On Books, Reading, & Fandom
First, allow me to clarify what I mean by the phrase “a fictional dialogue”, which is invoked in the course of this essay, I do not mean the art of writing dialogue between fictional characters in stories. I am referring to the cases where a book itself may be interpreted as a response and/or rebuttal of the virtual “statement” posed by the existence of a different book or books by other authors. In the 18th century, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding engaged in what has been pointed out to be exactly such a “battle of books” throughout an extended, and far from good-natured “dialogue” between them over just what a “novel” ought to be.
This sort of dialogue is far from extinct. While I am not aware of any overt, blatant example in progress between two novelists today, the practice of post and repost between published works by various authors undoubtedly continues, even if it may take place less than intentionally. And, indeed, identifying what appear to be traces of such a “dialogue” is an uncertain experience. For one can turn out to be happily deceiving oneself.
One of those things to make you go, “Hmmm?”
This essay examines what I believe may be such a dialogue.
Or, then again, maybe not.
Because it may actually be nothing of the sort. There are certain tales which simply resonate. These particular tales touch something so basic to the human spirit that some version of them is to be found in every civilization that has ever been known to the brotherhood of man (assuming that there is such a thing as the brotherhood of man). Sometimes these stories are mere tale “types”, eroded by use to their lowest common denominators, and serve as archetypes. On the other hand, sometimes they develop with relatively sophisticated themes encapsulating portraits of a specific society. Often a specific version will spin off and endure, having taken on a separate life of its own.
Several of these tale types are easily recognized. For, example: there is the “clever peasant” tale. Essentially these are Trickster tales, wherein a representative of the common people gets the better (or makes a fool) of his social superiors. In a lot of variants this representative is a child, most typically the one voted “least likely to succeed” of his or her family. In other variants, “he” may be a practitioner of some occupation or craft generally not regarded as high status. The “masters” may be literally the protagonist’s employers, or they may be stylized as representatives of a foolish aristocracy. Or they may be subjected to more brutal symbolism and represented as some form of monster or ogre. Nearly all of these tales trace a strong family resemblance to the traditional Trickster tales of various mythological explanations for the workings of the cosmos, and this connection is unmistakable.
Just as persistent as the tales of clever peasants are the tales of the dispossessed innocent (usually stylized into a prince or princess) who must by determination, virtue and/or the making of prudent alliances struggle to regain their proper place in the world, thereby reestablishing and confirming the rightness of “things as they are”. Unlike the peasant tale, which seems to generate fairly spontaneously, many representatives of this form are traceable to a specific origin in some courtly “art tale”, although these were, in turn, typically based on older, oral versions.
A familiar subset of the story of the dispossessed innocent 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 is understood to be somewhat above that of a 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. This is acknowledged in the ultimate conclusion of the tale in which the protagonist is inevitably rewarded by an elevation to an even higher social class than the one into which s/he was born, usually by means of a marriage into royalty. The most recognizable and persistent representative of this tale type is, of course, that of Cinderella, a tale which, traditionally, incorporates the theme of the dispossessed into its starting point as well, thereby maximizing the protagonist’s opportunities to display his or her superiority over what are stated to be his or her natural peers.
This tale type has a corresponding dark version, equally recognizable. These are tales which also exist in many forms, across many nations. Sleeping Beauty, in its expanded versions, is one variety of such a dark story. Donkeyskin is another.
All of these “virtue rewarded” tales, 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, one of the most popular of all the variants for this purpose, even more so than that of Cinderella herself, appears to be the story of Beauty and the Beast.
The story of Beauty and the Beast is in some regards so closely related to that of Cinderella that one might as well regard the two as being in the nature of first cousins. Belle is born into a lower estate than that of Lady Ella, being invariably the daughter of a merchant, rather than that of a minor noble. And her mate, once disenchanted, is generally not the ruler of some great nation, but, at best, an isolated princeling or, more typically, a simple, if wealthy, country nobleman. Both young ladies begin with the handicap of having been dispossessed of their rightful positions in society. In Ella’s case, her place has been usurped by rivals. In Belle’s the whole family has endured financial ruin and has been forced to remove from their home and even the City which had once stood 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 first arrives on Belle’s doorstep not as an offer of aid, but as a challenge and a threat. And, where Ella has only to follow her mentor’s instructions and to be her own virtuous self, Belle must, without any instructions, conform her actions into those stated in the terms of the binding of an ancient enchantment (to which she has not been a party) in order to break it.
Over the past few decades there have been several popular retellings of Belle’s story. The details have varied from tale to tale. In the traditional version, Belle, like Ella, is one of three young women in her family, three daughters of her father’s household. Where Ella’s foils are mere stepsisters and spiteful with it, Belle’s are her own sisters. But they are (generally) no nicer for that. In the most traditional versions, they have typically been portrayed as shallow, vain and ambitious. Indeed, the most difficult thing to swallow in all these versions is the storyteller’s insistence that Belle pined for her family home and her sisters’ company. Presumably out of a blind attachment based upon shared blood alone.
Prior to the release of the Disney version, the most well-known cinematic retelling of this story was probably the film version directed by Jean Cocteau. In that version, a fairly new (and highly cinematic) element was introduced into the traditional mix in the person of the Beast’s handsome, but vicious, rival. This element was carried over into Disney’s version.
Another comparatively recent dramatic retelling of the story was a made-for-television movie in the ’70s or early ’80s starring Mr. and Mrs. George C. Scott. While this adaptation was not quite so popular as Scott’s 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, giving the three young women at least some family resemblance, and, second, that once disenchanted the beast was not revealed as a blandly handsome young princeling, but as a stately and powerful man in his prime. (Scott, even then, conformed 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, none have come 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? Who can say? We will probably never know the whole truth of the matter. Nor is this knowledge really any of our business. The author’s own endnotes claim that the story surfaced as a sidebar to the recent sale of the small New England cottage and garden which had been her home for some years prior to her marriage and relocation to Great Britain. And far be it from me to call the author’s own version of events into question.
Still, I cannot but wonder whether there may not be other contributing factors to her decision. 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 think of as the “Lackey Effect.”
• • • •
The writing of fiction is not really as isolated an occupation as it appears. Online communities (particularly those devoted to fanfiction) appear to have retooled it into a form of social activity. Even in the field of commercial publishing, in some ways this is a factor. In an era when publishers’ parent corporations seem to regard the selling of books rather in the nature of the selling of packets of soap flakes it seems to be a highly competitive endeavor. Particularly within such artificially narrowed confines as genre fiction, or the rather specialized field of traditional fairy tale retellings. I may have commented before (elsewhere) on the way such things appear to go in cycles.
For some years now I have periodically 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 once the literary pack has gotten its collective teeth into some particular tale, at least some of the versions that result are largely driven by a determination to “tell the story and tell it better, dammit, BETTER than the rest of these people! (That’ll show ’em!)” – Or something to that effect.
And there is absolutely no question that Mercedes Lackey is a phenomenon. Within the science fiction & fantasy field I have certainly seen other new authors hit big and become successful. I have also seen several authors who became successful early in their careers, either strengthen their craft (or not), and either settle into their niche 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 made over a her first 12 years as a professional writer. For that matter, at the time this essay was originally written, I was not convinced that she had quite reached the leveling-off stage of her career yet. (Note; she hadn’t. But I think she probably has by now.) Although her momentum had slowed, it remained a juggernaut that appeared virtually unstoppable.
It would be all very well if such a high tide raised all boats, but while Lackey appeared to be doing her best towards sharing the good fortune, even while extending her own influence, by engaging in an impressive number of projects co-written with a circle of writing partners, 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 must be all the more galling due to the faintly sleazy air which seems to pervade some of the work with which Lackey is associated. I cannot help but detect a far-from-faint smugness and a congratulatory tone in the narrative voice (directed at the reader) of her “middle period”, which, when contrasted with the self-flagellation indulged in by, or the torment inflicted upon, most of her viewpoint characters was more than a little repellent. Frankly, I sometimes found that reading some of Lackey’s work of this era was a bit like being forced through circumstances to loiter in an environment in which the video system is perpetually blaring out The Jerry Springer Show. To be quite honest, it was not actually this air of sensationalism in Lackey’s work to which I objected, but the sheer unwitting vulgarity of it. Vulgarity ought never to be unintentional.
