The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 1 (2003)

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Curiouser &
Curiouser


Translating Mythic Tale into Contemporary Expression: Robin McKinley's Spindle's End

Evelyn Perry


Evelyn Perry teaches at Framington State College in Massachusetts.


A retelling of the "Sleeping Beauty" tale, Spindle's End is Robin McKinley's fifth retelling of a fairy tale. (McKinley's Beauty [1978] and Rose Daughter [1997] both retell Madame Le Prince de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast," The Outlaws of Sherwood [1988] retells the legend of Robin Hood, and Deerskin [1993] retells Charles Perrault's "Donkeyskin"). As such, McKinley's Spindle's End demonstrates her increasing mastery over the art of retellings. Within the text, McKinley describes the literary and mythic function of fairy tales by referring to popular fairy tales as well as contemporary critical readings of those tales. McKinley's interaction with fairy tale classics recalls her own girlhood, and this recalled girlhood fuels her writing. Born a "Navy brat," Robin McKinley moved throughout her childhood. This resulted in few lasting friendships with other children. In response, McKinley developed a private, literary world and a rich imagination. She has been quoted as saying that "[s]he believes...that most girls go through a time growing up when they believe they must have an innate greatness and destiny beyond the apparent; that they are in fact lost princesses, switched at birth [1]." Her imagination, her books, and her animal friends were Robin McKinley's best companions while growing up, and the same may be said for Rosie--the princess who is cursed by an evil fairy and secreted away in Book One of Spindle's End.

In the tale of "Sleeping Beauty," the king and queen invite fairy godmothers to bestow gifts to their long-awaited daughter. But there is one more fairy, angered that she has not been asked to be a fairy godmother or invited to the celebration, who appears and curses the baby princess. The evil fairy declares that on the princess' birthday (16 or 21, depending on the version), the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The king and queen decree that all spindles should be banished, but, inevitably, the princess stumbles upon a spinning wheel on her birthday, pricks her finger on the spindle, and is plunged into a one hundred-year sleep. During those one hundred years, briars and roses grow up around the castle, keeping the sleeping princess inside and any potential rescuers outside. One hundred years later, on the anniversary of the princess' birthday, a handsome prince, inspired by stories of the beautiful sleeping princess, cuts through the briars with his sword, finds the princess, and kisses her awake. With her, the entire kingdom reawakes--the servants, the cooking fires, even the castle spiders. As can be expected from a fairy tale, the prince and princess marry and live happily ever after.

Robin McMinley's Spindle's End is a detailed and complex retelling of "Sleeping Beauty." In Merlin's Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy [2], Charlotte Spivak states: "Robin McKinley's fantasies accomplish for Grimm's fairy tales what Walton does for the Mabinogion [3]. She deepens the characters, strengthening plots, and adds much emotional and aesthetic heightening through her lyrical style" (169). McKinley's fantasies--and her retellings in particular--also provide a fascinating response to contemporary literary criticism. Spindle's End encourages a creative interpretation of the critically noted sexism (Zipes [4]), eroticism (Coover [5]), Freudian/Elektra Complex (Bettelheim [6]), and psychological feminism (Von Franz [7]), available in the "Sleeping Beauty" tale. Indeed, McKinley's novel, like the reader, is subsequently enriched by these various foci of contemporary literary criticism.

Spindle's End is a detailed retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" in that the characters are multi-dimensional, with the described experiences and individual personalities that readers have come to expect from a good novel. But McKinley is careful to assert that fairy tales, like magic spells, are complex, that they have lasting affects on our human development and on our world. In order to do justice to her retelling, her story, and her ideas, Robin McKinley organizes her 351-page novel into 5 books.

