Curiouser &

Real-izing Fantasy: The Double-Sided Mirror of Magical Realism and "the other side of reality" in Robin McKinley's Spindle's End

Evelyn Perry

This article continues from last issue - Vol 8, no. 3, September 2004. You can begin from the start or, if you wish, jump to From where we left off ...

The glamour that obscured Rosie's arrival was so entangled in a fictitious bardic tale-spinning competition in Smoke River that what little of it you could make out, which wasn't much, seemed only to be one of the tales, about as likely as any of the rest, which included large silver carriages with long stiff wings that flew through the air like birds, long-distance speaking devices involving no magic, and a family of fire-wyrms asking the king for a permanent peace and offering to live in the palace cellars and replace the central heating.

Immediately following the appearance of the evil fairy Pernicia and the pronouncement of her horrible curse on the baby princess in Robin McKinley's retelling of the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale Spindle's End, Katriona is given the princess for safe-keeping. Just 15, and apprenticed to her Aunt (an accomplished fairy), Katriona carries the princess home to her wild, wet, and far-flung corner of the country. The trip is harrowing; Katriona is a classic young adult protagonist thrown into adventure and forced to mature (Nikolajeva), Pernicia continues to be a threat, the king's men are searching the country, and Katriona has no milk for the baby. Kat must rely on her beast speech and the kindness of lactating animal mothers, and the folk charms given to her by Aunt just before she left the Gig to attend the princess' name day.

Upon Katriona's belated return, it is decided that Katriona and Aunt will raise the princess as if she were one of their own. Proactively and affectionately, they shorten the princess' name--Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domnia Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose--to Rosie, "a good name for a little village maiden" (70). Because Pernicia's powers are formidable, it is necessary not to let anyone know who Rosie really is; doing so might endanger Rosie should Pernicia have the power to trap information loosely packaged in peoples' minds and it is understood that Pernicia has spies throughout the country. Rosie's safety, and that of the kingdom, is a serious concern. As a result, Aunt creates "as small and confusing a glamour as possible" (103): a piece of "irreducible" magic with "a strong presence of the phenomenal world" which causes some "unsettling doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understandings of events...merges different realms...[and]...disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity." In short, Aunt's glamour contains the five primary characteristics of magical realism as put forward by Wendy B. Faris in Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative.

In a section entitled Definitions and sub-titled "The Irreducible Element," Faris states:

As a basis for investigating the nature and cultural work of magical realism, I suggest five primary characteristics of the mode. First, the text contains an "irreducible element" of magic; second, the descriptions in magical realism detail a strong presence of the phenomenal world; third, the reader may experience some unsettling doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understanding of events; fourth, the narrative merges different realms; and, finally, magical realism disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity.

Aunt's glamour contains an "irreducible element" of magic in that it is a spell designed to alter a perceived reality. Spindle's End details "a strong presence of the phenomenal world;" it asks the reader to "experience some unsetting doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understandings of events [and]...merges different realms" by juxtaposing the impossibilities of reality (airplanes, "large silver carriages with long stiff wings that flew through the air like birds," and telephones, "long-distance speaking devices involving no magic") with those of McKinley's fantastic landscape (a landscape that includes magic and fairies, spells and curses) and her narrative. It "disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity" in that it forces the characters of McKinley's narrative to misperceive reality by "obscur[ing] Rosie's arrival [with] a fictitious bardic tale-spinning competition...[so] that what little of it you could [be made] out, which wasn't much, seemed only to be one of the tales, about as likely as any of the rest"--thereby asserting that Rosie is, indeed, Aunt's niece and Katriona's cousin, that her arrival did not coincide with the Katriona's return from the princess' name-day and thus Rosie could not possibly be confused with the cursed royal. According to Faris' assertions, Spindle's End is a strong example of magical realism.

But how could this be? Faris is describing magical realism and McKinley's Spindle's End (as are all of McKinley's texts) is most certainly fantasy, if not high fantasy. But Spindle's End is also a fairy tale retelling and, as such, it provides us with a mirror of an archetypal text from a classic genre, both of which have helped shape our understanding of literature, literary history, and fairy tale readership; it provides us with a mirror by which we may see ourselves in relation to a powerfully rooted literary tradition. Faris' assertions about magical realism, that it "permits an increased understanding of the formal characteristics and...of the ways in which literary forms develop in response to cultural conditions" (2) are equally applicable to the high fantasy of Robin McKinley's Spindle's End--especially when that fantasy reflects our relationship(s) to Literature.

