This book’s breathless Goodreads summary does it few favours:
“A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.
On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.”
For a start, big promises there. This is, as the summary suggests, a sort-of-remix and fusion of two fairy tales. Fairy tale retellings are big right now, and so people who don’t have a specific yen to work with a specific story are getting suggestions from their publishers along ‘why not crank out–‘ lines. I think we might be at the tail end of that boom, but I don’t see it producing great work, as I’ve said* in an SH review of Over the Garden Wall (which I liked). You’re Angela Carter and you want to return to those texts, or you’re any of the five people Catherine Butler flags up as reworking Tam Lin , or you ain’t. Some writers find a prompt qua prompt generative and productive, but that’s due to a certain responsive turn of mind on the writers’ part. Prompts really aren’t for everyone, and there is something to be said for the simple motivation of wanting to work on a topic: it indicates that you have something to say about it, or at least that you’re interested in the subject. And how can readers hope to be if you aren’t?
What do such retellings do? There’s a facile quality to the ‘watered-down Carter’ impulse that wants to make these remixes Dark and Sexy, an impulse which (again, as I’ve said before) demonstrates a total ignorance of the source material, which has never needed help there. The same is true of the similarly Carter-lite impulse to make these stories Correct, in modern soft-left terms. Not to reimagine them as radical or progressive, but to make them 90s girl-power feminist, with perhaps a titillating hint of homo. Note that these are largely treatments coming from straight authors (or semi-competent, rather complacent gays–we do make them, alas).
This telling is not the most egregious example of this breed I’ve seen (that honour belongs to something I once asked for a review copy of and then said nothing about, out of politeness), but man it sure is on trend.
Back at the start of uni, I really liked Neil Gaiman. And then someone did to me what the tenth Doctor did to Harriet Jones, Prime Minister’s reputation by whispering into my ear, ‘isn’t he safe? All that influence, all the capital and leverage in the world—why isn’t Gaiman more progressive, more experimental, or more interested in pushing himself than your average polite solicitor at a garden party?’
There is something to be said for enjoying art without feeling your reception is dominated by the weight of others’ opinions, but that said, my god she was right. Gaiman’s not bad, he’s never BAD, but he could be good–he could write a GREAT book, and he’ll never fucking care to, because he’s swathed in Being Neil Gaiman and what would be the point, even? Who’d want it? People just want him to Be Neil Gaiman. And if that doesn’t endure, if he dies and after a good long while he’s the Trollope who doesn’t get read much these days or what have you, well, it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? There’s an almost conservative drag to his work, which is never better than Sandman was and never even interested in being better, really. It’s never building on any of that, Gaiman’s never pushing himself or answering the changed questions of changed times. He just continues, like a reliable chain restaurant of the better class, a Pizza Express possibly, to offer up aimless, floating, serviceable prose. We all like Neil Gaiman, of course. He is competent and inoffensive and says nothing deeply felt. What is not to like? Quick, get a tattoo of something from “The Doctor’s Wife”. (I have no spoon, yet I must gag.)
I’m not just dragging him, really. I got accused the other day of taking unnecessary side-swipes and–sometimes, well, yes. Sometimes I’ve made cheap jokes, and sometimes I’m even retrospectively sorry about that, in a “badly done, Emma” sort of way. But honestly, this is me making the difficult effort to articulate a critical point, and this (contextualization via snark) is one tool I have to employ. I don’t even think it’s necessarily a bad one. There will be casualties, or at least I will feel and say that in some capacities something people like, often even something I love, didn’t work, structurally or politically or what have you. If you want a celebration that makes you feel great just for occupying the economic or social categories of Geekdom–I’m sorry, I don’t even believe in that? And I’m not happy about where we are, or even where we’ve been or where we’re going, or at least I’m not exclusively so. I don’t know that I ever feel anything unambivalently, does anyone? I’m not going to pretend that I am: I wouldn’t be good at it, for one.
“The Sleeper and the Spindle”, then, is wellish written, but not amazing. Information gets doled out quite subtly, but this feels like a bit of a gimmick to me. The world seems bigger than it is because we’re given pieces of it out of order, which suggests a rich back-story. Fine. The technique works, just not–seamlessly, and I do feel a little shown around the Potemkin village.