In book one of Spindle's End, we are first introduced to the landscape and to the particular province of the kingdom in which the novel takes place. Like the humans, animals, and houses that reside there, the landscape of Spindle's End functions as a character. It is curiously alive, though with a longer lifespan and memory than many of the novels' characters, and it is equally susceptible to being bewitched--not least of all because the landscape, like the magic that McKinley describes, is natural and real. Here, magic and religion cohabitate (if not always comfortably). And, as is common in McKinley's novels, the fantastic kingdom is completely and beautifully imagined. McKinley describes how life in those parts has been translated into custom and practice:

The people of this country had developed a reputation among outsiders for being unusually pious, because of the number of things they appeared to mutter a blessing over before they did them; but in most cases this was merely the asking of things it was safer to ask to remain nonmagical first, while work or play or food preparation or whatever was being got on with. (4)

McKinley reminds us that some of the greatest magic is naturally miraculous: "Births were very closely attended, because the request that things stay what they were had to be got in quickly, birth being a very great magic, and, in that country, likely to be teased into mischief" (5). For these reasons, and because human beings are always attentive to the doings of royalty and government, news of the birth of a princess spreads quickly. The princess' name--Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domnia Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose--reminds the reader of fairy tale princesses even as it pokes gentle and good-humored fun at them.

The king and queen are delighted to have produced a female heir (which, we are told, is highly unusual but auspicious). They decide to hold a name-day celebration to which 20 fairy godparents are invited--as well as one representative from each village, to be chosen by the drawing of straws. And this is how we are introduced to Katriona. Katriona, a young woman from the Gig (one of the farthest and foggiest points from the royal city), and an apprenticing fairy to her Aunt, is the one to draw the single long straw. She travels to the princess name-day celebration by foot (it takes her 51 days [8]), laden down with charms, and carrying only a few coins. Although she travels lightly to the royal city, she returns with a much greater burden. While at the celebration, the evil fairy, Pernicia, dramatically appears and casts her spell for the princess' 21st birthday. Without thinking, Katriona picks up the 3-month old princess and soothes her by saying that she can have her gift: beast speech. The ability to speak to animals is the last remnant of Katriona's "baby magic," and all she has to offer the princess.

With a quick blessing from Sigil, the queen's own fairy, Katriona carries the princess home. She travels off the main road to avoid detection, and feeds the princess with the milk of helpful animal mothers who have heard of their plight and who understand their common enemy to be Pernicia. So foxes, bears, dogs, otters, and others feed the princess; she is given both beast-speech and beast milk. Three months later, Katriona arrives, exhausted and hungry, at her and Aunt's doorstep. Together, Katriona and Aunt decide that the princess will be raised as a country girl and as a beloved cousin and niece to Katriona and Aunt. Because they must keep her safe, they call her simply Rosie. Rosie's full name, her royal blood, as well as her beast milk feedings, is kept a secret even from herself.

In book two of McKinley's Spindle's End, the reader begins to understand the significance of the novel's title. Shortly after Katriona and Rosie at their village, a royal messenger arrives bearing the news that no spindle's end shall be wider than a 3-month old baby's finger. Because of this, spindle ends become wide, rounded, and tapered off at one end. Spinners adjust their wheels and carved spindle ends, often with anthropomorphic faces or intricate designs, become a folk art--prized as family heirlooms and given as gifts. Katriona's friend, Barder the wheelwright, carves a grinning gargoyle for Katriona and Aunt.

But Rosie is not taught to spin. In an effort to conceal Rosie's gifts (among them, excellent spinning, fine embroidery, golden curls and teeth like pearls), Katriona and Aunt encourage Rosie's less dramatic and tell-tale abilities. Rosie cuts her hair short, telling well-meaning villagers: "'I am not pretty. I am intelligent. And brave'" (71). And McKinley is careful to point out that: "aside from her hair, she was not pretty--all those fairy godmothers giving her lips like cherries and teeth like pearls and skin like silk and they forgot to make her pretty...and she was intelligent" (72). Still, Katriona and Aunt fear that Pernicia will find Rosie. So when Rosie cuts her hair and insists on wearing trousers, when she expresses disinclination to the domestic (and therefore traditionally feminine) gifts bestowed on her name-day, Katriona and Aunt do not argue.

Every once in a while, though, Katriona cannot help but to lose her temper over the fairy gifts given to the princess:

'One and twenty of the most powerful and important fairies in the country! They could have made her invulnerable to curses! They could have made her invisible to anyone who wished her harm! They could have--they could--and they gave her golden hair!' (90)

Katriona's argument, that Rosie's gifts of domestic femininity and good looks are petty and insignificant when compared to gifts that could protect her, is not lost on the reader. Culturally, that Rosie is encouraged as a tomboy is not terribly problematic. Katriona and Aunt love Rosie like one of their own, and because Rosie can talk to animals, the villagers accept that she, like her family, will be a fairy. Rosie belongs.