Mirroring Literature as it does, Aunt's glamour is a creation of magical realism, standing at the border of two narrative landscapes, realism and fantasy, and reflecting those landscapes to their respective citizens. The setting of Robin McKinley's Spindle's End is at once familiar and completely unexpected; "that country" is an "alternative world," defined as:

secondary worlds that have essentially the same characteristics as the primary world but still deviate in some details. They are not, unlike parallel worlds, projected on the primary world, but exist independently, with occasional (and always magical) contact... [and] may...have some hereditary bands with Carroll's Looking-glass country, which is almost a copy of the primary world.
(Nikolajeva 50)

In McKinley's retelling, the citizen-reader learns to see from both sides of the mirror, seeing into the safe remove of high fantasy from our perceived reality, seeing into our reality from the safe remove of fantasy, and thus experiencing both narrative landscapes as familiar and fresh. Spindle's End "real-izes" high fantasy by applying Faris' five primary characteristics of magical realism to the concrete and the created in much the same way that a retelling "real-izes" and describes contemporary relationships to Literature.

Faris expands upon the first of her five primary characteristics of magical realism, the "'irreducible element' of magic," by explaining:

These irreducible elements are well assimilated into the realistic textual environment, rarely causing any comment by narrators or characters, who model such an acceptance for their readers. Paradoxically, though, because they also nevertheless frequently surprise those readers and their realistic expectations, they also say, in almost existential fashion, "I EKsist," "I stick out." Here we might detect the remnants of existential anguish at an un-co-optable world, but tempered by the more playful side of surrealism (or the intersection of diverse cultural traditions).

Aunt's glamour contains an "irreducible element" of magic in that it is a spell designed to alter a perceived reality, albeit a reality that is irreducibly magic, as is best seen in the setting for Spindle's End. "That" country, the region known as the Gig, and the village of Foggy Bottom, is a fantastic setting expertly real-ized by Robin McKinley with details and consequences of living with magic.

Of life's basic needs, keeping house and family, McKinley tells us: "The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster dust. ("Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages" [3]) . McKinley is sure to explain how the people of "that country" rely either on local fairies or the dja root to de-scale their kettles, and that "'She'd give me her last dja root' was a common saying about a good friend" (4), thereby delineating the linguistic, semantic, and proverbial development of the country and its folk. Additionally, we are told that "[b]irths were closely attended, because the request that things stay what they were had to be got in quickly, birth being a very great magic, and, in that country, likely to be teased into mischief" (5), which describes the cultural traditions of that country and presages the significance of the princess' name-day, her fairy godparents, and the curse set on her by the wicked fairy Pernicia even as it maintains the importance of love, the greatest magic, a magic which "even magic cannot improve upon" (35). McKinley's setting mirrors our reality most greatly in that respect, offering our reality as magic even as it describes their magic as reality.

McKinley's setting for Spindle's End also mirrors our world and real-izes its own when she explains the social and cultural attitudes of her characters, that country's folk and their relationships to their land and their fellow inhabitants:

Generally speaking the more mobile and water-dependent something was, the more likely magic was to get at it. This meant animals--and, of course, humans--were the most vulnerable... Slower creatures were less susceptible to the whims of wild magic than faster creatures, and creatures that flew were the most susceptible of all... (Fish, which flew through that most dangerous element, water, were believed not to exist...).

This allows McKinley to examine the ways in which customs and beliefs extend to legal considerations; it is forbidden to eat fish and swimming is highly suspect, if not a sign of insanity. Additionally, this serves to explain the mind-set of the characters upon which Aunt's glamour is exercised:

There did seem to be one positive effect to living involuntarily steeped in magic; everyone lived longer. More humans made their century than didn't; birds and animals often lived to thirty, and fifty was not unheard of. The breeders of domestic animals in that country were unusually sober and responsible individuals, since any mistakes they made might be around to haunt them for a long time.

Those who are the guardians of that landscape and its inhabitants are "sober" and "responsible;" just as "farmers grow more stolid and earthy over a lifetime of farming," fairies might be said to grow "wilder and more capricious" (7-8). Aunt's glamour, created to alter the reality of the well-grounded people of a magical country in order to protect and disguise the princess' whereabouts and ensure her safety, also protects the villagers of Foggy Bottom from enterprising "bad" (unloving and unbalanced) magic. Even in this fantastic setting, Aunt's glamour has an "irreducible element" of magic: it is born out of love and good intentions, "[n]ot magic...but real for all that" (28). It recalls to the readers of Spindle's End the many parallels that exist between this fantastic landscape and their own.

