Welcome to Fairy Tale Fridays, a new monthly series where I pick fairy tale inspired media and share my love of fairy tales. Today I’m focusing on Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle. I didn’t enjoy this much on the first reading but when I re-read the book for this blog post I kind of loved it. It is a clever, subversive fairy tale retelling with gorgeous illustrations. Disclaimer: this is sadly not a romance story between the sleeper and the queen, which is why expectations were not met on the first reading.
Some Background Information
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
Based on: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, originally published as part of an anthology in Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales
Fairy tale tropes featured: Sleeping curse(s), evil witch, magical kisses
The Sleeper and the Spindle
It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.
So opens The Sleeper and the Spindle with three dwarves travelling through a mountain pass in order to get the best silk from Dorimar for the (unnamed) queen’s upcoming wedding. They find themselves in a town where everyone is slowly falling asleep. A sleeping curse, cast a hundred years ago, is slowly creeping through the land and will soon affect the dwarves’ land of Kanselaire. They return home to inform the queen and the wedding is put on hold: the queen must protect her people from the sleeping curse and the only way to do so is go to the source and break it.
The Sleeper and the Spindle can be read on its own, but a richer understanding of it relies on intertextuality. The book expects its reader to have some knowledge of the two stories it borrows from and subverts: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In this tale, the main characters are female and the queen, though never named, is alluded to as Snow White. She decides to go on a rescue mission, in part because she is hesitant to get married and in part because she has a duty to protect her people from the sleeping curse.
She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices.
The queen makes her way through zombie-like sleepers, past a thorny forest to the sleeper in the castle and wakes her up. Here the rescuer is not a prince or knight in shining armour but a queen who has suffered from a sleeping curse herself and is now in a position of power. This alters the traditional narrative in which Snow White’s storyline depicts her solely as a victim who needs to be rescued.
This story is a subversive retelling of both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty with Chris Riddell’s beautiful and gothic illustrations throughout. The book itself is gorgeous, with a frosted sleeve and the illustrations, although black and white, have touches of metallic gold giving it a dash of colour and sophistication.
The queen: The hero of the tale and powerful royalty who leaves because she has a duty to protect her kingdom (or queendom?). She’s brave and is immune to the sleeping curse (minor spoiler ahead, hover over to read) and it is also her kiss that wakes the sleeper.
The Enchantress: Described as a witch, a bad fairy and an enchantress. The queen calls her ‘Your Darkness’ and her desire for youth, beauty, adoration and power are pretty much a standard fair tale trope.
The Spindle: Treated as a weapon, first to enact the sleeping curse and then to end it.
Sleeping Curse: The queen’s sleeping curse, mentioned in passing makes her immune to the new one. The second curse has a bit of twist to it, which works according to fairy tale logic, and subverts the trope.
Magical kiss: Usually true love’s kiss wakes the sleeping princess. Here, although a magical kiss wakes the sleeper, it is not true love’s kiss. It is never explained quite why this works but I suspect it is because this is how curses must be broken.
Dwarves: Described as being ‘composed of magic as much as of flesh and blood’. A convenient quirk of this is that they only sleep a handful of times a year and thus can resist the sleeping curse. The perfect companions for a rescue mission.
Spiders: It is noted that spiders are not affected by the sleeping curse either, weaving their webs everywhere.
Happily Ever After?
The queen’s tale explores whether marriage is indeed the fairy tale ending that’s been promised: she thinks it will take away her choices. Although open-ended, we leave the characters; the queen, the dwarves, the cursed castle and its residents, with the impression that things will be better for it. We never get to see any wedding, but that is a reflection of a modern interpretation of what happily ever after means.
On My Bookshelf
The cover is gorgeous, the book is gorgeous and the hardback version I have comes with a frosted jacket which reveals the sleeping beauty underneath. I’m not saying you should buy this book for how pretty it is, buuuut I might have been swayed by how pretty the book is.