When The Sleeper and the Spindle was first announced, I was excited. A gorgeously illustrated fairy tale retelling by Neil Gaiman, featuring Snow White as the warrior who saves Sleeping Beauty from her tower? Sign me up! It only just came out in the US last week, and I snapped it up when I saw it in my comic book shop. However, while the story is excellently told, and the pictures are beautifully drawn, it left me with mixed feelings in the end.
Spoilers for the whole story ahead.
The tale told in The Sleeper and the Spindle exceeded my expectations in some ways, and disappointed me in others. We begin with three dwarves, whose names we do not learn. They travel under the mountains to the neighboring kingdom to buy gifts for Snow White, who is queen of her own kingdom, and discover that that kingdom is falling prey to some sort of sleeping spell. The country’s princess, and with her, the palace at the center of the kingdom, had been cursed many years previous by a spurned witch, and the curse is spreading outward from the castle and across the land. Their only hope is that the spell on the princess might be broken.
The dwarves return to Snow White (or, as she is referred to in the story, simply as ‘the queen’) on the eve of her wedding with the bad news. She, having already fallen victim to and surmounted a sleeping curse of her own, resolves to go herself to the neighboring kingdom, travel to the palace, and break the curse. She postpones her nuptials, dons some armor, and sets off. After a long journey beset with enemies, they get to the castle, and make their way inside. There they find a very, very old woman, and a beautiful girl asleep on the bed in the tallest tower. The queen kisses the girl to awaken her, and it works—but all is not as it seems. It turns out that the titular sleeper was never the princess at all, but the witch who cast the spell. She’d been using the spell to harvest power and youth from the princess and her kingdom, and the old woman, the only conscious person left in the castle all those long years, was actually the princess all along.
This is not the first time Snow White has faced down a sorceress obsessed with youth, beauty, and power, however, and she gives the old woman who was once a princess the tools to defeat the witch. The old princess falls into a natural sleep, and Snow White leaves the castle. When reminded of her postponed wedding and her duties to her kingdom, she instead turns and begins walking in the opposite direction of home, and the dwarves go with her. The end.
So. I said I was both pleased and disappointed by this, so let’s get into both. First of all, I did really like the twist that the sleeping girl was the witch—when I began reading, I expected this to simply be a straightforward retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story with an LGBTQ+ twist. A lot of the most fascinating bits of the story are in what is not said—I’d love to read a whole novel of Snow White’s adventures facing down her own evil queen, for example. It also depends a lot on the the reader’s genre-savviness; a phrase here or an allusion there are meant to remind us of whole other tales, right on down to the fact that Snow White is never actually named.
What is clear from the text, though, is that the queen/Snow White is a badass. Despite the limited textual description and brevity of the story (it’s only about seventy pages), she feels like a fully rounded character with a backstory and motivations to me. I liked that she had apparently saved herself from/defeated her own evil queen, and that she in turn had become queen—she’s not marrying into power. This is an exciting and welcome change from the original character’s near-characteristic passivity. Whether she leaves to save the princess out of sympathy for another young girl sleep-cursed by a terrible enchantress, or because she tires of her own responsibilities and is looking for a convenient way out, is unclear. (I’m leaning toward the latter.) But even the fact that she’s conflicted and and that there are levels of nuance to her decision make her a more well-rounded character than her classic predecessor. Outside of Snow, though, and the bait-and-switch of victim and attacker, there wasn’t that much new in the way of remixing going on. The witch chose to prey on the princess out of no apparent other desire but to recharge her beauty-batteries, and the princess herself has very little in the way of character except that she cares whether or not the sleeping people in her castle are kept safe.
Mostly what disappointed me was that, when I first heard about this book online, it seemed like it was marketed very specifically to the crowd that craves LGBTQ+ representation in their fairy tales. Basically, me. But while the queen does kiss the sleeper to awaken her, it wasn’t true love’s kiss, and it wasn’t even the princess she ended up kissing. It was a perfunctory spell-breaking kiss, and didn’t appear to have any emotion behind it save the queen’s desire to save what she thought was another princess from the same enchanted fate she herself had suffered. The real princess does not receive her stolen years back when the witch is slain; still elderly and now exhausted, she stays in the castle to sleep for the first time in a century and Snow White leaves to go on further adventures. So while one of the climactic moments of the story is a girl kissing a girl, it doesn’t exactly strike me as the sort of authentic queer representation I’m looking for. That said, the story is worth buying for its art alone—the black and white illustrations are accented with gold, and I love the touches illustrator Chris Riddell gave to each character, and the way the surreal feeling of the story translated into the images. Even the dust jacket is beautiful. I’m happy I bought it for this reason alone, to be honest; the parts I liked about the story are just icing.
In the end, I did enjoy The Sleeper and the Spindle, but be warned: don’t go into it expecting a lesbian fairy-tale love story—you’ll just be disappointed.