Though I’m not a gambler, I’d be willing to bet that “Cinderella” is the fairy tale most commonly retold in modern-day romances. What’s more appealing than the mistreated scullery maid who, with the wave of a wand, is provided a complete makeover, including fabulous shoes, and entrée to a ball, where a handsome prince instantly falls in love with her?
But in my opinion, Cinderella and Prince Charming are the laziest hero and heroine ever. Sure, there’s that whole grain sorting/floor scrubbing/impossible task so she gets magical help thing, but really, all Cinderella has to do win the prince’s heart is get a makeover and show up. As for Prince Charming, all he has to do is be tenacious in his efforts to find the owner of the size 5 glass slipper. Time consuming, yes, but heroic? Meh.
Cinderella’s appearance needs to be brought up to social standards in order for her to be “seen.” In contrast, “Beauty and the Beast” is about learning to look beyond the superficial to find the inner beauty that lies within. It’s a darker but more compelling story. When Beauty pines for her family, Beast sends her to visit them because her happiness is the most important thing to him; at the same time, he knows if she doesn’t return—if she listens to her family’s fears rather than her heart—he’ll die.
Few authors retell the tale as exquisitely as Robin McKinley in her 1984 Newberry-award winning novel, Beauty. For readers unfamiliar with McKinley, you should a) smack yourself in the head for having not read her yet and b) be aware that she loves to take classic tales and turn them upside down. (In her version of Robin Hood, The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest, Robin is terrible with a bow and Marian is the finest archer in the land.) In McKinley’s Beauty, Beauty is the nickname of a thin awkward girl with big hands and feet, less-than perfect skin, and mousy-brown hair.
Appearances are unimportant to Beauty, who prefers books to balls, and her beloved horse, Greatheart, to boys. When her father stumbles onto the Beast’s enchanted premises and is forced to promise one of his daughters in return for his life, Beauty agrees to go, in part because she loves her father and wants to save him, and in part because she craves adventure.
Being a girl with brains, Beauty is naturally frightened by Beast’s appearance and by the magical goings-on in his castle. But she refuses to become a prisoner of her fears. She explores her new world and begins to see and hear things that are a part of the Beast’s enchantment. Among the discoveries that delights her most—and a fantasy I’m sure any bookworm would share—is a library that has more books than there are in the world because it includes books that haven’t been written yet.
Beast explains why Beauty has trouble seeing through the castle’s enchantments:
“As I said, you have no reason to trust me and excellent reason not to. And in not trusting me, you trust nothing here that you cannot perceive on your old terms. You refuse to acknowledge the existence of anything that is too unusual. You don’t see it, you don’t hear it—for you it doesn’t exist.”
“Beauty and the Beast” is about learning to look beyond appearances. In a charming turn, Beast argues with Beauty that it doesn’t matter if she thinks she’s not beautiful; “Since I am the only one that sees you, why are you not then beautiful?” Indeed, Beauty is growing more beautiful, but doesn’t realize it because the castle has no mirrors. Unlike Cinderella, she fights the invisible servants who would make her over with beautiful gowns and jewels.
McKinley’s Beauty’s name is actually Honour—a name that describes who she is at heart. Each night the Beast asks her to marry him. At first she declines out of fear, then as they become friends, she refuses because she doesn’t want to hurt him by marrying him out of pity. Only when she realizes that she’s been holding herself back out of fear and then out of habit (and isn’t that what prejudice all too often is, habit?) does she agree to marry him. This being a fairytale, she’s rewarded with the same things as Cinderella: clothes, jewels, a castle, and a handsome prince. But if Cinderella and Beauty were real people of characters in a fairy tale, I bet I know whose marriage would last more than 72 days…
Beauty and the Beast illustration by Walter Crane from George Routledge and Sons’s 1875 edition of Beauty and the Beast (via Wikimedia Commons).
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.