Author Angela Slatter admires a modern retelling of classic fairytales
Angela Slatter on The Sleeper And The Spindle by Neil Gaiman.
Some authors make us want to sit (literally or metaphorically) on the floor at their feet, preferably in front of a hearth, and listen to whatever they will tell us. For however brief a time, we can be children again, transported somewhere the mortgage and the performance appraisal reports don’t matter. When we’re engulfed by such stories we can forget the cares of adulthood and simply dream once more.
Neil Gaiman is such a teller of tales: give him a flute and a colourful suit and he’d be the Pied Piper. In The Sleeper And The Spindle − an exquisite rendering of a fairytale we both do and don’t know − he’s teamed with UK Children’s Laureate and Kate Greenawaywinning illustrator Chris Riddell. First sight of this artefact may well bring on something akin to a religious experience. Riddell’s particular pen and ink style, deceptively simple but with astonishing depth, fits perfectly with Gaiman’s text, which is measured yet lush, rich yet stripped back, cunningly giving the reader just what they need to fire the imagination.
The Sleeper And The Spindle is a marriage of two well-known fairytales, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, although the protagonists are never named (“Names are in short supply in this telling,” as we are told). But we know them by their acts and their histories, which have led them to this place, the promised happily-everafter. Snow White is simply “the Queen” − she rules wisely, she’s about to marry, and she’s no longer the little girl who willingly accepted a poisoned apple from a stranger. Yet into this stable, possibly contented, most probably boring existence, come faces from her past: three of her dwarves. Seeking the perfect wedding gift for their erstwhile domestic servant, they’ve discovered a terrible threat: a plague of sleep gradually creeping across all lands.
Naturally, the Queen must investigate. When she and the dwarves arrive in the rose and thorn overgrown Forest of Acaire, they must fight their way through to find Sleeping Beauty, the old woman who watches her, and all those uncannily slumbering courtiers. That’s where things get even more interesting... but... spoilers, sweetie.
In Riddell’s gorgeous gothic-y art only three colours are used: the white of the page, the black of the ink, and the elegant gold highlights. As stated, on first glance it’s deceptively simple, but look carefully and you’ll find the exquisite details: the constricting ribbons of the Queen’s wedding gown wrapping her into a new life; the skulls adorning her coverlet, sword hilt, belt buckle − and her horse’s tail, for she’s a warrior carrying the heads of her enemies to warn others; the sleeper hanging out of a window, precariously clasping another’s foot.
Angela Carter, no mean fairytaler herself, said such reworkings are like putting new wine in old bottles − so much the better if it made those bottles explode. With the shards Gaiman and Riddell have given us, we might make a stained glass window. This book, dedicated to the author’s and illustrator’s respective daughters, isn’t a story for girls alone. It’s for fathers and brothers, sons and nephews, uncles and grandfathers: it’s a tale to show that women are never what they seem and you forget this at your peril.
Angela Slatter’s Vigil is published by Jo Fletcher Books on 7 July.