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.


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