Sep 22 2010 4:58pm

Two Beauties, Two Beasts: Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter

Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) are both versions of the fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” and both written by Robin McKinley. I can’t think of another example where a writer has done that. There are plenty of fairytale retellings, but not where one writer has told the same story twice, even after twenty years.

They are very different books. Beauty is first person, it’s a warm open book in which everyone is sympathetic. It’s a deeply enjoyable book in a world that’s just one step from ours. Rose Daughter is third person, it’s much colder, there are people with bad intentions, the world is magical and difficult. Beauty’s Beauty loves books and horses, Rose Daughter’s Beauty loves gardening. Beauty’s Beauty is a happy girl, Rose Daughter’s is one who has already been damaged by life before she meets the Beast. Beauty is a rose, Rose Daughter is a thorn. Rose Daughter is a much more technically accomplished book—it’s written at the peak of McKinley’s abilities, whereas Beauty was her first novel.

The reason fairytales can be infinitely retold is that different writers think that different things about them are interesting and important, and write about those aspects. I read Beauty many times before Rose Daughter was published, and I found it hard to like Rose Daughter when I first read it. It took me some time to come around to it, to seeing it as its own book and not in Beauty’s shadow. This is the first time I’ve read the two of them together. The thing I really noticed doing that was the way that although they’re very differently balanced stories, because McKinley’s take on what’s important in the original fairytale is the same, the beats fall in the same places. This is extremely peculiar. They both follow the pacing of the fairytale—and they’re both essentially the very weird story of a girl falling in love with a monster.

There’s a creepiness in the original fairytale that I don’t think McKinley sees, or certainly doesn’t acknowledge. The Beast is a monster, and the means by which he blackmails Beauty to go to his castle is quite horrible. She’s a prisoner, and she has agree to marry him. He’s much older—hundreds of years older in these versions—and she’s very young. That she does come to love him despite his monstrosity and by that love break the spell seems magical and wonderful to McKinley. I suspect Stockholm syndrome and grit my teeth. That she made this work once, let along twice, is really quite amazing. It’s also possible to argue that her vampire novel Sunshine is telling the same story.

Rose Daughter’s world is a lot more interesting. It has greenwitches and sorcerors and magical roses and salamanders, sphinxes and unicorns. It’s a fantasy world, and it feels like a real one—the details McKinley drops in feel as if they’d fit together if you saw more of it, which is as much as I ask for in worldbuilding. The curse on the Beast makes a kind of sense, and discovering it is a mystery that drives the plot somewhat. The Beast’s castle is very creepy and unpleasant, only the rococo greenhouse in which the roses grow is friendly. Beauty only stays here for seven days of her time, which makes her falling in love with the Beast seem more than a little precipitate.

Beauty’s world is our world in the vague medieval past in which fairytales are fuzzily set. Beauty’s family live in a great English-speaking trading city that isn’t named, but which trades with Paris and Rome, Beauty reads Greek and Latin authors, she dreams of going to university. The tech level makes it sixteenth century to me, and so her father’s ships are like Antonio’s argosies in The Merchant of Venice, lost and found in exactly the same way. The Beast’s castle is lovely—I’d be happy to live there myself for an extended period. The curse is a family curse invoked by chance. It isn’t a mystery. She stays there for nearly a year, and the descriptions of getting to know and like the Beast seem a lot more plausible.

The chances are that if you like either of these books you’d like the other one, but I don’t recommend reading them together, because the resonances are odd. And while Rose Daughter is in many ways better, including having a more satisfying transformation at the end, it’s Beauty that I continue to love. Beauty is also the fantasy novel that I successfully got my aunt to read, after she conceded the possibility of wanting to read more fantasy after reading mine. So this is a proven good place for readers new to genre.

