This is the fifth (and final) post in my “Precocious Princesses” series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess tales.
by Robin McKinley
Ace Books, 2001
If “Rapunzel” is progressive as princess tales go, “Sleeping Beauty” is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
However embellished, the story usually goes something like this: Princess is cursed. Princess is raised icognito for her protection. Princess is lured to her doom. Princess falls into enchanted sleep. Princess is woken and rescued by brave, handsome prince.
Notice how almost all the sentences you just read are in passive voice? Because that’s pretty much what “Sleeping Beauty” is, a tale of passivity.
Unless Robin McKinley is telling the story. Then it’s a tale of “girls who do things,” as she likes to say.
It’s also a tale of magic, of the friendship and familial bonds between women, and of the bravery of girls who rise to the occasion in spectacular ways.
Spindle’s End centers around Rosie, princess and heir to the throne in a country where magic is “so thick and tenacious that it settle[s] over the land like chalk-dust.”
Cursed on her name-day by the evil fairy Pernicia, Rosie spends her childhood in the foster care of Aunt and Katriona, two professional fairies who live in a remote rural province.
The two women try to make Rosie “as safe as ordinariness can make her,” but Rosie is far from ordinary.
Even as an infant, she’s alert, active, and strong-willed. She grows to exhibit the gift of beast-speech, prefers short hair and trousers to long ringlets and dresses, and apprentices to the local blacksmith as a horse-leech.
Then, just months before her twenty-first birthday, an otherworldly stranger appears (on her doorstep, literally) and reveals her true identity. And she and the people who love her must decide how best to face her curse and defeat Pernicia for good.
It’s a brilliant elaboration of the old tale, with McKinley expanding on and reinterpreting all the key elements in stunningly creative ways.
Take Pernicia and her curse, for example. Most tellings of “Sleeping Beauty” reduce the princess’s christening to something out of a teen revenge flick, with the social outcast exploding on the scene to throw her tantrum and make everyone sorry they didn’t invite her to the ball.
McKinley’s Pernicia, however, is a sorceress whose magic is at once insidious and overwhelming in its craft and potency. The curse is her attempt at resurrecting a centuries-old war against the women of the royal family–and the breaking of it requires far more than a simple kiss from a prince (though that figures, too, in delightfully altered form).
And then there are Aunt and Katriona, whose devotion to one another and to Rosie is a matchless (not to mention gritty, poignant, and hilarious) depiction of the love between mothers and their children, biological and otherwise.
While the fairy foster-mothers function primarily as plot devices in most versions of the tale, Aunt and Katriona are fully realized women. The central characters for half the book, they wield a blend of grace, intelligence, wisdom, and magic that’s so strong they can barely contain it.
I could go on for pages, but I’d end up spoiling the book’s most delicious treats and surprises. Suffice to say that there’s not a single weak woman in the book–every one has her strengths, even if some are more hidden than others.
Nor do they come across as clumsily feminized versions of male archetypes, as sometimes happens when less-gifted authors try to inject some “girl power” into old, misogynist tales. These are women, undeniably and gloriously so.
Even more inspiring, they help each other understand what womanhood means, both in general terms and in the context of their culture and their individual lives.
When one of them struggles to comprehend some aspect of her life or identity, the others deliberately form a wide circle around her. They walk the delicate line between offering support and wisdom and leaving space for her to make her own discoveries.
The result: an environment and relationships that foster each person’s (not just each woman’s) growth to full potential. Because, as you may have heard it said, when women succeed, everyone succeeds.
Strong women, strong purposes, strong bonds, strong society. You can’t get much more inspiring than that.