Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite fairy tales. I didn’t set out to retell it when I wrote Beautiful. I had actually just started off writing a story (a short story, mind you, not a novel) and I found myself doing inspired by the fairy tale about a quarter way through the first draft. But ever since I was a kid I loved the mysterious gothic castle and the idea that you can’t always trust your eyes. It’s odd that those are elements that I did away with in my own version. Instead, I found other aspects more interesting. I wanted a dual redemption arc for both my Beauty and my Beast. I wanted some ambiguity regarding who qualifies as the “beauty” and who is the “beast.” I also became interested in the idea that we don’t always appreciate beauty when we first encounter it. Sometimes it’s something we need to be ready to appreciate. I’d like to say that I’m the first person to re-imagine this fairy tale, but I’d be lying if I did. A lot of great writers have done interesting fresh, diverse things with this story. These are some of my favorites that have gone before.
Beauty by Robin McKinley– This is probably most similar to the classic fairy tale that most of us know. For that reason, I found it a bit dull but I know a lot of retelling fans love it. And it’s well done. It just doesn’t do much that feels original or new. But it was written in 1978, so there’s a good chance that at the time, it did feel fresh!
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley– McKinley had more than just one Beauty and the Beast story in her! Unpopular opinion time: I actually prefer this one. McKinley moves outside of the box and puts her own spin on things. She even throws in a bit of a twist ending.
Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier– Marilier is one of my favorite authors in this genre and she doesn’t disappoint with this offering. The conventions or fairy tales are mixed with gothic romance and it’s all set in 12th century Ireland. When Caitrin takes refuge in Anluan’s garden she is hired as a scribe to sort through family documents. Anluan’s family is under a curse that Caitrin must unravel if she, Anluan or anyone in the household is to find happiness.
The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey– This is one of those books you shouldn’t judge by its cover. It’s part of Lackey’s Elemental Masters series but since each book in the series is very much standalone that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s set in San Francisco in the early 1900s. Rosalind is a medieval scholar who is hired as a governess, but when she arrives at her employer’s house she discovers that he has no children. Indeed she isn’t even able to meet him face to face. Her job is to read to him from ancient manuscripts through a speaking tube. She assumes that his interest in medieval spells and sorcery is just an eccentric trait. But she discovers that his interest isn’t academic at all. On the contrary, he has a very practical reason for this.
The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth– Forsyth bases this novel on the Grimm’s version of the Beauty and the Beast story called The Singing Springing Lark. But it’s set in Nazi Germany. Ava loathes the Nazis and everything they stand for and she joins a resistance group to try to fight them. But in order to save her father’s life, she has to marry Leo, a Nazi Officer. Leo seems kind and intelligent, but Ava can’t overlook the people with whom he associates. But appearances can be deceiving. Leo hates the Nazis as much as Ava does. He uses his position within the party to give German military secrets to the allied forces, sabotage Geman plans and save as many lives as he can. But his activities might put at risk the lives of all that Ava holds dear.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter- Maybe this is cheating because it’s actually a collection of short stories but Angela Carter includes several that have Beauty and the Beast elements. These are most obvious are “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride,” but you can find traces of the fairy tale’s influence running all through the tales in this brilliant collection.
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson– Again I might be stretching it a bit here, as I don’t think this was intentionally written with Beauty and the Beast in mind. But there are a lot of parallels. I feel like it definitely influenced the author, whether or not he was aware of it. Just a warning- the first chapter includes a very graphic description of the main character’s injuries in a car accident and the treatment of those injuries. If you can, try to push past it. It’s not that graphic throughout. The driver of the car is in a hospital burn unit when Marianne Engel finds him. She tells him that they were lovers in a previous life. She tells the elaborate story of their past lives together so vividly that the burned man is no longer able to dismiss her.
The Beauty and the Beast story as we know it probably has its roots in the Cupid and Psyche story, and the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon. All of these are part of a broader tradition of women taking men disguised as beasts as their husbands. There is also a tradition of animal bride stories in which the female is in some way “other.” Think about swan maidens, selkies, and even The Little Mermaid.
Different cultures have used these stories in different ways. For example, the original French tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and later adapted by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, was used as a way to reassure wealthy girls going into arranged marriages that just because their intended might not seem promising at first glance, don’t give up hope. It’s also been used to convey the “true beauty lies within” message. But ultimately I think that they’re about how people respond to differences. How do we respond to what’s considered “monstrous”? What a society considers “other” will vary. Likewise, the response to others varies depending on the individual. Those variations allow for writers to use their imaginations. They take the classic story and change some of the variables. What happens is sometimes surprising.