I’m very glad to see that both of these are in print.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Estara Swanberg
1. Estara
Well, I loved Beauty, but - although I liked he very last end twist concerning the Beast in Rose Daughter (which should have been the same in Beauty, I think) - I really, really didn't like Rose Daughter.
Probably out of loyalty towards Beauty, her sisters and especially her horse ^^ - and the fact that I don't want to read this particular fairy tale even darker than it is originally.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Estara: That's how I felt the first time I read it, exactly. And I agree with you about the final twist. But I strongly suspect that if I'd read them the other way around, I'd feel the other way. And it has grown on me in rereading.
Carrie Vaughn
3. Carrie_Vaughn
Her latest, Chalice, could also be seen as yet another version. Main character falls in love with a monster, an outcast, and that love transforms him.

McKinley is my favorite writer, and Rose Daughter was the first book of hers I didn't want to reread. Still haven't, and I keep thinking I should.
Claire de Trafford
4. Booksnhorses
I can't remember how long ago it was that I bought Beauty but I know I got it in Athena in Canterbury, which really dates it! The cover on my version (a distant girl in long dress on a horse) caught my eye (not even a teen I think) and the story was wonderful, loving books and horses then and now. The sequence where Beauty finds the library with books that haven't even been written was where I wanted to be; the descriptions of her clothes really appealed. I remember being quite disappointed with Disney's Beauty that they hadn't taken the whole thing from McKinley!

Rose Daughter I have also come to love once I separated myself from Beauty - it helps that they really are quite different. It is also an excellent book but it can't compare to the hold that Beauty has had on me since early days :)

I do love McKinley's writing but the most recent, Chalice etc, haven't appealed so much. Wish she'd write more Damar books :)
5. Lynnet1
I reread Rose Daughter earlier this year with the intent of rereading it and Beauty together. I couldn't do it. After reading Rose Daughter, Beauty seemed light and fluffy, more like cotton candy than a real book. I know from past experience that after I read Beauty, reading Rose Daughter seems too dark and miserable. At the moment, Rose Daughter is my favorite of the two, but I know that when I reread Beauty as I inevitably will in a few months, it will be my favorite. Until I reread Rose Daughter again.
6. Herenya
I reread Rose Daughter very recently, and was surprised when it took longer to read than I had planned for. I had decided it must be the difference between rereading it for fun versus rereading it in order to write an essay (what I was doing) - but maybe it was because it is a colder and darker book. I love it - I especially love Beauty's sisters and their stories in Rose Daughter (sometimes I think I'm more interested in them than Beauty herself) - but it doesn't quite make for light reading.

I've thought there was something creepy about Beauty and the Beast ever since learning that the message in the 18th century 'original' is all about reassuring girls about arranged marriages - your husband may seem monstrous but you can civilise him and learn to love him!. It's probably possible to argue against this reading... but I do find its implications undermine my ability to see the fairytale as I had previously seen it - as being about girl-power and the girl saving the day.
7. Neenie
I read these both back in 2004, when I was doing a survey of Beauty and the Beast, so I read probably a two dozen versions of the tale as well as watched four or five film versions within about a month, so I wasn't comparing them so much to each other as I was to the story as a whole. I really liked the fact that in both versions her family wasn't villianized, as happens in a lot of versions of the tale. Beauty felt like an almost striaght retelling of the Costeau film version, so I think I appreciated Rose Daughter more for its orginality at the time. I also really liked the twist at the end, as it brought up some of my issues with other versions of the tale and reminded me of the Perlman-Hamilton version (guilty pleasure).
Regardless, I love them both, and I keep coming back to Robin McKinley whenever I need to get a romantic/ fairy tale fix that isn't too saccarine, although Spindle's End is my personal favorite.
8. SonomaLass
I like both versions too; they speak to different parts of me. I can't really say I think of Rose Daughter as dark, though; at least, not compared to Sunshine or McKinley's amazing Deerskin.

