The tale of Beauty & the Beast (originally called La Belle et la Bête) is probably familiar to most people: One night, a merchant gets lost in a forest during a terrible storm, and finds shelter in a great palace, where he is offered food and drink and a warm place to sleep. The next morning, on his way out, he picks a flower for his daughter, Beauty – only to be set upon by a terrifying Beast, who accuses the merchant of stealing his most precious possession. The merchant is allowed to leave, but only after promising that he will send his daughter to the palace instead. Over time, Beauty ends up falling in love with the Beast, and through her love, the curse that had transformed him into a monster is broken.
This story was originally written in 1740 by the French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and was influence by many different stories, including Cupid & Psyche (Apuleius; late 2nd century A.D.) and the Italian fairytale The Pig King (Giovanni Francesco Straparola; c. 1550-53), and may also have been partially inspired by the life of Petrus Gonsalvus (1537-1618), a Spanish man who became famous during his lifetime because he suffered from hypertrichosis, which made him abnormally hairy.
A more complete list of adaptations and retellings of this story can be found here, but these are a few of my favourites:
Beauty by Robin McKinley is a straight-up retelling of the original fairytale – by which I mean that the plot deviates very little from Villeneuve’s original story, though naturally both Beauty and the Beast are considerably more fleshed-out as individual characters. McKinley’s writing, however, is beautiful, and I really loved the slow, realistic relationship development in this book.
Dragon Rose by Christine Pope is another reasonably straight-up retelling, but it’s also mixed with elements of legends such as St. George & the Dragon, where a maiden must be sacrificed every year in order to appease a terrible monster. In Dragon Rose, Rhianne (i.e. Beauty) offers herself up in the place of her friend, and is sent off to become the latest in a long, long line of brides to the cursed Dragon Lord, none of whom have ever been seen again after setting foot in his castle. Pope’s writing is not the best I’ve ever read, but I enjoyed the unpretentious nature of this story, as well as the way it played with the princess-and-the-dragon trope. It’s actually the second book in the Tales of the Latter Kingdoms series (many of which are fairytale retellings), but all the books in this series can be read as standalones.
A Grain of Truth by Andrzej Sapkowski is a short story from The Last Wish (which is, in turn, part of the Witcher series), and manages to completely turn the tale of Beauty & the Beast on its head: Women come to the Beast willingly, enjoying their chance to flirt with danger, while their families are given a generous payment – and after a time, they leave. The Beast, for his part, is not particularly interested in breaking the curse that makes him a monster, as he fears that companions will be harder to find if he becomes less of a curiosity. Beautifully written, and fascinatingly re-imagined, this is probably one of my favourite re-tellings of this fairytale.
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge imagines Beauty (this time called Nyx) as a young woman who – promised to the Beast (Ignifex, the kingdom’s evil and immortal ruler) at birth due to a bargain struck by her father – has been raised as an assassin, trained to kill Ignifex, and break the curse he’s held over the kingdom for the last 900 years. This was a fast-paced, exciting retelling, with a dark bent to it that I really enjoyed. Hodge also managed to blend the tale of Beauty & the Beast seamlessly with a whole load of Greek mythology – something that really appealed to the Classicist in me!
And of course, I couldn’t possibly leave out A Court of Thorns & Roses by Sarah J. Maas – the book which pushed me to start writing this post (at long last)! In this book, the Beast (a.k.a. Tamlin) is a High Lord of Prythian, the kingdom of faeries, and “Beauty” (this time called Feyre) is a human huntress, struggling to support her impoverished family after her merchant father lost everything. One day, while hunting, she kills a Fae disguised as a wolf – but although she expects to be killed as punishment, instead she’s taken away to the Spring Court, where the High Lord is labouring under a terrible curse… and running out of time to break it.
There’s a lot going on in this series beyond the retelling that it starts with; in the second book, it breaks away from the fairytale almost entirely. The more epic tone of the story – the intrigue and politics and the looming threat of war – is the main thing that sets this apart from other retellings, and is probably its main selling point, but its also unusual in that it has a considerable cast of (well-developed) characters beyond Feyre and Tamlin, all with significant roles to play. [You can find my spoiler-free reviews of A Court of Thorns & Roses, and A Court of Mist & Fury here.]
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