And, over those 12 first years of Lackey’s ascendancy, she had already managed to perpetrate upon the fantasy field some at least temporarily deathless clichés with which it seemed fairly easy for writers of reasonable skill, or subtlety, to have a great deal of fun. This is only one of the noticeable responses to the "Lackey Effect". One which we on the DWJ list have seen in action in Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLANDS’ and ‘THE DARK LORD OF DERKHOLM’ duo, and their sequel ‘YEAR OF THE GRYFFIN’ (which I contend is all the more rewarding to those who had the persistence to actually make it all the way through a particular Lackey/Dixon production entitled ‘BLACK GRYFFON’). In fact, now that I think of it, The Jerry Springer Show in some ways makes an extraordinarily good comparison in that, either as painful irritant or guilty pleasure, (and, I must confess, my own reactions to Ms. Lackey’s work partakes of both extremes) 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. (i.e., something designed to keep you placid and immobile until the torture is over.)
Because Lackey wouldn’t be where she is without some very, 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 regard I can say that Mercedes Lackey unquestionably writes the very best sort of hair-drier book. The sort of book you might casually 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, is not the real issue.
What matters here, 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 joined the ranks of authors who have taken it upon themselves to retell traditional fairy tales (and has subsequently joined the ranks of writers determined to produce send-ups of traditional fairy tales). 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 irritating as some of her other work. Fairy tales already carry a strong aura of the hair-drier about them. Plus, there are so many varied “takes” on them already 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.
But, in any event, in 1995 Mercedes Lackey had brought out ‘THE FIRE ROSE’, the first of her series of tales of the various ‘Elemental Magicians’. Or perhaps it would be better to refer to it as a false start to that series, for, for several years it was usually not listed among those titles. ‘THE FIRE ROSE’ is a very 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 influence of the 1991 Disney version, with which it shares several elements of greater or lesser importance.
At least two of these elements were directly, if unwittingly, inherited from McKinley’s ‘BEAUTY’. (Which had been brought to the attention of the screenwriters in charge of the development of the script by a Disney employee as soon as the project was announced.) One if these elements is Beauty’s love of reading (to be strictly accurate, in both McKinley and Lackey’s versions this quality was actually a love of learning, but the Disney studios no doubt considered that level of eccentricity a little too radical), and the second element is the strong presence within the confines of the story, 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 to the plot’s development. Also in common with Disney (and Cocteau), Lackey’s version features a handsome but vicious rival to the heroic Beast.
While I hardly think that the existence of ‘THE FIRE ROSE’ would have been a 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 was by that point in time, might not, in conjunction with the letting go of what had 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 the underlying story. Which certainly appears, to me, to be the case.
In the Beginning…
The first thing one realizes upon embarking on ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’ is how very young McKinley must have been when she wrote ‘BEAUTY’. There is a sweetness, an openhearted innocence about ‘BEAUTY’ which you realize that almost no writer (other than perhaps Nancy Atherton) would be able to get away with in these disillusioned days where most of the world seems to have become resigned to middle age. The contrast is almost enough to make you weep. By yet further contrast, the story of ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’ is told to us in a very similar voice as that which had just previously told us ‘DEERSKIN’. And like ‘DEERSKIN’, however attractive the central characters may be, it is not a particularly likable story.
Some comparisons are in order. Both between the retellings and the original source material:
In the traditional version; the version which most modern authors use as their starting point (and which is a parable of a marriage arranged by a girl’s family upon financial considerations if there ever was one), Beauty is the youngest of three sisters, the sweetest and the most discounted by her peers. There is no real reason for this last detail, it seems to be a mere hobgoblin consistency with generic folktale tradition in which the youngest of three is always dismissed as being of no account.
Their father is a merchant who has lost his fortune. The family is forced to cut back its expenses and to remove from the costly city in favor of a humble cottage in the countryside. Since there is no money, the girls must now do their own housework. Beauty is the only one who does not spend a great deal of time complaining of this, which gains her no respect from her family.
Into the middle of this situation there comes a glimmer of hope. One of their father’s ships may not have been lost after all. He makes the journey back to the city in hopes this may be true. His older daughters greedily ask him to bring them back jewels and luxuries. Beauty, when asked, insipidly begs him for a simple rose.
The hope was false. The merchant’s luck is indeed out. In fact, so far out is his luck that on his journey home, he goes astray in a storm and is in danger of losing even his life. By chance he stumbles onto the grounds of a grand, but deserted, palace where he is mysteriously fed and housed for the night. Upon taking his leave in the morning, he makes the mistake of picking a rose for his youngest daughter.
In keeping with his luck overall, this arouses the rage of a monstrous Beast who demands his life in forfeit. Upon begging for mercy the merchant is told that he may instead give the monster his rose-loving daughter. The monster states that she, at least, will come to no harm from him.
To no reader’s very great surprise, Beauty insists upon being the requisite sacrifice to save her father’s life. The merchant conducts her to the (obviously enchanted) palace where the Beast welcomes her and sends her father away loaded with treasure enough to reestablish himself and his family.
At this point we all take time out to wallow in luxury for a while as Beauty becomes accustomed to a standard of living that most of us would like to be entitled to, and the Beast repeatedly pesters her to marry him. Despite these unwanted proposals, Beauty grows, over the ensuing months, to be quite fond of “her” Beast.
Then, for no particular reason that anyone has ever been able to discern, or explain, Beauty becomes consumed with homesickness and a longing to see her father (well, that’s understandable, I suppose) and also her nasty sisters (that’s not.). She begs the Beast for a holiday. He agrees to it upon conditions. She must return to the palace by the specified time or her coach will turn back into a pumpkin and she will be in rags. (Well, actually, no. That’s not it. In fact he doesn’t always specify any sort of ultimatum. But she, and we, are never left in any doubt that there is one.)
So Beauty makes a flying visit home. She has a wonderful time showing her riches off to her relieved father and her resentful sisters, both of whom have made grand but unhappy marriages in her absence. Of course she overstays her allotted time, and has to make her way back to the palace under her own power, her magical transport having just as well have turned back into a pumpkin.
She finds the Beast’s palace in a complete squalor of neglect with no sign of her Beast. After turning the place inside out she eventually comes upon him dying of despair over her betrayal. She cries out that she loves him and wants to marry him. Whereupon he turns into a handsome princeling. She demands to know where her Beast has gotten to. He claims to be her Beast and calls up a wedding celebration. Finis.
Well. Okay. That’s the story according to tradition — and a particular lady of the French court. I cannot answer as to whether her marriage was either happy, or arranged by her family on financial considerations.
According to McKinley’s ‘BEAUTY’ in 1978;
Beauty is the youngest of three sisters. Her name is not really Beauty. Beauty is a pet name from childhood which has almost become an embarrassment to her, but one which she seems unable to shed. Her older sisters, Grace and Hope, are both beautiful and good, and anybody with a proper way of thinking would value them. Beauty, presently going through a scrawny, spotty stage, has clearly decided that she is the "plain, clever one" of the family. Shortly after her eldest sister’s engagement to one of their father’s most promising young sea captains, the family’s fortune takes a severe decline due to bad weather, shipwrecks and other events beyond human control. The prospective son-in-law’s ship goes missing and no further word of it is heard. The family is eventually rolled up, their properties sold or auctioned off to cover debts. The only bright spot in the picture is the engagement of the second sister to a nice young man who is proposing to return to his county district and take up work as a blacksmith. The merchant, who had originally been a carpenter, agrees to join them and bring the rest of his family.
The world in which this all takes place is a generic “storybook land” one, with the feel of vaguely 16th—18th century. It is also a rationalist world in which magic is scoffed at by any person of education or urbanity and whatever magic is practiced is regarded as silly charms and country superstition.
The family leaves the city with their remaining worldly goods, laden with gifts from well-wishers, the most conspicuous of which is a large, quite valuable horse which Beauty had raised from a foal. The family eventually reaches the village of Blue Hill, and uncomplainingly rolls up its collective sleeves and gets to work settling in. The second daughter and her blacksmith marry and start their own family, and all goes reasonably well for a couple of years. The family appears to have outdistanced its bad luck and they prosper in a modest way.
