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A Tale as Old as Time: 8 Retellings of Beauty and the Beast

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Beauty and the Beast is one of a strange species of tale whose retellings have eclipsed the original.

Published in 1740, the original La Belle et la Bête was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, a woman who presided over a salon in the reign of Louis XV, at the height of the Enlightenment. She had a fairly colorful history: after being widowed young by a spendthrift aristocrat, she moved to Paris and became involved with a famous and important playwright, whom she lived with until her death. Her version of the story is novel-length, and includes interlacing plots and long histories of Beauty, Beast, and other characters, including Beauty’s father and the fairy who originally cursed the Beast. This version of the story is decidedly for adults, with a fair amount of naturalistic detail, despite the fantasy elements.

Just a year after Villeneuve’s death in 1756, the first retelling was published, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Beaumont trimmed the story considerably, stripping out the backstories for Beauty, Beast, and their families, truncating the action, and slimming down the cast. Thus, Villeneuve’s novel for adults was transmuted into a fairy tale for children. The naturalistic elements were downplayed or excised, and the fantasy elements and folkloric motifs emphasized. Beaumont’s work is didactic, with a moral and a message for young girls. Beaumont never credited Villeneuve, and since then has often been mistakenly sourced as the original writer. Many of the earliest retellings, like the English language version of Beaumont’s retelling in folklorist Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, hew to Beaumont’s fairy tale style.

As time went on, writers began complicating the tale once again, building new backstories for the Beast and Beauty, rewriting their families, his curse, or the underlying motivations. Or they stripped the story down further: reordering the world, telling the story without the father’s theft, or without the beast’s curse, or with other characters peopling the beast character’s habitation. Though Beauty and the Beast isn’t a folk tale in the strictest sense—it is not a story that comes out of an oral tradition with no clear progenitor—its centuries retellings and reinventions are the closest thing we have to a literary equivalent.

Here are 8 notable retellings of Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, by Robin McKinley
Beauty is the first retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley; you’ll encounter another one down-list. This version centers on Beauty and her loving family. Both the Villeneuve and Beaumont’s takes present Beauty’s sisters as vain, mean-spirited girls, but McKinley builds her Beauty’s kindness out of ironclad familial relationships. Beauty is no Cinderella—who is just inanely good—but someone who understands the work of compassion. We don’t even meet the Beast until halfway through the book, and while the romance and transformation feel a little rushed, Beauty’s character is so well detailed that her love and understanding feel natural and right.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter, includes two versions of Beauty and the Beast: “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride.” The first is in the vein of Beaumont’s version, but stripped down further. Its ending is bright and Romantic, an act of happy wish-fulfillment. “The Tiger’s Bride” is a counterpoint to the traditional telling, one that inverts a central metaphor in a way that makes my hair stand on end. Carter was a master of the perverse twist, and “The Tiger’s Bride” showcases that gift. The call and response Carter sets up is expertly done, and in her indomitable prose.

The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey
The action of The Fire Rose occurs largely in California, on the eve of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Its Beauty is a woman named Rose Hawkins, who is both grieving from her beloved father’s death, and a medieval scholar. She’s hired to act as governess to robber baron Jason Cameron’s children. After traveling from Chicago to California, she learns that he has no children, and is instead inflicted by a spell gone wrong, one that has left him half transformed between wolf and man. Like Villeneuve’s tale, The Fire Rose is situated in a specific place and time. The naturalistic details of the biographies of both its Beauty and its Beast are in counterpoint to the magic of the story. The Fire Rose tells both a secret history for events at the turn of the 20th Century, and a tight interpersonal tale.

Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley
Twenty years after her first novel, explored the Beauty and the Beast story, Robin McKinley returned to the subject in Rose Daughter. Though their concerns are very different, McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter are almost like Angela Carter’s short stories in the ways they triangulate and bookend the themes invoked by the original tale. Both authors are walking around the original works, and pulling out this thread or that for closer examination. Both the Beast and Beauty make very different choices in the end, choices that engage with the implicit bestiality of the original tale, even in its most didactic setting.

Bryony and Roses, by T. Kingfisher
Bryony and Roses is very directly inspired by McKinley’s Rose Daughter. Like McKinley, Kingfisher lavishes a fair amount of detail on horticulture, specifically the growing of roses, which grounds the text (almost literally). Bryony stumbles into an enchanted manor during a snowstorm, and it’s not entirely clear that the beast that resides there is her captor. They may both be captives of the house.

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
In Sarah J. Maas’s take, the beast character was never human, even before the curse: Tamlin presided over a court of the fae. (Tam Lin is also the name of a Child Ballad which involves roses, shape changing, and abduction by the fairy court, and both Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin inform the novel.) The beauty character, here called Feyre, reads a bit like Katniss Everdeen: she has accepted responsibility for her impoverished family, provided for them by hunting, and is full of anger at the injustice of it all. She ends up on the other side of the wall that divides human from fae after killing a fae in wolf form. The fae are known for their capricious cruelty to humans, and so Feyre must overcome not just Tamlin’s occasionally beastly appearance, but deeply ingrained prejudices (some of which are well justified).

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
The setting of de Bodard’s strange and beautiful take, which draws from Vietnamese culture, is both post-apocalyptic and folkloric: alien colonizers have abandoned a used-up and polluted earth, and creatures of myth stalk the land. A young scholar is sacrificed to the dragon, who is our beast character, and fully expects to be murdered. Instead, the dragon wants the scholar to tutor her two children, a pair of irascible twins who are neither human nor dragon, but something else entirely. The dragon’s palace is a slippery, changeable place, like the dragon herself, and the transformations that occur are not literal. In the Vanishers’ Palace is the most profound reordering of the Beauty and the Beast story I’ve encountered; it is both subversive and traditional, an impressive feat.

The Beast’s Heart, by Leife Shallcross
The Beast’s Heart follows the Beaumont version quite closely in the beginning: a ruined merchant stumbles into the Beast’s domain; he steals a rose; Beauty is sent to the Beast’s for a year. The key difference is that this retelling is centered on the Beast, not Beauty. His transformation from ravening beast starts even before her arrival; his self-improvement is not entirely dependent on her intervention. The story also follows Beauty’s father and two sisters after Beauty leaves. The sisters were mired in depression over the family’s ruin. Without Beauty around to perform all the household chores, they are forced to step up and care for themselves. In time, they become both confident and competent, and find their own love interests. In many ways, the sisters’ transformations are the most profound in the story, as the Beast’s transgressions which resulted in the curse feel muted and indistinct, and their courtship isn’t as grounded in everyday life like the sisters’.

What’s your favorite take on Beauty and the Beast?

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