(This review contains major spoilers.)
Neil Gaiman is one of the most beloved and acclaimed fantasy writers working today, and the winner of several awards, including the Newbery and Carnegie medals. He has a gift for taking classic archetypes and tropes and putting a fresh spin on them, in beautifully written prose. “His style,” as another BreakPoint writer has written, “is simple, straightforward, and enchanting.”
So I had high hopes for Gaiman’s most recent book “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” a short fairytale retelling for grade 7 and up, illustrated by his frequent collaborator Chris Riddell. Unfortunately, my hopes were not destined to be fulfilled.
“The Sleeper and the Spindle” weaves together two fairytales — Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — although those characters’ names are never actually used. The story begins as “the queen,” Snow White, is preparing for her wedding, which is just a week away. But she is called away by news of a mysterious plague in a neighboring kingdom, which causes people to fall asleep and never wake up. Accompanied by her old friends the dwarves, she dons her armor and sets off to help.
The story contains some interesting and original twists, and it makes good points about selfishness and the lust for power and admiration. Yet both the plot and the characters are slight — much slighter than they needed to be even in a short story. We never truly feel that we know them, or, in most cases, that we understand their motivations for their actions.
This is especially problematic with the queen. It’s clear from the start she doesn’t really want to get married — the sour expression on her face in Riddell’s first drawing of that would make it very clear by itself, but Gaiman’s text confirms it:
“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. She would reign over her people. She would have children. Perhaps she would die in childbirth, perhaps she would die as an old woman, or in battle. But the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable.”
However, nowhere are we told exactly why Snow White’s prince inspires such grim feelings of mortality in her. We’re told almost nothing at all about him at any point, except that he’s “pretty.”
Gaiman has been very upfront about his desire to flip a lot of the fairytale tropes and traditions regarding men and women on their heads (see some of the quotes on this page). But he does a poor job of it here, by portraying the traditional male hero as completely unnecessary and even annoying. It’s the queen who kisses Sleeping Beauty awake; the scene, and Riddell’s accompanying drawing, are not sexualized at all, but they quite clearly signal that no prince is needed here, for any reason.
This is hardly an original move — “Maleficent” famously did it, well before this — and it’s also a lazy one. It’s lazier to set up a situation where the women do everything and the men (aside from the dwarves) are superfluous, than it is to allow them both a part to play. And when the queen leaves her prince and her kingdom and disappears “into the night” at the end of the story, we still don’t know exactly why. (Nor do we know why, after many people died trying to get through the thorns and rescue Sleeping Beauty, the queen was the first person to have the novel idea of burning the thorns down. Apparently she’s the only person in the story allowed to have a fully functioning brain.)
I hesitate to say it of a highly talented and respected writer, but I can’t help feeling that Gaiman phoned in most of this story. He may be trying to update old tropes, but to do it he relies far too heavily on modern tropes, and it feels as if he’s never examined them to determine whether they’re truly better than the old ones. He may have a commendable desire to treat women and girls with dignity, but in stripping men of theirs, he does his characters and his story no favors.
(Other content issues: a couple of very mild profanities and a little violence, not graphic or explicit.)
Image copyright HarperCollins. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.