Fairy Tales and Feminist Themes in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle”

[Kingdom shattering spoilers ahead. Beware.]

The queen felt something stirring in her heart. She remembered her stepmother, then. Her stepmother liked to be adored. Learning how to be strong, to feel her own emotions and not another’s, had been hard; but once you learned the trick of it, you did not forget. And she did not wish to rule continents (Gaiman 59).

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman’s refreshing, modern take on fairy tales illustrates at least two massively important feminist messages: (1) women must first discover that their own emotions belong to them, and (2) women must learn to make choices based on their own feelings, not to please their families, lovers, or society. Before I discuss my thoughts on the importance of the book, I have to state how much I loved the process of experiencing the book. The translucent dust jacket is a work of art, in and of itself, etched with black roses and golden vines, which are relevant to the plot. The sleeping woman on the cover looks slightly out of focus, perhaps as if she is behind glass.  However, if you remove the jacket, she comes into focus. In fact, this mirrors what happens in the book since the sleeping “princess” is revealed to be the power hungry witch. The illustrator, Chris Riddell’s, attention to detail is amazing, and I reread the book to specifically appreciate the art. For example, I noticed the detail that the queen, the hero of the story, has a comforter on her bed with golden skulls. However, the reason I picked the book up in the first place was that I adore Neil Gaiman’s fairy tales from Stardust to Coraline to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Fairy tales are important and relevant for society.

Due to the fact that I write fiction, I have read many of Gaiman’s thoughts on storytelling, including his thoughts on fairy tales. This piece he wrote for the Guardian on Stardust discusses a bit of the history of fairy tales: why they are loved, why they fell out of favor with adults, and their return.  I feel that Neil Gaiman’s works have, in concert with the works of others, led to a revival and renaissance of fairy tales, as discussed in this recent interview of Gaiman by Gaby Woods. I personally loved fairy tales well before reading Stardust. As a girl, I discovered a book at my grandmother’s house that included many fairy stories. I adored The Light Princess. Every time I visited my grandmother, all through my teens and twenties, I read the story. Now, the old, tattered green book is a part of my own collection.

I love fairy tales because they help us make sense of our world, our society, and the dangers (and magnificence) inherent in being alive. Potentially, they play a role in socializing and entertaining both children and adults. This means it’s imperative to have fairy tales written for and reflecting the age that we live in. We live in an uncertain age of anomie, or a breaking down of norms and stability. We’re dealing with globalization, changes in technology, greed, thirst for power, war, changing gender roles, and unobtainable beauty standards, just to name a few. Gaiman included this G.K. Chesterton quote in Coraline, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  We need to understand the dangers we face, the potential solutions to those dangers, and that we have the agency to make choices to help. In this time period and in the future, how should individuals act?  How should communities act? What are our responsibilities to ourselves and to one another? Fairy tales allow us to consider these questions.

Turning specifically to Gaiman’s work, The Sleeper and the Spindle, he states in an interview, “‘You don’t need princes to save you…I don’t have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men.”  The main character, the queen, lived in one kingdom and was running her affairs of state, including getting married in a week. In the past, she had defeated her abusive stepmother. Her friends, the dwarves, traveled to the neighboring kingdom to get her a proper gift. While in the neighboring kingdom, they discover that a sleep spell is taking over and spreading. They return to their queen and inform her of the danger.  She decided to go investigate the situation herself due to her experience with sleep spells, temporarily putting off her marriage and placing her responsibilities in capable hands of her first minister. Eventually, she and the dwarves make it to the castle where the spell is emanating from, and they eventually get inside. They find a beautiful woman they believe is the bespelled princess.  However, this woman is actually a witch who had been stealing the life and dreams of the actual princess, who had become quite elderly.

Reading The Sleeper and the Spindle led me to reflect on gender roles. Often, girls are taught that their own emotions, especially of anger, are invalid. They are expected to be exactly what their caregivers need them to be. For children dealing with a narcissistic caregiver, it is an incredibly powerful moment to realize that your emotions are your own.  If you do not learn the lesson, then your entire life, your entire thread, will be co-opted and corrupted by someone else. The true danger that this fairy tale warns us of is giving away our power to make choices for our own lives.

The heroic queen woke up from a spell that her stepmother had placed on her at a young age prior to the beginning of this story.  Although she escaped her stepmother, she was still living life the way society expected her to—running a kingdom and getting married. This despite the fact that she didn’t seem to have major inclinations to do either thing. So many people get caught up in these traps: fulfilling cultural or parental expectations instead of venturing onto the new paths for themselves. In the end, the dwarf says to the queen:

“And your wedding will be late, but it will happen soon after your return, and the people will celebrate, and there will be joy unbounded through the kingdom…”

…There are choices, she thought, when she had sat long enough. There are always choices.

She made one…

…They walked to the east, all four of them, away from the sunset and the lands they knew, and into the night (66).

It is a difficult balance to strike between the needs we have as individual people and the needs of the community.  However, for young (and not so young) women, we need to learn the lesson that our lives belong to us: not to our parents, not to our teachers, and not to our lovers. This lesson is hard when you’ve been taught your whole life that being a woman requires giving to others all the time. The concept in sociology of supermom is relevant here. A “good” woman in the United States is supposed to be a perfect giver in all the arenas she participates including work, family, volunteer organizations, etc. These norms are slowly changing as women are starting, through hard work (and possibly therapy) to see that they deserve to be be a whole person, not just one who only fulfills others needs.

The queen had to learn how to feel her own emotions first.  Once she learned that lesson, she could then go on to realize that she could make her own choices based on how she felt. In Arlie Hochschild’s book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, she posits that when we ignore our emotional systems for our workplaces that we can be harmed.  Our emotions are valuable: they allow us to know when we are being mistreated or when something is (or isn’t) right for us. If you are divorced from your emotional system for long enough, you can start to feel numb, alienated, and at distance from yourself, as if in a deep sleep, like the fairy tales often allude to.

The queen attempts to wake up the princess like men do with a kiss, but it turns out that the witch was actually the one sleeping.  She had cast a spell and stolen the youth of the princess via her dreams and sleep.  In the end, the princess, stabs the witch with the spindle that had been stealing the princess’ life force. I think this is a powerful metaphor. An older woman was stealing the life of a young person by stealing her dreams. And we need to be cautious to avoid becoming like the witch in this tale.  We shouldn’t seek power, beauty, and youth as the main goals of our lives. Again, Gaiman warns against craving, as I discuss in this previous post on Buddhism in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. One of the major dangers of our time is the craving for unobtainable things: youth, beauty, and power.

We need to be teaching young women that they own their emotions and that they are in control of their own lives. This doesn’t mean that women have no responsibility to community, quite the contrary. I get the sense that the queen was going adventuring to help other people. But she was going to help people on her own terms, not the one’s her society had forced on her.  She also gave up the chance to become the witch, to dominate the will of her society, just because of her title. We need to trail blaze new paths.

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