House, 1971.
Richards, Laura E. Gordon Browne's Series of Old Fairy Tales #2: Beauty and the Beast. London: Black and Son, 1886.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.
Simon, Robert A. Beauty and the Beast: An Opera in One Act for the Music of Vittorio Giannini. New York: G. Ricordi and Co., 1951.
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Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
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Anne Lundin (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Lundin, Anne. "Beauty: The Honor of Belief." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 187-91. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Lundin offers a brief history of the "Beauty and the Beast" fable and lauds the thematic scope of Beauty, McKinley's contemporized retelling of the fairy tale.]
In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes: "Books swept me away, one after the other, this way and that; I made endless vows according to their lights for I believed them" (85). This passage especially pleases me in its connection with childhood and literature. As Graham Greene notes, "Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives…. But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future" (13). The nature of such fervent belief—portrayed as the most honorable of virtues—is at the heart of Robin McKinley's Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, a 1998 Phoenix Award Honor Book.
"Beauty and the Beast" is a literary fairy tale of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1711-80), who was born in Rouen and given an excellent education. She made a name for herself through her English publications: short stories in magazines, collections of anecdotes, fairy tales, commentaries, and essays. Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast" (1756) is based on Mme. De Vileneuve's longer narrative (1740). Beaumont's intention in her shortened version was to stress the proper upbringing of young women, which included teaching the virtues of industry, self-sacrifice, modesty, and diligence. Indeed, many older fairy tales exist, telling of young girls who marry various creatures or objects who then turn human, or who exhibit some variation of the Cupid and Psyche myth. Betsy Hearne's scholarly study, Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale, traces myriad variations over three centuries and examines twenty-two versions in depth.
Among the many adaptations of this classic tale, McKinley's novel is perhaps the most radical in change. Beauty is the narrator, and she is no beauty in the traditional sense. Her real name is "Honour," but she found that meaning too abstract and asked for the nickname "Beauty," which was really what she sought. This is no vain creature, however, but a reader: one who savors Greek and Roman literature and who, as a self-taught scholar, is well versed in mythology and its fantastic landscapes. The wicked sisters are no more but are just sisters. The family's fortunes are reversed, and they move from affluence to a life of shared domestic labor in a house nestled near a mysterious forest, which is, we learn, the domain of the Beast. In travel from the known into the unknown, the novel moves from fairy tale to fantasy, where disbelief is suspended, and another kind of belief begins. In the Beast's enchanted castle, a library is full of books that haven't yet been written, books by people like Browning and Kipling and C. S. Lewis. Beauty and the Beast read aloud to each other. Their solitude is richly peopled. In the castle, mirror-less because the Beast is sensitive to his looks, even after two hundred years, Beauty grows into her name as she learns to love the Beast.
Beauty's sense of belief is instilled early. Despite the impossibility of a young woman pursuing an education in "good earnest," she is mildly encouraged by her bemused father, who smiles at her question and says, "‘We'll see.’" Beauty writes: "Since I believed my father could do anything—I worked and studied with passionate dedication, lived in hope, and avoided society and mirrors" (6).
When asked by her brother-in-law, Ger, to promise not to reveal to her sisters the legends and lore about the forest and not to enter it, she agrees but writes, "I disliked promises on principle because my conscience made me keep them" (45). She rejoins with a request that he too promise the same if it is so dangerous for her, and Ger replies, "‘You're half witch yourself, I sometimes think; the forest would probably leave you alone’" (46).
When the Beast demands restitution for the stolen rose after a generous, although anonymous, display of hospitality, the Beast cries, "‘Your misfortunes have robbed you of your sense of honour, as you would rob me of my roses’" (72). The Beast asks for the father's life or one of his daughters in his place, who must come freely in order to save her father's life—and she must be courageous enough to be separated from home and from everything she knows. Beauty, enacting her true name of Honour, declares herself ready for the challenge. Despite the fearsome prospect, she comforts her father with the speculation, "‘Cannot a Beast be tamed?’" (79). After the decision, on a sleepless night, Beauty muses: "Why was I so determined? I believed that my decision was correct, and that I and no other should fulfill the obligation; but a sense of responsibility, if that was what is was, did not explain the intensity of my determination" (81). When she and her father make the fateful journey back to the castle, Beauty resolves to hide her feelings:
I knew I could go on, but I wanted to do it with dignity; if Father said anything it was likely I would cry, and then the journey would be a great deal more miserable than it was at present, with nothing more dreadful between us than the grim and thoughtful silence that we shared.
Beauty learns from the Beast that he would have simply set her father free, but notes that she would have lived in shame, knowing that she was ready to sacrifice his life. He says, "‘In time it would have ruined your peace and happiness, and at last your mind and heart’" (115). While the Beast states that he as a beast has no honor, he guarantees her safety and asks only for her company. As he says, "‘I welcome Beauty and Honour both, then. Indeed, I am very fortunate’" (118).
Beauty is aware of invisible maids—two attendant breezes—who wait on her every wish. She is able to hear them, despite that improbability. Beauty remembers back to an old governess, Miss Dixon, who
disliked fairy tales and disapproved of witches, who believed that magicians invariably exaggerated their abilities; and once, exasperated at my favourite game of playing dragons, which involved jumping out of trees, told me rather sharply that a creature as big and heavy as a dragon probably spent most of its life on the ground, wings or no wings.
Despite this early training, Beauty is quite able to believe in the fantastic. In fact, her ability to see the future in a magic glass, or nephrite plate, brings about the resolution of the story, in which she discovers her true feelings for the Beast during a visit home, which is nearly disastrous but ultimately rewarding, as every true fairy tale should be.
Like Beauty's journey into the Perilous Realm, this first novel by Robin McKinley, written at age twenty-four, was a risky undertaking: a deviation from the traditional lore and the transformation of the old story into a 247-page fantasy for young adults. The author acknowledges that it remains her favorite fairy tale, which suggests Yeats's statement that for each of us there is a myth that if we but knew it, it could direct our lives. When it appeared in 1978, the book received, on the whole, positive reviews, with the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books the most laudatory. Noting the adaptations of the novel, the reviewer, in a starred review, found "the whole thing delightful." The Horn Book Magazine appreciated both its invention and its faithfulness to theme in "a style that records Beauty's impressions and emotions accurately and precisely, and transitions from the real to the extra-real are made believable." Booklist acknowledged the book's "style and holding power," with something to offer "casual readers on the one hand and fields of thought and comparison to those who delve further." School Library Journal thought the book as a fantasy-gothic would be popular with girls who like period romances. Kirkus Reviews agreed on the age and gender appeal but found the tale rather undistinguished: "no shift in viewpoint, no special perspective (Freudian or whatever), no witty embroidery or extra dimension of any sort."
That judgment departs from my own, as I see many new threads in the tale spun. The new tale—the full-bodied novel—is well attuned to rites of passage, a persistent theme in modern teenage fiction. It is a tale ripe with romance and sexuality. The story is told in the immediacy of first person, in which the reader can enter the protagonist's inner world. Beauty is given more choices, since she is not victimized by jealous sisters and an omnipotent father. She—and the Beast—both shy from mirrors, as they are not gratified by the gaze. True beauty takes maturation: an acceptance of one's own physicality, an embrace of the Other, a sense of the mystery of creation, a belief in oneself and a world worth the venture.
As Tolkien reminds us about belief there is credulity, literary belief, and, of most importance in fantasy, secondary belief, where an author creates a secondary world so believable that we as readers want to enter. Belief is not make-believe or willing suspension of disbelief; it is more of an enchanted state, where "you believe it, while you are, as it were, inside" (114). The kind of believing of a young, voracious Annie Dillard, or a divining Graham Greene. The sense of place in Robin McKinley's Beauty. The fantasy of Beauty is a kind of truth: a belief in revelation, in being known by true names, in the transforming power of love, in experiencing life's possible pleasures—where, in McKinley's last line, "above it all rang the wild music of bells and pipes and horns" (247).
Booklist 75 (15 September 1978): 222.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 32 (December 1978): 67.
Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Greene, Graham. The Lost Childhood and Other Essays. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1951.
Hearne, Betsy. Beauty and Beast: Vision and Revisions of an Old Tale. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
The Horn Book Magazine 55 (April 1979): 201.
Kirkus Reviews 46 (1 December 1978): 1307.
School Library Journal 25 (November 1978): 65.
Tolkien, J. R. R. "Children and Fairy Stories," Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, ed. Sheila Egoff. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. 111-120.
Ellen R. Sackelman (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Sackelman, Ellen R. "More Than Skin Deep: Robin McKinley's Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast." In Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender, edited by Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber, pp. 32-4. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.
[In the following essay, Sackelman commends McKinley's rejection of traditional gender roles for women in fairy tales in Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast.]
Robin McKinley's Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast examines the life and education of the title character as she resolves issues of self-image and self-worth. Set somewhere "once upon a time," McKinley's text redefines the role of the fairy-tale heroine and allows the protagonist, the youngest of three motherless sisters, to narrate her story in a matter-of-fact manner and explore her identity within the structure of her family, alone in captivity, and in the company of her lover. Beauty's numerous self-defining gestures help her recognize the difference between physical attractiveness and integrity, and resolve the discrepancy between the way she sees herself and the manner in which others do.
After her father is unable to provide 5-year-old Honour with a satisfactory explanation of what it means to be honorable, she renames herself Beauty and thus sets up the first of many contrasts to her gorgeous siblings. When she suffers from acne and oversized hands and feet during adolescence, Beauty admits that her self-chosen appellation had evolved into something of a gentle family joke. These and other wry observations engage even the most reluctant male readers, who may approach this novel with their own bias against the genre of fairy tales. Indeed, Beauty's subsequent refusal to allow her father to escort her past the gates to the Beast's castle and her nightly rejections of the Beast's marriage proposals distinguish her as a heroine not often encountered by young readers: a female voice negating male desires.
Prior to these instances when Beauty negotiates with male authority, McKinley reverses other familiar aspects of characterization within the genre. Instead of passively awaiting marriage, sequestering herself indoors, or perceiving herself as "a weak woman," as one sister does, the intrepid protagonist dreams of attending the university and reads voraciously. In addition, unlike her sisters, Beauty communicates with her father, and her affectionate exchanges with her brother-in-law foreshadow her own healthy, romantic relationship. Despite her obvious rejection of the roles her sisters occupy, Beauty does not reject or demean them, a welcome development to the way females interact with one another in fairy tales. En- couraged to closely contrast McKinley's depiction of familial relationships and gender roles to those in other well-known fairy tales, students begin to recognize their own conditioned, sexist expectations. Such realizations elicit reactions of surprise and heighten students' awareness of how deeply entrenched and frequently reinforced in everyday life gender stereotypes truly are.
McKinley's Beauty embodies a delightfully rebellious spirit as well as some traditional aspects of the female role. Functioning as nurturer, for example, Beauty has raised her own horse, even bottle-feeding it after the death of its mother. Her labor in the garden establishes her as an integral member of the family. However, like others who perform domestic duties in their own homes, Beauty is unable to recognize her value to her family. After her father attempts to fulfill her request for rose seeds, another symbol of the vitality that Beauty brings to her surroundings, she easily exchanges her life for his as a result of his bargain with the Beast.
She attributes her decision to leave her family and live with the Beast to what she believes is her worthlessness, namely, her looks. Of her sisters, she says she is the "ugliest." More than once in the course of the text, she refers to herself as having masculine—or unfeminine—attributes. For example, she claims that her household responsibilities can be maintained by "any lad in the village" (78). At the Beast's castle, she sees herself as a "poor plain girl," not worthy of dressing like a princess. Interestingly, Beauty refuses repeatedly to succumb to the elaborate wardrobe her invisible handmaidens make available to her, an assertive act not only emphasizing Beauty's determination to do as she pleases, but also serving as a reminder to the reader how paralyzing an obsession with looks can be. Yet, even after her declaration of unconditional love for the Beast releases him from his enchantment, Beauty questions whether she is attractive enough to be the wife of such a handsome man. Only in his company does she gain a sense of her comely appearance, and because of this, Beauty's moment of actualization may be perceived as a troubling one. In a text lacking an obvious villain, Beauty's poor self-image makes her her own worst enemy.
Strikingly, the relationship between Beauty and her Beast offers an alternative to love affairs in other pieces of fiction usually assigned to the teenage reader. Theirs is not as impulsive or as tragic a union as Romeo and Juliet's, nor is it as torturous as Pip's devotion to Estella. Rarely is Beauty described as powerless or passive. More than once, she is reminded that "she's stronger than she knows" (173). In fact, she determines the pace and nature of her interaction with her Beast, inviting him to share a sunset or a walk in the garden when she wants company. Additionally, with the Beast, Beauty is able to renew her education. Her thirst for knowledge, a trait her sisters disparaged, brings Beauty closer to him. They read together and often. McKinley's unconventional use of a flower to serve as a metaphor for the male protagonist's health and his misgivings about his appearance can propel discussion relevant to both sexes regarding literary characterizations and symbols typically associated with gender.
By the novel's close, Beauty is reunited with her family and set to marry a prince. In the final paragraphs of the text, she must name her husband, a task that recalls her earlier decision to name herself. The privilege in giving a human name to the Beast makes final and more significant Beauty's sense of control over her world.
Using Beauty in the classroom allows students to detect the pervasive gender bias in literature and/or video for young "readers" on which they have been raised. Asking them to analyze whether McKinley's text fulfills the criteria of the traditional fairy tale, or complies with parameters set forth by male-dominated quest legends, serves as an introduction to feminist literary theory. Thus, Beauty occupies an important place in the gender-balanced curriculum.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. New York: HarperCollins, 1978.
For Further Reading
Fisher, Jerilyn and Ellen S. Silber. "Fairy Tales, Feminist Theory and the Lives of Women and Girls." Analyzing the Different Voice: Feminist Psychological Theory and Literary Texts. Ed. Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Little-field, 1998, 67-95.
Heinke, Jill Birnie, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith. "Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine." Women's Voices. Feminist Visions. Ed. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 2001, 376-80.
Zipes, Jack. Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. New York: Routledge, 1987.
THE BLUE SWORD (1982)
Mike Cadden (essay date January 1997)
SOURCE: Cadden, Mike. "Home Is a Matter of Blood, Time, and Genre: Essentialism in Burnett and McKinley." ARIEL 28, no. 1 (January 1997): 53-67.
[In the following essay, Cadden explores how Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and McKinley's The Blue Sword portray cultural syncretism between different races.]
J. D. Stahl's point that "children's literature [is] one of the most forceful means of acculturation [and] reflects the cultural aims of imperial policy" (50) prompts me to consider what "forceful means of acculturation" children's literature has at its disposal. How can children's literature be imperialistic? What particular kinds of imperial philosophies might children's literature tend to reinforce? Children's texts that actually feature the act of colonialism in the narrative might be best used for answering these questions. How do such texts represent that imperial process to the child reader? What sorts of ideas are the focus in the imperialistic context? More specifically, what conclusions can we draw from the ways authors represent both a cultural "home" and cultural identity to children in different times and in different genres?
Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911) and Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword (1982)—two children's novels that portray the colonial condition—illustrate contrasting ways that children's fiction can depict essentialistic differences between peoples and their homes. The Secret Garden is a novel of realism written in a time when cultural difference could be equated with biological difference through metaphor in an unselfconscious narrative; The Blue Sword employs the genre of fantasy to depict insuperable essentialistic differences between peoples in a postmodern era that requires self-consciousness regarding colonialistic practices. While each book ultimately draws clear boundaries between East and West, The Blue Sword begins with an implied challenge to such divisions only to reify them even more forcefully through the use of fantasy. This book illustrates how children's literature is still a prime site for perpetuating essentialistic dichotomies among cultures, homes, and peoples.
Abdul JanMohamed has examined the ways that colonialist discourse imposes a distinction between cultures in terms of what he calls "Manichean Allegory." JanMohamed defines "Manichean Allegory" as "a field of diverse yet interchangeable oppositions between white and black, good and evil, superiority and inferiority, civilization and savagery, intelligence and emotion, rationality and sensuality, self and Other, subject and object" (82). The colonizer, represented by the first term in each paired set, indoctrinates his own people, consciously or not, in the ways of the colonialist. Literature—an excellent vehicle for perpetuating any ideology—can represent the colonialist binary through "imaginary" or "symbolic" means, JanMohamed argues. The imaginary colonialist text ignores the context in which the native lives and represents the native only in the context of the colonizer's values, and thereby necessarily objectifies the native. To say "native" in the imaginary colonialist text is the same as to say "evil" (85).
The author of the symbolic text, however, is "willing to examine the specific, individual, and cultural differences" between the colonizer and colonized in a self-conscious fashion. The symbolic text shows some measure of reflection regarding the "efficacy" of the colonizer's values (85) and often uses the colonial encounter itself as the subject of the narrative. The symbolic text will take one of two tacks in portraying that encounter: first, the text will represent characters engaged in cultural transcendence which results in a "melting pot" blend of cultures, or, second, it will (as JanMohamed says of Nadine Gordimer and Joseph Conrad) show that syncretism, or synthesis, is "impossible within the power relations of colonial society" (85) because of the deep discursive structures in place. The second type of symbolic text is different from the imaginary text in that the former is self-conscious about its own complicity in the colonial scene and attributes the failure to those cultural and discursive factors rather than to some inexplicable, essentialistic condition. However, it is only the self-conscious or self-aware text—the symbolic text—which has a chance of freeing the reader from the Manichean allegory through making it visible. The classic home/away dichotomy is one context for Manichean allegory in colonialist texts for children. When we consider the way each protagonist in these two novels thinks about and reacts to the idea of home, we see how the home is linked to racial essentialism. In both The Secret Garden and The Blue Sword, home is connected to issues of blood; the concept of blood, in turn, is represented through the metaphors of magic and disease in each book that mark the essential and insuperable divisions between cultures. While The Secret Garden is clearly an "imaginative" text, The Blue Sword seems to be a more complicated case than JanMohamed's system accounts for. The Blue Sword self-consciously reaches the conclusion about the racial insuperability of people. As fantasy, however, The Blue Sword can be a self-conscious contemporary text that claims essential differences without running the risk of condemnation. Such is the power of fantasy.
The Secret Garden and The Blue Sword argue that "home" is not necessarily the house in which one was born and raised; "home" is the home of one's people. The narrator of The Secret Garden describes Mary Lennox's change in setting from India to England as a return home despite the fact that Mary has never before lived in England. The text never questions Mary's "natural" relationship to England as "home," and the reader is unlikely to challenge the unselfconscious narrative. The narrator serves as the voice of unquestioned truth and authority in its third-person position: "The fact was that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of [Mary's] young brain and to waken her up a little" (51). The reassuring phrase "the fact was" provides us with indisputable narrative truth. The narrator goes on to attribute Mary's improved condition to her change in physical environment:
Never, never had Mary dreamed of a sky so blue. In India skies were hot and blazing…. The far-reaching world of the moor looked softly blue instead of gloomy purple-black or awful dreary gray…. In India she had always been too hot and languid and weak to care much about anything, but in this place she was beginning to care and to do new things … [and there was] no doubt that the fresh, strong, pure air from the moor had a great deal to do with it.
(64, 72; emphasis added)
The physical influence of India itself is blamed for many of Mary's physical and emotional woes. The narrator describes England as "fresh" and India as "languid" and encourages an equation between "Blue" and "England" as well as between "Gray" and "India"—colors replete with cultural associations. These value-laden descriptions go far toward persuading the reader to feel relief that Mary has "escaped" the land in which she was born and raised but which is clearly not home. Mary later qualifies her neutral observation that "India is quite different from Yorkshire" (73) when she states that she "never liked it in India" (117), though until that week she had nothing with which to compare it. But Mary has not come to England for the first time; she has "returned" somehow; she comes home to the place to which she has never been. Home, it appears, is in the blood tie to some place and people, and one must have this blood awakened through purposeful interaction with one's own race and in that race's ancestral home.
Despite the strong observations that environment is to blame for Mary's decline, three strong narrative voices argue that the Indians themselves constitute Mary's trouble in India. Martha attributes Mary's condition to the fact that "there's such a lot of blacks there instead o' respectable white people" (33);1 Mary screams at Martha: "You thought I was a native! You dared! You don't know anything about natives! They are not people—they're servants who must salaam to you" (33). The narrator reinforces the dichotomy between the human English and the mechanical, robot-like Indian with amused derision:
The native servants were always saying ["it was the custom"]. If one told them to do a thing their ancestors had not done for a thousand years they gazed at one mildly and said, "It is not the custom," and one knew that was the end of the matter.
We have it from three different narrative voices that the "natives" are not respectable, intelligent, nor even people. The English represent respectability, intelligence, flexibility, and, therefore, humanity. Mary's illness, despite the insistence of the three narrative voices, is not simply the result of being around non-people or of being "home"; rather the combination of being in the wrong land with the wrong people triggers a biological response: illness. This is homesickness in its most extreme manifestation. One needs to be in contact with one's own kind and in one's blood-homeland.2
The Blue Sword is the story of Harry (a diminutive of "Harriet"), a young woman from "Homeland" whose brother is a soldier stationed in the Eastern Colonial Province of Daria. Following the death of her father, Harry goes to the Darian outpost to be with her brother Richard. Harry finds herself drawn to the hills in an inexplicable way shortly after arriving in Daria. Corlath, King of the Hillfolk, kidnaps Harry and trains her to be a warrior who assumes the new name of "Harimad-Sol." The story centers on Harry's subsequent attempts to function as a bridge between two cultures.3The Blue Sword, then, also illustrates the results of being in the wrong place and with the wrong people. The Blue Sword, like The Secret Garden, reinforces a hierarchy based on land and the people—though with more interesting implications as a work published seven decades after The Secret Garden, and belonging to a different genre.
One character in The Blue Sword observes that Darians who live in the "Homelander" outpost "do work for you, or with you, [and] are very eager to prove how Homelander they really are, and loyal to all things Homelander" (27). These "natives" are products of the hegemonic forces at work over a longtime occupation and have themselves internalized the binary of superior/inferior, much as the "domesticated" Indians of Burnett's novel have. The Darians are "infected" by the Homelanders on the outpost despite being "home" in Daria; Darians, it seems, are easily dispossessed of their own home because of the intoxicating presence of the Homelanders. The Homelanders, by contrast, deal well enough in a completely different "atmosphere" because they are among a concentrated number of the "right" people, though they are clearly not unaffected by being in Daria. The Homelanders are clearly a heartier, more versatile race—as a colonist must be. Even the Homelanders, however, must stay with their own kind to stay strong; as Mary found the combination of being surrounded by her Indian servants and being in India debilitating, neither the Homelanders nor the Darians can afford to be both in the wrong place and with the wrong folks.
So far, so good, but when comic deceptions of this sort are woven, unforeseen complications are bound to arise that all but ruin the deceiver's scheme. In the present instance, an indignant moneylender named Misargyrides unexpectedly turns up demanding repayment for all the money he has lent Philolaches. Theopropides is puzzled by this, especially when he learns of the enormous debt that his son has run up. When Tranio urges him to settle the debt, he asks the inevitable embarrassing question: for what purpose was the money borrowed? On the spur of the moment, Tranio comes up with the answer that Philolaches borrowed it to raise the down payment on a new house. After all, since the old one proved to be haunted, a new one was necessary. Theopropides is pleased by this sensible purchase, but asks another inevitable and equally awkward question: precisely where is this house? For he would very much like to inspect it.
Tranio is once more thrown back on his inventive resources. In desperation he points to the house of their next-door neighbor. Theopropides naturally wants to go inside, provoking yet another crisis. Fortunately Tranio is able to stall Theopropides by saying that the women within must have the chance to get ready for the entry, and so the old man is hustled off the stage long enough for Tranio to collect his wits.
By a stroke of good luck, at this point the owner of the house next door appears. This is Simo, another old man but cut from entirely different cloth than Theopropides. We first meet him sneaking out of his house. His wife has given him a wonderful lunch and now wants him to go to bed. So he is going off to the Forum. From the insistence with which this issue of his going to bed is mentioned throughout his monologue and his extreme repugnance at the idea, it is evident that he is really avoiding her sexual advances: "the old hag wanted to drag me off to the bedroom!" (696). Tranio overhears and commiserates. But then he has a bright idea and engages Simo in conversation. The old man asks if the usual goings-on are still happening in the house, and he adds that he thoroughly approves: "indulge yourself—think how short life is" (724f.).
Tranio reveals the terrible news of Theopropides' return, and Simo sympathizes. He immediately recognizes the danger facing Tranio. First he will receive a whipping. Then irons await him, and finally the cross (743f.). The slave pretends to be terror-stricken, falling at Simo's knees and begging for help. Then he launches into another of his lies. Theopropides has decided to add women's quarters to his house, looking forward to the time his son marries. His architect greatly admires Simo's house and has proposed it as a model. Would it be possible for Theopropides to inspect the building? Simo genially agrees.
So Tranio goes to fetch Theopropides. As he crosses the stage from the one house to the other, he delivers himself of a crowing monologue in which he brags about his control over these two old men. "Muleteers have their pack-mules, but I have packmen, and they're really laden down—they'll carry whatever you load 'em with" (780-2). As he escorts Theopropides back across the stage he carefully prepares him. That old gentleman you see is the individual who sold the house to Philolaches. Now he deeply regrets having done so. This bit of misinformation allows Tranio to glide over some rough spots. For example, when Simo cheerfully invites Theopropides to look the house over "as if it were your own," Theopropides naturally asks Tranio what this "as if" is about, and Tranio is able to explain that away in terms of Simo's alleged regret over its sale.
In the course of the house inspection, Tranio solemnly points out a picture in the portico. The two old men cannot see it, so the slave is so good as to describe it (832ff.): a crow stands between two vul- tures and is pecking at the both of them in turns. Since they still can't see it, he is even more specific: "look in my direction, then you'll see the crow—and if you can't make it out, then look in your own direction and perhaps you'll see the vultures" (835ff.).
Act IV begins with a monologue, by Callidamates' philosophical slave Phaniscus (858ff.). He reflects on a slave's lot. Some slaves grow to fear nothing. Then they fall into bad ways and earn nothing but whippings. His own plan is to build his life on the principle of not getting whipped, and therefore he sticks to the good old straight and narrow. After all, a master's only what his slaves make him. If they're good, so is he. If they are rascals, he becomes one himself. In the present instance, all of Callidamates' other slaves were too lazy to go fetch their master, so he is undertaking the task by himself—won't they be in for a scourging when Master returns!
Theopropides and Tranio emerge from Simo's house. Theopropides is overjoyed about the supposed purchase and is eager to pay off the moneylender. No problem, says Tranio; just give me the money and I'll make sure he gets it. When Theopropides gets a bit suspicious, he blandly asks "would I dare play a trick on you in word or deed? … Since I came into your service have I ever deceived you?" (924, 926).
Phaniscus and another slave of Callidamates reappear in order to retrieve their master. When they start knocking on the door Theopropides is puzzled and enters into conversation with Phaniscus. They are unaware of Theopropides' identity and so innocently reveal the truth to the old man, informing him of all the loose living that has gone on in the house during his absence and supplying some lurid details of his son's dissipation. And he also reveals that one slave in particular has distinguished himself by his misdeeds, a man named Tranio. Won't Philolaches' father be aghast when he comes home and finds out about all this roistering!
Theopropides indeed is aghast, and matters grow even worse because as soon as Phaniscus disappears Simo arrives and, after some humorous dialogue as they talk at cross-purposes, the two old men compare notes and figure out how they have been swindled by Tranio. At the end of Act IV Theopropides howls that he has been ruined. All he can think of is revenge, so he asks Simo if he can borrow some whips. Genial as ever, Simo agrees.
Act V has to do with the impending punishment of Tranio. When he sees Theopropides standing in front of the house waiting for him, Tranio realizes that the jig is up. Nevertheless he has sufficient confidence in his cleverness that he is not unduly perturbed. He knows that Theopropides has decided to feign ignorance and so he plays along. When the old man innocently informs him that Simo has denied receiving any money for his house, he pretends surprise. Theopropides claims that Simo has agreed to let him have all his slaves in order to be put to the question about the missing money (1086)—yet another reference to the torture of slaves, because this is the only way in which slave testimony could be taken under Roman law—and so Tranio proposes to help him wait. But as they continue their conversation he sits on a handy altar in mock-innocence. Theopropides, with equally fake innocence, tries to cajole him off the altar, but he politely refuses. Thus, when pretenses are dropped, he is in a place of sanctuary and beyond his master's reach. So when Theopropides begins ranting at him, he can jeer back from a position of security. Theopropides promises condign punishments, but Tranio continues to mock him for the fool he is.
The impasse is broken by the entrance of Callidamates. Newly sober, he has come as a representative of Philolaches and his pals. In the most urbane way he tries to calm Theopropides. At first to no avail: master and slave continue their mutual threats and jeers until Callidamates reveals that Philolaches' friends have managed to scrape together enough money to make a full restitution. This news produces the desired change of attitude. At first Theopropides is reluctant to let Tranio off the hook, but the slave says he is sorry and points out that if his master forgives the crimes he has committed today, then he can doubly punish him for those he will undoubtedly commit tomorrow. Theopropides relents and the play comes to an abrupt end.
It would be possible to imagine a cheerful and straightforward play in which a series of practical jokes are played on a father so that a son might enjoy his ladylove. But Mostellaria is not quite that play. Two elements serve to darken and complicate its tone. During the course of the play Theopropides' death is repeatedly hoped for, and this wish is placed in the mouths of no less than three characters. And repeated allusions to crucifixion and the similar horrors that await a disobedient slave serve to raise the stakes by reminding the audience of the very genuine perils involved in Tranio's self-imposed tightrope act. The presence of both of these elements entitle the reader to wonder what precisely is going on.
Mostellaria seems susceptible to two readings, each by itself inadequate, but neither excluding the possibility or diminishing the value of the other. First, one can apply a psychological interpretation. We shall see a distinctly Oedipal undercurrent in Asinaria and Casina, where sons and fathers are competing for the same woman. In the case of Mostellaria and plays with similar plots, it would seem possible to carry the argument a step farther. In Mostellaria father and son are scarcely in competition for an erotic object, but one can argue that in any play where a father stands between a son and the fulfillment of his erotic ambitions, and where the father is therefore cast in the role of an obstacle that must be circumvented or defeated, we are really confronted with a plot in which the Oedipal situation is disguised by displacement but is nonetheless hovering in the background.
