Curiouser &

Real-izing Fantasy: The Double-Sided Mirror of Magical Realism and "the other side of reality" in Robin McKinley's Spindle's End

Evelyn Perry

The glamour that obscured Rosie's arrival was so entangled in a fictitious bardic tale-spinning competition in Smoke River that what little of it you could make out, which wasn't much, seemed only to be one of the tales, about as likely as any of the rest, which included large silver carriages with long stiff wings that flew through the air like birds, long-distance speaking devices involving no magic, and a family of fire-wyrms asking the king for a permanent peace and offering to live in the palace cellars and replace the central heating.

Immediately following the appearance of the evil fairy Pernicia and the pronouncement of her horrible curse on the baby princess in Robin McKinley's retelling of the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale Spindle's End, Katriona is given the princess for safe-keeping. Just 15, and apprenticed to her Aunt (an accomplished fairy), Katriona carries the princess home to her wild, wet, and far-flung corner of the country. The trip is harrowing; Katriona is a classic young adult protagonist thrown into adventure and forced to mature (Nikolajeva), Pernicia continues to be a threat, the king's men are searching the country, and Katriona has no milk for the baby. Kat must rely on her beast speech and the kindness of lactating animal mothers, and the folk charms given to her by Aunt just before she left the Gig to attend the princess' name day.

Upon Katriona's belated return, it is decided that Katriona and Aunt will raise the princess as if she were one of their own. Proactively and affectionately, they shorten the princess' name--Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domnia Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose--to Rosie, "a good name for a little village maiden" (70). Because Pernicia's powers are formidable, it is necessary not to let anyone know who Rosie really is; doing so might endanger Rosie should Pernicia have the power to trap information loosely packaged in peoples' minds and it is understood that Pernicia has spies throughout the country. Rosie's safety, and that of the kingdom, is a serious concern. As a result, Aunt creates "as small and confusing a glamour as possible" (103): a piece of "irreducible" magic with "a strong presence of the phenomenal world" which causes some "unsettling doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understandings of events...merges different realms...[and]...disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity." In short, Aunt's glamour contains the five primary characteristics of magical realism as put forward by Wendy B. Faris in Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative.

In a section entitled Definitions and sub-titled "The Irreducible Element," Faris states:

As a basis for investigating the nature and cultural work of magical realism, I suggest five primary characteristics of the mode. First, the text contains an "irreducible element" of magic; second, the descriptions in magical realism detail a strong presence of the phenomenal world; third, the reader may experience some unsettling doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understanding of events; fourth, the narrative merges different realms; and, finally, magical realism disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity.

Aunt's glamour contains an "irreducible element" of magic in that it is a spell designed to alter a perceived reality. Spindle's End details "a strong presence of the phenomenal world;" it asks the reader to "experience some unsetting doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understandings of events [and]...merges different realms" by juxtaposing the impossibilities of reality (airplanes, "large silver carriages with long stiff wings that flew through the air like birds," and telephones, "long-distance speaking devices involving no magic") with those of McKinley's fantastic landscape (a landscape that includes magic and fairies, spells and curses) and her narrative. It "disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity" in that it forces the characters of McKinley's narrative to misperceive reality by "obscur[ing] Rosie's arrival [with] a fictitious bardic tale-spinning competition...[so] that what little of it you could [be made] out, which wasn't much, seemed only to be one of the tales, about as likely as any of the rest"--thereby asserting that Rosie is, indeed, Aunt's niece and Katriona's cousin, that her arrival did not coincide with the Katriona's return from the princess' name-day and thus Rosie could not possibly be confused with the cursed royal. According to Faris' assertions, Spindle's End is a strong example of magical realism.

But how could this be? Faris is describing magical realism and McKinley's Spindle's End (as are all of McKinley's texts) is most certainly fantasy, if not high fantasy. But Spindle's End is also a fairy tale retelling and, as such, it provides us with a mirror of an archetypal text from a classic genre, both of which have helped shape our understanding of literature, literary history, and fairy tale readership; it provides us with a mirror by which we may see ourselves in relation to a powerfully rooted literary tradition. Faris' assertions about magical realism, that it "permits an increased understanding of the formal characteristics and...of the ways in which literary forms develop in response to cultural conditions" (2) are equally applicable to the high fantasy of Robin McKinley's Spindle's End--especially when that fantasy reflects our relationship(s) to Literature.