Rosie becomes accustomed to hanging around the forge with Narl, the village smith. And, aside from a few close calls (Katriona's accidental dream-conversation with the queen in which she tells her that the princess is safe ["as safe as ordinariness can make her" [9]], and Peony's attempt to teach Rosie to embroider), Rosie is brought up as a common--if slightly uncommon--country girl.

By the end of book two, Rosie is a young woman old enough to be apprenticed to Narl as a horse-leech, old enough to be a bridesmaid at Katriona and Barder's wedding. Along with Katriona, Barder, Aunt, and several animal friends (Flinx the cat and Fiend the cow among them), Rosie moves into the wheel-wright's house (just across from the smithy and the wainwright in the village square).

In book three of Spindle's End, Rosie makes her first significant friendship (outside of her family, her too-numerous-to-mention animal friends, and Narl). Initially, Rosie is inclined to dislike the niece of the wainwright and her neighbor, Peony--perhaps because Peony is so many things that Rosie is not:

[Peony] could sew, cook, and clean; she wrote a good clear hand and did sums accurately. She could carry a tune, she could dance, and play upon what variety of musical instruments the village offered. She was also beautiful. (She had long curling golden eyelashes, although not so long as Rosie's.) It was all too much. Rosie had thought so for years, and avoided her. (132)

While Rosie's traditionally boyish ways have been encouraged, Peony is praised for being traditionally (domestically) feminine. Despite her reservations, however, Rosie and Peony develop an immediate and intimate friendship. The reader is told that Rosie and Peony become "the sort of friends whose lives are shaped by the friendship" (134). Not only do they find a great friendship in each other, but both Rosie and Peony find romantic love. In watching Peony fall in love with Rowland, Narl's new apprentice, Rosie discovers that she is in love with Narl.

The end of book three provides two turning points in the narrative, one in the point of view of the novel, and the other in the plot. While the narrator of Spindle's End is omniscient, books one and two primarily develop Katriona's point of view, as well as her descriptions of, and insights into, Rosie's character. In book three, the narrator begins to develop Rosie's character in her own words and thoughts. The age of the main protagonist is party why Spindle's End is categorized as young adult literature. Young adulthood marks the time in which we grow into our "innate greatness"--and it is the age in which McKinley, a young adult author, is most interested. Thus, Rosie becomes the primary character and it is through her that we continue to interpret the action of the novel. The turning point of the plot happens at the end of book three, when Ikor, a royal fairy messenger, completes his quest to find Rosie and announces--to her confounded amazement--that she is the princess, that her 21st birthday is approaching, and that it is time for her whereabouts and well-being to be made public. In an attempt to ward off Pernicia's curse, a large celebration is planned with each character doing what must be done to protect the princess and the kingdom with love, cheer and optimism. This, we are told, is the best defense against evil:

For this was part of the great magic Sigil and Ikor and Aunt and Katriona had created. This was part of their last, desperate throw against the fate that had caged the princess on her name-day: that the people should believe that Pernicia had already lost, and that the princess' birthday was a time of rejoicing; that they might freely love their restored princess so much that the love itself was protection and defence--and that behind that defence other, secret defences could be devised. (203)

Because Rosie is brave, and because she understands that she must stand up to her fate, she resigns herself to the project. Rather than losing time by questioning and resisting--and because, in truth, there is no time to lose--Rosie accepts her identity, her fate, and her responsibility.

As is appropriate in literature for young adults, book three of Spindle's End is about transitions and turning points; and book four is about definition, redefinition, and identity. In book four it becomes clear to everyone involved that Rosie is not the sort of princess that a public craves. Indeed, she is the first to admit that she is not princess material--and that she does not want to be. Peony, however, is classic princess material. What's more, Rosie and Peony have already been so much a part of each other's lives as to leave deep and lasting impressions; they share habits and gestures. It is believed (by Sigil, Ikor, Aunt and Katriona) that Rosie and Peony's friendship is a kind of magic that will prove useful when they combine arts to save the princess and to thwart Pernicia. So they bind the two girls together with a charm. Ikor announces that Peony is the princess, and the princess (Peony) and her lady-in-waiting (Rosie) are removed to Woodwold, the local aristocratic seat, to prepare for the princess' 21st birthday.