Harry in The Blue Sword is one-eighth Darian—and strong blood it must be to so overwhelm the seven-eighths Homelander blood. Any bit of "contagion" will poison the rest, after all. Jack Dedham warns her about Daria: "It's a strange country, … and if it gets too much in your blood it makes you strange too" (24). Dedham seems to speak metaphorically, though we have seen that it is either disease contracted from the Other or the effects of atmospheric poison that is at work here. Through Harry, McKinley provides us with the another manifestation of Dedham's warning. There will be a limit to which Dedham, or any pure "Outlander," can become inured to these conditions, much less immune. Harry, however, is able to swim in either gene pool, though her blood seems to prefer Daria. Harry's mixed blood makes her immune to the enervating, dispiriting effects of this "culture disease" or "atmosphere sickness" that both Mary Lennox and the outpost Darians experience. At first, Harry/Harimad-Sol thinks of her gift of magic, kelar, as any Homelander might: "She wondered if swordsmanship, like riding a warstallion and speaking a language strange to her, was suddenly going to awaken in her blood like a disease" (93). Harry's blood has abilities to "awaken" culturally specific abilities—not only psychic powers like the Sight (72) that makes others ill to even attempt using, but the language that she automatically knows when she is in a kelar rage. The old expression "it's in her blood" is extrapolated in this McKinley fantasy. Not much later Harry "no longer thought about it as a disease" (102). She rejects the metaphor of disease along with the attendant cultural hierarchy it implies.
Interestingly, blood is what unites the Homelander with the Darian on one very important level: it is human blood—as McKinley decides to designate the type. Darians and Homelanders seem less different in this regard than do Mary and her Ayah, according to Mary's observations on humanity quoted above. In McKinley's story, the Northerners, those threatening both Homelander and Hillfolk, are less than human, literally. The Northern leader is "human" with "a little nonhuman blood" mixed in (43). In other words, McKinley introduces a group so different in kind from either Homelander or Darian that the two groups previously seen as different in kind now seem merely different by degree. While still different in culture, the properties of blood that have separated them appear to be negligible when compared to the truly "alien" Northerners. The arrival of the Northerners suggests that blood is thicker than environment in this story, reinforcing the novel's implied message. Mathin, Harry's teacher, makes this human connection overt when he tells her, "you Outlanders are human … as the Northerners are not" (141). McKinley has, near the end of the novel, tried to redefine what constitutes an important difference in blood by introducing an Other who is beyond Other by being truly alien.
Nonetheless, it is blood that matters, and the Darians and Homelanders are "different" in blood. Despite what may seem to have been a plot diversion regarding what is truly different, the blood gulf between Homelander and Darian will still exist even when the extreme alien is defeated—and this proves to be the case. Blood, and its attending metaphors of "disease" and "purity," remains the defining concept of self in The Blue Sword. McKinley chooses to mark the possibly infinite continuum of Otherness on a biological scale and not on a scale of cultural variation, trapping the Homelanders and Darians in an imaginary text and, therefore, on either side of an unbridegeable gap. JanMohamed tells us that "instead of seeing the native as a bridge toward syncretic possibility, [the colonialist] uses him as a mirror that reflects the colonialist's self image" (84). Harry can serve only as a mirror for each of the two groups, reflecting the possibilities inherent in mixing blood, but not as a bridge between cultures who come short of sharing that biological link.
Despite the advent of diplomatic relations between Daria and the Outland outpost, The Blue Sword ends with a clear and lasting division between peoples. Jack Dedham, Homelander expatriate at the end of their own "War of Northern Aggression," makes the playful observation to Harry that "we Outlanders must stick together" (245). Harry corrects him: "No—we who love the Hills must stick together" (245). Whether or not this statement is meant as a rebuke, it clearly draws blood lines in the desert sand. Jack is a sort of aberration in his being drawn to the hills of Daria, for he is not Darian; and he is also no longer a Homelander, for he is listed as "lost in action" by the Homeland outpost commander as a gesture of saving face. While blood makes Harry part of both worlds, Jack is now a member of neither. Jack's aberrant condition is that his blood is linked to the wrong place. Daria and the Outlander outpost remain tolerant of each other only. The novel makes it clear that such a character will necessarily be dispossessed. While the blood-land connection makes successful colonization ultimately impossible in The Blue Sword (and simply unattractive in The Secret Garden), the opportunity for different groups to have any kind of purposeful life in juxtaposition with each other seems forfeited also. The essential difference kills the colonialism in these worlds as well as any argument for genocide (who can live on the land even if the other is exterminated?), but along with that goes any chance for world community.
JanMohamed argues that "a number of subgenres that are always based on the Manichean allegory" includes "the adventure story … about Europeans battling dark, evil forces" (90); perhaps the differences between realism and fantasy point to ways the Manichean allegory is perpetuated in other genres as well. The Secret Garden is clearly an "imaginative" text, as JanMohamed defines it; The Blue Sword, however, seems to be a generic adaptation for a kind of "imaginative" text in an era in which society is self-conscious about the colonialist implications for cultural and racial difference. The Blue Sword displays self-consciousness about culturally-determined difference, as shown above, but uses the genre of fantasy as a way to justify the impossibility of syncretism on the basis of biology. What today would be an unacceptable world-view in realistic fiction (The Secret Garden was published in 1911, after all) can be made legitimate in a genre that is expected to pose "thought experiments" like the one McKinley proposes. McKinley employs fantasy to create the same "imaginative" effect realism could achieve in Burnett's time. McKinley avoids the criticism that would necessarily follow her use of realism for the same ends, however. The Blue Sword begins by seeming to be that first type of symbolic text since it argues for a cultural syncretism that ignores the discursive divisiveness of the Manichean allegory, but then the novel seems to develop into the second type of symbolic text in its recognition of deep discursive cultural divisions; ultimately the novel relies on an implicit "imaginative" situation that uses biology to create insurmountable "cultural" divisions. Rather than deciding that syncretism is either possible or impossible based on the relative depth and intractability of the discursive structures of colonialism, McKinley claims essentialism as the reason for cultural division in her fantasy world.
Perry Nodelman observes that when we write to an audience that we believe "doesn't yet know what we wish it to understand, we [will] always speak to [that] audience in an attempt to speak for it—to colonize it with our own perceptions of things, including itself" (34); Nodelman argues that "child psychology and children's literature are imperialist activities" (33) for this reason. McKinley's novel of colonialization opens up new issues regarding the role of fantasy in "colonizing" the reader. Children's literature itself is a narrative commentary to children—for children—about what home is and why.
Ursula Le Guin's concern about "fake realism" (37) and C. S. Lewis's about the "superficially realistic" (215) are similar and can be summed up as follows: some unrealistic plots that are set in the "real world" are potentially more psychologically dangerous for the young reader than fantasy is because the young reader can be fooled into thinking such "realism" is an accurate reflection of how the world works. I argue that fantasy can be dangerous in a way similar to "fake realism" when it employs extreme biological Otherness in an ahistorical and apolitical setting as a means for arguing for cultural division. If Matt Christopher's books can make a fifth-grader believe that hitting the game-winning homer is an acceptable expectation in life, Robin McKinley's fiction can persuade a fifth-grader to accept biology as an acceptable reason for insuperable cultural difference; we can draw either conclusion from the respective novels unconsciously, after all. Both representations provide young readers with dubious explanations for the way the world works, and each does so just as covertly as the other. Students' earliest encounters with fiction will remain powerful determinations for how they construct their personal and political homes.
1. Martha's view of "blacks" is most interesting since it is the product of colonialist discourse, not merely an example of it—as evidenced by her hope of seeing the exotic little black girl (as she assumed Mary to be) and of her desire to "know" more, for her family "wanted to know all about th' blacks an' about th' ship [Mary] came in. [Martha] couldn't tell 'em enough" (73). Mary promises to contribute more colonialist discourse for Martha when she says that she'll "tell [her] a great deal more before [her] next day out" (73), for Mary had "lived with the heathen" (77). Interestingly, this is a child colonizing the views of an adult regarding race and culture. The top-down hierarchy here is usually in terms of age (old to young), gender (man to woman), and race (white to black), but economic class (upper to lower) takes over here. Martha is a good deal older than Mary, but the former is infantilized due to class, not age.
2. The novel makes it seem unlikely that a young Indian "heathen" would be "cured" of hot, gloomy India in England. Indians do not behave the way they do simply because they are in India, in other words. England is not a cultural or biological panacea for all races, despite what the colonists might assume about what their English thinking can do for the "children" of other nations. While to be "home" seems to mean being in the home of one's race, there are certain races who do not benefit much from being there. What the novel implies, then, is not only an essentialistic division between races, but a clear hierarchy based on that difference. Despite the argument posed above, however, The Secret Garden cannot provide us with a clear answer to the question of whether it is the rarefied air of England, the special environment-blood "match," or a combination of both that is necessary for vitality in England since we never do see an Indian in England. As tempting as it is, I cannot argue that Burnett's system would have the languid Indian perish after experiencing the super-charged air of England even though it certainly seems that way in the world of this novel. Ram Dass in The Little Princess does manage to survive in the rarefied air of England, for instance. I am not suggesting, however, that Burnett maintains a consistent system across imaginary texts; inconsistency, arguably, is one of the effects of a lack of self-consciousness regarding one's role as a colonialist.
3. See my earlier discussion of Harry as a "world bridge" ("The Illusion of Control" 16-19, 31).
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. New York: Dell, 1987.
Cadden, Mike. "The Illusion of Control: Narrative Authority in Robin McKinley's Beauty and The Blue Sword." Mythlore 20.2 (1994): 16-19, 31.
JanMohamed, Abdul R. "The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature." "Race," Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980: 78-106.
Le Guin, Ursula K. "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" The Language of the Night. New York: HarperPerennial, 1989: 34-40.
Lewis, C. S. "On Three Ways of Writing for Children." Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature. Ed. Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley. New York: Oxford UP, 1969: 207-20.
McKinley, Robin. The Blue Sword. New York: Ace Books, 1982.
Nodelman, Perry. "The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 17.1 (1992): 29-35.
Stahl, J. D. "Children, Literature, and Cross-Culturalism." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 16.2 (1991): 50-51.
THE HERO AND THE CROWN (1984)
Anna E. Altmann (essay date September 1992)
SOURCE: Altmann, Anna E. "Welding Brass Tits on the Armor: An Examination of the Quest Metaphor in Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 3 (September 1992): 143-56.
[In the following essay, Altmann examines the issues of feminist heroism raised by McKinley's The Hero and the Crown.]
I teach a course on literature for young adults. One of the books on my reading list is Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, the Newbery Award winner in 1985. I include it as an example of fantasy because I think it is a well-constructed work of the creative imagination: a good story that says something worthwhile, particularly to young women, about what it is to be a human being. When this book was discussed in my class last year, the strong negative response of one of my students surprised me. Her reading of the text raised questions about the metaphorical nature of quest stories and about the canon of women's literature that demanded some exploration. This paper is an examination of those questions, and a reading of The Hero and the Crown as a woman's book.
The protagonist of the novel is a young woman, Aerin, daughter of the king of Damar. She feels herself to be a misfit at court, inadequate as the daughter of a king. In her isolation, which is partly created by her self-contempt, she teaches herself to ride her father's old warhorse, recreates a long-forgotten recipe for an ointment that is proof against dragon fire, learns to use a sword, and takes on the dangerous but not really glorious task of killing the small verminous dragons that infest the countryside, a men's job in Damar. One day she is called to fight a monstrously huge dragon. She kills it, but is so badly wounded herself that it seems she will not recover. In a stupor of fever and weakness she follows a call to a mysterious glade in the mountains, where she is healed by a mage, who gives her water to drink from the Lake of Dreams. The mage shows her her own strength and her path: She must destroy a wizard, her mother's brother, whose evil magic threatens to destroy Damar. She defeats the wizard, recovers the lost crown of Damar, and returns home with the crown just in time to join in the last, desperate battle against the forces that the wizard has loosed. Her father is killed, but the battle is won. Aerin marries her cousin Tor, her father's heir, who has loved her all along. She becomes queen of Damar, and serves her people well. This skeletal summary is an entirely inadequate representation of McKinley's book. The story is an elaborate one, with twists and turns that offer the reader coherent but never simplistic symbol structures and patterns. I give this synopsis only to show the barest outline of the story, free of any particular interpretation, in order to provide the necessary context for my student's response to this text.
Her response was: "This book isn't about a woman; it's just another case of welding brass tits on the armor. This book doesn't talk about me. A book that really has a woman as hero would validate women's lives as we live them, would recognize that what women actually are and do is worthwhile and central. I don't ride war-horses and fight dragons and wear armor. I'm sick of books that make women heroes by turning them into men."
Her marvelously evocative phrase, "welding brass tits on the armor" (one immediately thinks of Wagnerian Valkyries), points to heroes who are only nominally women. The process is one of a double concealment: First, the attributes of femininity vanish under the armor (or male role); second, the shift is disguised by welding on the brass tits, an external accommodation that claims women's breasts underneath, but really leaves the reader with what Lissa Paul has called a "hero in drag" (p. 199), a male figure dressed up as a woman. But does this book really just weld brass tits on the armor? If the accusation is made on the basis that women don't ride war-horses and fight dragons, while men do (Aerin doesn't actually wear armor), then the answer is no, because men don't actually do that, either.
At this point, I would like to bring in the question asked, almost at the end of the class discussion, by another woman. She had enjoyed the book, but wondered who the hero mentioned in the title was. For her, a "hero" could not be a woman: Aerin's story was a good one, but the label was confusing. Both the assertion that this book is not about a woman and the question of who the hero is are based on a definition of the hero that necessarily includes the notion of male and excludes the notion of female. Can a hero be a woman? One could also ask, Can a woman be a hero? However, that question sets woman as the definiendum, rather than hero. Some examination of gender norms will inevitably be a part of this discussion. But the starting point is not what is a woman, but what is a hero.
Why do Aerin's white horse and sword and dragon signal to one reader that Aerin is a hero in drag, while Aerin's sex hides from another reader that she is the hero? The heroic quests of our literary and folk traditions have male heroes because they are interpretations of the archetype developed within a culture whose public life is marked by male images. The quest stories we know best all have a male figure as the central character. Aerin, riding her white warhorse and killing dragons, immediately brought St. George to my mind.1 Indeed, Northrop Frye tells us that:
The central form of quest-romance is the dragon killing theme exemplified by the stories of St. George and Perseus. A land ruled by a helpless old king is laid to waste by a sea monster, to whom one young person after another is offered to be devoured, until the lot falls to the king's daughter: at that point the hero arrives, kills the dragon, marries the daughter, and succeeds to the kingdom.
This epitome in fact describes Aerin's story very well, as I shall note later. But I have quoted this particular passage here for another reason. It demonstrates what Peter J. Rabinowitz has termed "the tendency to masculinize as we symbolize" (p. 229). Myths in which the hero is male dominate the canons of both tradi- tional literature and scholarship. Not only do we commonly read myths about male rather than female heroic figures, but we also commonly encounter them as the exemplars used by the interpreters of myths, who almost uniformly refer to the hero as "he." While the hero tale is not fundamentally "about" men, and while the "he" of the mythographers, it has been argued, stands in for a gender-neutral pronoun that English lacks, the sheer number of male images and masculine pronouns makes the hero almost ineluctably male.
