Happy Almost-Valentine’s Day!
Tis the season for posts about fairy tale-related fantasy. Originally, I was going to post one huge discussion, but there’s so much to say! I am breaking my thoughts about fairytale fantasy into eight posts.
First off, the term “fairy tale” is misleading. What we typically call “fairy tales” are more accurately described as “folk tales,” or “traditional tales,” especially one coming from the oral tradition. I’m also not necessarily posting about the fae, although one of the books does have a strong fae presence. “Fairy”—“Fae”—They are synonyms (of a sort), and tales of the fae are an important fantasy subgenre, but again, I’m not using “fairy” necessarily in that context.
Second: although Walt Disney might spring to mind, this post will not deal with anything Disney. There’s the good Disney, the bad Disney, the downright ugly Disney, and occasionally there’s the brilliantly inspired Disney. All of it has its fans. I’m not going there.
I’m taking a look at eight fantasy novels based on fairy tale and folktale elements. Here they are, in the order I liked them. I’ll briefly summarize the fairy tale the book is based on, then explain what I liked or maybe didn’t like so much about the book, and after each discussion, add thoughts about a few other kinds of fantasy fictions based on the same tale or related in some way.
My top two co-favorites:
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik—very loosely based on the Rumpelstiltskin Brothers Grimm fairytale-TODAY’S POST.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord—based on Ansige the Glutton, a Senegalese folktale, and other West African folklore.
Other interesting fairy tale/folktale-inspired fantasy:
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse—loosely based on various Mesoamerican bodies of myth and folklore.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire—based on the French fairy tale Cinderella.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley-Parker Chan—partly based on Chinese lore about ghosts.
Shadow of the Fox, by Julie Kagawa—based on a whole body of Japanese lore about magical creatures.
Alice, by Christina Henry—a fantasy-horror version of Alice in Wonderland.
For the Wolf, by Hannah Whitten—the marketing suggests this novel was based on Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s as much about Beauty and the Beast as anything else.
On to the novel for today’s post, one of my two top picks.
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik
Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, published in 2018 by Del Rey, is a wonderful novel, a work of historical fantasy set in a fantasy version of medieval Lithuania or some similar Eastern European/Baltic nation. It is also very loosely based on the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin.
The fairy tale base:
Novik has stated in several interviews that this novel, as well as several of her others, is based at least in part on the Polish tales she enjoyed in childhood, as well as her family history. The main fairy tale on which this novel is based, Rumpelstiltskin, was collected in 1812 by German folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It’s about a boastful miller who claims his daughter can spin straw into gold. A king grabs her. He wants that gold. He locks her up and tells her to spin all the straw in her cell into gold before morning, or he’ll cut off her head. If she can produce the gold, he’ll marry her and she’ll become his queen. As she waits in despair for her head to be cut off, an imp shows up. He’ll magically turn the straw into gold in exchange for the maiden’s firstborn son. In desperation, she agrees. When the king sees the gold, he keeps his promise, and the maiden becomes queen. But when their son is born, the imp returns to claim his prize. He tells the queen that if within three days she can guess his name, he won’t take the baby. By accident, she happens upon his forest hut and overhears him saying his name, Rumpelstiltskin. So she outwits the imp, keeps the baby, remains queen, and lives happily ever after.
As with all of these tales, there are several versions widely disseminated around the world. The tale dates back around four thousand years. It’s classified in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther folklore index as tale type ATU 500, “The Name of the Helper.”
This book is very well-written, and it would have to be, because it has multiple narrators, all first-person. Quite a feat for a novel to be able to distinguish among so many voices. As each section begins, the reader has to intuit who is speaking, and usually this happens very smoothly.
The “maiden forced to spin straw into gold” figure in the novel, Miryem, is a beautifully well-drawn character, and here’s where the novel draws on historical realities. She and her family are Jewish, living the restricted, stigmatized lives of medieval Jews in Eastern Europe. The setting is intimately and accurately described; at times the book reads like a fascinating historical novel about those times.