The public is thrilled. It is completely believable to them that Peony is the princess. Even better, the discovery of Peony as the princess promises a fairy-tale ending. Along with the subjects of the realm, the readers of Spindle's End learn that Rowland is really the Heir-prince of Erlion and that he has sworn to defend and to marry the unfortunately cursed princess. How wonderful that the beautiful princess should be discovered and that it should happen that she and Rowland have already fallen in love. In response, the reader of McKinley's Spindle's End is asked to consider the relationship between mistaken identity and mistaken identification. The public believes what fairy tales have encouraged them to believe; the reader receives a valuable lesson about the definition of the self.

Ironically, and despite the shocking news, Rosie's upbringing gives her the strong sense of self and the emotional equipment necessary to battle an evil curse; Peony's sense of friendship and of fealty give her the strength she needs to play a princess (and to risk her own life for her best friend and for the good of the kingdom). Book four of Spindle's End does much to suggest that nobility--especially in terms of "innate greatness"--is a matter of inherent character, not birth or gender. Robin McKinley proves her own adage: we all possess inherent nobility. Like Rosie and like Rowland, we really are secret princesses and princes.

McKinley recalls and revises the fairy tale--engaging what is to be celebrated in it as well as what is in need of contemporary adaptation. Having described the long, three-month wait at Woodwold, the complications and inconveniences of being bound together by a charm, and the endless preparations for the princess' 21st birthday celebration, and having asserted that nobility is a matter of character (and not only a matter of birth), Robin McKinley is quick to point out the fallibility of fairy tale princesses and our attendant expectations of femininity:

The ladies-in-waiting had rushed on to Woodwold from wherever they lived as soon as their fortunate preferment had been made known to them. Most of them would have cultivated Rosie as the known best friend of the princess, except that Rosie was half afraid of them, partly because they wore all their flounces and under-petticoats so easily, and partly because she couldn't manage to get their names straight: they seemed all to be called things like Claralinda and Dulcibella and Sacharissa. (243)

Rosie, whose real name (which is no better) is Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domnia Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose, takes care to avoid the ladies-in-waiting.

Instead, Rosie occupies her time by carving spindle ends, and Peony occupies her time by sewing. By the night before the birthday celebration, Rosie has finished her last spindle end--a head that, like the charm that binds them, is carved to resemble both Rosie and Peony--and Peony has managed to hem and repair all of the household linens. This puts the princess and her best friend in stark contrast to the ladies-in-waiting and it enables McKinley to draw strong comparisons between cultivated, domestic and generally passive femininity and true heroic character regardless of gender.

The considerations of identity, of identification, and of inherent nobility in book four of Spindle's End, are directed at the literary form of the fairy tale in book five. By continuing to assert her novel as a retelling of a particular fairy tale, and by having her characters refer to fairy tales as being fantastic, unrealistic, but totally credible, McKinley heightens her readers' awareness of the refashioning and contemporizing of the fairy tale form as it is practiced in Spindle's End. McKinley's assertions are as relevant in book one, where we are reminded that:

There were stories that didn't sound like nursery tales, about companies of leopards and lynxes and dragons and wolves that had fought at the sides of various kings and queens many years ago; but maybe those were merely nursery tales for grown-ups. History was as unreliable as almost everything else that was influenced by magic in this country--which was nearly everything--and those stories could have been true or they could not have been true (51),

as they are relevant in book five, when Pernicia appears at the birthday celebration. The long-awaited danger finally upon them, Peony rushes forward to prick her finger on the spindle intended for Rosie, the kingdom is plunged into sleep.

At first, Rosie, too, is asleep. But she is not breathing, and it takes Narl's kiss upon her cheek to make her breathe and to wake her up. Narl reveals himself to be a fairy smith, something he has not shared with anyone (and something he assumed the animals had told Rosie. They had not). Because Narl has "a bit of--cold iron...welded into [his] smith's chain" offering "some protection against some things," he has not been struck down by Pernicia's sleeping spell [10]. Upon discovering that everyone is asleep--even Katriona, Aunt and Peony--Rosie remarks to herself that "[s]leep is the sister to death" (275), using the word 'sister' to limn her relationships to her family, her friend, and the magic that binds them. In so doing, Rosie also describes the very real threat contained in "Sleeping Beauty," despite modern demythicization of the power and scope of fairy tales (Zipes).

