Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Recommendation: Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

But myth, to some extent, is where you find it; and you know when you’ve found it by the way it goes right through you — like the first heavenly, shocking mouthful of ice cream on a hot day, or falling in love. Robin McKinley

"She threw the door open and stood there, facing not the palace but all the worst-omened creatures of the inner and outer worlds, and she . . . shook her fists over her head and shouted 'Go away! Can you not see that you have already lost? There is nothing for you here!'

There was another clap of thunder as if all the thunder in the ether between the worlds had clapped itself at once, and Beauty had a dazzling glimpse of what had been the sorcerous army rolling about on the ground in confusion. . . She heard the laughter of the old woman behind her and heard her voice for the last time. . . 'Bless you, my dear, and your Beast, and bless Rose Cottage, for it is yours now.'"

In the book recommendations I have written so far on my blog (see my Topic Index for the others), I have focused on non-fiction.  But in my lifelong addiction to books, my first and best love has always been fantasy and fairy tale.  So not long after I wrote my defense of Beauty and the Beast, I decided to reread Rose Daughter* by one of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley.

Robin McKinley says this about her own work, and this work in particular:

Myths—and folk and fairy tales—tell the big stories, the stories about what it really means to be human, and never mind the tedious restrictions of science and rationality. . . 

Beauty and the Beast. . . [is]my story. Everyone has a story. If you’re lucky you know what it is. It may be easier if you’re a writer, I suppose; then—if you’re lucky—it may hijack you. Possibly more than once. (Ahem.) Although some writers I imagine write in search of their story; such a writer might feel sorry for me, I suppose, for having the journey over. For me it’s like having a garden I can always go to, where the roses are always blooming and it’s always sunny and warm but not too warm—this is a garden I can sit down in, as opposed to the real-life ones which always need weeding and deadheading and feeding and tying in and fluffing up or strapping down . . . 

Rose Daughter contains most of the elements of the original fairy tale:  A merchant, forced into bankruptcy, has three daughters, the youngest named Beauty.  He discovers that a ship he had thought lost at sea has returned after all.  Beauty asks him if he can bring back for her just one rose.  He is unable to do so, but when he becomes lost in a storm on the way home and finds his way into a magic castle with invisible servants, he attempts to take a rose from there-- only to be confronted with a terrifying Beast who insists that his daughter Beauty shall be ransom for the rose.  Beauty goes to the Beast's castle and is treated kindly by the Beast.  Every night he asks her to marry him, and though she pities him, she cannot bring herself to say yes.  At last he finds her weeping, and she asks if she might return home.  "I can forbid you nothing," says the Beast, "but take this rose with you.  As long as it is fresh, I am well, but when the last petal falls, I will be dead for love of you."  Beauty uses the last falling petal to return to the Beast, and as he lies dying, her promise to marry him revives him.

It is at this point that the book departs from the tradition, for Robin McKinley's Beauty is not just a a stock female heroine, interchangeable with any woman who could say "I'll marry you" to break the spell.  No-- Beauty is a heroic hero, and after she has revived the Beast, she must break the spell and complete the rescue of the Beast on her own.  This she does in the climactic scene I have quoted above.

Largely because of Beauty's heroic role, the beautiful and poetic prose of this 300-page-long version adds an additional theme to the theme of overcoming prejudice which is the main point of the original fairy tale.  More than anything else, Rose Daughter is a celebration of the small and ordinary triumphing over the great and powerful.  This theme is embodied in the roses that pervade every part of the story, from the scent of five-year-old Beauty's mother's perfume, to the plants around Rose Cottage (which the family escapes to after the father's financial ruin), to the carpets and wallpaper in the Beast's castle, festooned with beautiful but non-living blooms, and finally to the greenhouse which the Beast tells Beauty "is the heart of this place.  And it is dying."

Beauty sets herself to revive and restore the Beast's dying roses.**  As she does so, she comes into her own power-- the power of cottages over castles, of simple kitchens and quiet conversation over imposing drawing rooms and cruel witticisms, of the small magic of living things over great feats of sorcery.   In dreams she sees her sisters (who had been hard and shallow in the wealth of the city, but learn compassion and the strength of gentleness in their new country lives) find new, honest bridegrooms in place of the lords and dukes who once had sought their hands-- and who had deserted them when their father lost the money that would have been their dowries.  Even Beauty's merchant father is transformed by their new country life, finding a gift for ballad-writing that he had never guessed he had, and becoming happy in his new role as village poet.

In addition to the roses, Beauty welcomes back to the Beast's castle (a fascinating place of magically changing rooms) many small living creatures, such as butterflies, bees and bats, turning it from an austere and barren place into a place of renewed life.  Another theme of Robin McKinley's that flows through many of her books-- two entities naturally hostile to one another being brought together without either one needing to change their essential selves-- also comes to beautiful fruition in this novel, though exactly how, I will leave to be discovered. Just-- read the book.

I believe that tales of the fantastic are important and valuable because of the ability of symbolic images like roses and castles and beasts, to communicate the essence of certain kinds of spiritual truth that are the most difficult to express in mere words.   Rose Daughter is one of the best such tales I have ever read, that I expect to reread again several more times in my life, as I have already read it at least three times already.  Book-lovers know how some books can get under your skin and become part of you.  This is one of those books for me.  So I'll leave you with this thought of J.R.R. Tolkien's, from his essay On Fairy Stories:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.  

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*Interestingly, the words on the front cover of the paperback version of this book betray the publisher's mistaken buying-in to the common misunderstanding of the nature of this story (as I complained about in my defense): "Beauty can transform anything-- even the heart of a Beast."  The Beast's heart is pretty much the only thing Beauty does not transform in this book, nor does she need to.  She needs only look past the Beast's outer form and find the pure, gentle heart of an artist, a philosopher, and a gentleman in every best sense of that word.

**There is an amazing amount of gardening in this book.  But even though I don't have an especially green thumb, I enjoyed this aspect of it-- particularly since the idea of digging into the depths of things to restore what is being lost, was an especially appropriate image for this story.  Beauty spends most of her time in mud-spattered boots, with thorn scratches on her arms: a refreshing image of a woman for whom "beauty" is supposed to be her most important feature (which it decidedly is not). 

3 comments:

PLTK said...

Love Robin McKinley and have read all her books! Interestingly, she became a Christian this past year at age 60something.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I love Robin McKinley's work, too. Though I haven't read anything of hers since I was a girl, reading "The Blue Sword" and "The Hero and the Crown". I found my first heroines in these tales.

clisawork said...

I love Robin McKinley's work also, for all the reasons listed above. I loved her beauty and the beast tale,I loved the Blue Sword. She is a great author.