Friday, February 12, 2016

Spindle as Selight-of-Hand: A Book Review

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

This is my second attempt at reading Neil Gaiman's work.  I started, got half-way through, and then sort of trickled off from reading Stardust.  I got a bit further with the movie version but with ultimately the same fate.

I mention this in full disclosure, in case my first impression unfairly colored the second.

I'm fascinated with spinning, so one look at the title of this book and I had to read it.  I was also drawn by the atmospheric black, white, and gold illustrations, drawing tangents with alchemy.  Though Chris Riddell's style is less "pretty" than I (personally) like, its quiet irreverence goes well with the sardonic narration, and its intricacy reflects the tangles of thorns, thickets, and themes of the source fairy tales.

In brief summary, a sort of Snow White, now queen, is reported to by three of her dwarfs.  A sleeping sickness is spreading throughout the next door kingdom.  She decides she must go, leaving on the eve of her marriage donning armor and sword rather than a wedding gown.  The dwarfs lead her under the mountain ranges that no one can climb over, to the cursed kingdom, where they are advanced upon by zombie-like sleepers, until they reach the thorn-covered castle.  The queen burns the roses and thorns, they ascend the highest tower, find a cranky old woman and a beautiful sleeper.  The queen (Snow White) knows what to do . . . but when the kissed sleeper wakes, it turns out she was the witch, who used the spindle (no spinning wheel in this version) to steal the life and sleep from the princess, now aged and senile, and from the surrounding kingdom.  The queen refuses the offer to work for the beautiful witch, gives the spindle back to the old princess; the old princess stabs the youthful witch, undoing the sleeping spell on all the land, but not restoring the lost youth of herself.  Rather than returning home to the inevitable wedding, the queen and her dwarfs turn away toward unknown lands and further adventures.

I was intrigued by several elements in the story, such as the nature of the spell over the sleeping civilians, who appeared to speak out loud the slumbering princess's dreams; the impassibility of the mountain range; the fact that only the spiders were un-sleeping (later rendered less mysterious by the mention of moths and maggots); that the spindle alone was the culprit of enchantment; the Snow White and the Huntsman type heroine, who makes me curious to know the version of her own tale.

Despite its potential--namely, its expert selection of fairy tale archetypes--The Sleeper and the Spindle lacks impact.  The telling is bland and slow; the narrator's asides feel forced; motivations were obscure, yet somehow it lacked mystery.  

Then there is this irksome plot hole: why is the old princess able to kill the youthful witch at the end but not before then?  We are told that the witch's spell prevented her from harm, but how has it suddenly stopped working?  Even the witch seems confused by this, muttering, "It was only a scratch," as she crumbles to ashes.

Another plot hole: why wasn't the princess's youth returned along with her people's wakefulness?  These things are not explained, and not in the what-did-Bluebeard's-first-wife-do-to-get-killed kind of way.

I knew the sleeping beauty and the old woman were reversed roles, probably because I expected this sort of plot twist from the outset.  The woman-rescuing-woman element has grown trite, becoming the kind of thing one expects from a post-modernist fairy story.  At the end, I felt cheated: what interested in this story was mere sleight-of-hand, distracting from the fact that there really wasn't much happening.

There was a moment of fairy tale maturity, like a strong, high note in the story, when the queen withstands "temptation" to serve the young and beautiful witch because she has "learned to feel her own feelings."  When did that happen?  And how?  Wouldn't it have been so much more powerful to express that tangibly, rather than in narration, in some visible sign, some outward rejection manifesting itself physically in reality?  What experience in the original story caused this revelation?

I want to read that story.

The Sleeper and the Spindle gives the impression of trying a bit too hard; and in end, though it is entertaining, it is neither very new nor captivating.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Good Things Come in Sevens: A Book Review

Seven Tales by G.C. McRae

My days are pretty much spoken for, what with an autistic four-year-old and an eight-month-old baby.  So it couldn't be a better time for a collection of short and enjoyable reads, to snatch up whenever I am able to collect a handful of minutes; thankfully, G.C. McRae kindly delivered!