The assumption that a hero must be a man has been strengthened by a literalization of the metaphor of the quest story that has come about in part because myth and folktale have largely been relegated to stories for children. Children's versions of myths are usually simplified, cleaned up, and generally retold to the point where they are adventure stories at best. In the classroom children are taught myths and folktales as relics of primitive peoples who had not yet figured out the cause-and-effect structures of modern history and science (Persephone, or why the seasons change), or as pathways to multiculturalism. The picture book format necessarily presents the young reader with images that make St. George a particular man rather than an archetype. There is little in our popular culture that encourages an understanding of the essential meaning of myth or symbol. P. L. Travers suggests that, "[Myths] are too large for us, too mighty. Perhaps that is why we give them to children who, with their strong stomachs and their minds as yet untainted with knowledge, are more likely to understand them" (p. 46). That depends entirely on what we give them, and how we give it. Children's versions of the grail legends or the tale of St. George and the dragon tell stories about a strong man in shining medieval armor on a big, white horse who finds a precious bowl or kills a very fierce dragon. The quest of the hero for his, let alone her, own self is likely to be invisible to the reader, no matter how strong her stomach or untainted her mind.
The Hero and the Crown is recognizably a hero tale, marked by the narrative pattern of the archetypal quest.2 A careful reading of the book reveals an intricate and imaginative development of the elements of the heroic paradigm. To trace this development in satisfactory detail would make this paper far too long, and would, perhaps, distract from my argument that a hero can be a woman. But a part of that argument is my contention that Aerin is, indeed, a hero. And to argue that, I must elaborate a little on my earlier synopsis of the story.
As is typical of the hero, Aerin is singled out, marked. In a country of people with dark hair and cinnamon-coloured skins, she has pale skin and flame-colored hair and is taller than usual. In standard fairy tale fashion her mother died giving birth to her, died from disappointment, it was said, because Aerin was not a boy. She feels clumsy, odd, a disappointment to her father, and an object of suspicion to the people of Damar because her mother was popularly supposed to be a witch from the evil north country who be-spelled the king into marrying her. Aerin is a marginal figure, alienated from the world around her, outside the normal pattern. This is often the hero's starting place.
The first stage of Aerin's quest is a shift from measuring herself by the judgments, real or imagined, of others to determining her own life. It is the adolescent's quest for social integration. In secrecy Aerin acquires her first animal helper, her father's retired war-horse, Talat; her equivalent of the fairytale's cloak of invisibility, the ointment that shields her from dragon fire; and a sword. When she kills her first dragons she wins a place in society of her own choosing—she will serve her people as dragonkiller. Marginalized by her sex that prevents her from being her father's heir, by her self-contempt, and by her suspicious birth, she has found her own route of initiation into a meaningful role in society. But she has also prepared herself for her next test. For the hero's quest is a spiral rather than a straight line. The elements of encounter, ordeal, and initiation occur more than once on the journey to selfhood.
The second stage of Aerin's quest is facing her great dragon, "the horror to be overcome, the overcoming of which contains the reward" in so many ancient and medieval mythologies (Jobes, p. 468). Killing the black dragon Maur is for Aerin what David Leeming identifies as the hero"s penultimate test, the descent into the underworld and confrontation with death itself (Leeming, p. 48). Although the dragon is overcome, Aerin herself is near death from her wounds, and the dragon's skull, hung on the wall of the great hall, still whispers her old fears and illusions to her: "witchwoman's daughter." And although she found the reward, the dragon's bloodstone, "a thing of great power, for it is its dragon's death" (McKinley, p. 189), she does not yet know what it is. She is in the underworld, and the hero's rebirth to selfhood and the final test are yet to come.
The hero's journey, symbolic or actual, is a leaving behind of the structures and roles of the social order and a move into liminal space where the self may be developed. Aerin is called to leave her deathbed in a dream (McKinley, p. 130). She steals away from Damar at night, and she leaves behind everything that defines her place in Damar. Taking only what is hers alone (Talat, the saddle she made, and the dragon stone), she rides away from her world. Her journey is, of course, an ascent, to a mountaintop where a mage named Luthe is waiting for her. He gives her water to drink from the Lake of Dreams and she is submerged in a vision in which she is both herself and her mother. When she surfaces again she has been healed of her wounds. Aerin spends the winter alone with Luthe on his mountaintop, learning from him. Luthe is Aerin's guide and teacher in her initiation into selfhood. He is, in Victor Turner's terms, the "sacred outsider," a shaman who has assumed "statusless status, external to the secular social structure" (p. 116). Like one of the informative hermits of the grail legends, he tells her of her birth and task. He teaches her magic to aid her. And he gives her a sword of great power and mysterious origin that he says was destined to be Aerin's.
At the end of the winter Aerin sets out on the fourth stage of her quest, armed now with self-knowledge and her own powerful sword. Her last test is to face Agsded, the evil wizard who holds the lost crown of Damar. Agsded is her mother's brother, and only one of his own blood may defeat him (McKinley, p. 152). She knows Agsded at once for she had seen his face often enough in her mirror" and he laughs her own laugh, "but greater and deeper, with terrible echoes that made tangled harmonies, and those harmonies found the places in her own mind that she had never looked into, that by their existence had long frightened her; that she had hoped always to be able to ignore" (p. 171). Agsded is the dark part of herself, and he tries to persuade her that she is worthless, weak, and alone, speaking her deepest fears with her own voice. She is able to resist him because she knows herself now: "His hair is the color mine used to be before Maur burned most of it off. My hair isn't that color any more" (p. 173). She fights him with her own sword. And she finally defeats him with the dragon stone. Her weapons are the rewards of her earlier trials. For, as Neumann puts it, "Each physical conquest [by the hero] is a concrete marker of an increase in psychic range, a claim of consciousness to apprehend and use what was formerly forbidden and inaccessible" (quoted in Edwards, p. 39).
Aerin wins the hero's crown from Agsded, the crown that was within herself, and that she must bring back to Damar. For the hero returns from the quest with a boon that may renew her community (Campbell, pp. 191-193). But before she returns from the liminal space of the quest to the structured social world, Aerin experiences a liminal phenomenon that Turner calls existential or spontaneous communitas (Turner, p. 132). This development in Aerin's story may seem to be nothing more than a romantic interlude. It is, however, a recognizable moment in the journey to selfhood. Communitas, in Turner's terms, is a phenomenon of transition, a state of "humankindness" that lies beyond the structural. Edwards describes it as "love freely given between individuals who are freed from socially imposed restraints" (Edwards, p. 49). It is possible only in the state of passage that separates one stage of individual and social life from the next, at a moment when the individual is not defined by a set of characteristics or roles but is entirely and only herself. This moment of communitas comes for Aerin on the way back to Damar.
It is perfectly clear to the reader that Luthe falls in love with Aerin during their winter together. But he never mentions it and Aerin resolutely ignores the possibility, concentrating on the task ahead of her. After she has faced and survived her worst fears and has become fully herself, Luthe comes to meet her and they spend the days and nights of the short journey back to Damar together. Luthe, of course, is permanently outside the structures of society, and Aerin has not yet reentered them. The experience of communitas is part of the prize the hero brings back from her quest to enrich or transform the society to which she returns. Aerin's love for Luthe allows her to recognize her love for her cousin Tor. She has always known that Tor loved her, but she feared to love him in return. Now "she could declare that she would no longer be afraid—of her heritage, of her place in the royal house of Damar, of her father's people; and so she could also, now, marry Tor, for such was her duty to her country, whether her country approved of the idea or not" (McKinley, p. 193).
Aerin brings back the hero's crown to Damar in time to help win the last, desperate battle against the northern forces. Tor is crowned king, and Aerin marries him and becomes queen and serves her people well. The last stage of her quest, the return and recognition of the hero, has been accomplished.
A number of readers who accept Aerin as a hero have expressed dissatisfaction with the way the story ends. That Tor becomes king and Aerin marries him seems to some a sell-out, a disappointing shift of conventions that turns a hero tale into a romantic novel. I would argue that Aerin's marriage does not change her at the end of her story from hero to heroine. As Rachel Brownstein notes in Becoming a Heroine,
The marriage plot most novels depend on is about finding validation of one's uniqueness and importance by being singled out among all other women by a man. The man's love is proof of the girl's value and payment for it … Her quest is to be recognized in all her significance, to have her worth made real by being approved.
The quest of the hero, however, is for self-recognition, and her reintegration into society is for society's benefit rather than her own. Aerin marries to serve Damar rather than herself. The fact that Tor is to be king, although Aerin brought the crown back and won the war, disturbs Tor himself: "You should be queen. We both know it. You brought the crown back; you've won the right to wear it so" (McKinley, p. 217). But Aerin knows that her father would have wanted Tor to be king, and that her people want it as well. The return of the hero is marked by transformation, not revolution. Transformation there is. Aerin is queen rather than the traditional "Honored Wife" of the king (p. 217). She continues to chase dragons, and teaches young women as well as men what she knows about dragon hunting and riding. She trains and breeds horses to go bridleless as Talat had. The huge wild cats and dogs who came to help her on her journey to face Agsded remain in Damar as her protectors and interbreed with the domestic cats and dogs to form new strains of hunting animals. Her marriage with Tor is a loving companionship, not a sacrifice. But Aerin neither becomes herself nor loses herself in marriage. She won her selfhood in the trials of her quest, and everything she won she keeps after her return. She left the dragon stone with Luthe for safekeeping because an emblem of such power should not be handed over to ordinary people (p. 189). But the victory it embodies remains hers, symbolized by the fact that her hair, burned off by the great black dragon, never does grow back longer than shoulder-length (p. 216).
It is instructive to compare Aerin's story with Frye's epitomization of the quest-romance. On the surface of it, read literally, the two have in common only a kingdom and the killing of a monster. A slightly deeper reading reveals that in their essentials they are the same story. Agsded is the monster devastating the kingdom. The dragon and the evil threatening from the north are both manifestations of his power. The old king, Aerin's father, is ultimately helpless without the lost crown. Aerin is both the king's daughter about to be devoured by the monster (the "witch-woman" whispers among her people that are destroying her sense of herself are a product of the growing weakness and fear in the kingdom) and the hero who "arrives" (she had to go outside the social structures and physical borders of Damar to find herself). She kills the three manifestations of the monster (the dragon, Agsded, and the northern forces) and restores the health of the kingdom, the crown. She marries the king's daughter, both by truly seeing herself as king's daughter once she no longer doubts herself, and by marrying Tor, who fills that role by being the king's heir. She succeeds to the kingdom in the sense that she is able finally to claim it as hers.
This short exegesis jumps back and forth between an exemplary version of the quest tale (St. George or Perseus) and the underlying meaning of the paradigm, and is necessarily cursory. It is, I hope, enough to make clear that the sex of the hero is not an essential element of the pattern. When the tale is read as metaphor, a hero can be a woman.
Quest stories are stories of winning selfhood and of claiming a world. Through encounters with her own doubts, fears, and desires the hero comes to a fuller understanding of her being in the world. The quest is not a masculine exercise of force that involves putting on armor. Rather it is a process of stripping off the armor of the identity we have constructed for ourselves out of how we look, how we act, from whom we were born, and how we are valued. (Aerin, we are told, fights in the final battle for Damar without shield or armor, and does not need it [McKinley, p. 201].) The dragons are our self-doubts and fears, which the evil mage tries to persuade us are truly what we are. The good mage brings us living water and re-cognition. The animal helpers and enchanted weapons are gifts, not part of the illusion of our identity, and are to be respected and treasured. The heroic quest is a fundamental human reality that women as well as men live and express.
Calling Aerin's story just another case of welding brass tits on the armour says that Aerin has been masculinized to the point that her story has nothing to say about women's lives. If one accepts that "the aspirations of consciousness are human attributes and that heroism, therefore, is a human necessity capable of being represented equally by figures who are either male or female" (Edwards, p. 39), then this criticism must be directed at Aerin's particular version or embodiment of the quest. The quest of the female hero is likely to take a form somewhat different from that of the male hero, although the underlying pattern and the ultimate meaning remain the same. In her quest a woman is, in Turner's classification, a marginal figure rather than a neophyte in the liminal phase of ritual (Turner, p. 125). As Edwards puts it, for the male hero "society itself provides the map which charts the route" of the quest (p. 49). A woman hero has no such map of established symbol and ritual: She may choose to travel the accepted routes to selfhood marked "men only" and face ridicule, hostility, and in many cases a dead end precisely because she is a woman; or she may be forced to find a different route altogether. Aerin's war-horse and sword and dragon are symbols that have been culturally coded for us as male, but her story also has much in common with other women's stories.
Aerin calls to mind not only the grail knights and St. George, but also Jo March, Caddie Woodlawn, and Anne of Green Gables. As a child she learned to hunt and fish with her cousin Tor, and despised the niminypiminy girl's ponies she was expected to ride. Her thick, red, curly hair is her chief beauty, and she is secretly vain of it. She is clumsy and boyish and resists the process of growing up into the restrictions of womanhood. Like Pratt's "odd women" she becomes a social anomaly by preferring meaningful work and independence to marriage (Pratt, p. 113): She takes up dragon killing to earn her keep, not financially but as one of royal blood whose role is to serve her people. Marrying Tor does not even occur to her as a way of finding a role for herself, although her cousin Galanna thinks of little else. Like Jo March scribbling secretly in her attic (Paul, p. 190), Aerin hides her work with Talat and the ointment, and sneaks off to kill her first dragons because she is afraid that her father will disapprove. As it turns out, she is luckier than many women heroes: Her father approves and supports her. But she faces sharp ridicule from members of the court.
Since Aerin is a young woman rather than a young man, none of the skills and tools she needs is given her as a matter of course. She prepares herself by reclaiming cast-offs, the horse that is of no use and the ointment that has been forgotten. She has to reinvent the ointment and invents her own way of riding and her saddle. She learns to use a sword, but it is not hers by custom. As a marginal figure Aerin finds her way by trial and error, not by accustomed routes. "None of the traditions of [the king's] court could help the king's daughter discover her fate" (McKinley, p. 51).
In realistic women's fiction, the quest of the young hero for social integration often ends in "growing down" rather than "growing up," and the journey of rebirth and transformation is undertaken by women in middle or old age (Pratt, p. 136). But there are women's works of science fiction and fantasy, accepted as part of the growing canon of women's fiction, in which both the social and the spiritual quest are accomplished by young heroes. "The narrative pattern of these novels conforms to the usual definition of the (implicitly male) bildungsroman, as based on the concept of Bildung, or the ideal of personal fulfillment within a culture" (Pratt, p. 36). Although The Hero and the Crown is such a fantasy, the pattern of Aerin's journey also overlaps significantly with the pattern Pratt finds in the journey of rebirth undertaken by older women in works of domestic realism. Pratt outlines five phases of the quest for rebirth: splitting off from family, husbands, lovers; the green-world guide or token; the green-world lover; confrontation with parental figures; and the plunge into the unconscious (pp. 139-143). It is the last three phases to which I would like to draw particular attention.
