The Concept of Beauty in Gail Levine’s Fairest by Abigail Merrit
No fairytale princess is as memorable as beautiful Snow White. Gail Carson Levine, however, does not portray blood-red lips and pale white skin as beautiful as the tales would let you believe. No, in her novel Fairest, Levine casts her Snow White figure, Maid Aza, as ugly as an ogre.
Levine is a remarkable author of children’s literature, known best for Ella Enchanted, a novel which, only a handful of years after its publication, was adapted into the movie of the same name by Miramax Films. With the success of the novel, Levine’s editor asked for more stories from Ella’s world. After refreshing herself on old fairytales, the writer found her muse in the most stereotypically beautiful princess tale (next to Cinderella, of course): Snow White. Levine, however, turns this classic story on its head and declares Aza (Snow White) to be hideous by popular standards—but gifted in the humblest of ways, through song.
Throughout Fairest, songs are equitable to speech in the land of Ayortha, singing as much as talking. The country of Ayortha is a princess’s dream come true as people burst out into song about anything. Aza, an orphan brought up in the quaint Featherbed Inn, is noted for her voice among the customers, if not her frightening looks. However, Aza also discovers that she is mysteriously gifted with the ability to illuse. She is able to throw her voice so that it seems to come from any object and in any voice she chooses. This gift, undoubtedly unique, draws attention from the most unlikely of places, the most unexpected being her position as lady-in-waiting to Queen Ivi herself!
Snow White is generally considered to be a figure of fairytale lore that looks beautiful even after death. Aza, meanwhile, is not beautiful. She yearns to be even be considered pretty, and casts a few spells on herself to achieve her lifelong dream. While magic isn’t spoken of in great extant in this novel, it does play its part at the most crucial of moments. In a world of dwarves, ogres, centaurs, and mischievous fairies, a reader would expect at least a little magic to worm its way into the plot. When Aza tries to make herself beautiful, unexpected results affect her in the most ludicrous ways, such as a marble toe after quite nearly turning herself into a questionably beautiful statue, but no one was around to tell her if she was pretty after the fact. If magic didn’t work, perhaps a better wardrobe would suffice. Levine spares no expense and rites in ornate details about not only the culture, but also the wears, especially the clothing—Aza’s clothing, more specifically. Still waiting on her official wardrobe as lady-in-waiting to the Queen, Aza is Forced to wear a series of comical outfits in the meantime with colors as vivid as argyle socks, popping with dull and bold colors that no princess would be caught dead in (especially Snow White).
This quest for beauty, however, is a hopeless feat. Chapter after chapter, Aza tries and fails to become something everyone would consider beautiful, or even pretty by common standards. Then what exactly is Levine getting at? Two traits about the Ayorthaians stand out more than even beauty and song: their respect for tradition and their high esteem for honesty. When Aza is forced to illuse for the queen, who cannot sing to the shame of the realm, if they ever found out, Aza fears betraying her countrymen as she stands in for the queen’s signing voice in secret. Even worse, she feels that she is betraying Prince Ijori, who teaches her that honesty really is the best policy and something that can make even the ugliest of beasts their deepest friends. Aza’s story may seem to be one of good vs. evil on the surface, but underneath the fabric and lies is a journey of self-acceptance that Snow White needs to know more than any fairytale princess.
Abigail Merritt is a alumni of Bethany Lutheran College. She graduated with a major in English and enjoys writing fantasy and many other genres. Her other hobbies include baking, drawing, watching movies with loved ones, and playing the occasional video game. She dreams of one day becoming a scriptwriter for a popular video game franchise, or at least of publishing a few novels of her own.