Mirroring Literature as it does, Aunt's glamour is a creation of magical realism, standing at the border of two narrative landscapes, realism and fantasy, and reflecting those landscapes to their respective citizens. The setting of Robin McKinley's Spindle's End is at once familiar and completely unexpected; "that country" is an "alternative world," defined as:

secondary worlds that have essentially the same characteristics as the primary world but still deviate in some details. They are not, unlike parallel worlds, projected on the primary world, but exist independently, with occasional (and always magical) contact... [and] may...have some hereditary bands with Carroll's Looking-glass country, which is almost a copy of the primary world.
(Nikolajeva 50)

In McKinley's retelling, the citizen-reader learns to see from both sides of the mirror, seeing into the safe remove of high fantasy from our perceived reality, seeing into our reality from the safe remove of fantasy, and thus experiencing both narrative landscapes as familiar and fresh. Spindle's End "real-izes" high fantasy by applying Faris' five primary characteristics of magical realism to the concrete and the created in much the same way that a retelling "real-izes" and describes contemporary relationships to Literature.

Faris expands upon the first of her five primary characteristics of magical realism, the "'irreducible element' of magic," by explaining:

These irreducible elements are well assimilated into the realistic textual environment, rarely causing any comment by narrators or characters, who model such an acceptance for their readers. Paradoxically, though, because they also nevertheless frequently surprise those readers and their realistic expectations, they also say, in almost existential fashion, "I EKsist," "I stick out." Here we might detect the remnants of existential anguish at an un-co-optable world, but tempered by the more playful side of surrealism (or the intersection of diverse cultural traditions).

Aunt's glamour contains an "irreducible element" of magic in that it is a spell designed to alter a perceived reality, albeit a reality that is irreducibly magic, as is best seen in the setting for Spindle's End. "That" country, the region known as the Gig, and the village of Foggy Bottom, is a fantastic setting expertly real-ized by Robin McKinley with details and consequences of living with magic.

Of life's basic needs, keeping house and family, McKinley tells us: "The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster dust. ("Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages" [3]) . McKinley is sure to explain how the people of "that country" rely either on local fairies or the dja root to de-scale their kettles, and that "'She'd give me her last dja root' was a common saying about a good friend" (4), thereby delineating the linguistic, semantic, and proverbial development of the country and its folk. Additionally, we are told that "[b]irths were 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), which describes the cultural traditions of that country and presages the significance of the princess' name-day, her fairy godparents, and the curse set on her by the wicked fairy Pernicia even as it maintains the importance of love, the greatest magic, a magic which "even magic cannot improve upon" (35). McKinley's setting mirrors our reality most greatly in that respect, offering our reality as magic even as it describes their magic as reality.

McKinley's setting for Spindle's End also mirrors our world and real-izes its own when she explains the social and cultural attitudes of her characters, that country's folk and their relationships to their land and their fellow inhabitants:

Generally speaking the more mobile and water-dependent something was, the more likely magic was to get at it. This meant animals--and, of course, humans--were the most vulnerable... Slower creatures were less susceptible to the whims of wild magic than faster creatures, and creatures that flew were the most susceptible of all... (Fish, which flew through that most dangerous element, water, were believed not to exist...).

This allows McKinley to examine the ways in which customs and beliefs extend to legal considerations; it is forbidden to eat fish and swimming is highly suspect, if not a sign of insanity. Additionally, this serves to explain the mind-set of the characters upon which Aunt's glamour is exercised:

There did seem to be one positive effect to living involuntarily steeped in magic; everyone lived longer. More humans made their century than didn't; birds and animals often lived to thirty, and fifty was not unheard of. The breeders of domestic animals in that country were unusually sober and responsible individuals, since any mistakes they made might be around to haunt them for a long time.

Those who are the guardians of that landscape and its inhabitants are "sober" and "responsible;" just as "farmers grow more stolid and earthy over a lifetime of farming," fairies might be said to grow "wilder and more capricious" (7-8). Aunt's glamour, created to alter the reality of the well-grounded people of a magical country in order to protect and disguise the princess' whereabouts and ensure her safety, also protects the villagers of Foggy Bottom from enterprising "bad" (unloving and unbalanced) magic. Even in this fantastic setting, Aunt's glamour has an "irreducible element" of magic: it is born out of love and good intentions, "[n]ot magic...but real for all that" (28). It recalls to the readers of Spindle's End the many parallels that exist between this fantastic landscape and their own.

The mirrored parallels between the reader and setting, the principle seat of Literature, produce a "strong presence of the phenomenal world." Terming this alternative, shared space (Nikolajeva) as a "commingling phenomenon," Faris charts it:

A graphic illustration of this commingling phenomenon is the way in which magic events are usually grounded textually in a traditionally realistic, even an expertly factual manner. Furthermore, as Brenda Cooper has stated it, "the mysterious, sensuous, unknown, and unknowable are not in the subtext...but rather share the fictional space with history."