Luthe, high on his mountaintop, is very much a green-world figure. He is Pratt's "ideal, nonpatriarchal lover" who "appears as an initiatory guide and often aids at difficult points of the quest. He … does not constitute the turning point or goal of the rebirth journey, as does the goddess or anima in the male rebirth journey," but "leads the hero away from society and towards her own unconscious depths" (Pratt, p. 140). The confrontation with parental figures occurs after Aerin has drunk from the Lake of Dreams. In her vision, Aerin both sees and is her dead mother, confronted by the uncle/brother who brought about her death. She comes to know her mother, the "witchwoman" in whose fearful (full of fear and feared) shadow Aerin has lived her life. With the help of Luthe's explanations, Aerin comes to terms with her parentage and sees how it has determined her own being. She discovers both her own powers, inherited from her mother, and her task, which is the completion of her mother's task. Having been reunited with the remembered figure of her mother. Aerin sets out to meet her shadow, the uncle who wears her face. Pratt suggests that, "Shadow and animus, in women's fiction, constellate into figures combining gynophobia with such ‘masculine’ impulses as logic, aggression, and power struggles" (p. 141). The description fits Aerin's evil mage uncle closely.
Above all, Aerin is like other women in that the armor she has to strip off to be completely present in the world is the woman's armor of diminution. As a child she fought the malice of her cousin Galanna with her fists. In adolescence she loses that directness and begins to see herself through the eyes of others, internalizing Galanna's sneers and the court's suspicions as self-doubts. Her refusal to conform to a pattern for a young woman's behavior that she does not want to and cannot easily fit is partly the defence of a sulky child, but also an insistence on her own integrity. Instead of trying to be as graceful and as charming and as good a seamstress as she can, simply because it is expected of her, she insists on her clumsy ineptness, refusing to settle for mitigated inadequacy. But this leaves her isolated as a misfit. To find first a place for herself, and then her self and her proper place, she must begin by breaking the existing structures that limit women, in Damar as in our own "world of organized inadequacies" (Campbell, p. 111), to a particular set of roles, and must cross over into what is defined as male territory. If this were the point of Aerin's story, it would be a moral tale, not a hero tale. But McKinley's vision is complex rather than reductionistic. Aerin challenges the social order not because it is unjust, but because she must go her own way. That is, the gendered world is the context rather than the focus of Aerin's quest.
McKinley's Damar, like all secondary worlds of fantasy, is a comment on our own. Aerin lives in a kingdom in which the symbols of power are traditionally male. As Aerin explains to Luthe when he points out that she should be queen after her father, not Tor, "They usually manage not to let even firstborn girls of impeccable breeding inherit, so shunting me aside was as easy as swearing by the Seven Perfect Gods" (McKinley, p. 149). Speaking of her mother, Aerin tells him:
"It is said in the City that she died of despair when she found she had had a daughter and not a son."
"It is probably true," Luthe said, his voice level. "She had courage enough, but little imagination; or she would not have forgotten joy, whatever the weight on her, and heavy enough it truly was."
"Is it a weight a son might have lifted from her?"
"It is a weight any of her blood and courage may lift."
(McKinley, p. 137)
The key phrases here are "usually manage" and "little imagination." The gender roles are strongly enforced by custom, but they are not inevitably binding. Aerin's path is unusual, but not unimaginable in Damar. Indeed, there are a number of suggestions in the book that Damar was once a more open, integrated world, and that the traditions that initially imprison Aerin are part of a diminishing or loss, a narrowing of powers and possibilities. "Time was, you know, there were a goodly number of folk not human who walked this earth. Time was—not so long ago. Those who were human, however, never liked the idea, and ignored those not human when they met them, and now they …" (p. 145). There was a time, too, when women and men rode into battle together, using slingshots and magic songs as weapons, before "Aerhina, goddess of honor and of flame, first taught men to forge their blades" (p. 17). And the Hero's Crown that holds the strength of Damar, which was also forged by the goddess Aerhina, was lost generations ago (p. 69).
Travers, writing about the hero's quest, suggests:
Perhaps the myths are telling us that these endeavors are not so much voyages of discovery as of rediscovery; that the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity. And by finding this, by achieving this, he takes part in the one task, the essential mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world.
Aerin begins her quest by recreating the ointment from a forgotten tradition and reclaiming Talat from disuse. She is feared at first as perhaps not wholly human, and returns to Damar in part immortal. Named for Aerhina who forged the crown, she returns the crown to Damar and rides into battle as women once did. She teaches women and men to ride together again and brings back with her the great wild cats and dogs from the green world to revitalize the strains diminished by domestication. In finding her own path and her own self she recreates a tradition older than the one now in force, taking part in reinstating the fallen world.
I would suggest that McKinley, by giving Aerin a white war-horse to ride, a sword to swing, and a dragon to kill, is not welding brass tits on the armor but reclaiming the metaphor of the heroic quest for women as Aerin reclaimed the lost traditions of Damar. In effect, she has removed the masculine camouflage of armor from the heroic figure to discover breasts underneath: The heroic experience is also the experience of women. Carolyn Heilbrun has argued for the legitimacy of such an act: "Ultimately, there are no male models, there are only models of selfhood from which woman chooses to learn. In recognizing the maleness of models from the past, woman, at the same time, denies that the connection of these models with maleness is a necessary one" (p. 140).
Heilbrun suggests that we can learn from male models by a process of translation on the reader's part (p. 145). Good readers can become a hero of the other sex. Women, particularly, have had a great deal of practice at it. But it is easier to read in one's own language. We read hero tales because they speak about our own quests for identity. In our daily lives, the struggles of the quest are largely internal, within and against ourselves. We fight our demons while we teach or take classes, cook supper, write papers, maintain relationships with friends, colleagues, lovers, parents, children, siblings; while we keep in balance, more or less adequately, the organized inadequacies of our observable world. In heroic fantasy, the struggle is blessedly externalized—it is a relief for the reader to be able to ride to exhaustion, swing a sword, lose or win against a dragon we can see, a dragon outside ourselves. For women, it is a further relief to find a hero who is a woman and therefore more directly oneself, a woman, moreover, whose weapon is straightforward force instead of circuitous deception, one whose strength may be manifest rather than hidden.3
In the class discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, it became clear that some of us felt strongly that the book was very much about us, as women and as human beings. I have argued here that Aerin's quest is recognizable as a woman's story, that the "intertextual grid" (Rabinowitz, p. 216) on which we place it encompasses the canon of women's fiction as well as the canon of hero tales. The process has been one of turning my own, passionate response into a reasoned one. The argument is worth making because McKinley's reclaiming the metaphor of the heroic quest for women, particularly for young women, is significant. As Brownstein points out, "Generations of girls … have gone to fiction to escape a stifling or boring or confusingly chaotic reality, and have come back with structures they use to organize and interpret their feelings and prospects" (p. xvii). The images that The Hero and the Crown offers us are important ones, likely to open, rather than close, the lives of its readers. McKinley suggests as much within the book itself, in a passage that follows Aerin's killing of her first small dragons:
The villagers, not entirely sure what they had witnessed, tried a faint cheer as Talat stepped off; and the boy who announced arrivals suddenly ran forward to pat Talat's shoulder, and Talat dropped his nose in acknowledgment and permitted the familiarity. A girl only a few years older than the boy stepped up to catch Aerin's eye, and said clearly, "We thank you." Aerin smiled and said, "The honor is mine." The girl grew to adulthood remembering [Aerin's] smile, and her seat on her proud white horse.
1. My search for a female counterpart of St. George in the traditional literature turned up only a rather vague St. Margaret who, imprisoned because of her faith, had an encounter with the devil in the form of a dragon. He swallowed her, but the cross she carried so irritated his throat that he was forced to disgorge her. She was eventually beheaded and became the patron saint of childbirth, presumably because of the disgorging. Interestingly, she was one of the voices heard by Joan of Arc, the one woman with horse and sword who does immediately come to mind (Jobes, p. 468, Delaney, p. 381).
2. I have used and cited several standard sources for my understanding of the heroic quest. Lee R. Edwards' paper contains a very useful summary on p. 34 of the constant elements of the heroic paradigm.
3. See Frye's Secular Scripture, chapter 3, for a discussion of guile as a woman's chief weapon.
Brownstein, Rachel M., Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels. New York: Viking, 1982.
Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Delaney, John J., Dictionary of Saints. Garden City: Doubleday, 1980.
Edwards, Lee R., "The Labors of Psyche: Toward a Theory of Female Heroism," Critical Inquiry, 1979, 6, pp. 33-49.
Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Frye, Northrop, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Reinventing Womanhood. New York: Norton, 1979.
Jobes, Gertrude, Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow, 1961-1962.
Leeming, David Adams, "Quests," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, ed., 12, pp. 146-152. New York, Macmillan, 1987.
McKinley, Robin, The Hero and the Crown. New York: Ace, 1987.
Paul, Lissa, "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature," Signal, 1987, 54, pp. 186-202.
Pratt, Annis, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
Rabinowitz, Peter J., Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.
Travers, P. L., "The World of the Hero," Parabola, 1976, 1(1), pp. 42-47.
Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Amelia A. Rutledge (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Rutledge, Amelia A. "Robin McKinley's Deerskin: Challenging Narcissisms." Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tales Studies 15, no. 2 (2001): 168-82.
[In the following essay, Rutledge analyzes how McKinley's loose adaptation of Charles Perrault's original "Donkeyskin" fable in Deerskin affects the sexual undertones of the novel.]
There is a story by Charles Perrault called Donkeyskin which, because of its subject matter, is often not included in collections of Perrault's fairy tales. Or, if it does appear, it does so in a bowdlerized state. The original Donkeyskin is where Deerskin begins.
—Robin McKinley, author's note to Deerskin
In Deerskin (1993), Robin McKinley reconfigures motifs of the traditional tale of father/daughter incest (AT 510B, the Dress of Gold, of Silver, or of Stars or Catskin tales) in a novel of intertextual complexity and precise psychological modeling of destructive family relationships. Although she retains the basic structure of the story—the dying mother's demand that her husband's next spouse be her equal in beauty, the father's demand that his daughter wed him, and the daughter's escape into lowly servitude culminating in her elevation to betrothed (or wife) of a prince—Deerskin is distinguished from earlier tales of its type by the unflinching seriousness of McKinley's presentation. In this she differs from Perrault's satire or the tendency to lessen the father's culpability that characterizes some versions of the tale. McKinley retains elements of fantasy, but she also makes explicit the implied violence of the tale and enhances traditional characterization, especially the role of the mother and of the helper figure, to create a powerful, if problematical, modern narrative.
McKinley's reworking of this tale of father/daughter incest eventuates, as do stories of this type, in elements of the courtship plot once a proper mate is found for the princess. Even if the seriousness of her heroine's dilemma precludes all but the most provisional of fortunate resolutions, the fantastic mode permits a much more positive outcome than any mimetic text involving incestuous rape could provide.1 I wish to argue that the closure implied by the traditional plot is subverted by the necessarily unresolved drama of a story centered on subjectivity in process; herein lies the originality of McKinley's narrative. In addition to this primary focus, I will also deal briefly with the relationship of McKinley's story to the Catskin tales of Basile, Straparola, Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm and with the complicated issue of implied audience that this novel presents.
Jacques Lacan's rejection of the concept of personality as a progressively stabilized construct is especially useful to a consideration of Deerskin, given the transitions in "identity" that characterize the heroine's career. In Deerskin, the princess Lissla Lissar's progress into adulthood is blocked by sexual violence that forces her both physically and psychologically into an alternative subjectivity; the courtship plot is resumed only after Lissar experiences complex transitions that enable her to reenter her own social sphere. Lacan's theory of the "mirror stage," the passage of a child from a relatively nondifferentiated identification first with its own image and then with an Other (usually the nurturant adult), toward the institution of crucial self/other distinctions in the social (Symbolic) realm can be used to elucidate McKinley's characterization of Lissar and of her dysfunctional parents.
To summarize the novel briefly: Confronted by her father's demand that she wed him, McKinley's heroine, Lissar, defended only by her "fleethound," Ash, barricades herself in her secluded room in a vain attempt to resist her father's demand, only for him bru- tally to exact his vengeance after gaining entrance to her chamber via the garden which she cannot secure because the key has been lost. She escapes despite her grave physical and psychological injuries, but even with fantastic intervention and a delayed rescue, Lissar's experiences, which include the miscarriage of the child conceived in her violation, cannot be effaced. They can only be contained by a self-willed amnesia, not without the risk of episodes of traumatic flashback. When she nearly succumbs to miscarriage and preternatural pursuit, Lissar is translated to an alternative existence and given an interim identity by her protector, the Moonwoman, a composite of fairy godmother, and lunar huntress/sorceress such as Artemis and the Celtic Aranrhod.2 Lissar's disrupted development can recommence only in this pastoral Otherworld after which she moves through a series of "refracted" identities, becoming an avatar of the Moonwoman, and covertly acknowledged as such by those around her. Transformed in appearance, and taking the name "Deerskin" from the magical dress she receives from the Moonwoman, she works at menial tasks and becomes a rescuer, first among country folk, but ultimately in defending her new country's princess from a marriage with Lissar's father, at which time she banishes as well the spectre of her mother.
Deerskin is sufficiently different from the rest of McKinley's oeuvre that a brief consideration of its implied audience is in order. McKinley's avoidance of simplistic prurience does not mitigate the horrific power of the father/daughter encounter—it is that very horror and Lissar's subsequent self-revulsion that signal not only a shift in the usual audience of her fairy-tale retellings, but also her commitment to an exploration of the not-so-hidden grimness of the fairy tale. McKinley's retellings have generally been designated as "young adult" (YA) literature, an endlessly vexing category to define. Even if Perrault's "Donkeyskin" has appeared in recent collections for younger audiences,3Deerskin is not designated as YA. The Booklist reviewed Deerskin twice in one issue—once under Adult/Science Fiction (Green) and once under Adult Fiction for Young Adults (Estes), a clear sign of uncertainty about boundaries.
The cover "blurbs" to the novel and audience designations in book reviews imply that the novel is McKinley's "crossover"—from YA to "adult"—text. Since the YA designation can attract readers as young as the ten-to-thirteen age group,4 she clearly intended to exclude readers of her earlier novels. Here are McKinley's own words, from an online interview: "I […] received some fairly spectacular hate mail for Deerskin, which is, and was meant to be, a more difficult and bleaker book, telling me I had ‘betrayed my audience’ and was a vile human being to tackle such a subject at all and so on. Deerskin was even published as an adult book for adults—partly, I hoped, as a clue that it wasn't for younger readers—and perhaps the clue worked with some people. It certainly didn't with others" (McKinley, interview). Intensity of sexual violence, a negative image of parents, and a depiction of active vengeance against these parents are elements that tend to move a book toward the "adult" designation.5 Interestingly, school library journals do not exclude mention of Deerskin ; they do signal its "difference" from The Door in the Hedge or Beauty, probably the most popular of McKinley's YA fantasies, and classify it for "grade ten and up."6 This designation is appropriate; the novel demands mature empathy (but not beyond the scope of some readers in this group) and its measured style (Estes) requires a willingness to participate in a demanding reading experience.
McKinley acknowledges the influence of Perrault's "Peau d'âne," although her author's note does not specify which version she used, Perrault's original 1694 verse tale or a prose redaction published in 1781. "Peau d'âne" was not included in Perrault's 1697 collection of prose tales (Zipes 3), and the later 1781 text is considered "apocryphal" (Perrault, Contes lxxi). Noting that the prose version first appears in 1781, Warner calls it a paraphrase (321), but it actually multiplies the details of the story in an attempt to exculpate the father by emphasizing dynastic concerns. Details in Deerskin specific to the 1781 text—references to the queen's political astuteness, the extended political rationalizations by the king's courtiers, the use of portraits for marital candidates, and especially the dramatic protests of the princess,7 suggest that McKinley has used both, adapting them in a work keyed to modern sensibilities. In the discussion that follows, I do not suggest direct influence beyond that claimed by McKinley, but I do indicate intriguing intertextual relationships.
Perrault's verse tales had a twofold agenda, theoretical against the critic Nicolas Boileau and the neoclassical "Ancients," but also political in support of the aims of salon culture, especially of women such as the Marquise de Lambert, to whom "Peau d'âne" was dedicated (Zipes 2). The seventeenth-century controversy, the "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns," is outside the scope of this discussion, but it was the context in which Perrault"s first published fairy tales took shape. Perrault, in the preface to the 1695 (fourth) edition of the verse tales, defended the validity of nursery tales against the disdain with which Boileau criticized "Peau d'âne" and "Les souhaits ridicules" (Contes xxvii). In addition, the fairy tale, as a paraliterary genre, was beneath notice and hence apt for subversive uses. The women of the salons had as subtext to many of their writings a protest against patriarchal abuses of marriage (Warner 342), and "Peau d'âne" partook of this literary subversion of the status quo.
Perrault's playful tone is as strategic as his use of a non-elite genre, deflecting criticism by calling into question the seriousness of his endeavor. The real cultural critique made by "Peau d'âne" occurs in the depiction of the purblind—indeed, asinine—father who is made even more absurd by the "casuist" Perrault so offhandedly provides to rationalize his desire. By discarding all paternal rationalizing, McKinley's critique of the abuse of patriarchal power over the lives and the bodies of daughters is more trenchant than Perrault's.
Deerskin invites comparison with other European versions of the Catskin tales, notably Straparola's "Doralice," Basile's "L'Orsa" ("The She-Bear"), and the Grimms' "Allerleirauh."8 Instead of listing minor variations among these tales, I wish to focus on two principal aspects: the daughter's transformation/degradation and the resolution of the father's role. In all of the versions the daughter absents herself from her social milieu, and even if she is not physically transformed, she must accept a menial role until her true identity is discovered. Deerskin retains these elements. Lissar must live "wild," just as Basile's Preziosa and the Grimms' Allerleirauh live briefly in the forest, and she also works as a servant. Physical as well as social degradation are also characteristic of the French and the German tales. Perrault's princess is burdened with the flayed donkey skin as well as with the lowest kitchen tasks; the Grimms' princess, at least in the 1812 version, must not only serve in the kitchen but also must remove the prince's boots and have them thrown at her head (Rölleke 55).
The concealing animal hide serves as an index to the heroine's physical degradation. Perrault exploits the tradition of the donkey as a beast of burden to parallel the sufferings of the heroine; further, he uses the association since ancient times of donkeys and excessive sexuality to highlight the lustfulness of the father.9 McKinley converts the noisome donkey skin into a patent gesture of the Moonwoman's protection; Lissar is given a white deerskin dress with fantastic immunity to any harm or stain. These intertextual relationships are available to the audience familiar with Perrault and the Grimms, but McKinley distances her narrative from them by making the animal hide a deerskin, suggestive of an animal both untamed and pursued, in this case by Ossin, whose role as hunter echoes the princes in the Italian and the German stories. The doubled "greenworld idyll" of the Moonwoman's and Ossin's kingdoms creates the interval in which Lissar learns to deal with the vestiges of trauma.10
In Deerskin, servitude is actually a refuge of humane relationships for Lissar, and she is treated with respect tinged with awe. She is accepted by the country people as Moonwoman for her appearance, her hunting dog, and her skill at rescuing; further, as a kennel-keeper for prince Ossin, Lissar is distracted from both her conscious and her repressed anguish by the menial (and almost endlessly described) tasks of saving a litter of motherless pups, this story's equivalent of the unsavory tasks of Perrault's heroine. Lissar is not reviled for the lowliness of her work, and she gains the respect of Ossin, who shares in her labors.
The weakest element in most "Catskin" tales is the resolution of the father/daughter plot. Each version constructs the father's desire differently, from feeble rationalizations based on the deathbed promise to the intense but temporary "insanity" in "Peau d'âne" and "Allerleirauh." In all instances, paternal authority is the central element, enhanced by Basile and Straparola to include explicit threats of violence to coerce the daughter—an element not used by Perrault and the Grimms.11 The removal of the paternal threat varies from tale to tale. In Basile's tale the father is routed by his daughter's transformation and is not mentioned again. The father of "Peau d'âne" (1694 and 1781) and that of "Allerleirauh" are somehow cured of their inappropriate attractions—in the 1781 version, he is even remarried to an elderly widow. In contrast, the father in Deerskin is not only maddened but also enacts his violence; he is neither exonerated nor left unpunished.
Straparola's tale provides a father active in malevolence and publicly executed for his multiple crimes. In "Doralice," the heroine escapes when her nurse encloses her in a wooden clothes chest,12 which is purchased by her future spouse, the king of England. Her father, "persisting in his malicious and perfidious desire" (32), pursues her in a vengeful rage, murders her children, and engineers her being punished for his crime. His deeds are revealed by the nurse, the daughter is exonerated, and the father is ferociously punished. Doralice's vengeful father bears a stronger resemblance to Lissar's than any of the fathers in similar tales, and his murderous pursuit of his daughter resembles the spectral pursuit of Lissar by both parents in the episode of her miscarriage.
In terms of earlier Catskin tales, then, Perrault's 1694 version and the 1781 adaptation are the most direct sources of Deerskin. McKinley's heroine experiences a wilderness existence and menial servitude; her physical suffering exceeds that of any heroine in the tales discussed. Further, McKinley refocuses the text by exploring the psychological complexities of the legend, and by stripping the tale of Perrault's satirical hyperbole to interrogate underlying relationships. It is to these psychological complexities that I now wish to turn.
McKinley's depiction of Lissar's parents appears one-dimensional to the point of demonization, but this detail is explicable by the dynamics of narcissism implicit in the Catskin tale, both in the husband/wife relationships and in the father's egregious demand that his daughter take her dead mother's place. Flat characterization and extreme polarization between protagonist and antagonists in Deerskin can be attributed to McKinley's allegiance to her fairytale sources, but a consideration of the relationship of Lacan's mirror stage to narcissism can also explain these characterizations. Deerskin is a nightmarish exemplum of relationships warped and destroyed by self-absorption.
Central to Lacan's theorizing is the subject's transition through the mirror stage, which cannot be reduced to any particular moment in time. Likened to an infant's first noticing its image in the mirror (with which it has an "Imaginary" bond similar to its imagined oneness with its nurturer), this awareness is also the first glimmer of the separation between perceiver and perceived, and it can be the focus both of affection and of aggression (Sarup 102). This phase precedes recognition of the more complex relationships that represent insertion into the Symbolic order of "I," "you," and "s/he," relationships without which the subject cannot function as a social being. The mirror stage is crucial in the development of self/Other differentiation. Of necessity, entering the Symbolic (social) order ruptures the Imaginary bond; a residual desire (objet a) for the primitive nondifferentiated state persists, but can only be fulfilled by new bondings that are substitutes, "signifiers" of that earliest desire, to be the desire of another. The rational adult recognizes and values others as distinct from the self, but the absence of such recognition leads to persistence in narcissistic relationships.13
Although Lissar and her parents all operate in the Symbolic order as king, queen, and princess/daughter, the parents' relationship is regressive and exclusionary, and she suffers from its effects. The conflict from which Lissar must extricate herself turns primarily on her father's failure to move beyond his narcissistic attachments, first to his wife and then to his daughter. She must also move beyond a condition of forced infantilization by her self-absorbed and mutually obsessed parents; her repressive upbringing has demanded, above all, that she be "biddable" (24).
McKinley carefully introduces Lissar's family situation with a memory from Lissar's childhood: "She saw them, remembered them, as if she were looking at a painting; they were too splendid to be real, and always they seemed at some little distance from her, from all onlookers. They were always standing close together […] often gazing into each other's eyes […]" (1). Even when she was with her parents, they could see only each other. If one's identity "crystallizes" from internalized ideal images reflected back, so to speak, from the parents (Fink 36), then Lissar's first "self" is based, for the most part, on the storybook image she perceives her parents weaving about themselves. With each seeing only an image of the self in the partner, Lissar is "invisible" to them. Although the child is excluded from the parents' mutual bond in the normal course of affairs, there is no evidence that Lissar has received positive "reflections" of herself from either parent.
Unlike the earlier Catskin tales, which focus on the mother's demand and the father/daughter conflict, Deerskin gives increased attention to the defective relationships between the parents so that Lissar is implicated in faulty structures, not simply in the toxic aftermath of a coerced rash promise. Deerskin also deals with a daughter who resists and negotiates imagoes, idealizations of her mother's perceived perfection, that block her developing subjectivity; the intensity with which she denies any resemblance to her mother marks the implicit threat such idealization poses.
McKinley elides the issue of whether Lissar desires to be like her mother, except that she "worships" her; but it is noteworthy that when Lissar begins to take command of her own circumstances before she is impelled backward by the rape, she melds easily into an imperious style similar to her mother's in controlling the courtiers who seek to make of her their tool. This behavior suggests that she partakes of her mother's character as well, but inwardly she is tyrannized by the idealized mother-image which becomes a source of terror. The difficult negotiation of imagoes has been at the core of McKinley's major fiction from the beginning, although never as urgently presented as in Deerskin. 14 The Moonwoman's intervention, however helpful, sidesteps rather than resolves this plot element, an issue to which I will return.
Lissar must confront maternal tyranny in the haunted self-commemorative portrait her mother commissioned during her last illness. In an action resembling that of the folktale figures who gain invulnerability by isolating their life into a body part or an object kept separate from their persons, Lissar's mother continues to "live" in the portrait, a quintessentially narcissistic ploy. McKinley makes the portrait in Deerskin embody maternal malevolence. A counterpart to paternal violence, its ambiguous ontological status intensifies Lissar's peril and serves as the objective correlative of internalized maternal idealization. The portrait is intended to insure the king's constancy; ironically, his desire is transferred to Lissar, in whose eyes he hopes to "see" himself as he had in his wife's eyes. Unwilling to step outside his immediate family relationships, he is arrested in a condition analogous to Lacan's infantile mirror stage.
Desire demands an endless and inevitable replacement of signifiers (metonymy)—here, the lost spouse—but this particular instance collides with ancient societal commands against incest. Lissar thus finds herself in a metonymic nightmare when she is moved into the mother's vacated place by her father's misdirected desire. Further, the father's attempt to subvert the incest prohibition does not allow Lissar to enter her own signifying chain, to find her own "others." She suffers the incest victim's self-disgust and concomitant reluctance to enter personal relationships and believes, until the denouement, that her way to her own Others is permanently blocked.
The parents' flaw is their failure to break out of the "bad immediacy" (Jameson 362) of primary bonds; they are constitutionally incapable of any but the most simplistic responses to the thwarting of their profoundly limited desires. Their narcissism results in diminished psychological complexity, so they cannot be other than "flat" characters, a demonstration of the aptness of McKinley's characterization. Anika Lemaire speaks of "the constitutional aggressivity of the human being who must always win his place at the expense of the other, and either impose himself on the other or be annihilated himself" (179). Since such relationships are grounded in undifferentiated identification with the object of desire, there is an insensate resistance to any perceived incursion into the desirer/object dyad; this hostility is manifest in the parents' nightmarish pursuit of their daughter. Lissar, in resisting the pull into her parents' obsessions, shows herself as potentially more psychologically mature than they. Confronted by her father, she resists his advances, interposing her subjectivity as not-her-mother; at that point, the king's full aggressivity is unleashed against her.
There is in Deerskin no suggestion that Lissar desires her father's attentions in any way—no element of the exculpatory Elektra motif, as is suggested when critics of Catskin tales ground their analyses in Freud's later studies of incest.15 Although McKinley notes that the father's courtiers instantly begin to whisper accusations against Lissar when her father proclaims his intent to marry her (73), the reader is well aware that Lissar's victimhood is absolute.16 The omniscient narrator's insistence on Lissar's horror at the memory of her father's gaze and her resistance to any suggestion that she resembles her mother work to insure that the protagonist of Deerskin is cleared of any complicity in her fate.
The promise to the wife can be read as an attempt to mitigate paternal culpability by suggesting his misguided fidelity; the promise also aligns both parents against the daughter. The 1781 prose version of "Peau d'âne" seems so mistrustful of the effectiveness of the vow in exculpating the father that the role of the unscrupulous advisor, a "druid," is enhanced (even beyond the "casuist" of the 1694 text) to exonerate the father even more (Perrault, "Peau" 102). Further, the antifeminist implication of the mother in the daughter's dilemma is not foreign to tales of the Peau d'âne type, as Maria Tatar suggests in her discussion of Catskin tales (Off with Their Heads 128-30).
The actively malevolent maternal figure is more characteristic of the Cinderella tale (AT 510A) than of the Catskin tale (AT 510B), and the two types are generally mutually exclusive (Tatar, Hard Facts 149-50). In this novel, however, the mother is an independent agent of malice even when she appears simultaneously with the father in the hallucinatory sequence as her rage reaches out to engross itself with Lissar: "What [Lissar] saw instead of snow and trees and the cold dawn sky as she ran from the mandragon, looking fearfully over her shoulder as she stumbled and wavered and dragged herself along, was the great woman's face rising up even higher than the man's tall figure; and the woman was laughing too, and her headdress was made all of fire, as were her scarlet finger-nails as she reached out around the man-dragon, toward Lissar […]" (117). The daughter has become a rival to be destroyed, as Lissar perceived earlier at the fatal ball when she saw in the portrait's eyes "not treachery, but understanding of treachery, and from understanding, hatred" (53). The mother has not offered her daughter to her husband, since she wanted no successor. Presenting parental hostility as two independent forces removes the suggestion of maternal collusion with the father even as it underscores the mother's inimical agency.
The cool hauteur of the living queen17 becomes, in the living nightmare of Lissar's miscarriage, a demonic force, more menacing than the father at this moment, since his violence already has reached its culmination. Since Lissar's current ego-ideal, her mother, is the one most dangerous to her, the daughter must be rapt away forcibly and inserted into another symbolic system, that ruled by the benign aspect of the Moonwoman: "a tall, black-skined, black-haired woman who sat beside her, with one cool-warm hand on Lissar's cheek. But no, the hand was white, and the woman's skin was white, as was her hair; and then as she turned her face toward Lissar she was both black and white, shadowed and unshadowed, a blackness with a light upon it and a whiteness shining from the dark" (117). In a "second round" of the mirror stage, finding herself in an imaginary/Imaginary oneness with the Moonwoman, Lissar is transfigured, her inherited maternal dark hair taking on the albino hue of Moonwoman's; she becomes, in effect, a photographic negative of herself (129). The change in her eyes from transparency to apparent opacity—"eyes black from secrets she herself could not look upon" (221)—also figures her need for a new "sight" of herself, since she cannot look inward at the self she fears that others might see.