The mirrored parallels between the reader and setting, the principle seat of Literature, produce a "strong presence of the phenomenal world." Terming this alternative, shared space (Nikolajeva) as a "commingling phenomenon," Faris charts it:

A graphic illustration of this commingling phenomenon is the way in which magic events are usually grounded textually in a traditionally realistic, even an expertly factual manner. Furthermore, as Brenda Cooper has stated it, "the mysterious, sensuous, unknown, and unknowable are not in the subtext...but rather share the fictional space with history."

It is not just Rosie and the folk of Foggy Bottom who experience the love and protection and the significant shared world of Aunt's glamour; we are all spell-bound, and this is beautifully upheld by Robin McKinley's real-ized setting. As Faris points out, magical-ness is often real-ized through reference to factual history and recorded time--the details of the multitudes, our common bonds, dja vines, true friends, and an historical battle with the fire-wyrms.

The setting of Robin Mckinley's Spindle's End is of such importance to the novel and its readership that we are intimate with each other as immediately as friendships are made in the Gig. Before being more traditionally presented to the protagonists, or formally referred to the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale being retold, we shake long-lived, "stolid" and "responsible" hands with the history and customs of "that country." The setting of the novel and the genre of fantasy create a double-sided mirror; the inhabitants of the Gig are not unlike the readers of fantasy literature:

People either loved that country and couldn't imagine living anywhere else, or hated it, left as soon as they could, and never came back. If you loved it, you loved coming over the last hill before your village one day in early autumn and hearing the corn-field singing madrigals, and that day became a story you told your grandchildren, the way in other countries other grandparents told the story of the day they won the betting pool at the pub, or their applecake won first place at the local fete. If you lived there, you learned what you had to do, like putting a pinch of dried dja vine in your kettle once a week, like asking your loaf of bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (The people of this country had developed a reputation among outsiders for being unusually pious, because of the number of things they appeared to mutter a blessing over before they did them; but in most cases this was merely the asking of things it was safer to ask to remain nonmagical first, while work or play or food preparation or whatever was being got on with. Nobody had ever heard of a loaf of bread turning into a flock of starlings for anyone they knew, but the nursery tale was well known, and in that country it didn't pay to take chances. The muttered words were usually only some phrase such as "Bread, stay bread" or, in upper-class households, "Bread, please oblige me," which was a less wise form, since an especially impish gust of magic could choose to translate "oblige" just as it chose.)

This lengthy passage not only illustrates the breadth and depth of detail in McKinley's setting, but the thorough consideration of causality and time. The novel suggests mythic fairy tales have roots deep enough to redefine Time, that literarily, socially, and perennially, they are the foundation of Literature. Traditionally, this shared foundation has informed the writers of fantasy. C. N. Manlove asserts that several writers of fantasy, such as Tolkien or Williams, "see the worlds of fantasy as no less real than their own or any other" (xii). In McKinley's novel, this tradition is upheld and extended to her citizen-readers, who share the foundations of Literature and are thereby participant in the making of meaning. As participants in the creation of that setting, the landscape of that third, alternative world is our collective present and shared past. Its histories are relevant to us; we share fictional spaces.

It should be noted that the Gig, the primary setting for Spindle's End, where Rosie lives with Aunt and Katriona, and where the famous battle with the fire-wyrms was fought, is a highly fantastic landscape even according to the definitions of "that country" and its inhabitants. So called "the Gig, because it might be guessed to have some resemblance to the shape of a two wheeled vehicle with its shafts tipped forward to touch the ground" [1], and located "nearly a month's journey" from the royal city, we are told that "nothing exciting ever happened in the Gig, or at least hadn't since the invasion of the fire-wyrms about eleven hundred years ago" (20). Nothing exciting except growing up, falling in love, living with magic, and generally not behaving in the traditional manner of fairy tale heroines as McKinley has described them and as have informed her contemporary retellings of character: "wearing long trailing dresses and casting languorous looks into pools with rose petals floating in them as the setting sun glimmers through [her] translucent fingers [while her] off somewhere having interesting adventures" (Sanders). Nothing exciting but finding out that you really are a destined soul, a "lost princess [sic] switched at birth" ( In McKinley's Spindle's End, character real-izes setting, offering us a real, tangible young woman in a fantastic setting made familiar by factual detail. Already part of our shared history, the tale of Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose becomes credible in its response to contemporary ideas of women and cultural anthropology. Rosie is closer to us; her world becomes closer to our own. With Rosie, we occupy a narrative landscape impossibly real and fantastically possible.