The Queen is very much figured as a Queen rather than a princess–in charge, doing the work of governing, a bit martial–but her motivation never really crystallises through these back-story hints. All right, so at the end she’s questing, in search of nothing–again, fine? A bit bleak. Like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but with dwarves. I never FEEL The Queen’s desires, either for freedom or for people. The homoeroticism is as static as the picture book illustrations, and lacks the visceral sensuality of the most restrained Aubrey Beardsley print. Given that this is written in a more novelistic than folkloric style, perhaps I should enter more into this character and her desires, psychologically?
The role of women in this world is weird (again with the light overlay of an unchallenging feminism). The Queen is a Cool Girl because she’s martial and don’t let no man tell her what to do. People keep adding ‘and some women too!!’ after saying something about what knights or merchants get up to, et al. In other words female participation is still exceptional, but there’s a Girls Can Do It vibe. This is the faux Middle Ages a la Murphy Brown. I don’t think there’s a problem with discarding bits of the kyriarchy that aren’t doing work in your narrative, but the nervous positioning of women in the text and the way female valorisation is tied up in assumptions of masculinity have me like ‘k’.
There’s a suggestion that the Queen is sexually drawn to the evil fairy at the heart of this story, even as she was (it’s hinted) drawn to her wicked stepmother. Putting in subtext knowingly is always odd. I’m not sure that subtext has to arise accidentally to function (I’ve heard that in stagings of “Peter Pan” the author knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted the play to evoke, for example), but it does have to be nurtured in a particular way. I’d have to think more about how one generates subtext, or serves as a good custodian to it. Suffice it to say that incestuous mothers (and fathers) are old hat in fairy tales, as is this sort of veiled eroticism, and that I can think of less blatant and yet more dangerous and enticing examples fairly easily. I guess that’s a trade-off I’m looking for? If you’re writing now, consciously employing these tools and looking to generate these effects, then shouldn’t your effects be equally resonant, or differently so, or do anything other than sort of weakly gesturing at what’s already been better-said with fewer words? (As the Dowager Duchess said about Mary’s shit boyfriend’s communism.)
The book is very beautiful, though I don’t feel as capable of talking critically about art as I do about fairy tales. (There are a few stupid touches: that goff skull bedspread is probably available at Hot Topic even now.) There’s a Tolkenian quality to the map images on the endpapers. Overall it’s the sort of picture book that I kept fretting I was going to besmirch with fingerly snail-trails.
So what do we gain from “The Sleeper and the Spindle”? I theoretically love remixes: why do they always disappoint me, of late? This whole great glut of them just feels unmeant and unnecessary. This example isn’t different. Not bad, not superlative, not much.
* The relevant bit of the earlier piece: “The New York Times claims OtGW “has the look of a dark fable but the mood of a fairy tale, more Wes Anderson than Tod Browning.”
Look, guys, how long ago did Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber come out? Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers? I know you know that Freud had some words to say on fairy tales, and that Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment had some follow-up thoughts. There is zero excuse to be working as a critic, and talking about fairy tales, and not to know about their adaptability, their sensuality and terror, the way they convey and contain cultural and personal fears, their potency, their scratchy humour. A mature and nuanced perception of fairy tales is a cliché at this point: it’s been academically accepted for damn decades. You’re seriously contrasting fairy tales with “dark fables”? You want to talk about how fairy tales’ “wistfulness” (which I find a rich and interesting mode, by the by: nostalgic and sad, and not something we should rush to temper and excuse) needs to be shaken up by sassy modernity? Are you an immortal who’s lived for centuries? Did you go to uni in the 1860s and thus miss this 101 material? Have you not read much since? Do you straight up know nothing about fairy tales and give zero fucks? If so, why are you writing about them?
(To be fair to these people, I also ask this whenever someone who doesn’t like or get the mode gets pushed into doing a “sexy grimdark fairy tale revamp” by their publisher. No one involved remembers that this material is always-already fairly sexy and dark. Just stop.)”