After reading "The Healer’s Apprentice," I was thrilled to learn that Melanie Dickerson would be offering more fairy tales with a Christian twist. Her efforts are well-timed: From “Snow White and the Huntsman”to “Once Upon a Time,” fairy tales are experiencing a renaissance and teenagers are a large portion of the target demographic.
In many cases, we can use these stories, as Dickerson does, as a way to present morality: right over wrong, good over evil, strong characters tested by adversity and prevailing, sacrifices made and rewards bestowed. In "The Merchant’s Daughter," Dickerson explores these themes while re-imagining the story of "Beauty and the Beast."
The obvious morality of "Beauty and the Beast" lies in the theme of appearances harboring deception, and the truth that a person’s façade does not necessarily reflect the beauty within. Here, we are spun the tale of Annabel, indentured to serve the gruff and enigmatic Lord Ranulf le Wyse to pay a debt for her family. Whereas Annabel, our beauty, is radiant inside and out, Lord le Wyse (the Beast character) is a steadfast and compassionate man marred by an outward appearance. It is their communal recognition of each other’s inner worth which leads to their eventual happiness and their ultimate reward.
Dickerson does well at infusing the novel with the Christianity that would have been prevalent among residents of this era. For example, the only translation of the Bible is in Latin (the Vulgate), all churches are Catholic (this is before the Protestant Reformation), and women are scorned for reading—especially Scripture. Annabel, having been once a wealthy merchant's daughter, speaks and reads numerous languages and, as part of her servitude to Lord le Wyse, reads daily to him from his own treasured copy of the Bible.
Often featured in the various versions of this tale is an enchantress or seductress who causes the initial fall of the Beast figure. Here, we learn that Lord le Wyse is a widower once seduced by the beauty of one who did not love him, only his station and monetary value. Additionally, Dickerson reminds the reader of the harsh view of women during these times. Women, as preached by the priest at the pulpit, were seen to be the fall of man, seen to be deceptive forces, even more so if blessed with the beauty of one such as Annabel. Lord le Wyse muses: "Beautiful women weren't to be trusted or allowed into a man's heart when that man was less than perfect.” At one point the priest explains how dangerous reading is to a woman: "I am not sure your motives are pure. A woman reading the Word of God? Are you able to interpret the Scriptures? You aren't even dedicated to God. Never said your vows. Nay. You are to rely upon your priest to give you the interpretation of God's Word. I will tell you what you need to know."
As you can see, Annabel is caught in a patriarchal world where men are to be not only the conveyers of the Scripture, but also its sole interpreters. Annabel's desire to learn more about the faith that has been represented to her in her minimal encounters with the Bible is often thwarted by her position and her sex. "How wonderful to know that Jesus didn't condemn women like the priest did. Even with a sinful woman, He didn't rant about how evil she was." Annabel comes to learn that her worth in God’s eyes far outweighs the restrictions of the church and the judgment of men.
Indeed, the greatest beauty found in the story is the pure-hearted nature of Annabel, and it is this, rather than her physical grace and lovely countenance, that ultimately wins over Lord le Wyse. Their relationship becomes further secured when they share the Holy Word together, with Annabel thirsty to learn more about Christ in writing (so much so that she considers entering a nunnery just to be near it).
For those who are familiar with the Disneyfied portrayal of the story: There is a rose, there is the sacrifice of Lord le Wyse to put his love for Annabel before his own desire to keep her . . . it goes on and on in a colorful carousel and the pages will rapidly slip between your fingers. But, most of all, the story is a constant reminder of Christ’s love for us, His intercession even when His Word is presented in flawed human context, and His blessings to those who cherish inner worth above outward beauty.
Review copy from the reviewer’s personal collection. Image copyright Zondervan.
Rachel McMillan is a Torontonian who probably should have lived 150 years ago. Beauty and the Beast is her favorite fairy tale. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.
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