You may have already read one or two of his tales, such as "The Sneaking Girl and the Other Queen," "The Dollmaker's Daughter," or "The Wishing Oak."  Now these original fairy tales are published with others in a collection titled Seven Tales.  (A simple title yet significant, like a pair of shoes or a ball of thread in a folk tale!)

Just when we'd imagined all possible fairy tales discovered, a brand new bunch proves their timelessness and immortality.  First, a discovery of tales a hundred years old, only recently released to the public; and now the charming collection by G.C. McRae, which remain true to fairy tale form but from the mind of a single author.

The most noteworthy impression left on reading Seven Tales is that I didn't notice they were making an impression!  It was all too easy to sink into them, following the intricate threads and the arrivals of characters old as time and common as rocks, but who spring out unexpected and un-called for, as true fairy tale people tend to do.

My favorite tale is "The Seven Sisters," in which seven princesses each pretend to be the same person in order to placate a queen who hates children, which keeps you guessing 'til the end and is pure entertainment.

These tales are also refreshingly devoid of deconstruction and schools of criticism.  And while I know we fairy tale scholars like to go on about our theories and models, all our chatter would be for naught if the normal people hadn't (blessedly!) ignored us and just told their good tales, as McRae has done.

I read these stories out loud to my children.  It seemed only appropriate.

Seven Tales is published by Ingram and will be available from all major booksellers on October 7th.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Very! Inspiring

Well, what do you know?  I disappear for nine months and win an award!  I should go MIA more often!

Gypsy from Once Upon a Blog nominated me for The Very Inspiring Blogger Award.  Thanks, Gypsy!  Now I'm supposed to list seven things my readers may or may not know about me.

  1. You might have guessed at the significance of a nine month absence--that's right, I had another baby!  It takes me all nine to ten months (still not sure how that works) to make a baby, during which time I am dead to the world because of illness, fatigue, and otherwise disinterest in a will to live.  It's all worth it in the end.  My second child was born on January 14, a little boy!
  2. His name is Roan Reuel, and yes, Reuel is for the family name inherited and passed along to the descendants of JRR Tolkien.  No, we're not related (alas!).
  3. I have naturally curly hair, like a hobbit.
  4. I once held human bones that I picked out of the dirt in an excavation site beneath a church in Rome--a fraction of a skull and a vertebrae.  May he (or she, or they) rest in peace!
  5. My rival hobby to fairy tales and writing is photography, and I've started my own small business here.
  6. I'm a loyal Catholic.  Astute readers might have picked up on this already.
  7. My older son (4 years old) has Autism.  I'm just bumbling among and figuring things out, but if you want to talk or have any resources to share, I'm here.

Now I'm supposed to nominate other bloggers for the Award, of which there is absolutely no obligation for them to participate.  I nominate:

I hope this is the beginning of a more regular posting schedule in 2015.  Thanks for sticking with me!


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bored to Death

A Review of Disney's Maleficent

The first thing I do after watching a movie is to head over to Rotten Tomatoes to peruse the film reviews by proper critics.  The second thing I do, if it is a fairy tale movie, is to hit up all my fairy tale blog peeps for a more balanced perspective.  Sadly, my colleagues have been rather silent on the matter, with a few exceptions, so I suppose I ought to help get the ball rolling.

Before we go on, let us first note:  Here there be spoilers.

We've been hearing about Maleficent for years, but in the end my experience of the film can be summed up in one word: bored.  I don't know if I'm the best judge of entertainment, since I have a peculiar and finicky taste, but from the opening voice-over to the ending credits, I found little to hold my attention.  If it had not been for the pretty costuming and talented actresses, I might have lost interest entirely.  It was just all very tepid, underneath the fancy CG.  I didn't feel there was much at stake.  Maleficent lost her wings, and her love, but she was good and happy before she met Stefan and during his absence.  If she could walk into the castle to curse a baby, surely she could have retrieved her wings while she was at it.  Even the curse is tamed to a sleep-like death, without a desperate, last minute intervention from a good fairy.

