What if Sleeping Beauty didn’t turn out the way all those fairies at her christening intended? That’s one element–and my favorite–of Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley.
There’s a line in The People the Fairies Forget when Tarry wonders what christening-gifted people would be like without the enchantments. How does it change a person to be enchanted to be compassionate? In my book, Sleeping Beauty is only a minor character, and is about what you’d expect her to be like if you’ve ever read Charles Perrault.
But Rosie isn’t. Rosie is Sleeping Beauty in Spindle’s End, and is wonderfully NOT what she’s supposed to be. She has long eyelashes and fair skin and golden hair, but she keeps the hair cut short so it doesn’t have the chance to fall into ringlets (and ends up a fuzzy, curly mass). She hates dancing and embroidery, so it doesn’t matter that she’s enchanted to be good at them. Her laugh may resemble a bell, but it must be a very large and unusual bell. And most importantly, she is wonderfully, obstinately, stubbornly herself. She’s not at all sure she even wants to be a princess, and she’s not going to just take a curse lying down.
McKinley does in Spindle’s End some of my favorite things about retold fairy tales. We all know this story–princess cursed to prick her finger and die, fairies carry her off into the woods to keep her safe, spindles get destroyed, etc. But she’s retold it with lots of clever, unexpected, practical twists. What was Sleeping Beauty’s relationship with those fairies, considering they’re the only family she’s ever known? Does she have her own plans for her life? What’s it like to get princess-ness dropped into your lap one day? And how do all those christening gifts turn out?
The gifts are wonderful, Rosie is wonderful, and the fairies–very practical fairies who are human-sized, don’t shed sparkles, don’t have wings, but do some impressive magic–are wonderful too.
I hate to say it, but one reservation here–I’ve never found the romance wonderful. There is one, but it’s never felt right to me. I’ve read this at least twice, so the most recent time I knew the romance was coming. I really, really tried to see it coming, to anticipate it and wrap my head around it, but…while there are one or two cute moments, on the whole it just didn’t feel right.
It may be me. It’s the kind of romance I often have trouble with. Sometimes books like to create a friendship between a girl and an older man, which then turns into a romance when the girl grows up. Once in a while it works for me. Usually it doesn’t. (On that subject, as a minor spoiler to the unwritten sequel of Red’s Girl, Red and Tamara are never going to be romantically involved. Ever.)
But don’t let this turn you off the book. Because honestly, I think Rosie’s relationships with her “aunts” (the two fairies) and her best friend are the more important ones than the romance, and they’re all very good.
And I love practical fairy tales. The book opens with some lovely pages about how magic works in this country, and it’s this fantastic combination of total fantasy mixed with practical details about how people go about living their lives with this magic around them. Magic sort of accumulates around cooking pots, for example, and fairies have to disenchant them every so often, by laying a finger on them. Absent-minded fairies tend to have burn-scars on their fingers. And when the evil fairy’s curse goes out, a decree is issued to lop off the tips of the spindles on all the spinning wheels. How much more reasonable than burning every spinning wheel, and decimating the cloth industry!
My particular fairy tale retold is all about pulling out the most absurd bits of fairy tales and having more practical-minded characters try to work around them. But I love retold fairy tales that work around those more absurd bits and make them make sense. And I so enjoy McKinley’s rational, funny, sweet retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” that is the original story…but not quite the way Perrault told it.