As always, news of the false hope reaches them and the merchant must travel back to the city to investigate. In McKinley’s version he, as usual, asks if the girls want him to bring them something from the city. The two elder daughters sweetly tell him just to return safely. Beauty, in order to be saying anything at all, asks for rose seeds. From this point the tale follows the traditional version in that the ship was not that of the oldest sister’s fiancée, but a much smaller one. It and its goods were sold off for too small a sum to reestablish the merchant in business. And he finds that he hasn’t the heart to start over in the City in any case. After taking care of his obligations, he purchases a good horse with the little cash left over, but is unable to find rose seeds for Beauty. He returns to the country without them, goes astray in a storm and is sheltered and fed in a grand, but apparently deserted palace. He picks a rose, rouses a Beast and shows up on his own doorstep at the tail end of a Spring blizzard with the rose and a tale of a monster who demands his daughter or his life.
His formerly empty saddlebags turn out to be filled with treasure. Including a box containing a ring, and rose seeds for Beauty.
As always, Beauty is strong-minded enough to force her father to take her to the palace where she is welcomed by the Beast. She apologizes for her "misleading nickname" — unnecessarily. She has outgrown her scrawny, spotty stage by this time, although with the only mirror in the cottage in her sister’s room, she does not realize this. Nor is she likely to discover it now, for there are no mirrors in the Beast’s (obviously enchanted) palace. Her father is sent off with another cargo of gifts, and it isn’t until afterwards that the Beast discovers with some dismay that Beauty had come with her horse.
In any case we all get to wallow in luxury for a period, as Beauty settles into life in the palace. This segment of the story is enlivened by a running battle between Beauty and her two invisible servants who keep trying to dress her as a princess, which she considers inappropriate for a “plain little thing” like herself. It is also enlivened by Beauty’s project to get her horse to tolerate the Beast’s presence, her exploration of a library containing all the finest literary works of the past (or future!), and Beauty’s steady attempt to figure out just what is going on in this place. After an incident which provokes a mini-crisis, she begins to discover that she is growing able to understand her servants’ language, and by covertly listening to their conversations realizes that she has been brought here to break an enchantment. She is not able to discover just how she is supposed to do this by eavesdropping, however.
The factor which propels us into the next stage of the proceeding is the Beast’s revealing to Beauty a scrying glass in which she is able to view her family. More particularly, she sees that her oldest sister, Grace, has received a proposal of marriage from the local clergyman. (Obviously, this is not a Catholic country.) Her second sister, Hope, encourages her to accept since her first love is lost and the preacher sincerely loves her. Beauty idly wonders aloud what did happen to the young sea captain, whereupon the glass shows that he has not only survived, but he has just returned to port.
Well, clearly she must go to her family and tell her sister not to marry the preacher, since she still loves the sea captain — who, it turns out, was not lost. The Beast reluctantly agrees that Beauty may visit her family for a week, but that she must return before the week’s end, or he will die.
Despite the warning she allows herself to be persuaded to stay an extra day, nightmares send her off the next morning and she is soon lost in the forest. She and her horse wander the whole day and only find the palace road as the sun sets. They make their way back to the palace by moonlight and Beauty finds the house deserted and the Beast dying. She revives him, he welcomes her home and she tells him that she will marry him. The enchantment is ended her family (including the sea captain!) is brought to the palace for the wedding. Finis.
As a grace note, since the Beast’s enchantment had dragged on for centuries, he is no longer young. This Beauty’s bridegroom is not the usual young princeling, but a handsome, powerful nobleman in his prime.
According to Lackey in ‘THE FIRE ROSE’,
the story goes as follows;
Warning! More SPOILERS
Beauty is an only child. Her name is not Beauty, it is Rosalind, Rose for short. Her father was not a merchant, but a professor at the University of Chicago. Rose is a graduate student working towards her Ph.D. Her father lost his fortune some years earlier and Rose has been making shift with their straightened circumstances ever since. As the story opens, her father is has just died, his income ended with him and she is now destitute. It is autumn, 1905.
The Beast, Jason Cameron, is a magician. For this particular series Lackey has adopted the interpretation of magick working in accordance with the four elements. In most people these elements are sufficiently mixed that none predominates, but when there is an imbalance, the individual possess a magickal nature and can learn mastery of his or her own predominating element.
Lackey has since produced an extensive series of other retellings of fairy tales which are referred to as her ‘Elemental Magician’s’ series. For quite a long time, this book however, for some reason was usually not included in a listing of them. This may have been due to a change in publisher, but since some of the series’s internal paradigms were later modified, I think this one may have been a false start.
Cameron is a Firemaster. Out of hubris he attempted a magic which was not of his own element, and it went perilously wrong. He has trapped himself in a botched spell which has left him physically half man and half wolf. With paws he is unable to write, and his wolf’s eyes can no longer make out the cramped, handwritten text of his grimoires and other books of the arcane arts which he is studying in order to try to find a method of reversing the spell. He has retired to his mansion on his own private spur line south of San Francisco (in public life he is an obscenely wealthy railroad baron). He has also dismissed his human servants and is currently served only by salamanders and Paul DuMond, his secretary/apprentice, a handsome but vicious young man who has proved to be too lazy and undisciplined to learn what is needed in order to further his own magickal education.
The Beast has had his salamanders searching for a young woman whose education would enable her to read his books to him and help him in his research. (He prefers the idea of a female assistant since he believes that a woman would be less likely to prove a danger to him.) Of the handful of candidates which the salamanders have located, Rose’s qualifications come closest to his needs. He sends a letter, by salamander, to her mentor at the university asking him for assistance in finding a tutor for a pair of imaginary children. The qualifications requested are of course Rose’s. The deal is sweetened by promises of a very good salary, and occasional holidays into the city for cultural events. A railroad ticket is included. Rose, of course, cannot afford to refuse and sets off for San Francisco.
As soon as possible after her arrival at the mansion, Rose is informed of the deceit. There are no children, her employer has been injured in an accident and is no longer able to do his own research, that is to be her job. Since he is also disfigured, she will read his research materials to him through a speaking tube. They will not meet face to face – oh, and she may find some of the things he asks her to read rather... peculiar. Her salary and the other perks mentioned in his offer remain the same, and, in addition he will have the catalogs from the booksellers in the city conveyed to her so she may order whatever she may require for her own research. Rose who has few options, considers the changed agenda and agrees.
Whereupon we all take some time out to wallow in luxury while Rose becomes familiar with the manor, the library, the grounds and the work required of her. (Lackey is very good at wallowing in luxury, and her stories will do so quite shamelessly given any plausible reason.)
During this period Paul DuMond tries to insinuate to Rose that she is not safe here and should “trust” him to help her. She finds him repellent. Rose also makes the acquaintance of the other significant living creature on the estate, Jason’s horse. This is a splendid copper-red stallion, the gift from another Firemaster, who is attended to by Jason’s salamanders, but otherwise has been left in isolation since Jason’s “accident”. Since the horse will not tolerate DuMond near him, he has been left at liberty in a field without companions. He seems to like Rose, but since she does not ride she is of no help in exercising him and can only provide a bit of company. Meanwhile, the head salamander informs Jason that while Rose has some fire in her, her nature is mostly air. Or, in other words, that Rose also has a magickal nature and could be trained as a Master of Air. Jason suddenly has hope (and a good deal of relief) that he might be able to train her to the degree that she can be an active assistant to him in the work of his restoration, since he can no longer trust DuMond. (Who he sends off to the city on business for a week to get him out of the way.)
During DuMond’s week in the city we follow him and discover that he has already betrayed Jason’s condition to a rival who has possession of the spell that Jason is looking for and does not mean to let him have it. He offers to tutor DuMond in other ways to power since Jason is clearly not intending to further DuMond’s education any farther.
Rose has found the things she is asked to read very peculiar, but can understand how someone who cannot be helped by modern science might very well try to find answers in the occult. Since Jason now knows that she could also become a practitioner, he has the salamander add an elementary apprentice text into the stack of his own researches and waits for her to read it during the week of DuMond’s absence. This she does and is shocked to realize that it makes a certain weird kind of sense.
She immediately gets on the horn (sorry, tube) to Jason asking for explanations and he tells her what he is, how his mansion is run and proves it to her by allowing one of his salamanders to show itself. He explains to her that she could also learn if she wishes. She thinks it over and accepts the offer. The chief obstacle now bypassed, they get into the search for the missing spell with a will and burn the midnight oil for several weeks until Jason sends her off to the city on one of the promised holidays, complete with excursions to theater and bookshops.