"Mom, is that you?", source

The supporting characters are boiled down to their lowest common denominators, becoming tedious distractions rather than tools to help the story along.  Certainly not characters in their own rights, with complexities and inner goings-on.  

Stefan  is a kind of caricature born out of the necessity for a villain, and his motivation is weak.  The filmmakers need to give us a little bit more to work with if they want us to meet them in the middle; it's hard enough to believe that a kind boy, who would throw away his iron ring because it hurt a magical creature he only just met, would then become so heartlessly ambitious so as to turn around and try to kill the same creature, someone he cared for enough to have spent time growing up with her.

The pet raven is given a speaking voice by occasionally taking the form of a human but still doesn't have much to say.

In the end, Maleficent and Aurora alone are given room for growth and exploration, while the other characters and plot developments move around like props.  But even poor Aurora's character is charming and bland.  Her greatest moment is when she speaks out to the witch hiding in the shadows and does not recoil from her.  Not much of a monumental and memorable game-changer.

For me, the most engaging moment of the whole movie was when Maleficent stands over the sleeping Aurora and wills her curse undone, only to have it thrown back in her face.  And I credit all that to Ms. Jolie's powerful acting.  (Also done well in the moment she realizes her wings have been taken from her.  Maybe a tad melodramatic, but so wrenching and real that it made me hurt for her!)

Adam of Fairy Tale Fandom writes,

[Maleficent is] about two people and how their hearts become darkened by ambition, anger, bitterness and revenge. It’s also about how one of them starts to regain some light through exposure to someone who is good and innocent.

and I think he's absolutely right.  But I feel like the key relationship, between Maleficent and Aurora, is not given any time to develop, what between Maleficent watching her in her sleep and Aurora playing in the Moors with the magical creatures which are all show and no soul--the eeriness of Faerie is lost in this film, and I'd like to think I've cultivated a good radar for it.  In Brave, for instance, that otherworldliness remains intact.  It's hard for me to suspend disbelief and get behind Aurora's running away to the magical Moors forever, when it's just.  So.  Boring.

laughing and twirling and playing with magical creatures can only entertain me for so long

Besides that, there were a lot of other little frustrations.  How did the writers choose which elements of their original movie to keep?  When does one draw the line?

"We won't have Maleficent turn into a dragon, but we still need a dragon, so we'll have someone else be it."

Or, "there's no need for thorns around the castle, but it's such a major element to the original, so we'll have thorns protecting Faerie instead."

Even the spinning wheel is chosen because Maleficent happens to see it when placing the curse.  I much prefer the mystery of not knowing to that.  Why would a benign fairy even be named Maleficent, for that matter?  I hoped it would be a name she took on, as she did her new staff and cloak.  But apparently her parents had a strange sense of humor, or else didn't have a dictionary on hand at her christening.

irrelevent but still interesting, source

When I was a little girl, I lived and breathed Sleeping Beauty.  It was my absolute favorite Disney movie.  I wanted to be Aurora/Briar Rose.  And I never wanted or needed an explanation for the, well, maleficence of Maleficent.

While I'm all for revisionist re-imaginings and villainous back stories, I worry this new trend is overlooking an important aspect of fairy tales: the fact that there is evil and ugliness in the world, just as there is hope and unspeakable beauty.  To try to reason away these things (or, as the case may be, relegate them to a bland, mortal antagonist) steals a little bit of their wonder, and it robs us of one of the great consolations of fairy tales.  Whatever the reasons may be for them, dragons exist, and so do wicked fairies.  Yet there is always hope: a low door in the wall, a maiden's tears; a magic circle, a fairy godmother; a hole in the spell, one last gift-bearer overlooked and forgotten.  The bad is not absolute, though it may seem impenetrable as a wall of thorns.

And even death becomes only sleep in the end.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.