Au­thor An­gela Slat­ter ad­mires a mod­ern retelling of clas­sic fairy­tales

SFX - - Contents - By Neil Gaiman, 2014

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.

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