[From where we left off]

Occupying such a narrative landscape, the characters of Robin McKinley's Spindle's End, like Faris' readers of magical realism:

hesitate between two contradictory understandings of events, and hence experience some unsettling doubts. The question of belief is central here, this hesitation frequently stemming from the implicit clash of cultural systems within the narrative...[some] hesitate less than others, depending on their beliefs and narrative traditions. Even so, much of magical realism is encompassed by Tzvetan Todorov's formulation of the fantastic as existing during a story when a reader hesitates between the uncanny, where an event is explainable according to the laws of the natural universe as we know it, and the marvelous, which requires some alteration in those laws.

Turning either the face of magical realism or the fantastic to the audience and its perceived reality, the double-sided mirror of fairy tale retellings encourages an understanding of literary genre. Although we are surprised into delight when the concrete decay of our realism sees itself in the fantastic, when "large silver carriages with long stiff wings...flew through the air like birds," and we communicate by "long-distance speaking devices involving no magic," we are also thrown into a world of dualities and their attendant challenges and demands to our equilibrium, our sense of balance. The readers of McKinley's novel, like the characters within the novel, operate in a narrative landscape of dualities. Because Spindle's End is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale, a citizen-reader of McKinley's country must negotiate between the remembered tale and the story being told.

Alongside our collective memory of the distraught King and Queen who, inexplicably, are not in the castle on the fateful day and who leave the sleeping princess shortly thereafter, are the anguished parents who send out an edict against spindle ends smaller than a three-month-old infant's smallest finger and who must be seen as protecting the cursed princess and safe-guarding the kingdom. Next to the recalled threat of the spurned fairy we must place the hazy recollection of a "wicked fairy--whose name might have been Pernicia" and her complaint (any version of which might be true and might not since "that country was full of tales and magicians and magic" and "many of them were just tales" [76]). Partnered with a submissive princess whose awakening depends upon the actions of a heroic prince is the forthright and strong-willed Rosie whose fairy gifts, aside from Katriona's beast-speech, are both useless and negligible ("One-and-twenty of the most powerful and important fairies in the country! They could have made her invulnerable to curses! They could have made her invisible to anyone who wished her harm! They could--they could--and they gave her golden hair!" [105])

Citizen-readers of this fantastic landscape must alternate between histories--as recorded by the physical setting, as reported by royal messengers, speculative villagers, Aunt's chatty Robin familiars, or catalogued by gossipy rumors such as those "awakened" by Rosie's beast-speech ("ordinary people sometimes have a funny reaction to glamours...a persistent, fidgety feeling that something wasn't quite right. In this case it had produced a rumor that Rosie was Katriona's daughter" [121]). Participants in this narrative world co-exist with personal dreams and the collective, shared picture that creates and unifies our dreams (Pratchett 189). Reflecting Literature as it does, and as it reflects the experience of the readers, Aunt's glamour and the setting of McKinley's Spindle's End offer several additional and equally instructive double-sided mirrors: memory and story, history and rumor, and our private/cooperative and co-opted dreams.

These dreams, our collective fictions, are significant. No self-respecting contemporary, novel-length, literary retelling of the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale would be complete without a careful consideration of dreams. Robin McKinley's treatment of the allure and appeal of "Sleeping Beauty" examines the relationship between dream and memory, which is central to the tale and most important to our reception of that tale. As Francine Prose explains:

If fairy tales are the alchemical distillation of our collective desires and dreams, then perhaps what Freud said about dreams may apply to these stories too: their details, their entirety, the sum of what actually happened are finally less significant than what we remember and misremember, fragment and distort.

Generally recognized as part of the "essence" of Sleeping Beauty by scholars (Max Luthi), novelists (Robert Coover), and poets (Liesel Mueller), the dream is said to function as a grace period, a suspended space of time before the onset of maturation (Bettelheim). The dream of young adulthood is a compelling metaphor for fairy tale studies, as popularly we have come to see the tales as an audience-specific genre, and this too is part of the essence of the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale. Forming no small part of our shared experience, the remembered dream-story of young adulthood continues to render the essence of and metaphors in the tale piercingly relevant. Luthi's Sleeping Beauty compares sympathetic readers across cultural history, Coover describes the compelling horror of suspended eroticism, Mueller recalls her fascination with the instant Time woke up alive. And because McKinley's retelling is, indeed, a self-respecting contemporary, novel-length, literary retelling for "anyone who can handle the vocabulary [2]," the shared fictions of dreams are equally important in Spindle's End.