Lissar is not allowed to remain in the comforting surrogate mother/child bond with the Moonwoman, however positively it contrasts with her biological maternal relationship; instead, her work in Ossin's kingdom gives her new subject positions. Until she can decisively free herself from destructive bonds—to articulate her own "No" to her father and resist being engulfed by her mother—Lissar must experience only incomplete Symbolic relationships in her kennel work with Ossin and her worker associates. All of these relationships are—paradoxically—real but also illusory, since they are posited on the borrowed identity she receives as the Moonwoman's gift.
When she encounters in Ossin's palace a portrait of her former self—sent, as customary, to each neighboring princedom—and is forced, in a searing moment, to remember her repressed identity (222), Lissar realizes that she was in many ways as aloof, as "flat," as that portrait. She simultaneously discovers, as does the infant in Lacan's classic example, that she is Other than that portrait. She is thus precipitated from the second mirror stage begun with her rescue by the Moonwoman, and can now, at Ossin's ball, commence her reentry into the Symbolic order, not, however, in the traditional movement from courtship into marriage. The fairy-tale ball is invoked in the narrative only to be rejected as premature closure. McKinley deftly links the episode (with four dresses—instead of the traditional three—now offered by Ossin's mother) to an ominous implicit reference to the moment when her father's intentions began to be revealed. Ossin's proposal of marriage triggers her second terrified retreat from a ball; she cannot overcome the self-revulsion which is her legacy from her past trauma.
Deerskin is not a mimetic narrative of sexual abuse, although McKinley makes masterful use of the etiology of sexual trauma. Only the fantastic mode could accommodate a character who is both a "survivor" in the contemporary connotation of the term, and also one who can body forth the deflecting of the burden of shame back onto the source of that shame. When Lissar learns, after fleeing from Ossin at the ball, that her father has agreed to marry Ossin's young sister, Camilla, she moves with Moonwoman's power, rending time and space to denounce him in a primal rite that forcibly reminds the reader that Hecate is also an aspect of Moonwoman. The blood that at first seems to be the stigmata of her palms gashed by her frenzied nails becomes a phantasmagoric flood figuring menstrual flow, deflowering, and miscarriage.
Lissar's father has hidden from culpability, cherishing a belief, self-deluding and contrived at by his ministers, that Lissar had died a natural death which he still mourned (296); in this, he resembles the "temporarily insane" fathers of Perrault and the Grimms, but he cannot deny her rage when she says: "[…] I return to you now all that you did give me: all the rage and the terror, the pain and the hatred that should have been love […] These I return to you, for I want them no more, and I will bear them not one whit of my time on this earth more" (298). When she literally seizes her father at this moment, realization, age, and debility instantly befall him.
Returning her shame to her father is only half of Lissar's task. In both blood and flame (a witch-burning in effigy), Lissar also confronts the spectre of her mother and the uncanny portrait. By thus confronting her own demonic, internalized image of the mother she idealizes and fears, she is freed to enter the fluidity and uncertainties of social identity. The queen is expelled, and her visionary image (along with, one assumes, its physical counterpart) is destroyed; in other words, when the desired object rejects its role, the aggressive narcissism of the mother perceives, and in this case experiences, rejection as annihilation. At the same time, Lissar/Deerskin's physical resemblance to her mother is restored, and Moonwoman's power, the return of her repressed feminine rage, is dispersed. Because this is a fantasy, the "badness" vanishes; but can the fairy tale of exorcism, of banishing the "wicked witch," convey the complexity of working through trauma the novel has presented?18
Like other Catskin heroines, Lissar summons the will to flee the initial scene of violence; that kind of self-willed action recurs when she becomes a rescuer, first of a lost child, then at the end when, in her Moonwoman persona, she avenges her own wrongs. At the same time, generic convention is still present in the characterization of Lissar as a fairy-tale princess, flawlessly innocent before and after her trials. The narrative complexity of Lissar's experiences is not always equalled by the complexity of her characterization; she has no negative traits. This is a different matter from the extreme and self-protective diffidence resulting from her understandable repression of unbearable memories. Although her mother is depicted as a successful exploiter of her sexual attractiveness, the ambivalence of Lissar's "dangerous" female heritage is not fully confronted.19 Only once is it suggested that Lissar might have developed an undesirable trait, manipulative self-interest, and this was forestalled when she acquired Ash (35). In his occasional petulance and self-regard, the prince Ossin, her future betrothed, displays more varied traits than the protagonist herself.
A key passage hints at the narrative's tendency to resolve Lissar into a version of the fairy-tale heroine as the novel ends. In the vengeance scene, it is clear that the revenant image of the dead queen is a projection of fears residing both in Lissar and in the other witnesses, and they are content to repress and deny those fears: "But for some of those watching, the woman made of flame was two women, and they were identical except that they were inimical. Some who saw thought of Moonwoman, and how she is both black and white, but they rejected the image for Moonwoman was still and always her self […]. Some of them remembered their own nightmares, and perhaps it was those who had nightmares to remember who saw the second woman […]" (299). Lissar's mother, however, is not simply a nightmare from which her daughter might awaken and forget. The necessary rejection of her mother and the relinquishing of the Moonwoman persona leave Lissar purged of all but positive qualities. Unlike the dark/light duality of Moonwoman, Lissar's "darkness" exists only in the restored color of her hair; what is missing is any trace of maternal inheritance beyond externals.
It seems unlikely that Lissar can simply reject and thus exorcise the threatening maternal idealization, since the ego-ideal most resisted is also the one most admired (Sarup 166, quoting Lacan), and "the subject finds or recognizes itself through an image which simultaneously alienates it and hence potentially confronts it" (Sarup 102). As I noted above, Lissar is vehement in her denials of similarity with her mother. In the novel, however, the implications of acknowledging the maternal heritage, of recognizing in herself any possible negative undertow of power, disappear with the burning of the portrait and the departure of the ambivalent Moonwoman. Any negative traits have been displaced either onto the mother or onto the Moonwoman. Lissar is a channel for the Moonwoman's powers—the rage of the offended protector of innocence—when she confronts her father at last, but she resists being identified with/as Moonwoman, just as she had resisted the attempts to identify her with her mother. However intriguing the Moonwoman may be, and however effective her role in her positive doubling of the maternal in Lissar's "rebirth," McKinley's use of her deliberate and rationalized intervention limits Lissar's complexity; insofar as she is a conduit of power, she is distanced from her own very real rage. This leaves only the negative depiction of the mother as an example of active but non-nurturant feminine power in the story's "natural" realm; by implication, such power is best left to witches or benevolent goddesses.20
The most positive reading of the resolution would suggest that because the Moonwoman/Deerskin iden- tity is no more an immutable subject position than any others imposed on her, Lissar's agency can be said to begin at the narrative's end. To be inchoate, incomplete, and able to "dwell in possibilit[ies]" is the core of Lissar's renewal. She knows now that the fear that has kept her in flight no longer has power over her. In the denouement—a bonding with Ossin ratified by an embrace, significantly in the open, not in a castle or a walled garden—there remains an open-endedness—"she would try to stay there […]" (308)—that affirms some of the complexities that have gone before; Lissar is not the Moonwoman, nor is she an unscarred innocent like the virgin Camilla she has just rescued. It is not as a child, and no longer as Moonwoman, nor yet as fully realized mature woman, but as a puella senex,21 a child aged in wisdom, that Lissar enters the realm of social exchange.
1. I am using the distinction between mimetic (or "realistic") fiction and fantasy fiction made by Kathryn Hume in her book Fantasy and Mimesis.
2. Her followers describe her as a patron of hunters as well as a finder/protector of the lost. She speaks of herself in relation to the wheel of time or fate (118). The wheel, although not necessarily that of "fate," is an image associated with Aranrhod (sometimes spelled Arianrod), the Celtic goddess "of the Silver Wheel."
3. It has been translated by Angela Carter in Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales (1991), and also included in Neil Philip and Nicoletta Simborowski's edition The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (1993).
4. According to one author, Julian Thompson, "YA books intended for older teens have been coopted by younger kids" (qtd. in Campbell 366).
5. On the other hand, Scholastic Press published Cynthia Voigt's When She Hollers in 1994, and Harpers in the same year published Francesca Lia Block's The Hanged Man—both YA novels involving incest; the topic is now considered available for YA fiction.
6. Two examples of such reviews are those by Cathy Chauvette in School Library Journal and by Betsy Hearne in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.
7. The 1781 text notes that she fears that she will faint and that she casts herself at his feet and protests "with all the force she could find in her spirit" (Perrault, "Peau" 102; my translation). Lissar does faint and, although she can barely speak in her own defense, she does defy her father in defense of Ash.
8. Others that sidestep the transgressive element of incest include the English "Catskin" (Jacobs), which employs paternal rejection of an unwanted daughter and her flight from an objectionable suitor. The variant "Love Like Salt" presents a situation analogous to the father's question in King Lear, and is given a positive resolution. Neither is analogous to Deerskin.
9. See Marina Warner (324-25) for a discussion of the connotations of the animal from classical literature and later.
10. See Annis Pratt's discussion of Simone de Beauvoir and the importance of the "greenworld idyll" in female development in Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction 16-18.
11. Consider, however, Maria Tatar's discussion of the Grimms' 1812 version of the variant "Maiden without Hands," a tale that abounds in physical cruelty (Off with Their Heads 123-25).
12. Another intriguing similarity: Doralice's box is more than a container for recognition tokens; it is her "protector," supplying both concealment and magical nourishment. McKinley associates the image of a box with Lissar's repressed memories: "the shadows lay lightly, for Lissar remembered the Lady, and remembered that she had been granted time to leave the box that contained her past in some attic for now […]" (121-22). This "box" also serves as a protector, an "anti-mnemonic," so to speak.
13. James Mellard, in Using Lacan, Reading Fiction, describes such a failure of adaptation in his discussion of the relationship between John Archer and May Bartram in Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" (129).
14. Each of McKinley's major novels has centered on a young woman's quest for identity that merges with the traditional courtship plot, and each tends to identify masculine authority as the defining field of female self-authentication. In the early novels, Beauty (1978), The Blue Sword (1982), and The Hero and the Crown (1985), women are not passive or void of aspirations; each is, in her own way, a rebel against societal constraints. They all need the more perceptive male characters, mentors and/or suitors, to see them as they "really are" and teach them so to see themselves.
15. See Warner 349-51 for a brief discussion of the evolution of Freud's thinking about incest narratives. Tatar also notes the propensity of critics to exonerate the father at the daughter's expense and of rewriters to use the mother for the same purpose (Off with Their Heads 130). McKinley obviously does neither.
16. In her discussion of "The Maiden Without Hands," Maria Tatar states, "To see a daughter as wholly detached from the drama of her father's desire is just as absurd as labeling her ‘guilty of the original incestuous thought’ when it is the father who makes the advances" (Off with Their Heads 127). This may be so, but the novel is unambiguous in its declaration of the daughter's innocence.
17. An echo, perhaps, of the 1781 version that emphasizes the queen's "fermeté," the strength of character that intensifies the king's regret at losing her (Perrault, "Peau" 100).
18. I wish to acknowledge discussions with colleagues and former students in raising some of these questions.
19. Lissar acknowledges her incompleteness in the novel's climactic scene: "my maidenhood you tore from me that I might never become a woman; and a woman I have not become, for I have been too afraid" (298). This valid statement does not, however, account for the relatively one-dimensional quality of the protagonist.
20. The queen Clementina, Ossin's mother, is described as strong-willed, homely, and active for good, but she is altogether too shadowy a figure to count for much in the dynamic of the novel. The same might also be said about Rinnol, the herbalist whom Lissar befriends, or her female co-workers; in these instances the barrier of class separates the women from effective agency.
21. For a discussion of this literary topos, see Curtius 101-05.
Basile, Giambattista. The Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile. Trans. Benedetto Croce. Ed. N. M. Penzer. New York: Dutton, 1932.
Block, Francesca Lia. The Hanged Man. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Campbell, Patty. "Rescuing Young Adult Literature." The Horn Book Magazine May-June 1997: 363-69.
Carter, Angela, trans. Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales. Boston: Otter, 1991.
Chauvette, Cathy. Rev. of Deerskin. School Library Journal 39 (1993): 261.
Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard Trask. New York: Harper, 1953.
Estes, Sally. Rev. of Deerskin. Booklist 1 Apr. 1993: 1420.
Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.
Green, Roland. Rev. of Deerskin. Booklist 1 Apr. 1993: 1416.
Hearne, Betsy. Rev. of Deerskin. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 47 (1993): 16.
Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York: Methuen, 1984.
Jacobs, Joseph. "Catskin." More English Fairy Tales. London: Nutt, 1894. 189-94.
Jameson, Fredric. "Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Problem of the Subject." Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 338-95.
Lemaire, Annika. Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge, 1977.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty. New York: Pocket, 1978.
———. The Blue Sword. New York: Greenwillow, 1982.
———. Deerskin. New York: Ace, 1994.
———. The Door in the Hedge. New York: Ace, 1982.
———. The Hero and the Crown. New York: Greenwillow, 1985.
———. Interview with John Morgan. Robin McKinley. 1 August 2000 http://www.sff.net/people/robin-mckinley/RM_by_Morgan.htp/
Mellard, James M. Using Lacan, Reading Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Perrault, Charles. Contes. Ed. Gilbert Rouger. Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1967.
———. "Peau d'âne, version en prose." 1781. Contes de Ma Mère Loye. Ed. André Coeuroy. Paris: Editions Cluny, 1948. 99-103.
Philip, Neil, and Nicoletta Simborowski, trans. The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. New York: Clarion, 1993.
Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.
Rölleke, Heinz, ed. Die älteste Märchensammlung der Brüder Grimm: Synopse der handschriftlichen Urfassung von 1810 und der Erstdrucke von 1812. Colgny-Genève: Fondation Martin Bodmer, 1975.
Sarup, Madan. Jacques Lacan. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992.
Straparola, Gianfrancesco. Le Piacevoli Notte. Ed. Giovanni Macchia. Milan: Bompiani, 1945.
Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.
———. Off with Their Heads!: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.
Voigt, Cynthia. When She Hollers. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. New York: Farrar, 1994.
Zipes, Jack, trans. and introd. Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantments: Classic French Fairy Tales. New York: NAL, 1989.
ROSE DAUGHTER (1997)
Charles de Lint (review date April 1998)
SOURCE: de Lint, Charles. Review of Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley. Fantasy and Science Fiction 94, no. 4 (April 1998): 36-7.
[In the following review, de Lint praises Rose Daughter, McKinley's second young adult novel based on the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale, for its "new characters, fascinating settings, [and] curious and entertaining asides."]