Rose returns from her holiday to a crisis. Jason has decided to test a possible modification of the original spell while the sun or moon, or whatever, is favorable and has sent DuMond off to dinner away from the estate. The effort (unsuccessful) leaves him in desperate case and the salamanders (who cannot touch living flesh without burning it) call on her to help. So she finally meets her employer face to face and gets a considerable shock.
Meanwhile, DuMond meets the rival sorcerer over dinner and the rival recommends that he find some reason to be relocated to Oakland in order to further his education.
Rose, although considerably shaken soon recovers and is able to contemplate meeting her employer again. DuMond manufactures a crisis in one of Jason’s Oakland companies and gets himself sent off there to deal with it for the next few months. Jason begins to contemplate that if DuMond makes a go of that he might be able to send him off to manage some holding in another part of the world and so be rid of him. With DuMond out of the way Rose and Jason begin her training, continue his research, and deepen their own acquaintance. Over the next few weeks Rose realizes that she has fallen in love with him. He realizes that he has fallen in love with her. Neither, of course says anything to the other.
As a side project, Rose manages to familiarize Jason’s horse to Jason’s new scent to the point that he will tolerate his master despite the transformation. Both Jason and the horse are touchingly grateful.
The rival and DuMond, meanwhile, have been exploring the paths to power á la Alister Crowley via sex, drugs and general bloodletting (not, of course, their own). The rival wants to get his hands on Rose in case she has learned some of Jason’s secrets and can be used. He insinuates a number of suggestions to this effect to DuMond, who, drugged to the gills, decides to take the rival’s yacht, land on the beach below the manor and abduct her. He manages to catch her unaware but she puts up a fight and he isn’t having things all his own way. A watchful salamander yells for Jason who is out on his horse. Jason rides to the rescue, the wolf takes over and he tears out DuMond’s throat.
Rose is thoroughly shocked. Jason is appalled and sends her away to the city for her own safety. While they are both trying to get their heads in order and figure out what to do now, the rival approaches Rose at the opera and offers her his “help”. This is in the evening of April 17. In the morning all hell breaks loose. The manor has been spelled against the worst of the earthquake (by a local Earthmaster — Jason reciprocated by spelling the Earthmaster’s shop against fire) but Jason is frantic with worry about Rose alone in the city. He spends a great part of his magic to take himself there to find her. He does find her — struggling with his rival. There is a confrontation, the salamanders are called in, Rose calls up her sylphs and tells them to help Jason and the city goes up in smoke. The bad guy gets roasted, taking the needed spell with him. The good guys are spent and make their way back to the mansion by donkey cart with the exhausted local masters of Earth and Air. Jason and Rose are married. Jason remains half beast. Finis.
According to McKinley’s ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’ in 1997;
Warning! Yet more SPOILERS
Beauty is the youngest of three sisters. Her name is Beauty. All three of the girls are beautiful, but in this particular culture one tends to earn one’s name by occupation or character, and Beauty, being quiet and retiring does not appear to have any stronger characteristic upon which to hang a new name. She is very sweet, and the peacemaker of her father’s household. Which needs one. It is not a happy home. Not because the people in the family are particularly bad sorts, but they — and the chief servants — are all fairly difficult people, and most of the time everybody in the household seems to be either angry or unhappy. Or both.
For example; Beauty’s two older sisters are both splendid young women, but they cannot be easy to live with. The eldest inherited their mother’s intrepid courage and has earned herself the name of Lionheart. The second inherited their mother’s brilliant wit and has earned herself the name of Jeweltongue. Both have exceedingly dominant personalities. Their father, by contrast appears to have almost none at all, being distinguished only by being identified as the richest merchant in the city. At the beginning of the story, anyway. One suspects that Beauty must take after her father.
The first and most major difference between McKinley’s two versions of this tale is that while the world of ‘BEAUTY’ was a rationalist one in which magic was considered to be superstition and folly, in the world of ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’ magic is known to be real.
Consequently, all of the most ambitious practitioners of magic gravitate to the cities to make their fortunes. There are many levels of magic workers, among them, magicians, sorcerers, fortune tellers and seers. One of the more humble, but most welcome of these are the greenwitches, purveyors of garden magic and small useful spells. It is soon fairly clear to the reader, although never actually stated in the text, that had Beauty’s father not turned utterly against all magic after his wife’s pet magic workers failed to prevent her death, and had Beauty been given training, Beauty, a great lover of gardens and all plants, might well have been a greenwitch herself.
A major difference between this world and our own is that, unlike our world in which roses are grown in virtually every country worldwide, in the world in which Rose Daughter takes place, roses are very rare, since only great love or great magic can induce them to bloom. Due to their father’s revulsion of feeling against all forms of magic, all three girls are forbidden to have anything to do with it. Nevertheless, the two eldest still occasionally purchase street spells, and Beauty maintains a friendship with the magical creature of a local retired sorcerer.
And just what is this creature, may one ask?
It is a salamander.
As in ‘BEAUTY’, the great blow falls after an engagement, but before a wedding. In this version, both older sisters have made brilliant matches and are planning a double wedding. Ten days before the wedding takes place, the word of their father’s ruin becomes public. Both suitors break off their engagements, and before the day is out all of the servants have left, many unofficially, taking with them various valuable household goods in lieu of wages, without, needless to say, permission, realizing that the family no longer has the resources to legally pursue them. The three sisters are left alone in the house with their father, who is a broken man. This fall is far harder than the one McKinley sketched out in ’78. This time it is not mere financial loss which faces their father, but disgrace and probably debtors’ prison. The family retains no sympathy in their misfortune. Their father’s kin no longer wish to know them and their former friends have utterly turned away.
Thrown upon their own resources, Lionheart, who enjoys a challenge, takes to fighting the kitchen into submission. Jeweltongue looks after their father and sees to the running of what household is left to them. Beauty starts sifting through the papers from their father’s office to try to discover if there is anything which might offer them some hope of a future. In this manner she discovers a lawyer’s document dating from the year she herself was two years old stating that the three girls had been left a cottage in the country. None of the creditors want a piece of property so far from the city, so they girls decide to remove to it.
Their house, and what is left of their valuable goods are put up for auction, hoping that the sale will bring enough to keep their father out of gaol. During their last weeks in the city Beauty visits the many retired servants and other people who had given homes to the dogs, horses and other creatures which had not managed to work out in the family’s former life-style and asks their advice on the skills which they will need for living out in the country. This information she writes down to take with her. In the midst of this, her friend the salamander offers her a gift, and grants her “a small serenity”.
Their journey is harsh and unpleasant. Their father, still in deep shock, is weak and wandering in his wits and the carters’ convoy which they have paid nearly their last funds to join regards them as unwelcome. An early winter strands them all in a small town no more than halfway to their goal. During the winter Lionheart’s skill in cookery, Jeweltongue’s with her needle and Beauty’s peacekeeping finally earn them the carters’ respect. At last, at the earliest turn of spring they reach their goal. Not attractively bucolic Blue Hill this time round, but the more dubiously named village of Longchance.
Nevertheless, Rose Cottage turns out to be unexpectedly sound, even though it has stood vacant for many years, and the three sisters throw themselves into bringing it into order. Their father sleeps a great deal but gradually seems to begin to recover his wits. Once the house is brought into order, and the meadow returned to meadow rather than being lost to woodland, Beauty begins the job of recovering the garden. One of the many mysteries about the place is the identity of all the vicious thorn bushes which cover much of the house and have produced an impenetrable thicket in the middle of the garden itself.
Once the basic needs are brought under control, the two elder sisters begin to put their own plans into action. Lionheart cuts her hair, and, disguising herself as a boy, takes a position in the stables of the local squire. Jeweltongue strikes up a friendship with the village draper and eventually manages to get a commission to sew for the squire’s sister, which soon escalates into a budding dressmaker’s business. The family begins to be able to meet its expenses, and there is hope that they may be able to save enough to have the thatch replaced before the old one quite begins to leak. Beauty has her hands full with the garden and her vegetable patch and the thorn bushes which to all of their astonishment have turned out to be rose bushes. Blooming rosebushes! (Once again; in this particular world, only great love or great magic can induce roses to bloom.)