In the Great Hall of Woodwold, the only characters awake are Rosie, Narl, and the many animals who rally around Rosie with the knowledge that the human being who can speak to them--and for them--is the princess, and that she needs their help. In order to confront Pernicia, they must find their way out of Woodwold, understood to be protecting it's inhabitants by entirely surrounding itself with roses and briars. The Great Hall through which Rosie's band moves, where the revelers all lie asleep, is described as "an eerie landscape, something out of a fairy tale," and the reader is told that "magic was never as comprehensive as this, not in real life" (276). When they consider how they might find their way out of Woodwold, in order to confront Pernicia and save their loved ones and the kingdom, Rosie states: "'I suppose we should try the front doors first? It doesn't seem very likely, but it...who knows what the rules are in a fairy tale'" (284). McKinley's references remind us that fairy tales have potent dimensions, that they are the literary precursors to fantasy--the genre to which McKinley assigns her work.

But the front doors of Woodwold are barred. In the reversal of passive femininity anticipated from McKinley characters and expected of contemporary retellings for young adults, it is Rosie who borrows Ikor's sword and cuts through the briars surrounding Woodwold. Similarly, towards the end of the novel, after Rosie, Narl, and several animal friends confront and defeat Pernicia, it is Rosie who kisses Peony awake (343)--again subverting passive femininity as well as some of the subtle eroticism of "Sleeping Beauty" (this is, after all, a retelling for young adults).

McKinley's references to the act of retelling and to the fairy tale form are a particularly successful way of opening up comparisons between the tale of "Sleeping Beauty" and Spindle's End. These references invite the reader to consider how the two texts are alike, how they are different, and what that says about our contemporary, literary relationships to fairy tales. Ultimately, but not surprisingly, what we learn reflects where we are. It is not surprising that Rosie, the female hero of Spindle's End, should be a strong, brave, and intelligent young woman who defeats evil with common sense and with love. Advances won by women's rights movements, as well as current trends in, and demands for, "girl-powered" texts, have resulted in the proliferation of active, female role-models who celebrate young women's inherent abilities even as they recall the pulsing heart and triumphant Good of fairy tales. It is not surprising that the independent-minded animals with whom Rosie speaks recall our changing attitudes towards animal rights. Nor is it surprising that the fairies in Spindle's End have a well-balanced respect for the world that is shaped by magic, and that they have a moderate attitude towards the magic that they shape. Contemporary concerns for the environment and our changing attitudes towards earth-friendly spiritual practices (as well as our horror at the violent reactions to subversively matriarchal--but generally earth-friendly--"witches" of the past) must also guide a contemporary reteller's hand.

Robin McKinley has been a forerunner in contemporizing fairy tales with heroic young women and providing retellings that maintain the mythic, literary significance of those tales even as she updates them. In Spindle's End, McKinley continues to remind us that we must treat the literary fairy tale form with respect while we shape it. Fairy tales are the mythic foundations of our literary culture, and those mythic elements--the phallic sword that cuts through the briars, the spindle end that recalls the ambivalent, limited safety of hearth and home, the awakening kiss, and the enchanted landscape that shapes us so that we may shape the world and our art--are still significant and potent today. It is by retelling, by augmenting and customizing, the fairy tale form that we keep it alive; and this is the ultimate show of respect.

Robin McKinley's Spindle's End is an antecedent of mythic and mythologized literature. Thematically, this means that mythic elements--the sword, the spindle, the kiss; birth and death; Good versus Evil--the textual qualities that Joseph Campbell describes as symbolic of the play of Eternity in Time [11] and Jane Yolen terms "the larger dreams of humankind, a patchwork of all the smaller dreams stitched together by time [12]"--are available in Spindle's End.

There is a bridge between the mythic and the contemporary in McKinley's work. In Spindle's End, as in all her work, McKinley explores the timeless dimensions of mythic (heroic) literature and the human experience. Biographer Marilyn H. Karrenbrock states:

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 adventures, is based upon ideals of faithfulness, duty, and honor. [13]

Spindle's End is an example of those ideals, those themes, as played out by McKinley's characters. And though these are the familiar ideals of McKinley's females, they are just as available to McKinley's men, her creatures, and her magical landscape.