Katriona's dreams, as Faris asserts: "may seem dreamlike, but they are not dreams, and the text may both tempt us to co-opt them by categorizing them as dreams and forbid that co-option" (17-18), and they are a form of magic driven by that greater magic, love: "The thought of the queen, in particular, hurt Katriona so badly she began to talk to her in her head." Katriona tells the Queen details about Rosie, first "no more than a kind of mental pushing-away of discomfort," then "little stories about her, about how clever and charming and infuriating and darling she was, stories to give a mother's love somewhere to go, somewhere to live, something to do besides endlessly grieve..." (89-90). The strength of Katriona's love for Rosie, and her concern for her distressed mother, proves powerful enough to make her dreams real. Though she only dares do it once (the first time and by accident), Katriona transports herself to the queen's bedchamber one night, physically assuring and reassuring her that Rosie is loved and as safe "as ordinariness can make her" (92). Additionally, Katriona's dreams teach her about handling magic and how magic, like dreams, lives in "a great dark space with scraps you fumble for. You must learn to sniff... [it] out in the dark" (94). Even as they distort space and time, even as they teach her about her identity and the need for balance, Katriona's "dreams" real-ize fantasy.

Rosie's "dreams" also teach her about identity and the need for balance. They too distort space and time and force her to learn how to negotiate her way in the dark. Shortly after Katriona's marriage transplants them to the wheelwright's cottage in the center of the village (the house she grew up in rested at an outskirted edge of Foggy Bottom), Rosie evaluates her new surroundings--and her first private bedroom in particular:

She looked around the room once more, and pulled the shutters closed, ready to go to bed. At least it was her own bed, carted in from the cottage, and her own clothes hanging on pegs by the door. She might have had a candle, but if this was to be her room, she wanted to know her way in the dark.

That Rosie understands a need to be adept in a foreign world wherein magic resides is a credit to her strong, thoughtful, and increasingly self-aware character. Rosie's ability to negotiate the dark is similarly introspective to Kat's but ultimately more outwardly physical. This becomes especially pertinent towards the climax of the novel, at which point the sleeping heroine must be awoken by a kiss, and either the lost princess or the exiled fairy, Good or Evil, must win.

Rosie's enchanted sleep and her spectacular "dream"--the final confrontation with Pernicia--bends time and space, gradually leading us from the "real" fantasy landscape of McKinley's novel to a fantastic dreamscape where the princess' actions have very real consequences. Discovered by royal fairies Igor and Sigil, and hurtling towards her 21st birthday, Rosie agrees to be magically tethered to her best friend, the paragon Peony. Peony, niece of the wainwright, and Rosie, the lost princess, mirror each other in that they are "the dearest of friends, the sort of friends whose lives are shaped by the friendship" (158), and they share several gestures and expressions (266). But Peony also mirrors the more popular image of a princess adhered to both by the people of "that country" and the readers of the novel. Peony is "not at all like [Rosie but] not bad, even if she is a paragon" (157), beloved by Sir Rowland, and so close to Rosie that they can withstand the glamour that bonds them to each other (266). For three months in Woodwold, Lord and Lady Pren's grand house in the Gig, Rosie and Peony breathe together, hear their hearts beat as one, and they cooperatively participate in convincing the country that the curse has been defeated.

Despite their successful charade, Pernicia appears at their 21st birthday ball, Peony pricks her finger, the world--even Woodwold--falls asleep, and briars encage the grand house. With the help of her beloved Narl and several assorted animal friends, Rosie must draw on her ability to negotiate the dark, somnolent world of fairy tale and fantasy. This negotiation starts with references to fairy tales as being outside the rules of the phenomenatural world to which Rosie is accustomed:

No one awake, their footsteps seemed to say to her as they descended again... No one awake. No one awake . No one awake but Narl and me. No one awake. Down they went, down and down, as they had gone up, with no other sound but their footsteps, until they heard the soft tidal sound of hundreds of people breathing in their sleep as they turned onto the final flight of stairs...To the left were the series of corridors that led at last to the kitchens and cellars. Rosie dreaded reentering the Hall, but that was where the main doors were. "I suppose we should try the front doors first? It doesn't seem very likely, but it...who knows what the rules are in a fairy tale?"