Their life in Longchance is far from easy, but is a vast improvement over ruin in the city. And Longchance is a generally pleasant place and they manage to make friends there. Their father continues to improve and has taken to scribbling, although none of the girls know what his writings are about since he keeps them in his pockets by day and under his pillow at night.
In their second year their father takes up bookkeeping for some of the village businesses. Beauty also learns that the old woman who left them the cottage had been the region’s previous greenwitch, although nowadays no magic worker will settle in the area. And the sisters begin to hear rumors of a curse regarding Rose Cottage — but only if three sisters should happen to live there (by this time everyone believes that Lionheart is a boy), and the legend of an ancient sorcerers’ battle which had taken all of the magic away from the district apart from the now presumed deceased greenwitch.
In their third year, the letter comes telling of the return of one of the merchant’s ships. Against his daughters’ advice he makes the journey back to the city. It was a mistake from the beginning. The ship was seized by creditors despite impoundments, and there is nothing left. He had much to do to avoid starving in the City over the winter, and at the first sign of spring sets out on his return with a borrowed pony, empty-handed.
He goes astray in a storm, is housed and fed in an apparently empty palace, given a new suit of clothes and served breakfast at a table with enough food for six and a red rose in a silver vase. He takes the rose with him, rouses a Beast who demands his life. Begs pardon and tries to explain that the rose is for his daughter. The Beast demands his daughter in his place. He is given a month to comply.
In this version, the Beast was once a sorcerer who called himself a philosopher and got too close to The Mysteries. The touch of their monstrous guardians made him as they are. In addition, a terror driving onlookers to madness hangs about him.
His exile was originally self-imposed, but initially other sorcerers could still visit him, and it was the wrath one of these which has turned his exile into a prison.
Well, as usual, Beauty insists on being the sacrifice. In this version their father has fallen ill again soon after making his way home, and she slips away, bidding her sisters good-bye, before he recovers, setting forth on foot with a bundle containing slips from her own roses and rose hips full of seeds. The castle’s magic sets her on the path and she reaches the palace by midday. The salamander’s gift enables her to face the Beast without gibbering into madness.
And, no, for a change we do not take time out to wallow in luxury. Instead, luxury rolls over us like the sea and we are hard put not to drown in it. For the opulence of the Beast’s palace is diseased. It is a hateful, shifting, crushingly oppressive penance which he, and Beauty, and the reader himself must just stoically endure. The only mercy which Beauty is granted is that the opulence of her own rooms is stable. It does not shift or mutate into other forms when her eye turns elsewhere and so she is better able to bear it. By some mercy, the part of the enchantment on the place which inhabits her own rooms also lacks the spiteful quality which permeates the rest of the palace, so she can even draw some comfort from it.
And for once, Beauty has not come to rest and recover from honest poverty or to live the life of an idle “lady”. She certainly will not be dawdling about in a library. She quickly discovers that she has come here to work. In fact, she has come here to work like a navvy. The Beast’s roses are dying. The one her father stole was one of the last still alive. She has been brought here to save them.
Out of a glasshouse once bursting with roses, only one bush still blooms. The bush from which the rose her father stole had grown. She sets about her task at once. The glasshouse is not like the palace. It is an extravagant, exuberant folly, and here the enchantments appear to be consistently benign and helpful — for which she has ample cause to be grateful, for she has undertaken a backbreaking task. Each endless day of her first week she slaves away in the glasshouse, clearing out dead wood, planting her seeds and cuttings and tending what live plants remain. Although the Beast has claimed that no other creature (apart from Fourpaws, a small, pastel calico cat who sometimes chooses to share his exile) will come near to the place where he is, each day another creature, or class of creatures, appears for Beauty to direct to its, or their, proper place(s). As though in her own insignificant self she is reforging the place’s links to the natural world.
At night Beauty dreams of her family. In her dreams their lives have moved ahead of hers, for although she has been gone only a few endless days, in her dreams their lives have hastened on several months, and she sees small changes creeping into Rose Cottage. She dreams that Jeweltongue, to that young woman’s dismay, has caught the eye of the squire’s eldest son, a handsome, spoiled, spiteful young cub. She dreams that Lionheart’s masquerade has been discovered by the squire’s second son, a far better young man than his brother. She dreams that Jeweltongue and their father enjoy a growing friendship with the village’s young baker. She dreams that her father has taken to writing poetry.
By daylight she labors in the glasshouse and begins to learn something of the palace and its surroundings. She finds the way into the woods where she makes a bonfire of garden rubbish, and the ways into the orchard and kitchen garden. She learns that the power of the enchantment which holds the palace unchanging, yet ever changing, can touch nothing living, which is why the roses, untended, had begun to die. She also learns to pity the Beast for the clumsiness which, along with his ignorance, had prevented him from tending the roses himself. She also learns that her father was not the first traveler who had sheltered there, and that the others had all at length run away at the sight of the Beast, or had been driven away by the loneliness and silence. She learns that the Beast would not have harmed her father if he had returned alone. And, somehow, no doubt due to the enchantment of the place, before her first week is out she sees that her cuttings have taken and the seeds have sprouted. She does not think to ask herself how this can possibly happen in a week, when the enchantment can touch nothing living.
And in the night before her fifth day she catches sight of the old woman, who even the Beast does not realize lingers nearby, supplying the palace with butter and cheese. The next night Beauty follows her, and finds her in a forest meadow along with her flock of ponies, horses, cows and sheep — and milky-pale unicorns, with silver shadows.
The following day is the day of the requisite crisis. In the midst of what had been an innocent, if somewhat dangerous, investigation of the glasshouse’s weather-vane, the enchantment of the place abruptly turns on Beauty and tries to kill her. In the midst of the ensuing storm, fighting for her life, she is thrown into a vision of her father and Jeweltongue — at a poetry reading of all things. The same storm that batters her also rages in Longchance. Beauty’s presence is taken for that of a ghost, one that is known to have manifested before. The hostess is cajoled into telling the ghost’s story, which turns out to be one of the versions of the legend of the ancient sorcerers’ battle, and its connection to the greenwitch of Rose Cottage.
And, then, into the midst of all this “atmosphere” strides young Jack Trueword, the squire’s eldest son, with a spiteful grin and a second, cynically mocking version of the same story. He also breaks the news of Lionheart’s masquerade, and taunts them all with the curse of three sisters in Rose Cottage. This manages to upset everyone.
The vision ends. Beauty finds herself falling from the top of the glasshouse. She cannot save herself. The Beast saves her. Together they manage to reach the ground in safety and take refuge from the storm inside the glasshouse. There is no more storm once they are inside the glasshouse, and the Beast’s roses have gloriously revived. Beauty begs the Beast to send her home, for her task is done, and she must learn the truth of her vision. He agrees to send her, knowing that it means his death. But, telling her that as he brought her to him with a lie, it is only right that he should lose her. He sends her with a rose which will bring her back if she does not overstay.
Her return is a mistake on about the same level as her father’s trip to the city, and is all but useless, beside. Jeweltongue and Lionheart, both rush home from the poetry reading to find her lying on the hearthrug deep in a sleep from which she will not rouse. When she finally does come round, they learn, in the scant hour or two given to them, that time in Longchance has passed as a month to each day that Beauty has spent in the Palace, that both sisters had been escorted home that evening by a cat whose description matches that of Fourpaws, and that if Beauty really feels about the Beast the way she seems to be acting as if she feels, then she had best go ahead and marry him. At which point Lionheart points out that the last petal is falling from the rose, and Beauty knows that the Beast is dying, and her way back is lost.
It takes her the rest of the night and well into the following day to return. The enchantment is now working against her. And, once returned, the shifting palace thwarts her in her attempt to reach the glasshouse. At length, as night is falling, she escapes from the house into the wild wood, and stumbles, lost, into her bonfire clearing where a unicorn has been standing guard over the unconscious Beast. He is not yet quite dead. She speaks the traditional formula and rather than bringing about the end of the enchantment, all hell breaks loose all over again.
Absolutely nothing in this version of the tale is ever going to come easily.
Beauty is given a choice. She may break the enchantment, return the Beast to what he once was with all his greatness, and with all its temptations, or she may take him, as he is, back to Longchance and be the sister-in-law of the baker and the squire’s horse-breeding son. She makes her choice, and she chooses to keep her Beast a Beast.
