Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #14: Sherri Tepper, Beauty

If asked to define "what is beauty?", there doubtless would be a myriad number of answers.  Some might point to a sunrise or sunset, while others might think of the smile that two lovers share.  Others may see beauty in a mirror, while others may behold it while walking through a park.  Beauty may be wild, or it may seem tamed, but regardless of how we attempt to describe it, it is almost impossible to define it.  Perhaps that is why in the old folk tales, beauty was personified as Beauty and fated to fall asleep for a hundred years before a charming prince could awaken her with a kiss.

In her introduction to Beauty (1991), Sherri Tepper discusses how the idea for this novel came to her one day as she was driving from Denver to Santa Fe.  Reflecting on the terrible environmental changes wrought by commercial and residential development in the region, she said the following:

It seems to me sometimes that all beauty is dying.  Which makes me hope that perhaps it isn't dead but only sleeping.  And that makes me think of Sleeping Beauty and wonder if she - Beauty, that is - might not be a metaphor for what is happening to the world at large:  perfect Beauty born, Beauty cursed with death, Beauty dying - but with the magical hope of being reawakened, maybe by love. (p. 3)
It is an interesting take on the old fairy tale, one that appropriates the imagery of the past to explore the problems of the present.  Much of that interpretation does seem to ring true for us in the early 21st century:  we are witnesses to environmental degradation, the loss of trust and hope in relationships, the sense perhaps that things just are not the way they should be; we, as human societies, have somehow been "cursed."  It is for those of us who are most sensitive to these degradations of the body, mind, and soul that Tepper addresses this novel and depending on how you view the topics referenced above, Beauty may either be one of the better allegorical tales of the past twenty years, or it may be, for some at least, a didactic tale that manages to lose some of its own narrative beauty in the process.

The story begins in the beginning year of the Black Death, 1347.  Beauty, then a young noblewoman, has begun questioning about her mother's fate.  She is in a world where women are subservient to men and her loquaciousness, coupled with her love of learning, places her at odds with the patriarchal society of the 14th century.   Learning in passing of her cursed fate, she manages to sidestep that fate by having another young woman, Beloved, take her place in the bewitched Westfaire castle while she escapes.  Tepper's description of the following scene sets up most of the action that follows:

It was pure hypocrisy.  Suppose I had known what was going to happen, wouldn't I have done the same thing again?  I may even have known what would happen without admitting it to myself.  Even then I caught myself thinking, better Beloved than I.  She would be thrilled to be awakened by a prince, and why not?  It was a far finer fate than a weaver's daughter could ordinarily expect.

As I stood looking at her, I was aware of two things:  first, that Westfaire was redolent of that odor I had always associated with the chapel; and second, that there was an aura of glamor which flowed from Beloved's form in a swelling tide.  When I went out into the hall, the aura came after me, a shining mist of silent mystery, an emanation of the marvelous.  Every stone of the hallway throbbed with it, giving my footsteps back to me like the slow beat of a wondrous drum or some great heart that pulsed below the castle, making the very stones reverberate with its movement.  Above me the lacelike fan vault sparkled like gems; through the windows the sunbeams shimmered with a golden, sunset glow.  Once outside, I looked up at the towers and caught my breath, for they had never seemed so graceful.  Over the garden walls the laburnum dangled golden chains, reflowered on this summer evening as though it were yet spring.  In fact, springtime had miraculously returned.  In the corners the lilacs hung in royal purple trusses, and roses filled the air with a fragrance deep as smoke.

All around me beauty wove itself, beauty and the strange, somehow familiar smell of the place.  Westfaire became an eternal evening in an eternal May, the sun slanting in from the west as though under a cloud, making the orchards and gardens gleam in a green as marvelous as the light in the gems I carried.  Slowly the sun moved down, and I feared it would not rise again on Westfaire for a hundred long years. (pp. 72-73)
Here we see a venal Beauty, one that is not radiant in and of herself, because of the duplicity she has committed and which she already is trying to deny.  This is contrasted with the ethereal quality of the setting sun as Westfaire enters into its century of darkness.  Yet what will happen to a Beauty that is not sleeping, seemingly free from her curse?

Tepper almost immediately opens up the story, as Beauty encounters documentary filmmakers from the 21st century who have traveled to the 14th century in an attempt to film Fairy magic in the wild before it fades away completely.  Beauty gets caught up with them and she learns how to time travel herself, from the hideous pornographic 21st century, where beauty is subsumed by the use of the body as if it were a privy instead of a temple, to the schizophrenic 20th century, where people no longer understand each other and their environs, much less their own selves.  Tepper devotes several passages to issues of changing sexual mores over the centuries, condemning both the patriarchal past and the possible pornographic future where love and beauty are conceived of as being merely bodily functions and not matters of the heart and soul. 

Tepper is quite strident at times in these explorations of sexuality and of the failing harmonic relationships between people and between their environments.  Some may take offense to her equation of anti-abortion supporters with helpers of the Dark Lord that threatens both Faerie and human life alike, but these more direct passages are relatively brief and do not interfere with the unfolding narrative about the connections between Beauty, the concept, with Beauty, the person, and how each affects magic in the world.  Tepper alludes to several other folk and fairy tales over the course of this nearly 500 page novel, ranging from the impish Puck to vague references to works by Spenser and Shakespeare.  This references are relatively constrained and they only but add to the richness of the narrative as a whole.

Tepper's prose is a delight to read here.  She easily switches from the near poetic to sometimes rather harsh and ugly descriptive scenes in order to illustrate the fading beauty and magic in the world.  The character of Beauty is vividly drawn, never as as simple cipher of a character.  The other characters introduced, from the gallant Giles to the venal Jaybee, serve to further the thematic elements of Tepper's plot.  There is little sense of events being too sketchy or too laborious; the pace is wondrous.  Although there might be a few occasions where Tepper is not subtle enough with her points, on the whole the themes, plot, and characterizations mesh nicely.  Beauty is one of the better riffs on fairy tale motifs that I have read and it certainly is a classic "Masterwork" that deserves to be read for decades to come.

1 comment:

  1. I read this one a few years ago and the one over-riding memory I have of it is "preachy". The entire books (and most of Tepper's other books) have a message that she just has to get across, often to the detriment of the book, imo.