Robin McKinley: Beauty, Beasts and Fractured Fairytales

The cover of McKinley's first novel, "Beauty"
The cover of McKinley's first novel, "Beauty"

A magic rose in bloom, a fateful spinning-wheel, a dashing outlaw with an altruistic streak and penchant for archery. Think you know these traditional tales of enchantment and heroism? Think again. Author Robin McKinley is a master of remolding the classic tales of yesteryear into surprisingly contemporary allegories and transforming beloved heroes and heroines into three-dimensional, complex figures who must fight for their "happily-ever-after."

History and Background

"One of my first memories is of being read aloud to. My mother would prop me in a corner of the sofa and read to me before I was old enough to sit up by myself..."

Born in her mother's hometown of Warren, Ohio, Jennifer Robin Carolyn McKinley was the only child in a military family, with a father in the United States Navy. As a result of this, she spent most of her childhood moving from place to place, with books and reading the only true constants in her younger years. According to her autobiography, books became the key to remembering the events, places, and times of where she lived. For instance, she first read Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book while in California; C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia in New York; The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien in Japan, and T.H. White's The Once and Future King in Maine. According to her official website, she still uses books to keep track of her life.

Over the years, McKinley has worked as an editor and transcriber (1972-73), research assistant (1976-77), bookstore clerk (1978), teacher and counselor (1978-79), editorial assistant (1979-81), barn manager (1981-82; a horse fell on her hand, delaying The Blue Sword by six weeks), free-lance editor (1982-85; during this time she broke her ankle, expediting the finish of "Hero"), and full-time writer. Other than books and her beloved whippets, she is a devotee of grand opera, rose gardening, and long walks, all of which she claims "keep the blood flowing and the imagination limber."

Novels, Stories, and Scribbling

"Writing has always been the other side of reading for me; it never occurred to me not to make up stories. Once I got old enough to realize that authorship existed as a thing one might aspire to, I knew it was for me..."

Robin McKinley attended Dickinson College in 1970-1972. In 1978, her first novel, Beauty, was accepted by the first publisher to whom she sent it, and she began her writing career, at age 26. In Beauty, McKinley first explored one of her favorite themes: the strong, independent, and self-assured heroine. According to her autobiography, she feels very strongly about the potential for girls to be "doing things," and is disappointed at the rather passive roles most females occupied in fantasy literature. As written by literature-scholar Marilyn H. Karrenbrock, "McKinley's females do not simper; they do not betray their own nature to win a man's approval. But neither do they take love lightly or put their own desires before anything else. In McKinley's books, the romance, like the adventure, is based upon ideals of faithfulness, duty, and honor." This tradition of complex heroines can be found throughout most of McKinley's novels, including Rose Daughter, Sunshine, and Deerskin.

McKinley describes herself as a "scribe" and "historian," because the stories "happen to her" and she is only responsible for writing them down:

"I will be thinking idly about one thing or another-and BANG something tears across the horizon of my mind's eye... 'If you were picking up stones in the dark, you would know when you picked up a puppy instead. It's warm; it wriggles; it's alive...' it's that aliveness, that energy, of an idea, that tells me it's a story."

Besides five novels and two books of short stories, McKinley has also had several children's picture books published: My Father is in the Navy, Rowan, Black Beauty, and Tales from the Jungle Book.

A Black Sheep in the Fold

"It's my bleakest book, and it was, in some ways, the most devastating to write.... Deerskin wanted me to write it and I wrote it. I think - I feel - that it does work and I'm very, very glad to hear readers tell me it does- but... Deerskin was something beyond merely emotionally and physically exhausting."

Based on 17th century French writer Charles Perrault's dark fairytale, "Ðonkeyskin," Deerskin is an unsanitized recounting of the consequences of incestuous rape, exile, and the supreme healing power of love.

The story is as follows: On her deathbed, the Queen of a distant kingdom exacts from her distraught husband a promise to remarry only a woman who equals the dying queen's radiant beauty. Unfortunately, at 17 years old, her daughter, Princess Lissar, is just such a beauty, blossoming in the image of her mother. All too soon her father, with all the rights of a king, declares his intention to marry her. McKinley then follows Perrault's pattern with a devastatingly brutal rape scene. However, Deerskin is ultimately a story of hope and renewal, a love story between a woman, her faithful dog, and the prince who admires her courage, grace, and true nature.

Like her other heroines, McKinley's Lissar is a constantly evolving character, transitioning from innocent child to a frightened and bewildered young woman, until she finally discovers her inner strength and struggles to secure her happily-ever-after without the aid of some prince charming; no damsel-in-distress here. As is to be expected due to its controversial subjects, McKinley says that this is the only book for which she has received outright hate-mail:

"It discourages and disheartens me far worse that people need to hate me for writing this book than that there are people who have been through an experience enough like Lissar's to find her story inspiring."

Nonetheless, as both McKinley and her supporters would argue, one of the primary purposes of writing is to tell a story as it happens, without censorship or timidity. After all, even fantasy novels must have some basis in reality for readers to identify with the various plot-points and characters. The best books are those which inspire us to dream and reach beyond our perceived limitations, only to realize at the conclusion that the magic and adventure we seek lie within ourselves.

"I think I've discovered reality after all. I'm astonished at how interesting it is. It's giving me more things to write stories about." - Robin McKinley

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Comments 3 comments

Richard Jeffrey 9 years ago

delightfully intriguiing expose on a new author and writing that makes me want to run to Barnes & Noble... as if I needed another excuse to do so!


librarianinthetrees 9 years ago

Actually, Robin McKinley has been around for quite awhile, with many of her books found at the middle school level. This book, I'm sure will be available in high schools and I look forward to reading it.


ljm' 8 years ago

deadly books'magnificent'superb

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