Rosie, whose gifted voice speaks for all the creatures of that country, finally names it: fairy tale, told and retold. Rosie's reference to the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale--and to fairy tales more broadly--calls our attention to McKinley's contemporary and feminist-informed retelling. The rules have, indeed, changed. Compared to the title character of the "original" fairy tale, Rosie has some distinct advantages--advantages that are magically engineered, personally inherent, and contemporarily real-ized. Having been bound to Peony, Rosie falls sufficiently below Pernicia's radar to be plunged into sleep with the rest of the 21st birthday revelers assembled at Woodwold but to go unnoticed when Narl resuscitates her and helps her to breath on her own again, without Peony. Able to withstand Pernicia's magic because of a lump of cold iron welded into his smith's chain, Narl "kisses" awake the bold, courageous and loyal Rosie.

Also impervious to Pernicia's spell, several of Rosie's animal friends help her to negotiate through the dark, a proven "fifth element." For deep beneath their world, at the very roots of their world, the beginning of their time and space, the physical laws of their reality are altered:

Here were the roots of Woodwold, here were the first founding places...By now the pitchy blackness was thick and tangible enough to prove a fifth element, unjustly omitted from the usual list: not air or water, not earth or fire, but dark.

With Rosie, we experience the closeness or near-merging of two realms, two worlds..."the tale opens a space of the in-between ['l'entre-doux'], a space of uncertainty...a space of all possibilities, sometimes frightening, since one can forget where one comes from there and become lost" (Faris 21). Once clear of the grand house, but still encaged by briars, it is Rosie--and not the traditional prince--who cuts her way through the thorny hedge in order to rescue the sleeping princess and her beloved kingdom. In order to achieve this task, Rosie uses Eskwa, the sword that "both binds and cuts" given to her by the royal fairy Igor (265). Rosie's work with the blade allows her to bind back a hole wide enough for their ragged band to jump through. They alight in Pernicia's landscape where they must face their opponent and where her magic is strongest.

Curiously, Pernicia's fortress is a fluid landscape, a literal castle in the sky where the physical laws even of Rosie's world are irrelevant. Against the gritty, real-ized fairy world of Foggy Bottom, the Gig, and "that" country, Pernicia's world is high fantasy and Rosie must negotiate a curious dreamscape outside of time and space. "Seeking to confront a wicked fairy who is planning to destroy [the] entire kingdom," their ragged band is comprised of "one reluctant princess who is really a horse-leech, two horses, a few hounds, a spaniel, a very small terrier, a fox, two mice, and a cat. And a fairy smith who says he's better at smithing" (346):

They were standing at a kind of boundary between a scraggy sort of wood behind them and an almost-barren landscape with a little low scrub before them...It was twilight, but of dawn or sunset or something else they could not tell; the low lavender-grey clouds hid the motion of the sun here, too. It was a heavy, drab sort of light that did not feel like any sort of daylight any of them were accustomed to...Rosie looked first at the wood behind them, wondering if it had any relation to the briar hedge round Woodwold. These were trees, not rose stems, even if they were no sort of tree she knew, and she thought they were not friendly; they seemed a kind of vegetable version of the heavy, unnatural light...Narl said softly, "This place is--sticky with magic. I can almost feel it on my skin, like blown sand, and it coats your tongue when you open your mouth...It's why neither the light nor the ground--nor those trees--look or feel right.

It is a credit to Rosie's strength of character--her loyalty, love, and courage--that she is willing and able to meet Pernicia on the wicked fairy's own "ground." This ground, located in the cloud and thus "curiously fluid" (Campbell), is the floor of a highly fantastic landscape, a landscape "sticky with magic." Pernicia's country is what Faris refers to as an "intersection of two worlds," of fairy tale and high fantasy. Part 5 of Robin McKinley's Spindle's End in which the reader travels from mythic fairytale (Zipes) into a highly fantastic setting offers "an imaginary point inside a double-sided mirror that reflects in both directions." By incorporating high fantasy into her contemporarily real-ized retelling of fairy tale, McKinley "enlarge[s] that space of intersection where a number of magically real fictions exist. Andre Breton imagines techniques that will fix the attention 'not any longer of what is real, or the imaginary, but...on the other side of reality'" (21-22). The double-sided mirror in the setting(s) of Spindle's End reflects two genres of Literature and examines their functions. In McKinley's fantasy fairy tale retelling, setting describes the power of narrative by presenting worlds that challenge accepted notions of truth and reality--as well as perceived literary valuation.

