I faintly remember the first time I read Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. I was enraptured by her prose. I was first drawn to her when I picked up The Hero and the Crown at my local library (that was years ago at the beginning of high school). Though I faintly remember reading it as well, I do remember that I loved the story and thought highly of its protagonist, Aerin. As the years wore on, I branched out to other authors and read other stories and forgot about McKinley but every now and then, the memory of how I felt when I first read her books would visit and nudge me to revisit them.
I felt that way earlier this year and finally gave in to that nudge. I visited Barnes and Noble and bought Spindle’s End. I kept recalling the moment when the Queen saw Rosie and knew she is her child despite the enchantments that surrounded Rosie to disguise her. I could almost feel the love that pulled the Queen’s eyes to Rosie. I wanted to experience that again.
This time when I read Spindle’s End, I was able to appreciate how detailed the story is. At first, this was a nuance. The abundance of details makes the tale flow at a leisurely pace, quite like the characters and setting of the story. Since novels these days are usually fast-paced—or they start off with a bang to grab the reader’s attention then slow to crawl—I was impatient when I began reading. Surprisingly, I was not this impatient with stories when I was a kid.
McKinley opens the story with a broad description of the country and its people and slowly zeroes in on the main characters. She does this to give identity to the characters since the environment affects the personality of the characters as much as the characters affect it. The environment of the country that this story is set in is seeped in magic. Magic is so abundant that even the kettles sometimes talk and a fairy will have to be called to set it back to rights. In order to understand this story, the reader must first understand how much magic affects the characters of the story.
Indeed it is magic that kicks off this rendition of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Upset at not being invited to the Princess’ name-day, the evil fairy Pernicia crashes the event, seeking revenge for a wrong done to her by a previous queen. She places a curse on the Princess, who has 21 names: Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domina Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose—that she will prick her finger on a spindle on her twenty-first birthday, or anytime before, and fall into a poisonous sleep from which no one can wake her.
Katriona, a fairy-in-training who was in attendance at the Princess’ name-day along with other representatives from every village in the land, whisked the Princess away with the help of Sigil, the royal fairy, in an attempt to shield the Princess from the curse. Sigil tells Katriona to take the Princess and raise her, which Katriona does with the help of her aunt—who is a fairy called Aunt—and for twenty years the Princess, called Rosie, lives a happy and safe life. Rosie grows up as a precocious but stubborn child who is quite ordinary except that she can talk to animals.
Close to her twenty-first birthday, Sigil sends Ikor, a male fairy, to tell Katriona that it’s time for the Princess to come out of hiding. To further protect Rosie, the four fairies—Katriona, Ikor, Sigil, and Aunt—plan that Peony, a close friend of Rosie, will pose as the Princess while Rosie will act as her lady-in-waiting.
At the Princess’ twenty-first birthday ball, the trick works on both the ordinary people and magical folk but the deception falls short of Pernicia who is able to tell who the real Princess is. Pernicia then kidnaps Peony and places her and everyone at the birthday ball in an enchanted sleep. It’s then up to Rosie and her friends—a pack of animals and the blacksmith Narl—to save them all and defeat Pernicia.
After adjusting to the pace of the story, I fell in love with it again. Unlike The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, the abundance of descriptions was not overwhelming nor did it bore me nearly to death. Also, I like that McKinley did not stick to the fairy tale formula and instead put her own spin on the story, especially the ending.
It is not a prince that rescues the Princess and saves the maiden from sure death. It is a young woman, armed with the strength of love and the guidance of self-acceptance. It is love that enables Rosie and her friends to defeat Pernicia. Rosie’s friends, like the horse Fast, love and care for her so much that they were willing to sacrifice themselves to save her—Fast ran nearly to death to get Rosie away from Pernicia’s evil minions. And it is by accepting who she is—by realizing who she is not—that Rosie was able to awaken Peony from the poisonous sleep.
I also like the twist at the end that it is Rosie and not a generic prince/true-love who delivers the kiss that awakens the Princess. I basically gave away the entire story in this reflection but I don’t care. I recommend that everyone read this book to experience it. McKinley is an amazing writer and the way she crafts this story will leave you hooked on her style.
I felt satisfied at the end. The story filled me up and I spent the following week walking around with it in my head and with certain scenes on replay—moments of Rosie as a child; Katriona’s dash across the country with the baby Princess and feeding her with the milk of various animals; sarcastic quips from the cat Flinx….You definitely have to check this story out and experience it for yourself.
- The Deep, Dark Forest: Philip Pullman retells the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (slate.com)
- Book Review: “Spindle’s End” (thecheapreader.wordpress.com)
- Fairy Tales (wordwenches.typepad.com)
- Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (nayusreadingcorner.blogspot.com)