Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

I’m a huge fan of the re-telling of fairy tales. Spindle’s End is a novel version of Sleeping Beauty. What is it with Sleeping Beauty? I’m none too sure, but I seem to get pulled toward the story more often than not. Psychoanalyze me if you want, but it is my favorite fairy tale and always has been. (I also like Beauty and the Beast, but we’ll go into that later)

McKinley’s book is verbally decadent. It drips with wonderful words and compelling language. The first time I read it, I had to force myself to slow down. (I’m a super fast reader and I often skim the page, picking up the ‘gist’ of things. It is a bad habit.) With Spindle, I slowed way down just to absorb the way McKinley puts her words together. It is far from simple. It’s really beautiful, but complicated.

I love it. But it isn’t the same way I love Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (which I love because every sentence is a wonderful line of poetry and makes me despair a little because I know I could never, never write anything so beautiful although I’ll spend the rest of my life trying.)

No. I love Spindle because every word is delicious on it’s own and, when strung together, awe inspiring.

She is the sort of writer I wish I was. Her imagination knows no bounds. She talks directly to her audience, like an old friend. Like she’s inside the story. And she’s talking to you like you are too and she expects you to know who she means when she fills you in on town gossip. Or to know the way the country is set up and where your village on the map of that country is. She begins in the middle, as if she has been telling herself a long story about a world she lives in and this is just a bit of the story. A bit of the history of that country. An excerpt, if you will.

It is McKinley’s trademark in all of her books. Some people probably don’t like it. I could see people not liking it. But I love it. I think it’s brilliant. I often wonder if she does it naturally, or if its a method of writing she perfected after practicing it for years. Probably both.

Spindle’s End begins traditionally enough with the long-wished-for royal heir being born and the royal christening party arranged. In this country of McKinley’s there are many different villages and areas. There is the major city of the country, where the royal palace is, but there are a lots of other villages days away. In a kind of good-will, but politically-charged move, the King decides to invite one person from every village, town or city to come to the christening. The townspeople draw lots, and the lucky person who wins gets to go.

McKinely focuses on a small village called Foggy Bottom, which is in an area of the country called the Gig. The local fairy (every village has its own fairy) has a niece called Katriona, who is a fairy too, but her powers haven’t fully developed yet. Of course, she wins the lot, and sets off for the royal palace.

Basically, she gets to be the fairy (if you remember your Sleeping Beauty) that gives the last blessing and changes the curse. In the original story, it is to change the curse from death to sleep, and get the prince to come kiss her awake and all that, but in this version, it is more like a spell of protection by making the little Princess ordinary and disguising her from the wicked fairy Pernicia.

So Katriona, rather unwillingly, takes the baby home with her to the Gig and calls her Briar Rose – Rosie for short. Rosie grows up quite ordinary. She does not like anything that smacks of being remotely feminine; like dancing, sewing, dresses or long, curling hair. Instead she like to hang around the town blacksmith, Narl, and learn the trade. Rosie has the knack of being able to talk to animals, which is the side effect of Katriona’s blessing, so she makes an excellent blacksmith.

I don’t want to give too much away, because it is this wonderful story with tons of twists, a fantastic love-story and great characters. Plus I hate over-summarizing. To get a feel for the language and the story I have found this little excerpt. This was a really hard book to find a good excerpt from, because, truthfully, I just wanted to copy and paste the entire novel here so you could start reading it. It is one of those books. There are so many amazing parts, it is hard to find just one. But here is one I like because it makes me laugh and gives you a sense of who Rosie is.

This book is for all the girls who know, or at least feel, it is better to be intelligent and brave, rather than pretty.

Pretty is just secondary.

Rosie hated her curly golden hair. When she was old enough to hold minimal conversations, the itsy-bitsy-cutesy-coo sort of grown-ups would pull the soft ringlets gently and tell her what a pretty little girl she was. She would stare at this sort of grown-up and say,”I am not pretty. I am intelligent. And brave.” The grown-ups usually thought this was darling, which only made her angry, perhaps partly because she was speaking the truth although it was tricky to differentiate between ‘brave’ and ‘foolhardy’ at three or four years old. (Fortunately her faith in grown-ups other than Aunt and Katriona was founded on people like Barder. Barder had a ritual of picking her up, saying, “Oof,” followed by, “So, you’re a strapping lass. Are you going to grow up to be a blacksmith like Narl or a wheelwright like me?” and tossing her in the air. She adored Barder from the beginning, and was magnanimous about the fact that as the years passed he threw her less and less high.) But aside from her hair, she was not pretty – all those fairy godmothers giving her lips like cherries and teeth like pearls and skin like silk and they forgot to make her pretty, thought Katriona – and she was intelligent.


There is another part of this book: The part when Rosie finds out she is the princess. I was reading it today on the bus and it made me tear up. I hate tearing up over a book on the bus, but then, no one notices. (No ever notices anything. Sigh.)

Anyway, this part means something to me but I can’t decide just what yet. Maybe its the thing I felt the year I was twelve, and stood by my window in the dark, listening to coyotes howl, and understood that there was no hope for it; I’d have to be twelve, then thirteen, then twenty… no matter what. Growing up is something that happens to you and its not something you control or change. You’re so helpless when things just happen to you. I was twelve and I knew that it was all over. Peter Pan wasn’t coming for me no matter how long I left the window unlatched.

Maybe its that, coupled with all the emptiness of things that hollow you out in the years after you’re twelve.

(Rosie finds out she’s the Princess and doesn’t like it. Gorse and Fast are horses. The merrel is a bird, chained high in the rafters of the great house. Rosie can talk to animals.)

“Rosie said, I dont want to be the Princess and she could feel laughter and more tears both struggling to get out, and she hiccupped again.

Gorse said gently, I did not want to be my lord’s best stallion, to be led in front of men with cold eyes, to waste my time indoors so that I do not ruin the gloss of my coat, to be put to mares who do not know me nor I them. Fast did not wish to be able to run so that madmen would ask him to do it again and again and again. We are what we are. Some day I will no longer be able to mount the mares, and then I will have a little green paddock of my own with a few of my old mares who will no longer have foals, and I will stand in the sun till every hair of my coat is burnt dull dun. Some day Fast will no longer be able to run. We are what we are, princess.

Rosie said at random, because she did not want to listen to what he was telling her, Horses do not speak as you speaking to me. You sound like the merrel.

Gorse said, We animals talk when we have need. This, now, what is happening, this is a need for all of us. You do not expect a colt afraid of the blacksmith to tell you everything he knows; what need have you of it? It is only one colt, one fear, one blacksmith.

Rosie said slowly, Fwab told me once that humans live too long.

I do not know. Humans talk. It is the way humans are. Perhaps the talking fills the years; perhaps the years stretch to hold the talking. In winter I like the warmth of the barn humans have built us with some of the things they talk about, and the sweet hay, and the corn. The merrel tells stories because it is alone and lonely, and talk is all it has left, talk and memory. Come to me in my paddock, when I am old, and we will talk.

I–said Rosie, but she had nothing to say.


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