The settings of these worlds are ambiguous places that Rosie describes as sleeping "lightly under the surface of the ordinary world" (181). Rosie's experience in Pernicia's landscape echoes that of the reader in a fantastic setting. Interpreting for Flinx, the household cat, Rosie explains: "'Flinx says that the--the things that aren't here aren't here in different ways,' she said...Narl said slowly, "'Yes. This seems to be a--neither here nor there sort of place. And the things here are neither here nor there either'" (361). This "neither here not there" place "reorients not only our habits of time and space but our sense of identity as well" (Faris 25). In asking the reader to reexamine the relationships between memory and story, history and rumor, dreams' space and time, McKinley's fantasy fairy tale retelling encourages us to reconsider the relationship between identity and identification in young adulthood. The reader of Spindle's End observes Foggy Bottom's confusion over Rosie's identity, and Rosie's own natural (albeit heightened) confusion over her identity, within the parameters of young adulthood. As Sheldon Cashdan explains:

The fairy-tale journey into unexplored worlds is paralleled by an inward journey. As the protagonist travels deeper and deeper into forbidden territory, so the reader is transported into unexplored regions of the self. And just as the hero or heroine is forced to face conflicts and dangers in the the reader is forced to confront struggles and threats in the psyche... [providing them] with an opportunity to confront internal forces that threaten their sense of who they are and their place in the world.

The settings of McKinley's retelling reflect Literature and the readers' world. But Spindle's End also shows the reader's place in the world(s) of Literature. The benefit is again two-fold; it teaches how narrative shapes us and how we have shaped narrative, and it offers a valuable lesson on how to "handle magic," how to manipulate the landscape of the inner self with love, insight, courage, and wisdom, how to overcome curses, defeat Evil, and live in the service of Good. It is in these worlds, these "neither here nor there" places--not realism nor fantasy, not a child nor an adult, not valued Literature nor dime-store novel--that the greatest gifts of fairy tales and fairy tale retellings quietly go about their work.

Aunt's glamour "disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity" in that it forces the characters of McKinley's narrative to misperceive reality by "obscur[ing] Rosie's arrival [with] a fictitious bardic tale-spinning competition..." (104). Rosie's actions in Pernicia's dreamscape disturb "received ideas about time, space and identity" by using the landscape of a collective dream to reverse a twenty-year old curse, restore Woodwold and the Gig, and reestablish her own sense of identity. Rosie's ultimate victory over Pernicia is impossible without the sacrificial aid of a true friend, the sad and flightless but fiercely loyal and noble merrel chained to the rafters of Woodwold's grand ballroom. But the victory ensures the safety of the kingdom and assures Rosie that she does, indeed, belong to the life that she has made around herself, the life of a horse leech gifted with beast speech, beloved of Narl, the many creatures to whom she gives voice, Katriona, Aunt, and the villagers of Foggy Bottom. Peony, blessed with diplomacy, promised to Rowland and believed to be the rightful heir, will be the princess that Rosie was born to be. Sigil's promise that "all will be well" proves true. Time, space and identity have been disturbed in order to be strengthened and reaffirmed, and the double-sided mirror of setting extended to character in Spindle's End further defines both of those literary elements, thereby expanding their potential and engendering a sense of literary purpose.

McKinley's novel and her audience also define each other and describe their place in a shared world by asking us to "experience some unsetting doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understandings of events [and]...different realms." By juxtaposing the impossibilities of one reality with another McKinley levels the playing field with an inside joke. And the joke is, of course, on the realists, critics and pooh-pooh-sayers of fairy tale and "juvenile lit."--generally represented in Spindle's End as priests whose inability to do magic makes them sour, resentful and disapproving:

It was not an easy vocation, being a priest in that country, where magic was vibrantly everywhere, maddening and unquenchable, and the gods were assumed to be a kind of super-fairy except that you never saw them nor were offered any concrete proof of what the priests claimed they had done for you... Possibly because of the rampaging dailiness of the magic of that country, its natives could rarely be persuaded to spend any serious time or thought on questions of how the world began or what it was for, or why people were people instead of stick insects or pondweed, or any of the other standard varieties of religious inquiry... Aunt's theory about priests was that religion had emigrated from other, less magical country, and its missionaries...had never really adapted to the peculiar conditions of this country.

Most disturbing about the priests is that they never assimilate; they never belong to this shared landscape and so cannot negotiate the world. Double-sided mirrors are tricky after all and you either "loved that country and couldn't imagine living anywhere else, or hated it, left it as soon as possible, and never came back" (4). McKinley's realized setting teaches Literature with mirrors. It describes genre by illustrating what it looks like and who occupies it as well as by showing us its outsiders, exiles, and dark enemies.