The entire ensemble of characters could in lesser hands distract from Miryem, and sometimes does. Not very often. There are three main characters, all young women, from three walks of life, embodying three different fantasy tropes. Miryem is the smart, plucky outsider who can outwit her opponents. Irina is the plain, overlooked girl of the nobility whom everyone shunts aside. Then she wins the marriage prize by becoming tsarina. Wanda is the sturdy salt-of-the-earth Christian peasant girl. She’s despised and underestimated by everyone, but she has innate value, insight, and brains. Each of these women is pretty similar to the others in that they are all bright and undervalued, and they all have to fight for what they want. I don’t think this would have worked at all, given the similarities, except that Novik is so skillful at depicting each of the women in the setting of class, family, and religion.
Into this already heady mix steps the Staryk king, this novel’s version of the fae. He is one of the intriguing male points of view in the novel. He has power, he’s cruel, and he wants what he wants: Miryem’s power to create gold. At the outset, her ability to make money is completely practical and mundane. She has taken over the business side of her family from her weak father, and she’s doing well. But in the hands of the Staryk, things turn magical. I’d be interested to hear what other readers who love the fae trope think of the king and his subjects. Fae fantasy is not my favorite. This is the book that could change my mind.
The tsar to whom Irina is wed is another male supernatural creature. From birth, he has been possessed by a demon. Irina needs to prevail against him, but how can she? The demon inside him seems too powerful. In his cruelty, magical abilities, and disdain, the tsar too could have become indistinguishable from the other male lead, the Staryk king, especially since he too comes to us through a first-person voice. But again, Novik’s powers of characterization are so good that we don’t make that mistake.
Several other first-person male narrators are also important, especially Wanda’s two brothers. They and Wanda are great allies, and each one of the three has her/his unique voice that keeps them separated in our heads.
The end of this very satisfying novel hangs on a really ingenious mirror-image device that works on both the symbolic and the fantasy-trope level. This device brings all the moving parts into alignment, an amazing feat of writing. At the very end, I confess to being slightly confused, so much so that I had to re-read the ending to make sure I had gotten everything straight. But for the quality of the writing, the world-building (especially combining the realistic with the magical), the characterization, and the intricate, interlocking plot, I call this one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in recent years. The tale of Rumpelstiltskin hovers in the deep background—and so do other figures from folklore, such as the Chernobog, but you could read the book without even knowing or even particularly liking that tale or knowing about any of the other folklore, and come out fine.
Every reader hasn’t loved this book as much as I do. Here‘s a fairly negative review. This one is much more positive, but faults the book for slipping into the “younger woman has to break from older controlling man” trope. Here’s one that lines up more with my own view of the novel. And another one. Everyone seems to place this book in the YA category, and I suppose it is, but really, I didn’t even think about that as I read it. It’s just a really interesting novel. Call it YA, call it fantasy, call it something else, I don’t care. It’s good!
Take a look at this excellent interview with the author, Naomi Novik, about the process of writing the novel and what and why she handled the fairy tale material the way she did.
Similar fantasy and fantasy-related fictions:
I don’t know if Disney has dealt with the Rumpelstiltskin story in any way, but a number of films, live action and animated, have been based on the fairy tale. The most well-known are two in the Dreamworks Shrek animated franchise. Both Shrek the Third (2007) and Shrek Forever After (2010) feature Rumpelstiltskin. He’s a walk-on in Shrek the Third, but—pretty thoroughly transformed as a character—plays a prominent role in Shrek Forever After.
I don’t know of any other outright fantasy novels or other types of fantasy fiction that are based on the Rumpelstiltskin tale. If there are, and you know about them, please mention it in the comments! I do know that one of the best recent novels of magical realism, Melmoth, by Sarah Perry, based on the legend of Melmoth the Wanderer, reminds me in some ways of this novel. A whole post needs to be devoted to the topic of how/where/whether magical realism intersects with fantasy, but Perry’s novel is interesting in the way it weaves a very realistic story about the Holocaust into the legend of Melmoth. I find that pretty similar to the way Novik is able to entwine magic and a gritty and realistic historical setting.
NEXT UP: Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo