Beauty times 3 (Part 0ne)

JOdel at aol.com JOdel at aol.com
Fri Nov 19 12:52:32 EST 1999


Some time ago, in regards to Fire & Hemlock, the question of the nature (and 
gender) of heroism was touched upon. Among the references which came up in 
response was a mention of Robin McKinley's BEAUTY. 

I had, quite recently, finally gotten an essay based on McKinley's retellings 
of this story down onto paper after two years of good intentions, and 
mentioned this, with the disclaimer that it was too long to post in the body 
of an e-mail message. Irena e-mailed me, wanting to take a look at it anyway, 
and, due to problems with attachments, I split it up into four sections for 
posting in a "series". After mulling it over for a week or so, I figured that 
I might as well send them up to the list as well. DWJ is mentioned only in 
passing, so most of you might not be interested, in which case, just delete 
it. But a few of you might find it worth reading.
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Beauty x 3 (Part One)

Certain tales resonate. These particular tales touch something so basic to 
the human spirit that some version of these stories is to be found in every 
civilization that has ever been known to the brotherhood of man (assuming 
that there is such a thing). Sometimes they linger as mere tale types, of 
which several are easily recognized. There is the clever peasant tale, 
wherein a representative of the common people gets the better of their 
appointed masters. This representative may be a child, often the "least 
likely to succeed" of his or her family. Or "he" may be a practitioner of 
some occupation or craft generally not in high esteem. The "masters" may be 
the protagonist’s own employers, or they may be representatives of the 
witless nobility, or some form of monster or ogre. Many of these bear a 
strong family resemblance to the Trickster tales of various mythological 
explanations for the workings of the cosmos. 

Just as persistent are the tales of the dispossessed (prince or princess 
usually) who must by determination and/or virtue regain their proper place 
and so reestablish and reconfirm the rightness of things as they are. Unlike 
the peasant tale, which generates fairly spontaneously, representatives of 
this form are often traceable to a specific origin in a courtly "art tale", 
although even these are often based on older, oral versions. 

A subset of this form is the straightforward tale of "virtue rewarded". In 
this form, the protagonist is not necessarily born to rule, although s/he is 
usually from a social stratum which can be placed somewhere above that of the 
peasant. The persistent theme of this tale type is that whatever the original 
rank of the protagonist may be, s/he is inherently superior to it. Which is 
acknowledged in the ultimate conclusion in which the protagonist is 
inevitably rewarded by a marriage into royalty. The most recognizable and 
persistent version of this tale type is, of course, that of Cinderella, which 
traditionally incorporates some degree of the theme of the dispossessed as 
its starting point, maximizing the opportunities to display the viewpoint 
character’s superiority to what are stated to be his/her natural peers.

There are also other, darker, equally recognizable tales which exist in many 
forms, in many nations. Sleeping Beauty is one such story. Donkeyskin is 
another. All of these, both the light and the dark, have proved singularly 
attractive to modern storytellers who have been bitten by the urge to do a 
retelling. And, perhaps, the most popular of them all, after that of 
Cinderella herself, is the story of Beauty and the Beast.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast is in some regards so closely related to 
that of Cinderella that one might well view the two as being first cousins. 
Belle is, to be sure, born into a lower estate than Lady Ella’s, being  the 
daughter of a merchant, rather than that of a minor noble. And her mate, once 
disenchanted, is generally not ruler of a great nation, but an isolated 
princeling at best, and, most typically, a country nobleman. Both ladies 
begin with the handicap of having been dispossessed of her rightful position. 
In Ella’s case, her place has been usurped by rivals, in Belle’s the whole 
family has been financially ruined and has been forced to remove from their 
home and even the very City which was witness to their former wealth and 
influence. But from this point the two tales diverge. Where magical aid is 
offered to Ella, almost by right of inheritance, magic arrives on Belle’s 
doorstep not as an aid, but as a threat and a challenge. And, where Ella has 
only to follow instructions and to be her own virtuous self, Belle must, 
without instructions, conform to the terms of the binding of an ancient 
enchantment and break it. 

Over the past 3–4 decades there have been several well-known retellings of 
Belle’s story. The details have varied. In the traditional version, Belle, 
like Ella, is one of three young ladies of her father’s household. Where 
Ella’s foils are mere stepsisters and spiteful with it, Belle’s are her own 
sisters, but (generally) no nicer for that. In the traditional versions, they 
have usually been portrayed as shallow, vain and ambitious. Indeed, the most 
difficult thing to swallow in these particular versions is the storyteller’s 
insistence that Belle longed for her home and her sisters’ company.

Prior to the Disney version, the most popularly well-known retelling of this 
story was probably Cocteau’s film version. In that version, a fairly new 
element was introduced into the traditional mix, that of the Beast’s handsome 
but vicious rival. This element was carried over into Disney’s more recent 
telling. Another fairly recent dramatic retelling was a made-for-television 
movie in the ’70s or early ’80s starring George C. Scott. While this was not 
quite so successful as his rendition of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, it was 
interesting in that -- for one thing -- Belle was portrayed as being almost 
as snappish as her sisters, and second, once disenchanted, the beast was not 
revealed as a handsome young princeling, but as a stately and powerful man in 
his prime. (Scott, even then, conforming to no one’s ideal of a young Adonis.)

But, for those of us who read, the quintessential retelling of this story 
appeared in 1978 with the publication of Robin McKinley’s BEAUTY. For all 
that there have been multiple retellings by others both before and since, 
there has not ever been one which came close to displacing it from its 
position as "the" retelling of this particular story.  

And, then, in 1997, seemingly out of the blue, McKinley suddenly chose to 
retell the same story all over again, nearly 20 years later.

Why? We will probably never know the whole truth of the matter. Nor is this 
knowledge really any of our business. The author’s own notes claim that the 
story surfaced as a side-bar to the recent sale of the small New England 
cottage and garden which had been her home for some years prior to her 
marriage. Far be it from me to call the author’s own version of events into 
question, but I cannot but wonder whether there may not be other contributing 
factors to it than this. In particular, I cannot quite manage to dismiss from 
my own mind the question of whether in 1997’s ROSE DAUGHTER (which reportedly 
sprang onto the page in a bare six months) we might not be seeing yet another 
example of what I have come to refer to as the "Lackey Effect".

The writing of fiction is not really an isolated occupation. In some ways it 
seems to be highly competitive. Particularly within such artificially 
narrowed confines as the rather specialized field of traditional fairytale 
retellings. I have previously commented on the way such things appear to go 
in cycles. For some years now I have groused about the determination of all 
the world and its aunt to perpetually retell the tale of Tam Lin. I will not 
subject you to it again here. However I do get the distinct feeling that when 
the pack has gotten its collective teeth into some particular tale, at least 
some of the versions were largely driven by a determination to "tell the 
story and tell it better, damnit, BETTER than the rest of these paltry scribbl
ers! HA! That’ll show ‘em!" -- Or sympathies to that effect.

And there is absolutely no question that Mercedes Lackey is a phenomenon. 
Within the science fiction & fantasy field I have seen other new authors hit 
big and become successful. I have seen several authors who became successful 
early in their careers, either strengthen their craft, or not, and either 
settle into their place in the general field with a larger or smaller 
determined following, or loose momentum and fall by the wayside. But I don’t 
know that I have ever seen anything to compare with the sheer impact that 
Mercedes Lackey has made in a mere 12 years. For that matter, I am not 
convinced that she has quite reached the leveling-off stage of her career 
YET. Although her momentum has slowed, it remains a juggernaut that appears 
virtually unstoppable. It would be all very well if such a high tide raised 
all boats, but while Lackey appears to be doing her part towards sharing the 
good fortune while extending her own influence by engaging in an impressive 
number of projects co-written with a moderate circle of writing partners 
among her family and friends, it can hardly make it easy for anyone outside 
this charmed circle who writes any story type with a grain of similarity 
(difficult to avoid) to make much of an individual impact on their own. 
Within the field, they might as well be going head-to-head with Steven King. 

This is all the more galling due to the distinctly sleazy air which seems to 
pervade most of the work with which Lackey is associated. The far-from-faint 
smugness and congratulatory tone of the narrative voice (directed at the 
reader), contrasted with the self-flagellation indulged in by, or the torment 
inflicted upon, most of her viewpoint characters is more than a little 
repellant. Frankly, I often find reading Lackey is a bit like being forced 
through circumstances to loiter in an environment in which the (inaccessable) 
video system is gabbleing out The Jerry Springer Show. To be quite honest, It 
is not actually this air of shoddiness in Lackey’s work to which I object, 
but the sheer unwitting vulgarity of it. Vulgarity ought never to be 
unconscious.

And, in the 12 years of Lackey’s ascendant, she has already managed to 
generate some at least temporarily deathless cliches with which it seems 
fairly easy for writers of greater skill to have a great deal of fun. This 
only one of the visible responses to the "Lackey Effect". One which we have 
seen in action quite recently in Diana Wynne Jones’s TOUGH GUIDE/DARK LORD 
duo (which I contend is all the more rewarding to those who had the 
persistence to actually make it all the way through the excruciating 
Lackey/Dixon production entitled BLACK GRYFFON). In fact, now I think of it, 
The Jerry Springer Show makes an extrordinarily good comparison to the work 
of Ms Lackey in that, either as painful irritant or guilty pleasure, it has 
the end result of reminding us all of just how  embarrassingly short a 
distance stands between even the best genre fiction and the hair-drier book. 

Because Lackey wouldn’t be where she is without some very real strengths, the 
greatest of which is that, by ghod she can tell a story! The fact that some 
of these are the kind of stories which never actually reach the brain is, for 
these purposes, immaterial. And in this I can say that Mercedes Lackey 
unquestionably writes the very best sort of hair-drier book. (i.e., designed 
to keep you placid and immobile until the torture is over.) The sort of book 
you might pick up to browse -- and when you finally come to yourself you find 
you’re on page 97 and it is 11:30 at night. But this, and the fact that Ms 
Lackey has some other, very real, strengths as a writer, does not matter. 

What matters is that in addition to exhaustively exploring her own sub-world 
of Valdemar, and those other separate or shared realities in which she has 
made her name one to conjure with, she has also recently joined the ranks of 
those who have taken it upon themselves to retell traditional fairy stories. 
In 1995 she brought out THE FIRE ROSE.If I am to be honest — which I 
generally do at least attempt — I must admit that I do not find Lackey’s 
fairy tale retellings anywhere near as obnoxious as some of her other work. 
Fairy tales already have a strong aura of the hair drier about them. And 
there are so many varied "takes" on them that one more by yet another fantasy 
writer, even if one with a virtual cult following, and whose crown seems to 
have been unaccountably inherited from some successful purveyor of bodice 
rippers (although if there is anything to the theory of reincarnation, I 
think we may be witnessing the return of Francis Hodgson Burnett), is hardly 
worth more than a shrug or a raised eyebrow. And, in fact, THE FIRE ROSE is 
quite an enjoyable read. It is, of course, yet another retelling of Beauty 
and the Beast. 

Having come out in 1995, THE FIRE ROSE was unlikely to have altogether 
escaped the effects of the 1991 Disney version, with which it shares several 
elements of greater or lesser importance. At least two of these were directly 
inherited from McKinley’s BEAUTY. One if these is Beauty’s love of reading 
(to be strictly accurate, in both McKinley and Lackey this quality was 
actually a love of learning, but Disney no doubt considered that a little too 
radical), and the second is the presence of a horse. Once again, Disney 
watered down the element to the point of rendering it vestigial, in both 
printed versions the horse is an almost essential character. Also in common 
with Disney, Lackey’s version features a handsome but vicious villain. 

While I hardly think that THE FIRE ROSE might have been the major moving 
factor toward giving us ROSE DAUGHTER, I do wonder whether the publication of 
yet another Beauty and the Beast retelling by so dominant a writer as Lackey 
unquestionably is -- at this point of time -- might not, in conjunction with 
the giving up of what had once been a happy home, have helped to jog McKinley 
into an exploration of whether she had, after all, said all that she had to 
say about this particular tale, and whether or not, over the intervening 
years, she may have come to some different conclusions regarding it. Which 
certainly appears to me to be the case.
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