Additionally, there are other (less mythic but still ideal) themes that correspond to contemporary concerns; these are revealed when the text describes who we are to ourselves. Such themes are the description of young adults and of gender, the relationship between the characters and their environment, and the ways in which McKinley's landscape refers to classic and contemporary fantasy literature.

Because it is a retelling, the themes explored in Robin McKinley's Spindle's End encourage us to read the novel as a description of our interaction with a narrative art form much longer lived than we are. As a result, the novel positions our location and our time; it pinpoints our literary dendrochronology. McKinley's Spindle's End mirrors our current demands from, and interpretations of, fairy tale, as well as our current engagements with fantasy literature.

McKinley distinguishes her characters by their speech. This enables her to describe their personalities through their habits of communication. We are told that insects are the most difficult to communicate with, that most animals do not know how to translate (or are unconcerned about) a concept as human as "honor"--though they are honorable, and we are told that you'll never get anywhere in a conversation with a cat unless you pretend to believe that cats are colleagues rather than pets. That the princess gifted with beast-speech is comforted by the expressive wordlessness of Narl, the fairy smith is hiding, is a credit to McKinley's humane, fully-imagined, and masterfully crafted characterization. In McKinley's fantasy, we are given an accurate mirror. She reminds us, too, that "accuracy" is not a stand in for "realistic."

Textual mirrors are a form of intimacy. Thus, our relationships to the characters in the mirror of the novel, characters that have been crafted at this point in the continuum of "Sleeping Beauty," are profound and immediate. McKinley writes with complete clarity, never oversimplifying either her text or her readers, and the characters in Spindle's End are as numerous and as exact in their personalities as the members of a cottage, a village, or a kingdom truly might be. There are no insignificant characters in Spindle's End: Cairngorm the pub owner is as memorable as Zel the fox. Characters whose stories are organic, like Aunt, who has always been there, or who are transplants and travelers, like Katriona and Peony, are as multi-dimensional and psychologically complex as characters in disguise, like Rosie, Rowland, and Narl. In the end, it is the wise white merrel, chained by one foot to the high rafters of Woodwold's Great Hall because of a broken wing that did not set properly, who brings Pernicia to justice as his one last brave magic act. In McKinley's literary world-view, we all have an "innate greatness"--regardless of classification (human or otherwise). McKinley creates a heroic "we" rather than a heroic "I" in Spindle's End, and this extends from the characterization within her fantastic novel to the character of her novel within the fantastic.

Ultimately, the creation of "we" includes the collaborating fantasist and her readers. This interaction is among the literary qualities of Spindle's End that draw upon classic fantasy. In positioning all of us--the storyteller--the reader--the characters both human and animal--the landscape--as participant in the making of fantastic reality, McKinley also positions her novel within the genre.

McKinley's expressive animals do not gesture towards C. S. Lewis [14]; her landscape, while rich, is not the invented world(s) of J. R. R. Tolkien [15]. Robin McKinley is not shaping medieval romance into fantasy, as some critics would assert all fantasy does (cf: Spivak). McKinley is working from an even deeper, more mythic source when shaping a retelling. She is working from the earth. And she is shaping the genre of fantasy even while she contributes to the shaping of the literary anthropology of a tale.

Either by naming them in her short stories or by alluding to them through her narrative style, McKinley's work gestures towards contemporary influences (Diana Wynne Jones [16] and her husband, writer Peter Dickinson [17], among them), as well as classic influences (E. Nesbit [18] and [all of] Lang [19]; additionally, Narl, McKinley's fairy smith, shares his name with the smith in Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Shadow). Contemporarily or classically, fantasy writers such as Jones, Dickinson, Nesbit and Lang--and above all Dunsany--must certainly be considered among the masters of mythic fantasy. Dianna Wynne Jones is a consummate fantasy writer for young adults who makes her text accessible without ever lapsing into patronizing narratives or narrators; Peter Dickinson excels at describing the terrible beauty of a double-natured world, his vocabulary the internalized words that are the very arbiters of lyric poetry; E. Nesbit is an ambidextrous fantasist, able to write in tea cozy style while making the kind of arched, insightful comments about the reality of childhood, the unreality of adulthood, and the accuracy of the fantastic that delight her readers; and Andrew Lang...well, Lang gives us the fairies--in all their different hues.

