Gaiman's Recent Retellings: Hansel and Gretel/ The Sleeper and the Spindle

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Neil Gaiman, storyteller extraordinaire, released two Fairy Tale retellings recently (October 2014, I believe) and I thought as my last post in fairy tale retellings month that I’d take a quick look at them.

First, his retelling of Hansel and Gretel which is beautifully illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. I found this book absolutely swept away by the images of swirling dark and light. This play with texture and void of colour really forces the reader to follow the lines and gaze at the images, finding their focal point – or point of salience and consider the mood created. Really, the book is an exquisite visual experience and the accompanying words, which tell a familiar story, are crafted and seem sparing allowing those images to take over the telling of the tale. An interesting note about this retelling is that Gaiman was inspired to retell this particular fairy tale after he visited, with refugee activist and scholar Melissa Fleming, Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. He wrote about his experiences for The Guardian

With this context in mind, the focus on Mattotti’s images becomes more clear – it’s a well tale known told very visually and so it is accessible to a broad audience. There is a focus on movement and having the readers eye grasp at shadows, the refusal to give any characters any distinguishing features really creates an experience of estrangement. The book is a breathtaking visual journey through the haunting tale of refugees metaphorically represented through the trials and tribulations of industrious Gretel and the boy Hansel, the children exiled from their home who’s journey is fraught with danger and which ends on an uncertain note.

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Now, The Sleeper and the Spindle, illustrated by Chris Riddell (who also did Fortunately, The Milk is also a very interesting read because it plays with the two fairy tales Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and really plays with fairy tale motifs.

Basically, the story of Snow White creeps in on the story of Sleeping Beauty while her kingdom sleeps. Snow, who is a queen betrothed to the prince that woke her, is brought news that the sleeping sickness is spreading from the next kingdom over. She delays her wedding, dresses in her armour, mounts her trusty steed and accompanies the dwarves to the neighbouring kingdom to investigate, and hopefully put an end to, the sleeping curse. Already we have some conventions altered – I love seeing Snow White as a ruler despite not yet being married, I mean, it just makes sense she was a princess when she fell asleep and when she woke and her stepmother was killed… well that makes her Queen, but it’s nice to get this image. I also just love she does what she wants and what is necessary – and that she is fueled by her own story (she thinks she will be immune the magic sleep because of her own experience, she can sense and see evil as she had dealt with her stepmother before, her friendship with the dwarves kicks the story off but creates essential side-characters in this story as well).

The fun thing about this retelling is how creepy Gaiman makes it – and using elements from the fairy tale’s themselves i.e. everyone in the kingdom was asleep except for the spiders and so everything is coated in spiderwebs. The sleepers turn into zombie-like mobs chasing our heroes through the kingdom. Not to mention the wonderfully detailed ink illustrations by Riddell really help to up the visual creep factor but also help to capture the spunk and power of Snow White and the magic of her world.

There is a twist at the end – and no it isn’t that Snow White kisses the sleeping beauty… but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Needless to say, it is a great alternative ending to the Sleeping Beauty tale which directly juxtaposes one female archetype with Gaiman’s Snow White who is her own character.

I highly recommend both books – they are visually stunning and of course told by the deft storytelling voice of Gaiman and so enjoyable to read and savour as well.