It is not just Rosie and the folk of Foggy Bottom who experience the love and protection and the significant shared world of Aunt's glamour; we are all spell-bound, and this is beautifully upheld by Robin McKinley's real-ized setting. As Faris points out, magical-ness is often real-ized through reference to factual history and recorded time--the details of the multitudes, our common bonds, dja vines, true friends, and an historical battle with the fire-wyrms.

The setting of Robin Mckinley's Spindle's End is of such importance to the novel and its readership that we are intimate with each other as immediately as friendships are made in the Gig. Before being more traditionally presented to the protagonists, or formally referred to the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale being retold, we shake long-lived, "stolid" and "responsible" hands with the history and customs of "that country." The setting of the novel and the genre of fantasy create a double-sided mirror; the inhabitants of the Gig are not unlike the readers of fantasy literature:

People either loved that country and couldn't imagine living anywhere else, or hated it, left as soon as they could, and never came back. If you loved it, you loved coming over the last hill before your village one day in early autumn and hearing the corn-field singing madrigals, and that day became a story you told your grandchildren, the way in other countries other grandparents told the story of the day they won the betting pool at the pub, or their applecake won first place at the local fete. If you lived there, you learned what you had to do, like putting a pinch of dried dja vine in your kettle once a week, like asking your loaf of bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (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. Nobody had ever heard of a loaf of bread turning into a flock of starlings for anyone they knew, but the nursery tale was well known, and in that country it didn't pay to take chances. The muttered words were usually only some phrase such as "Bread, stay bread" or, in upper-class households, "Bread, please oblige me," which was a less wise form, since an especially impish gust of magic could choose to translate "oblige" just as it chose.)

This lengthy passage not only illustrates the breadth and depth of detail in McKinley's setting, but the thorough consideration of causality and time. The novel suggests mythic fairy tales have roots deep enough to redefine Time, that literarily, socially, and perennially, they are the foundation of Literature. Traditionally, this shared foundation has informed the writers of fantasy. C. N. Manlove asserts that several writers of fantasy, such as Tolkien or Williams, "see the worlds of fantasy as no less real than their own or any other" (xii). In McKinley's novel, this tradition is upheld and extended to her citizen-readers, who share the foundations of Literature and are thereby participant in the making of meaning. As participants in the creation of that setting, the landscape of that third, alternative world is our collective present and shared past. Its histories are relevant to us; we share fictional spaces.

It should be noted that the Gig, the primary setting for Spindle's End, where Rosie lives with Aunt and Katriona, and where the famous battle with the fire-wyrms was fought, is a highly fantastic landscape even according to the definitions of "that country" and its inhabitants. So called "the Gig, because it might be guessed to have some resemblance to the shape of a two wheeled vehicle with its shafts tipped forward to touch the ground" [1], and located "nearly a month's journey" from the royal city, we are told that "nothing exciting ever happened in the Gig, or at least hadn't since the invasion of the fire-wyrms about eleven hundred years ago" (20). Nothing exciting except growing up, falling in love, living with magic, and generally not behaving in the traditional manner of fairy tale heroines as McKinley has described them and as have informed her contemporary retellings of character: "wearing long trailing dresses and casting languorous looks into pools with rose petals floating in them as the setting sun glimmers through [her] translucent fingers [while her] lover...is off somewhere having interesting adventures" (Sanders). Nothing exciting but finding out that you really are a destined soul, a "lost princess [sic] switched at birth" (www.robinmckinley.com). In McKinley's Spindle's End, character real-izes setting, offering us a real, tangible young woman in a fantastic setting made familiar by factual detail. Already part of our shared history, the tale of Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose becomes credible in its response to contemporary ideas of women and cultural anthropology. Rosie is closer to us; her world becomes closer to our own. With Rosie, we occupy a narrative landscape impossibly real and fantastically possible.


1 Appropriately, wheels and cycles figure prominently in McKinley's retelling; Katriona marries Barder, the village wheelwright, in whose house Rosie is finally discovered.

Works Cited

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Breton, Andre. "Second Manifesto of Surrealism." 1930 (in French). Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. In Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1969.

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Rodriguez, Carolina Fernandez. "The Deconstruction of the Male-Rescuer Archetype in Contemporary Feminist Revisions of 'The Sleeping Beauty.'" Marvels &Tales, 16.1, 53. 2002.

Sanders, Lynn Moss. "'Girls Who Do Things'": The Protagonists of Robin McKinley's Fantasy Fiction." The ALAN Review, 24.1, 38-43. Fall 1997.

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Evelyn Perry

Volume 8, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, September 2004

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"Real-izing Fantasy: The Double-Sided Mirror of Magical Realism and 'the other side of reality' in Robin McKinley's Spindle's End"
© Evelyn Perry, 2004-2005.
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