All the forces of evil magic are ranging against them for the final confrontation of the sorcerers’ long drawn-out battle which was begun so long ago. The old woman — who is of course the long missing greenwitch of Rose Cottage — her unicorns and the two guardians of the Mysteries whose touch had made the Beast what he is stand on their side. As Beauty watches the enemy’s forces assembling she finally, at long last, becomes angry, and, taking strength from the salamander’s gift, she faces the enemy, avaunts, and it disperses altogether.
The palace is a prison no longer. The aura of terror which hung about the Beast has departed, and the air is filled with birdsong.
We never find out if the two of them go on tending the roses in the glasshouse.
Certain factors remain constant: in all of these versions it is admitted that, by whatever means, the Beast has gotten himself into this fix by his own actions, whether it be rudeness to the apparently inferior, a falling from grace, or by seeking after forbidden knowledge. Beyond that, it is clear that these are three widely different stories, which have no reason to lean on each other for support. But yet they do seem to connect in some manner beyond that of merely having been spun off from the same base.
And, while there are also some detectable small, amused tweaks at the Disney version to be found in ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’, even the bad behavior of Jack Trueword is not enough to cause more than a slight nod of recognition.
One is left feeling vaguely that it is a pity that we cannot see the tale over again from the point of view of Lionheart or Jeweltongue. For these young women are not the sweet, virtuous, but ultimately very conventional girls that Grace and Hope were back in ’78. These are two young women of strong character, who clearly have stories of their own. Stories which we will now probably never get to read. But, still, it does definitely seem to me to require altogether too much of a stretch to try to deny some lurking presence of the Lackey effect.
Still, I may be exaggerating it. ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’ is a powerful work, and whatever the reasons McKinley wrote it may have been, I am unabashedly grateful to have it.
In fact, I will go so far as to hope that some 20 years hence some other event or popular retelling will goad McKinley into telling this tale over to us for yet a third time. I should like to know what further changes may be rung upon this particular theme when she might choose to tell it in the voice of the crone.
And, now for something decidedly different:
Oh, come on. Need I still warn you all that —
“’Yar be SPOILERS?”
And, as of 2009, only a mere dozen more years down the track, I find myself forced to re-evaluate this matter yet again. Had McKinley done it again? Already?
No, upon consideration, I do not think that what we have now been given is another retelling of this story in the voice of the crone. But she does certainly seem to have retold the story.
Of course I may be wrong about the crone. And if so, then the crone’s telling is probably not going to be the last one, either. But this particular example isn’t an overt retelling by any means, and just about everything about the setting has changed. Nor does this version of the story seem to be any part of a dialogue with the work of Mercedes Lackey. Instead, if anything, it seems to be bringing us back around full circle to echoing Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘FIRE & HEMLOCK’.
At the time I added this segment to this article, I thought it was probably a little soon to be rolling this particular addition into the essay, for ‘CHALICE’ had only been out for a few months, and even dedicated McKinley fans may have still had yet to find and read it. But in order to discuss it, there will undoubtedly be spoilers.
Ergo: if this kind of thing bothers you, you might want to put this essay aside and come back after you have had the chance to get hold of the book and read it first. If spoilers are not much of a problem for you, then do as you choose; but it is possible that reading the essay may interfere with your enjoyment of putting the data all together yourself, as the story unfolds when you do read it.
For with this telling you do have to assemble the data yourself in order to follow what is going on, much as McKinley’s first Beauty needed to deconstruct what her situation was by eavesdropping on her servants.
I am going to have to admit that by the time this story came out, while I had enjoyed McKinley’s most recent previous books, I had noticed that she appeared to have got onto a jag of being determined to bury the reader in truly exhaustive detail.
Sometimes it was absolutely necessary detail. There was so much background on how the magic worked in that country, and how its presence had shaped the way the whole society worked, that ‘SPINDLE’S END’ would have probably been incomprehensible without every bit of the detail that was determined to pile on us for that particular ride.
With ‘SUNSHINE’, the narrator clearly dealt with the monumental trauma of that whole story by running off at the mouth about everything occupying the periphery — possibly in order to avoid having to deal head-on with the elephant, or rather, the vampire in the room.
But I’ll have to admit that I was getting a bit impatient by the time I worked my way through ‘DRAGONHAVEN’ and we were still being buried in minutia over not very much to do with the central story. Although, considering how totally eaten alive the narrator of that story was by the whole situation, it might have been difficult to imagine what else he might have had to even think about, let alone to talk about — or at least have available in his head to tell us.
With ‘CHALICE’ one need have no such worries. This is a refreshingly spare, taut, narrative in which you are given no more detail than what you actually need. Or, just possibly, slightly less than one would prefer. We are given exactly enough to understand the story. But we are not given enough to feel that we fully understand this world.
But then, McKinley has had plenty of practice in telling us this story. McKinley’s already told us this story. Twice, in fact. Yes, once again, for the third time, McKinley is telling us the story of Beauty and the Beast. Or perhaps this time out, one should say; Beauty and the Bees.
(In the back of my head an old quatrain by Ogden Nash was jingling its way all through the novel as well; “The one-‘l’ lama, he’s a priest,/The 2-‘ll’ llama, he’s a beast.../And I will bet a silk pajama/There isn't any 3-‘lll’ Lllama.” — at the end of the poem it was pointed out to the poet that a “three-‘lll’ Lllama” was a great conflagration... and this story had already had one of those. In addition to both of the others. Either literally, or figuratively.)
This was also the story in which the penny finally dropped and I realized that in just about all of McKinley’s work the real central conflict and challenge is to find your proper work and to do it well. Whatever it may happen to be. And while this issue pervades all of McKinley’s work, it is never more prominent in the tale than in her two most recent retellings of this same story.
I do have to admit that her first retelling, ‘BEAUTY’ doesn’t quite fit the mold of it all being about finding one’s proper work. That version is much closer to the traditional source material which is all about being restored to one’s proper “place”. Or rather — since this is after all a Cinderella variant — about losing one’s proper place — and making the best of what one is left with, until eventually one is offered a much better place altogether. Work is just what you do until your proper place finds you — and by the way you do it demonstrates that you are worthy of it. I suspect that McKinley was so very young when that tale was written that I think that once the enchantment was broken, she did not even stop to consider following the narrative any farther than to have Beauty’s family magically able to turn up for the wedding.
But the centrality of the issue of one’s proper work in McKinley’s stories suddenly became obvious to me with ‘CHALICE’, and, looking back, it’s hard to think of any example which contradicts that reading. Although I am sure that there may be something, somewhere, that does.
Of course part of this yearning for one’s proper work (or, one must admit, place) probably hinges upon the opening of all three retellings, and which is insisted upon by the source material, in which the heroine has been displaced from her established niche in society. In ‘BEAUTY’ and in ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’ the heroines have been toppled from their high-status position in their local societies. In ‘CHALICE’, Mirasol has been unexpectedly elevated to a stratum of a traditional hierarchy for which she has been given no preparation whatsoever, and of which she even has little direct knowledge, and must improvise.
What is also made clear is how small the scale of things is, in this iteration of the story. The stage upon which the action takes place is one simple country demesne, to which Mirasol is effectively confined for life by the demands of her new office, and, for all the inherent problems which the cast of characters must deal with, the climactic threat comes from outside it, beyond any of their control.
There is apparently a King’s city out there, somewhere. But we get only a glancing reference to it in the course of the story (which is much more comparable in length to ‘BEAUTY’ than to ‘ROSE DAUGHTER’). This makes it difficult to get any kind of handle upon the historical period (or equivalent) in which the tale is taking place, for, being a country demesne, in a world in which the state of the land is quite literally reflected/affected by the state of the Master, everything is so tied up in tradition that you could speculate a date anywhere from solidly pre-industrial to something comparatively modern with hardly a blink.
Except, that is, for the magic. For, as in most of McKinley’s worlds, magic is quite active. In the world of ‘CHALICE’ it appears to be based upon the elements, it also seems to be interwoven with the basic cosmos, and more or less constitutes the people’s religion — although “religion” does not feel like a perfect analog for the position that it holds. There are priesthoods, however. Elemental Priesthoods of Earth, and Air and Fire, all of whom live separate from the land’s people until they reach the final level of their training and may safely move among humans again, although by that time they themselves will no longer be human. And by the time a priest of Earth, Air, or Fire reaches the 3rd level of his training, he is already no longer truly human. Nor is he fit to live, or even to go about in the normal world among normal humans.