As a result, Robin McKinley's Spindle's End does more than mirror our experience of fairy tales and the fantastic. Showing us both sides of the mirror, our inner and outer phenomenal settings, the novel argues that how we function within the landscapes of Literature and how Literature encourages us to build, experience, and reshape our world(s) is the ultimate--and ultimately, the only significant--reality. As such, McKinley's retelling continues the important literary instruction of the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale and of the fairy tale genre. In "Birthing a Book," Diana Wynne Jones suggests that the famous interview question--to describe or explain the "creative process"--forces fantasy writers "[d]esperate to please...[to] produce something that sounds as if it might be true:

a sort of racy approximation to what the truth appears to be, along with a few spiky little insertions, usually to the effect that this particular thing really happened, or that thing was taken from real life, so that interview and listeners don't run away with the idea that fantasy has no connection with actual mundane existence.

As defended by Jones, and argued most eloquently by Rosie and Peony in Robin McKinley's Spindle's End, the "reality" is that fantasy retellings of fairy tales both highlight and strengthen the bond between life and Literature.

Not commonly given their due recognition, according literary value to contemporary fantasy fairy tale retellings encourages the reader to consider the power of narrative. As Peter Hunt reminds us, we must:

beware of the trap laid for us by the very concept of "literature," and literary standards that claim to be (or aspire to be) authoritative but are actually like the emperor's clothes...if we see certain kinds of books and certain kinds of narrative as inferior or unrewarding, then we are potentially ignoring the vast impact of other media--writing and text in the broadest possible sense, and thus losing touch with the inevitable future.

Similarly, discounting the value of fantasy and fairy tale has an egregious effect of the reader's understanding of the primary elements of Literature--much informed by these imaginative, mythic, and foundational genres. Without recognizing the literary qualities of contemporary retellings, we are unable to consider how those qualities chart our developing relationships to Literature. For once fantasy and fairy tale are devalued, despite their benefits to readers--all students of literary history, research, and scholarship--contemporary retellings of and responses to classic texts cannot be appreciated; we violate the trust between our lives and our stories. And once we are unable to articulate our relationships to Literature in the present, we have little to offer the future of literary studies, and the precious double-sided mirror is shattered.


1 Appropriately, wheels and cycles figure prominently in McKinley's retelling; Katriona marries Barder, the village wheelwright, in whose house Rosie is finally discovered.

2 McKinley Reading, October 2003

Works Cited

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Breton, Andre. "Second Manifesto of Surrealism." 1930 (in French). Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. In Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1969.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books. 1949.

Cashdan, Sheldon. The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books/Perseus Books Group. 1999.

Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye. New York: Routledge. 1998.

Coover, Robert. Briar Rose. New York: Grove. 1996.

Darrieussecq, Marie. Pig Tales. 1996 (in French). Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: New Press. 1997.

Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. 2004.

Hunt, Peter. "How Not to Read a Children's Book." Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 26, No. 4, 1995. 231-240.

Jones, Diana Wynne. "Birthing a Book." The Horn Book Magazine. July/August 2004. 379-393.

Luthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1976.

Manlove, C. N. The Impulse of Fantasy Literature. Kent: Kent State University Press. 1983.

McKinley, Robin. The Blue Sword. New York: Puffin Books/Penguin Group. 1982.

--------------------. The Hero and the Crown. New York: Puffin Books/Penguin Group. 1984.

--------------------. Spindle's End. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2000.

--------------------. "A Pool in the Desert," Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits (co-authored with Peter Dickinson). New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2002.

Mueller, Lisel. "Immortality," Alice Together: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1996.

Nikolajeva, Maria. The Magic Code: The Use of Magical Patterns in Fantasy for Children. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiskell International. 1988.

Pratchett, Terry. The Wee Free Men. New York: HarperCollins. 2003.

Prose, Francine. "Sleeping Beauty." Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, ed. Kate Bernheimer. New York: Anchor Books/Random House, Inc. 2002.

Rodgers, Catherine. "Aucun Evidence: Les Truismes de Marie Darrieussecq," Romance Studies 18, 1, 69-81. 2000.

Rodriguez, Carolina Fernandez. "The Deconstruction of the Male-Rescuer Archetype in Contemporary Feminist Revisions of 'The Sleeping Beauty.'" Marvels &Tales, 16.1, 53. 2002.

Sanders, Lynn Moss. "'Girls Who Do Things'": The Protagonists of Robin McKinley's Fantasy Fiction." The ALAN Review, 24.1, 38-43. Fall 1997.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1975.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 1994.


Evelyn Perry

Volume 9, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2005

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"Real-izing Fantasy: The Double-Sided Mirror of Magical Realism and 'the other side of reality' in Robin McKinley's Spindle's End"
© Evelyn Perry, 2004-2005.
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