Spindle’s End: A Charming Re-Imagining of Sleeping Beauty

Hello, everyone! It’s summer time, the flowers are blooming, the trees are green, and it’s that time of year to read pleasant little books about fairy magic. This week I read Newbery Medal winner Robin McKinley’s novel Spindle’s End, a very charming re-telling of the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty. Spindle’s End doesn’t reinvent the wheel in retelling this classic tale, nor does it need to. The novel finds its strength in focusing on heartwarming family relationships and a heroine whose power comes more from her moral fiber than her beauty.

And who can resist such a beautiful cover?

Synopsis: A long-awaited princess is born in secret to a country desperately in need of an heir. At her name-day ceremony, the king and queen invite one person from each village to attend the celebrations, as well as 21 fairies to attend as the new princess’ godmothers. Katriona, a fifteen-year-old fairy from the rural area known as the Gig, is chosen to attend the celebration, and ventures alone to the palace to see the princess’ name-day ceremony. But when Pernicia, an evil fairy with a grudge against the royal family, appears and curses the princess to die from the prick of a spindle on her 21st birthday, chaos ensues, and a royal fairy convinces Katriona to take the baby princess and raise her in secret in the Gig. As the baby princess, known to all as Rosie, comes of age in the Gig, she learns to deal with pesky magic, talk to animals, and find her place in the world, all as the threat of her 21st birthday, and Pernicia’s curse, threaten to destroy everything she holds dear.

My thoughts: Spindle’s End is a re-telling of Sleeping Beauty, but it’s mostly a telling of the story of Briar Rose, the princess who grows up in obscurity with fairy parents, and has no knowledge of her true identity. McKinley breezes quickly over Rosie’s royal birth to focus on the story she truly wants to tell: Rosie’s coming-of-age tale. She takes pleasure in extracting the humanity from a storybook princess by making her version of Briar Rose meet all the traditional requirements of such a princess without embodying their spirit. Rosie, for instance, has the golden curls and the perfect embroidery technique of the original Sleeping Beauty, but wears her hair boyishly short, and refuses to pick up a needle. Where the Briar Rose of legend is feminine and dainty, Rosie is tall and tomboyish, much happier spending her days tending horses with the town smith, Narl, than learning to dance or curtsey like a princess. Most importantly, however, Rosie has the magical ability to speak to animals, which sets her apart from the rest of the royal family, who are never supposed to practice magic because its unpredictability would make them unpredictable rulers.

This rule stems from the magical qualities of the country that the story is set in, a country which is so stuffed with magic that its inhabitants must ask a cup to stay a cup before pouring tea, lest the cup transform into a cow before the tea finishes pouring. Rosie’s adopted parents, Katriona and her Aunt, spend their days fixing all of the mundane problems caused by the abundance of magic, from taking in babies until their wild “baby magic” runs its course, to making charms to keep houses clean of magic dust, to helping farmers transform their magicked livestock back into regular livestock.

The majority of the story revolves around Rosie and her family’s daily life in a magical village. McKinley has a wonderful ability to make daily life interesting to the reader. I loved reading about the quirks of the villagers, Rosie’s transformation from child with the beast speech to beloved horse doctor and animal protector, and the friendship between Rosie and her neighbor Peony. McKinley immerses the reader in her peculiar world, in which all animals have their own distinct languages, and where magic is both abstract and concrete, able to bend others to its will, and be bent to the wills of others. Effusive in her tone and prose, McKinley’s constant asides and explanations of the ins and outs of life in the Gig can get confusing, but they also provide much-needed world-building, and help the reader feel like a part of the fabric of Rosie’s world.

When McKinley hones in on the relationships between her characters, the novel is at its strongest. The relationship between Rosie and Peony is especially heartwarming to read. Peony is Rosie’s foil; beautiful and elegant and embodying the virtues of a traditional princess. While Rosie initially despises Peony, they soon form a fast friendship, and even though they are polar opposites in character, their friendship demonstrates that there is equal value in both traditional and non-traditional femininity. I also appreciated the way that McKinley characterized the adoptive fairy parents in her story. Katriona and Aunt are endlessly supportive of Rosie’s quirks and never push her to fit a certain standard. The story as a whole is refreshing because it features a heroine who isn’t traditionally feminine, but is loved and accepted for her talents and skills, and has no problem finding romantic love, despite not fitting the mould of conventional desirability.

My only quibble with Spindle’s End is the finale of the novel, which I want to discuss in detail. Once Rosie finds out her true identity and has her confrontation with Pernicia, the events of the story become confusing and vague. McKinley builds up Pernicia to be a terrifyingly evil fairy, someone who has held a grudge for half a millennium, and whose magic is so powerful that she can keep an entire country cowering in fear for two decades while they wait for the resolution of her curse. Yet when the fateful day appears, Rosie is able to evade the curse through deception, and she is eventually able to defeat Pernicia with the help of her animal friends. Though McKinley’s explanation of this victory ties back to Rosie’s ability to talk to animals, whose inherent magic Pernicia has always disdained and underestimated, the easy resolution feels somewhat cheap. Rosie never has to grapple with her new identity as a princess, because she magically swaps identities with Peony, letting Peony assume the mantle of princess and marry her true love, while Rosie gets to remain as a horse doctor in the Gig. It’s a happy ending, but not a realistic one, and not entirely satisfying despite the fact that every character gets exactly what they desire.

Overall, however, Spindle’s End is a lovely story about a girl finding her place in the world. McKinley’s take on magic is unique, and the world she creates is a comforting one. Rosie’s coming-of-age story and her relationships with her family and friends are so enjoyable to read that the framework of the fairytale becomes unnecessary. Spindle’s End can stand alone on its own merit. It’s a fairytale re-telling where the fairytale plays second fiddle to the original story within.

Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman

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