Water, on the other hand, appears to be represented, and locally administered within each demesne by the holder of the office of Chalice, which although it is never overtly stated as such, is effectively also a priesthood, and not a minor one, although, unlike the others, it does not have levels, and its holders do not relinquish their humanity. (One belatedly wonders whether this might have anything to do with the fact that the human body is some 92% composed of water.) In addition, all Chalices are bound within their demesne for life, move among the people of it and tend the land, and the people, and oversee the Master’s councils, and his works. All Chalices hold their office “in” a fluid for which they have a strong affinity. Most typically this will be water. Not necessarily always, however. Although that is the most common expression of the office.
Mirasol, the orphaned only child of a woodsman and a bee-keeper, holds her office in honey. She is the first Chalice ever to do so and therefore must by her own untrained efforts adapt the traditional rituals to fit, which makes her work all the more difficult. Nor is there anyone to assist or train her, for the long-serving Chalice of the former Master's father had died in the fullness of age and her apprentice, Marisol’s predecessor, was quite young and had died tragically, and unexpectedly.
And the demesne that Marisol has inherited the office of Chalice for is in dire straits. It has been without a Master for seven months when the story opens. And the circle of counselors are refusing to work together.
From the opening of the story, the demesne is facing a terrible internal crisis. The Master is dead, leaving no heir — which in a world where the land is tied to the ruler is the sort of thing which can destroy a demesne. Even at best one can expect the upheavals attendant upon a transition to a “foreign” Master to last anything up to generations. During which period things seldom prosper, and demesnes have sometimes shaken themselves apart (and I mean that quite literally) and have had to be replaced altogether, even to being given a new name. No one wants to contemplate a failure of that magnitude.
Rather in the manner of an echo of McKinley’s first work, the demesne’s last Master was in nature and disposition very much in the style of the handsome and wild young man depicted in the painting in the magical castle of ‘BEAUTY’ who Beauty herself judged had “died young”.
Here, the former Master did indeed die young. And he took his Chalice, and one of the other ten of his circle of advisers with him. His younger brother, who, having a strong affinity for the land and was of a better nature for ruling it than he — and might therefore have confused the land — had been forced into the priesthood of Fire, and had already passed into his 3rd level of training. From which none had ever returned.
The Grand Seneschal who was the senior survivor of the Master’s traditional circle of advisors has insisted that his return be attempted for the sake of the land. And the young man does indeed return, and he is indeed no longer human. But he still loves the land, and it begins to respond to him, human or not.
The demesne’s Overlord, however, is revealed to be unwilling to await results, and has already chosen a favorite to whom the demesne is to be given, despite the damage that such a change of Master will cause.
The adjustment in the vantage point from which the tale is told, and the shifts in the nature of the world in which it takes place managed to disguise just what story this essentially is for a chapter or two, but the underlying nature and identity of the underlying source story surfaces early. Nevertheless, McKinley still manages to astonish the reader with the eucatastrophic conclusion, for by the middle of the story we have also been assured that whatever this story may look like, Masters (human or not) are forbidden to marry their Chalices. Except, as it later is revealed, under very specific, and dreadful circumstances.
Another change to the template is that rather than abandon her Beast on some inserted pretext in order to reconnect with her family and discover what has been happening in her absence, Mirasol is forced to depart from the demesne’s Master’s presence in order to raise the land, in his behalf, in a desperate attempt to strengthen it enough to hold it together, rather than shattering, against the Overlord’s attempt to abruptly remove this Master and replace him with his chosen favorite. Only she, as Chalice, can do this, and it may not be enough to save it in the event of the Master’s impending death.
Nor is it her absence which will kill the Master, but his rival, who will do so, publicly, in order to inherit the demesne, effectively by conquest. And then he, in order to steady the land against its transition to a new ruling dynasty, will proceed to marry Mirasol and get an heir upon her, regardless of whatever she may think of him. And as Chalice she must comply with this, and thus give the demesne an heir who is tied to it, so it can settle. The urgency of her task in this instance is for her to manage to return in time to support the current Master when he must meet his rival, in the appointed place, and either prevail or be killed.
And, bringing the circle round back to the work of Diana Wynne Jones, this turns out to be a case in which the ending throws us a ‘FIRE & HEMLOCK’ conclusion.
In fact it throws us exactly a ‘FIRE & HEMLOCK’ conclusion. The parallels are shockingly precise, and the conclusion, at first glance, is nearly as mystifying as in that story. (Upon the whole McKinley did a slightly better job of giving the reader all the necessary information ahead of time. But the conclusion is still a shock.) And as in ‘FIRE & HEMLOCK’ the conclusion comes about because the whole situation had a deadly sting in its tail. One that someone else was trying to capitalize on, and the resulting victory was only going to stick properly by going against the established order.
The prohibition against Masters marrying their Chalices is deeply traditional, and it reads as being a perfectly reasonable constraint — according to what, by the time the information surfaces, we have absorbed of this world’s traditions. It took until the middle of the book for us to absorb that much of it, but we do so. the stipulation against such a marriage doesn’t spring out of the blue and leave us going “Say what?!” It is a prohibition which makes sense.
It is the sudden elimination of that prohibition that nonpluses us.
But then, when you stop and think; this whole situation, right from the get-go, has been a departure from, and a defiance of “tradition” — from a point well before the previous Master died without issue, and the Grand Seneschal started insisting upon making an attempt to restore a Master from the demesne’s original ruling bloodline — even if the only viable candidate was no longer human.
In fact, the situation started going off the rails even earlier: stemming at least from the point that the previous Master decided to get rid of his brother, rather than let him remain as his heir, as well as refusing to marry and get an heir of his own, to defy all tradition, and the devil with what the demesne demanded of him! This poor demesne had been dragged into his rebellion against all established order (and his father's overly rigid rule), and out of its traditional paths for years running. It is no wonder that it had become so fragile.
There had never been a 3rd-level priest who attempted to return to humanity. Indeed, 3rd-level priests are unfit to even live among normal humans.
There had never been a Chalice who held her office in honey, for that matter.
And, getting down to the nitty-gritty of the problem, by the time the matter was finally settled, that demesne had really been through an appalling amount of upheaval. The previous Master had dragged it willy-nilly into his personal rebellion, and against everything that his virtuous and overly-rigid father had stood for, (and had held him to against his will) for seven long years. And then it lost both Master and Chalice in the same conflagration, leaving the rest of his circle of councilors divided and at loggerheads.
Then the demesne suddenly burps up an untrained Chalice with a totally unprecedented fluid in which she holds her office. A Chalice who simply isn’t socially equipped to help to bring the circle back together. And then when the Grand Seneschal finally gets his way, and brings back the Master’s younger brother, the fellow isn’t even properly human any more.
He means well by the land, however, unlike his brother. Which makes a real difference. Within a year the land begins to settle itself and to respond to him. Which is just as dangerous, but in a totally different way. Masters should be human. And they should have heirs. And there is no chance of this one ever giving it an heir from his own bloodline. This is all merely postponing the inevitable.
But by the time that things are finally beginning to stabilize under this new Master, the Overlord decides to shove his oar in and replace him with a stranger, and and right there we are looking at a demesne that is doomed to shatter altogether.
And that produces exactly the kind of situation wherein the incoming Master must marry his Chalice to bring the demesne back together again, settle it, and to give it a new ruling bloodline to which the land will attach itself.
Which the Overlord has been counting upon, for the benefit of his favorite.
Well it did’t happen. And the worst had not befallen, either. The land did not shatter.
However, by restoring the Last Master’s younger brother to full humanity, the demesne now has yet another “new” Master to have to re-adapt to. It was gradually adapting to being ruled by a Master that was not human. But that was never a safe precedent to set, for a Master who is not human will get no heir, and will only forestall the pending disaster for his own lifetime. A healthy demesne needs human heirs, and I suspect it had been through altogether too much by that time to just settle down as if it were passing smoothly from its Master’s father to him, as it would have, had the old Master’s sons’ birth order been reversed.
This interpretation may be missing something, for it was based upon a single reading, and while this retelling is much simplified and far less baroque than most of McKinley’s other recent stories, it would not be astonishing to discover that I'd overlooked something important. This interpretation nevertheless seems to hold.
Still, there is no question in my mind but that this is, once again, the story of Beauty and her Beast retold by McKinley for a third time.
And, in the Other Corner:
Complete with more SPOILERS
And in the year 2011, Mercedes Lackey weighed back in with ‘BEAUTY AND THE WEREWOLF’.
Adding yet another wrinkle to the equation. ‘BEAUTY AND THE WEREWOLF’ is a “500 Kingdoms” story.
And, imho, it's a bad fit for that universe.
Lackey's 500 Kingdoms universe is an interesting concept, and it's worked rather well for the previous stories she has written in it. But I don't think Beauty and the Beast is well served by it. Or at any rate, I don't really think that this iteration of Beauty and the Beast is well served by it.
The cast is far too small to give it the scope it needs.
The universe of the 500 Kingdoms works differently from that of most of Lackey’s other fairy tale retellings. Indeed it works differently from the way magic works in Lackey's other fantasy worlds altogether. The universe of the 500 Kingdoms is the abode of warped, or fractured, fairly tales.
This is not simply a parody universe — although it does have certain parody elements very much in evidence. But the magic of the 500 Kingdoms is not merely a form of energy to be tapped or adapted and shaped to the magician’s will. It is an organic entity which grows and must be harvested.
In fact, one harvests it in one's own self defense and for the good of society. Otherwise things are going to go to Hell in the proverbial hand-basket and no one is going to be able to prevent it.
It's organic. It affects things that are organic. Which means the people, too. Physically, emotionally, mentally. It uses them.
But it isn’t intelligent.
And like all magic in fantasy worlds, it doesn’t just sit there. It wants to move.
In some direction and toward a specific goal.
And once it starts to pool and build up in concentration it takes on a specific character.
Which is known as; The Tradition.
And the Tradition takes its shapes from traditional stories. Archetypical stories. And it will push the individuals who are unconsciously serving as a locus and collection point for the magic into the traditional “paths” to act out those stories.
And it doesn’t care whether the story has a happy ending.
I have always contended that the Archetype is the enemy of the “character”. In the world of the 500 Kingdoms this enmity can be quite literal.
Consequently, in the 500 Kingdoms, there are Godmothers. Originally the Godmothers were Fairies. Or at any rate, they were of the Fair Folk. And they undertook to direct the Tradition away from its most destructive paths into ones which would do the least damage. As time went on, since the Tradition was most meddlesome to humans they trained various humans and authorized them as deputies to carry on this work in human kingdoms.
So which humans did the Fair Folk enlist to carry on the good work?
Why, the ones that were most likely to be messed with by the Tradition in the first place, of course.
And, as well, the ones who were least likely to be able to carry out the path the Tradition is trying to push them into.
Because the Tradition takes its cues from the focus’s situation. It hasn't actually got a brain to bother to run a check on whether the rest of the elements of the path it thinks it recognizes are present to play it out with. Consequently, magic is going to continue to collect around these individuals until it forces them into a path, any path, or drives them mad. Even at best, it uses them as puppets, with their thoughts, feelings, and reactions distorted into the directions which will coax them into complying.
Godmothers are trained to use that magic. And to harvest it from other unfortunates that the Tradition is trying to meddle with, relieving the pressure. They are also able to harvest magic from whichever inherently magical creatures are willing to let them do it.
And they use the magic so collected to try to keep things on an even keel. Wherever possible, by redirecting the Tradition, thwarting it, or, more typically, replacing one path with another, less destructive one.
Which can be a great deal of fun. All the more so when it is necessary to unpick the tangle when more than one traditional path all manage to crash head-on.
But, not in this case. Oh, we do get some references to other well-known tales, as wel as some rather nasty potential traditional paths which might turn into pitfalls that are alluded to in passing, and some actions to avoid one of the worst of them are taken (in a form that looks rather like a salute to Lionheart’s masquerading as a boy in order to get a job), but to the reader it never seemed that much of a risk.
The problem, to be frank is that the whole story was just so bloody obvious.
Particularly if you’ve read ‘THE FIRE ROSE’, because it's basically the same story.
And in this case there is only the one basic story. It never morphs, it doesn't intersect with anything else major enough to provoke the necessary confusion, or invoke a need to unpick a tangle. Indeed, there is no confusion for the reader in this story whatsoever.
The characters are confused. And Lackey was just about able to maintain that without having them come across as idiots. But, really, by the time the establishing event takes place you know perfectly well who is behind it, why he did it, and pretty much what he wants to get from it.
And then we spend most of the rest of the book trying to see the situation from his point of view, and recognizing that he really does have a legitimate quarrel with the basic set-up.
Not that it excuses his actions in the least.
Admittedly, I was rather charmed at the opening of the story when — right in the first chapter — we got what read as the possibility of a maybe-reference to Nicholas Stuart Gray’s stage play of ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’. Gray was a stalwart of the British theater — particularly children’s theater — all though the mid-20th century, until his death in the early 1980s and his version of the story is predictably charming. It also establishes the three sisters as Beauty, the youngest and most sensible, and her two older, twin sisters, who are very lovely, very sweet, and very very silly.
There was, however, no doddering old wizard or baby dragon in evidence in ‘BEAUTY AND THE WEREWOLF’, so I suspect that any resemblance exists only in my own mind.
As to the story summary; as in ‘THE FIRE ROSE’ there are departures from the traditional source. Beauty, whose name here is Isabella, commonly called Bella, is an only child. Her father had remarried some years earlier and gifted her with a pair of very pretty, very sweet and very silly twin stepsisters, some years younger than she.
It also gifted her with a rather indolent and tiresome, but far from evil stepmother.
After an establishing scene in the first chapter, in which we are introduced to the local Duke’s bullying rake of a gamekeeper, the story begins with one of our only flirtations with a secondary traditional tale. i.e., Bella dons her red cloak and sets off in the morning with a basket to visit Granny, a local wise woman, who lives in the woods. On the way she has another acrimonious run-in with the gamekeeper.
She spends the day with Granny — who is teaching her herbalism — and discovers in the course of the visit that the local Duke (quite a young man) is confined to his estate due to an unspecified curse, and that the gamekeeper is generally suspected to be a natural son of the previous Duke.
The visit runs over time, but Bella chooses to risk the walk home through the woods. There will be adequate light, since it is full moon that night.
It will surprise no one to learn that she is attacked by a wolf on her way through the woods.
She does a credible job of defending herself, but she is bitten, the wolf finally retreats and she manages to make her way to the guard station at the City gate. The guards see her home.
In the morning the house is roused by the King's men who bundle her and her clothing into a coach and carry her off to the Duke’s castle — where she is to be confined for the following three months to determine whether she has been infected with lycanthropy.
Duke Sebastian is a scholar and a magician. He is also the werewolf who bit her. And the only other human in the place is Eric, the aforementioned gamekeeper/steward.
Duke Sebastian had not been bitten, however. No one knows how or where he managed to be cursed with lycanthropy. But the probability is that he is not infectious. So, presumably, at the end of the three months, Bella can go home.
Well, there is a great deal more. We do have the usual spirit servants on tap, which Bella eventually manages to find a way to communicate with. And Godmother Elena — who has been with this series from the beginning — is on the case, trying to figure out what’s what. As in FIRE ROSE Bella eventually begins taking instruction in magic from Sebastian (as well as taking charge of the household), and thereby learns about the Tradition, which hasn't forgotten about her, and with her changed situation seems to be trying to find a different path for her to follow. She hands it one which she decides will do as little potential damage as possible, and basically we hunker down until the grand confrontation.
It’s all quite entertaining, but, like I say, I don't think it’s a success. And the only point of mystification that I confess to is; why in the whole course of the story, did no one ever bring up the point that after spending 3 months in a remote palace alone with two young men — one of whom has a well-known reputation as a rake — unchaperoned, Bella is bloody well going to have to marry one of them. Unless she wants her reputation in tatters. The society as set up in chapter 1 is not exactly what anyone could call either enlightened or liberated.
And, yes, I will undoubtedly continue this series of examinations should either of these authors decide to retell this particular story yet again. But as of this writing (2021) neither of the principles has yet.
But I won’t be surprised if one of them does.