Friday, February 12, 2016

Spindle as Sleight-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 the end, though it is entertaining, it is neither very new nor captivating.


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