I haven't reread either of these books in quite a few years; I think you talked me into it, although perhaps not too close together.
Beth Mitcham
9. bethmitcham
The last scene of Sunshine, where they are planning a happy walk through the night, never sits well with me. I tend to skip it on rereading, and I think it's because of how the love/monster thing is played up.
10. AndieN
I have always loved "Beauty"--and also had very mixed feelings about any author retelling the same tale, which perhaps influenced my non-enjoyment of "Rose Daughter". But then again, I didn't care for "Spindle's End" a great deal either (which I feel is of like kind as a book). It just seemed confused to me in places (and believe me, I am a McKinley fan), and I much prefer "Thornspell", the recent retelling (of Sleeping Beauty) by Helen Lowe--maybe because the "feel", just a little bit, put me in mind of my old love, "Beauty" ...
11. madscientistnz
From Robin McKinley's Blog (Nov 8 2008):
The story I tell over and over and over and over is Beauty and the Beast. It all comes from there. There are variations on the theme–and it’s inside out or upside down sometimes–but the communication gap between one living being and another is pretty much the ground line. And usually the gap-bridger is love.
12. RfP
I read Beauty years ago, but avoided Rose Daughter under the impression that it was a sequel. Oops. I'm not sure from the other comments that I truly want to read it (having enjoyed the Damar books but not Sunshine/Deerskin), but now curiosity will drive me to it.

For a creepy castle and beastly beast, I do enjoy Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête". I hadn't thought of McKinley's Beauty as particularly similar, but will have to rewatch and reread.
13. hapax
I admire ROSE DAUGHTER greatly (some of the imagery is just so astonishing that it is literally painful), but I love BEAUTY.

I think that while the former is a better "fantasy novel", it isn't really a "fairy tale" (in the Tolkien-ian sense) the same way that BEAUTY is.

So while ROSE DAUGHTER creates a more convincing world, I am paradoxically less inclined to accept the behavior and emotions of the characters; things that struck me as unrealistic (and, as you not, creepy) in that story are more appealing as archetypes and conventional tropes in BEAUTY.

(BTW, I would love to hear your take on DEERSKIN, which I think is McKinley's masterpiece (so far)
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Hapax: I reviewed Deerskin here last year, if you use the search box you can find it. I tried to link, but the over-zealous spamfilter kicked in. (I can't think what it's doing as it ignored real spam *all the time* and I have to flag it myself. But anyway.)
16. Lil Shepherd
I often have wildly differing reactions to McKinley. I love Beauty, Deerskin, and Sunshine, but dislike Dragonhaven, The Blue Sword... and Rose Daughter. I wish the heck I could work out why. (I know I dislike Dragonhaven because it tries to be both internally logical and vaguely scientific - and fails, miserably, and The Blue Sword because it is so clichéd, but I can't figure out why I hate Rose Daughter.)
Liza .
17. aedifica
Last night I went to start re-reading Thomas the Rhymer because of your other post, and pulled Rose Daughter off my shelf instead because I don't remember it clearly either. I do like Beauty a lot, and I remember being interested in the differences but not what they were!
Alex Brown
18. AlexBrown
I most definitely prefer Rose Daughter to Beauty, but I also tend to like my fairy tales dark, twisted, and complex. I was the kid who read folktales and traditional narratives and original fairy tales about gods who ate humans and humans who killed gods and antagonists who cut off their toes and heels to marry the prince and suchlike. It is infinitely more interesting to me to cut open the belly of an elephant and have half a village tumble out than to have Cinderella's stepsisters suck up to her for a happy ending.
20. etv13
I didn't find Rose Daughter particularly dark, but the twist at the end left me with the uneasy feeling that they were ducking out of public responsibilities in favor of more private satisfactions. I don't necessarily think it was the wrong choice, but it still bothers me somehow.
Sherwood Smith
21. Sartorias
In a way, McKinley has been dealing with "Beauty and the Beast" through many of her novels.
22. intertext
I've loved the way what seem to be Robin McKinley's own obsessions are echoed in her novels: horses and books at the beginning, then dogs, gardening, cooking ... sex? in Sunshine? ... holistic healing.

As for you, Beauty is one of my most dependable comfort reads. I was disappointed in Rose Daughter, and have only reread it once - you inspire me to try again.

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