Some time ago I reviewed Susan Wilson's Beauty in these pages (December 1996), remarking at the time that the story of beauty and the beast seems to be one of the fairy tales that is returned to again and again, by writers, the producers of films and TV series, and even the creators of feature-length cartoons and Broadway productions. One of the writers I cited was Robin McKinley, whose own Beauty (1978) remains a classic in the field.
Setting beauty beside a beast can make for a powerful metaphor, never mind a fascinating visual image. The one highlights the other, defines the other, allowing us to consider our own perceptions and misperceptions in the light and shadows each casts on the other. So it's little wonder that writers are drawn to the story. What I did find surprising, when Rose Daughter appeared in my mail box, was that an author who had already visited the tale should return to it herself. But that's exactly what McKinley has done—and from her afterword, it appears that she was as surprised to find herself writing the book as I was to be reading it.
Now it's been almost twenty years since I read her earlier retelling of the tale, and I don't have it nearly as fresh in my mind as I'd like, so I won't be making a great many comparisons between the two books here. I do remember being enchanted with her version of the story in that earlier book, drawn in by the music of her language and her ability to make such a well known story feel new once more.
Surprisingly, she has managed to pull it off a second time.
All the elements of the fairy tale are here: kindhearted Beauty, the youngest of three sisters/the father coming to the Beast's castle/mansion and, when he attempts to leave with the rose Beauty has asked him to bring back from his travels, is forced to give up his daughter to the Beast; and, of course, the Beast himself, a Gothic, fairy tale Heathcliff, terrifying at first, becoming more sympathetic the more we, through Beauty, get to know him.
But if there are no surprises in the story, no real deviation from how we expect events to unfold, there is a richness of character and details, and such a warmth in her prose and storytelling ability, that the fact she follows the tried-and true path becomes rather irrelevant.
In a longer chapbook version of the afterword that accompanied the promotional material of the book, McKinley goes into more detail as to how she came to be telling this story for a second time, explaining how it grew, in part, from her closing and selling off her beloved cottage home in Maine to move to England to be with her husband. There, in an English cottage with its large gardens, as opposed to the cottage in Maine where the growing season is approximately a few minutes between spring and fall, she grew to love the gardens in her new home, and loved working in those same gardens.
This proves to be the heart of Rose Daughter. The novel becomes a love affair with the cottage to which Beauty and her family move after their father goes bankrupt and they lose everything in the city where they've lived all their lives. And it becomes a love affair with one's working of the land, exemplified in the novel by Beauty's discovery of her own gift for gardening, both at the new cottage, and in the immense greenhouse of the Beast's mansion.
There are many deft touches in Rose Daughter that one won't find in the original tale—new characters, fascinating settings, curious and entertaining asides—but they aren't why one should read the book. Read it for the warmth and charm that spill out from the page even in the story's darkest moments. And read it because, I would think, this is a case of readers being able to get as close as one can get to sharing a piece of the treasure that lies deep in an author's heart.
THE STONE FEY (1998)
Charles de Lint (review date December 2000)
SOURCE: de Lint, Charles. Review of The Stone Fey, by Robin McKinley, illustrated by John Clapp. Fantasy and Science Fiction 99, no. 6 (December 2000): 31.
While we're discussing McKinley, I'd like to make a brief mention of this older picture book [The Stone Fey ] just in case you hadn't seen or heard of it before. It was certainly new to me.
It's the story of a young shepherdess named Maddy who finds something mysterious in the hills where she keeps her flocks, something that can completely change her life around if she lets it.
The many watercolors by John Clapp are lovely—a couple are even inspired—while McKinley's prose reads like an adult short story, rather than a children's book. Though perhaps that's simply the mark of a good writer: one who doesn't write down to her audience.
SPINDLE'S END (2000)
Ellen R. Spring (review date November-December 2000)
SOURCE: Spring, Ellen R. Review of Spindle's End, by Robin McKinley. Book Report 19, no. 3 (November-December 2000): 60.
McKinley begins this tale [Spindle's End ] with the story of Sleeping Beauty, but proceeds to give it her own spin. Rosie, the heroine, is cursed by an evil fairy, Pernicia, at her name-day ceremony. She is whisked away by Katriona, another young fairy, and is raised by Katriona and Katriona's aunt. Rosie grows up to have an uncanny gift for communicating with animals. In order to foil Pernicia's evil plans for Rosie's 21st birthday, our heroine exchanges places with her best friend, Peony. After Peony pricks her finger on the spinning wheel and the whole kingdom falls into a deep sleep, Rosie, her true love, Narl, and her animals rescue the kingdom and get rid of Pernicia. All ends happily ever after. Fairy tale lovers will be drawn to this richly and elegantly written book. The story can be a bit confusing—readers might forget who some of the animals are, or get the characters' names mixed up—but this is a minor problem.
Charles de Lint (review date December 2000)
SOURCE: de Lint, Charles. Review of Spindle's End, by Robin McKinley. Fantasy and Science Fiction 99, no. 6 (December 2000): 29-31.
[In the following review, de Lint commends McKinley's narrative scope in Spindle's End, describing the text as "luminescent."]
There is only one word to describe this book [Spindle's End ], and that's luminescent. What begins as a somewhat lighthearted take on the classic fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" soon evolves into a book that shines like spun gold, but also carries the weight of that precious metal in the depth of its mythic resonance and the sweet, simple kindheartedness that rings out like birdsong on a perfect spring morning.
All of which tells you nothing about the book, I know. But the thing of it is, sharing with you some of the plot and set-up (which I will in a moment) can't begin to capture the heart of this wonderful story. There is more here than words on the page, but it's as hard to explain as it ever is when you try to map what lies between the lines of what one can actually read.
Still, let me give it a try.
As in the fairy tale, a princess is born, cursed to die on her twenty-first birthday by pricking her finger on a spindle. However, instead of being locked away in a tower, this princess (who comes to be known as Rosie) is spirited away by a peasant fairy named Katriona and raised in a village far off from the center of things, her heritage and whereabouts unknown to all but Katriona and her Aunt.
This princess grows into a tall, strong girl who keeps her hair cut short and wears men's breeches. She becomes a kind of veterinarian, something made easier for her by the fact that she can understand and speak with animals. Much of the book, in fact, is less a fairy tale, and more a coming-of-age novel as we watch Rosie grow from a wild little girl into a competent (but still a little wild) young woman.
But the fairy tale is still present, and when it comes back into her life we see the connection between who she is, her life in the village and her friends, and how all of this will help her stand up to the evil fairy who cursed her when she was an infant.
McKinley does a fabulous job all round, but I was particularly taken by the system of magic she set up for her secondary world—its whimsy and its dangers—and utterly enchanted with her depictions of Rosie's conversations with various animals. Somehow McKinley manages to capture the dialogue of the beasts so that their personalities ring true and don't feel at all anthropomorphized. For example:
Rosie spoke to the half-wild birds in the mews, who answered in images as sharp as knives and flung as quickly as a falcon seizing a smaller bird out of the air. They spoke of death and food, and of their handlers, whom they both hated and loved, for they were only half-wild, and they knew it.
Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona's theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight enough answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren't true.
Throughout the novel, McKinley plays fair with the original fairy tale, but hardly ever does any of it work out the way one would think it would, which only adds to the fun. But to be honest, this is one of those rare occasions when the writing is so good, and the novel has so much heart, that the plot almost doesn't matter. That there is a strong storyline only adds to the book's unequivocal success.
Michelle West (review date March 2001)
SOURCE: West, Michelle. "Musing on Books." Fantasy and Science Fiction 100, no. 3 (March 2001): 111-13.
[In the following review, West applauds McKinley's ability to give "life and depth" to classic fairy tales in her young adult novel Spindle's End.]
Robin McKinley is back in fairy tale country, and while I desperately want another Damar novel (and technically, I believe that this might take place in the same world because of references made to Damarian histories, albeit as favorite stories), McKinley fans should nonetheless rejoice. "Beauty and the Beast" was the source for two fine novels, Beauty and Rose Daughter respectively, as was "Deerskin," for the novel of the same name. In Spindle's End, she turns her pen to the tale of "Briar Rose," or "Sleeping Beauty," and the results are sheer joy.
One does not read retellings of fairy tales for the surprise their plots provide. It's a given that things will work out, more or less happily, and more or less in keeping with the story—or stories—that were their source.
Well, sort of.
McKinley has made some significant changes in the plot and in the characters upon whom that plot rests, while retaining much of the same trappings (the part about the fairy godmothers' gifts is particularly amusing). What she has done—and what she always does so well—is to give life and depth to characters who weren't really characters at all in earlier tellings.
For instance, the fairies upon whom the princess—called Rosie, rather than any one of her twenty-one birth names—depends are very untraditional fairy tale denizens. It seems that the kingdom in which Rosie lives is overrun with magic. Magic is literally a dust that settles over everything, and if it isn't cleaned mercilessly, you end up with unfortunate occurrences (like, say, having your cereal turn into spiders). Some people are born with a particular gift for using that magic—and those people are called, for want of a better word, fairies. It is entirely probable that a fairy might have a nonmagical brother or parent; being a fairy and being a human are not mutually exclusive activities.
Pernicia is a fairy with a burning hatred for Rosie's family line, in particular for the last queen who ruled some four hundred years ago. She wants vengeance, in the form of, say, destroying the entire kingdom, and she wishes to start with Rosie, hence the need to have a baby spirited away and hidden. Obviously, to combat a woman who has become a master of magic, you want women who at least have some claim to be experts—but because fairies are, in the end, both human and mortal, much of the novel's charm resides in their story, related though it is to the story of the Princess.
There is, I should add, a prince, a magical hedge, and numerous instances of magical sleep; there are talking animals, or rather, animals that can talk to Rosie. There are whole passages that come, minus the muted beauty of McKinley's prose, straight from Sleeping Beauty variants—but the whole is greater than the parts, because McKinley is a master storyteller.
Have you ever wondered what the parents of a child fostered out immediately after birth must feel like? Have you wondered what it must be like to return such a child, when in every sense of the word you've been that child's parent? McKinley does. And she does this in a such a deft and gentle way you forget that you're reading a fairy tale.
Rosie is as memorable a character as either of McKinley's Beautys. Katriona, one of the two fairies who shepherd her through the terrible risk of discovery, is just as good. There is plenty here that does surprise, all of it with McKinley's characteristic gentleness, her obvious affection for the people she writes of—and writes for.
Don't miss Spindle's End. If you liked any of McKinley's work, and you have missed it, run to the nearest bookstore that has the taste and foresight to carry it, and grab it immediately.
WATER: TALES OF ELEMENTAL SPIRITS (2002)
Anita L. Burkam (review date July-August 2002)
SOURCE: Burkam, Anita L. Review of Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 4 (July-August 2002): 466-67.
McKinley and Dickinson are each justly celebrated for fantasy writing; [Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, ] this collection of alternating short fantasies, first in a projected series, is a successful joint endeavor. The stories take their directive loosely enough (oceans and a tidal river, a mountain stream, even a desert pool) to present a diverse and satisfying whole, aided by the complementary voices of the two authors. Several stories are peopled with merfolk: Dickinson's "Mermaid Song" lyrically sets out the choice made by a girl living in a puritanical colony to defy her abusive grandfather in order to rescue a trapped mermaid. In his "Kraken," a mer-princess witnesses the defiant suicide attempt of a pair of "air-folk" lovers and is called to describe the lightfilled moment to the Kraken, the alien dweller in the coldest, darkest deep. McKinley takes her turn in "The Sea King's Son," about a romance between a land girl and a sea prince that heals a rift between the two cultures. Of the six stories, this is the weakest for its stilted tone and lashings of mawkishness, but both writers' tendency to luxuriate in the conventions of fantasy—in romance, beauty, and a cozy pre-industrial vision of the simple life—is a strength in many of the other stories. The gratifying Cinderella transformation of a neglected menial into a beloved, valued young woman bears the emotional freight for quite a few, including "Water Horse," about a half-orphan who finds her place as the apprentice of a Guardian holding off the sea's incursions; and McKinley's "A Pool in the Desert," about a girl from The Blue Sword 's "Homeland" who escapes servitude to her modern-day family by finding her way into the landscape that has long dominated her dreams: the desert of Damar. In contrast, a gritty practicality pervades Dickinson's "Sea Serpent," in which raftsmen charged with carrying sacred stones across a tidal river mouth defeat a predatory seaworm. Readers versed in these writers' work will recognize familiar themes and references; newcomers will find scope for imagination; and all will be richly rewarded.
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, Jason Britton, and Jeff Zaleski (review date 2 September 2002)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, Jason Britton, and Jeff Zaleski. Review of Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 35 (2 September 2002): 77.
Each highly respected authors in their own right, husband and wife Dickinson (The Ropemaker) and McKinley (Spindle's End ) collaborate for the first time on a collection of enchanting tales linked by an aquatic theme [Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits ]. Infused with selkie legends and Greek and Roman underworld myths, the tales possess a consistently compelling, rhythmic tone, despite the fact that the authors alternate in the tellings. Dickinson's opening "Mermaid Song" sets the tone for a tenuous relationship between those who dwell on sand and in sea; only the landsman who has listened to the stories passed down through generations can accord the sea its proper respect. McKinley's "The Sea-King's Son" builds on the traditional tale of the Sea-King's daughter who falls in love with a musician, but with a satisfying twist. Taken together, the installments also raise some thought-provoking issues. In "Mermaid Song," for instance, Pitiable Nasmith must lie in order to escape her grandfather's abusive home, while Hetta in "A Pool in the Desert" struggles with what constitutes truth. The workings of the Guardians' magic in McKinley's "Water Horse" remains mysterious, and Dickinson never entirely explains the gender-divided mythology in "Sea Serpent" but fans of myths won't mind filling in the gaps. These creative interpretations brim with suspenseful, chilling and wonderfully supernatural scenes, from Iril's daring plan to kill the murderous sea serpent to Hetta's literal leap of faith. Ages 12-up.
Harris, Maryellen. "Beauty and the Beast: 20th Century Romance?" Merveilles and Contes 3, no. 1 (May 1989): 75-83.
Examines McKinley's Beauty within a larger critical study of the lasting cultural impact of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale.
Hearne, Betsy. Review of Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, adapted by Robin McKinley, illustrated by Susan Jeffers. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 40, no. 5 (January 1987): 98.
Praises McKinley's adaptation of Sewell's Black Beauty, noting that McKinley manages to maintain the tone of the original work "without the excessive details and sentiment."
Tchana, Katrin. "McKinley, Robin." In The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, pp. 296-97. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
Offers an introduction to McKinley's young adult canon and hails her strong, female protagonists.
Woolsey, Daniel P. "The Realm of Fairy Story: J. R. R. Tolkien and Robin McKinley's Beauty." Children's Literature in Education 22, no. 2 (June 1991): 129-35.
Discusses McKinley's adaptation of the classic fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast" in Beauty within the context of J. R. R. Tolkien's seminal essay "On Fairy-Stories."
Additional coverage of McKinley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 33; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 5, 6, 12, 16; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 10, 81; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 107; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 31, 64, 110; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 52; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and Something about the Author, Vols. 32, 50, 89, 130.
"Robin McKinley." Children's Literature Review. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/robin-mckinley
"Robin McKinley." Children's Literature Review. . Retrieved November 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/robin-mckinley