This review first published on Fantasy Faction
Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell: a partnership fated to succeed from the start. Gaiman’s modest, restless prose teamed with the trademark art of Riddell results in a frank and glorious narrative that blends elements of well-known fairy tales to create a haunting new story. Refreshingly, no names are mentioned, but it’s clear that Gaiman’s protagonist is none other than Snow White, whose year-long sleep in a glass coffin appears to have given her unwitting protection against the spell of slumber overtaking the neighbouring kingdom.
At around sixty pages, this is a short, but highly satisfying spin on the Sleeping Beauty myth. The story begins just before Snow White’s wedding to the prince who kissed her awake, but she drops everything to go to the defence of her kingdom – she’s the queen after all. She calls for her armour, she calls for her horse and, aptly accompanied by three dwarfs, she rides out to solve the problem.
This is no usual fairy-tale. The bright kind of fatalism that guides the hero’s sword, which plucks Cinderella from a life of drudgery, that guides Belle to the Beast’s castle, is absent here. Gaiman reverses the trend in order to give choice back to characters whose stories have become sugar-coated. Disney is ditched in favour of honouring the dark fairy-tale tradition wherein blood confers control, youth is stolen to reverse the ravages of time, and death is irreversible and unromanticised. A memorable scene depicts the skeletal corpses of knights impaled high on the castle’s wall of thorns – those inevitable, but rarely-seen failed heroes:
The queen wondered if they had climbed up, seeking an entry, and died there, or if they had died on the ground, and been carried upwards as the roses grew. She came to no conclusions. Either way was possible.
This analytical, measured response to a gruesome sight is part of Gaiman’s reinvention of the heroine stereotype. But here’s the important part: at no point does the queen actively refuse to marry her prince – she is just as ready to accept him as a husband as she is to postpone the wedding until she’s dealt with the threat to her kingdom. Simply put, she’s the epitome of the modern woman whose pragmatism is equal to her idealism, whose choices are sometimes impulsive, sometimes considered. She’s responsible and vulnerable, and isn’t afraid to ask her dwarf companions for help. She evades the zombie-like sleepers with the same alacrity she displays when plucking a rose for her hair, but the mark of a true hero is this: she inspires the same confidence in her dwarf-followers as she does in the antagonist who offers her a chance to rule continents.
Her complex character is captured superbly by Riddell. The queen’s beauty is both delicate and fierce: her skin is as white as snow, her hair dark as ebony wood…and her armour is highly serviceable. There’s a marvellous skull motif running throughout the book – skulls are present on the spindle, but more unusually they also adorn the queen’s duvet and are clustered like grape vines over the bed of the titular sleeper.
The slumber itself has a dark edge that’s wholly unlike the romanticised version we’re used to. For starters, its effects are disturbingly realistic. The image that chilled me the most is that of a milkmaid slumped on her milking stool beside a sleeping cow. The bucket is supposedly half full of rancid milk from which a profusion of mushrooms are springing. The girl herself is festooned in ivy which rather sinisterly looks to be climbing into her parted mouth. That’s freaky, but it perfectly complements the darker elements of the story and makes waking up a nightmarish prospect.
The only living things not slumbering are horrors like spiders and maggots and blueflies.
Industrious spiders had threaded their webs from finger to face, from beard to table. There was a modest web between the deep cleavage of the pot-girl’s breasts. There was a thick cobweb that stained the sot’s beard grey… “I wonder,” said one of the dwarfs, “whether they will starve and die…”
The sheer physicality of the scene is overpowering and faintly grotesque. But again it works in the story’s favour, instilling a real sense of horror at the magical sleep. And this sleep is neither peaceful nor beautiful. People loll with their mouths open, faces pressed against walls or each other. They mumble, they move around and their eyes aren’t always shut, but rolled up in their heads to show the whites. This is not a pretty sleep and you begin to suspect there’s an evil purpose to it. (There is).
This is largely a spoiler free review and so I can’t comment on the intricacies of Gaiman’s subtext, but from the way it delves into heroism and the complex nature of female relationships, The Sleeper and the Spindle is a text worthy of academic discussion – an excellent example of a story as thought-provoking as it is exciting. Expect twists, expect turns, expect a megalomaniac design and an old woman who is not all she seems. It’s reassuring to imagine that Snow White’s tale doesn’t end with a kiss and a wedding. Indeed she is no longer Snow White, but a queen with a kingdom to rule, while the prince remains a prince.
Waking up in your own coffin is an unfailingly awful prospect – “you didn’t rot,” comments one of the dwarfs helpfully – and if it doesn’t leave you with post-traumatic stress, it’s got to teach you something about human nature. Its subtle characterisation and striking use of parallels makes The Sleeper and the Spindle a fairy-tale for a new age.