Historically and collectively, fairy tales and tales about fairies belong firmly within the construct of the literary canon that McKinley reminds us (in Beauty [20], in A Knot in the Grain [21], and elsewhere) that she, too, has read, and by which she has also been influenced. The contested father of mythic fantasy, Lord Dunsany's narratives are important to McKinley's work with literary tradition. The imaginative realm of magic and of young adulthood, honorably described and touchingly remembered, is a realm shared by the two authors. In Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow [22], the exchange of the soul for immortality, and the loss of innocence which must be recovered in order for there to be joy and to be considered one of the "we" of this world, offers the same spiritual and psychological lessons as Spindle's End, wherein a girl must trust her greatest "gifts" (friendship and community among them), in order to defeat a villain capable of global terrorism. Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter [23], in which the tragic protagonist is never able to recover with his reasoning mind that which his heart has lost, is the faint whisper in Spindle's End reminding us that we too must hold on to the magic of young adult fantasy; for, if we do, as Sigil's tiny spider and fairy self repeatedly asserts: "all will be well" (185/350). The shared realm of mythic fantasy is a realm in which we learn that which is most important to the human experience. We learn it through finely crafted metaphors--translating truth and accuracy into fantastic possession, just as we learn it through retellings--translating mythic tales into contemporary expressions.

A contemporary retelling, for all the reasons discussed here, cannot help but to give voice to current perceptions of social sensitivity. Robin McKinley's Spindle's End gives expression to contemporary, feminist-informed expectations of gender by translating outdated norms and by reawakening characters that have been historically and traditionally flattened into two-dimensionality--as befits a retelling of "Sleeping Beauty." In liberating the sleeping landscape and the trapped, but no less imagined (nor any less real) animal world, Spindle's End describes our philosophies and ideologies regarding our environment and the creatures with whom we inhabit that environment. And in negotiating the mythic elements of the human experience through a memory- and dream-laden half-death, a long sleep, we maintain the mythic elements of the human experience in a mindful and conscientious manner. This is, after all and at its best, what contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales can achieve. Ultimately, Robin McKinley's Spindle's End rewards the reader. For, in reading it, we are given the best of the fantastic past and the promise of a fantastic future.

 

References

1. http://ofb.net/~damien/mckinley/McKinley.html.

2. Greenwood Press, 1987.

3. Evangeline Walton's The Children of Llyr, a contemporary retelling of the Welsh Mabinogion, was published in 1971 by Collier Books/Macmillan.

4. Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale , St. Martin's, 1994--among many other titles.

5. Briar Rose (a retelling for adults), Grove Press, 1996.

6. The Uses of Enchantment, Random House, 1975.

7. The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Shambhala, 1993.

8. see page 25.

9. see pages 79 and 84.

10. see page 278.

11. "The Types of Tale" can be found in most collections of Campbell's work, including A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, ed. Diane K. Osborn, HarperPerennial, 1995.

12. Touch Magic, August House, 1981, p.49.

13. http://ofb.net/~damien/mckinley/McKinley.html.

14. see The Chronicles of Narnia, 1952, now available through HarperTrophy in a boxed set.

15. see The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), now available through Mariner's Books in a boxed set.

16. Jones is the author of many fantasy novels--among them, Fire and Hemlock (a retelling of the Scots ballads "Tam Lin" and "True Thomas"), Greenwillow, 1985.

17. Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson have recently collaborated on Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, a collection of short stories, Putnam, 2002.

18. E. Nesbit's novels include the three-book series Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet--fantasy written for children/young adults.

19. see the Rainbow Fairy Books, ed. Andrew Lang, first published roughly 1890s, now available through William Morrow &Co. in a boxed set.

20. McKinley includes the work of influential authors in Beast's fantastic library--a library that contains all the books that have ever been written or that ever will be written.

21. Annabelle, the protagonist of the short story that gives its title to the collection, is a prolific reader of the Rainbow Fairy Books, Victorian literature, and the work of Peter Dickinson.

22. first published in 1926, now available through Del Rey.

23. first published in 1924, now available through Del Rey.

 

 

Evelyn Perry


Volume 7, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January, 2003

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"Translating Mythic Tale into Contemporary Expression: Robin McKinley's Spindle's End" © Evelyn Perry, 2003.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680