By Lucie Horáková
At the end of 2014, Neil Gaiman published a new book, called The Sleeper and the Spindle, and many Gaiman fans rejoiced. Because some of them are also in our editorial board, the candidate for the spring Re:Views issue suggested itself. As a piece to review, The Sleeper and the Spindle is quite problematic – how to review a book only few pages long, whose message cannot be analysed without revealing a substantial part of the story? So instead of a classic review, the editorial board of Re:Views decided to share the views of three of its members about the book itself.
Tereza: What first captured me about The Sleeper and the Spindle, were, as expected, the beautiful illustrations by Chris Riddell – if I remember correctly, the most famous one (as seen above) is now hanging in the bedroom of Neil and his wife Amanda Palmer. The illustrations accompany, and even enrich, the story in a beautiful way. The story itself is a mash-up of two fairytales we all know, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but in spite of this the story feels far from familiar. After all, Gaiman is a proud follower of Angela Carter, fully aware of the fact that fairytales are a loaded gun, not only describing, but also shaping the world around us. He invites the reader to look at things differently and reconsider the traditional image of princesses and knights in shining armour.
Lucie: When looking at the illustration that was used as a promo picture for The Sleeper and the Spindle (linked above), the readers might very well expect a queer retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Many a reader was disappointed to find out this is not exactly the case. This situation shows how much the reading of a novel or a story is connected to reader’s expectations and how promotion and marketing shapes them. It is not up to us to judge if in this case the readers were intentionally mislead or if it was only an unhappy coincidence, nevertheless, the damage was done. So if you haven’t read The Sleeper and the Spindle yet, please, bear in mind, it is not a story about how a princess fell in love with another princess – but it is not a bad story because of that! What the picture also reveals is that this is a story focused on women – they are the heroines of this modern fairytale and they do not need princes or any other heroes to save them. Gaiman decided to break one of the basic rules of most of the classic fairytales – that males are the ones being in focus, acting, saving and later being celebrated for it – and empowered women as the independent heroines of his story. And this is as powerful message as a queer heroine could be.
Martina: Even if not a number one Gaiman fan, everyone can undoubtedly find something of an interest in The Sleeper and the Spindle, if only “just” illustrations. It looks like another tale with epic illustrations, but actually it is a story that can speak to all generations. Most people are probably familiar with the most famous picture (shown above) but other pictures are not any less beautiful or admirable. And the story is everything and nothing one might have expected. Everything because Neil Gaiman does not disappoint with giving something told and re-told hundreds of times a new twist; he replaces the prince with the princess thus giving the story a whole new direction and nothing because it is not a queer love story of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty that one might have expected after seeing the famous picture, but it is a story of a woman as strong, brave and smart as any other hero of the classic fairytales. At the beginning, she is a heroine about to be wed to her Prince Charming which is supposed to be a highlight of her life as many little girls are still being told nowadays, but instead she decides not to be identified by her wedding and goes on a quest to save the princess. The ending is even more compelling; it sends a message that any woman has the power over the decisions on her life and does not have to follow the rules of the still mostly male-centred society.
Neil Gaiman is a British author, who has lived in the USA since 1992. He started his career as a journalist and the written word, in its every possible form, has been his tool of the trade ever since. The scope of Gaiman’s work is truly broad. He writes novels (such as American Gods), stories for children (Coraline), graphic novels (Sandman), poems (Blueberry Girl), short stories (Fragile Things), non-fiction (Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion), film screenplays (Beowulf), TV-series screenplays (Dr. Who), video games screenplays (Wayward Manor), songs (The Last Temptation) and many more. After he started dating the American musician and performer Amanda Palmer (whom he married in 2011) he became kind of a singer as well and the married couple often hosts cultural events together. In his writing, Neil Gaiman often uses literary allusions, pastiche, elements of fantasy, sci-fi and horror to create stories that bear universal appeal.
Gaiman is also very active in the area of human rights and in 2014 he visited some of the most problematic areas in Syria under the patronage of UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency). Gaiman’s personal beliefs and his oeuvre are tightly connected – both in his stories and with his actions he makes his readers question the things they take for granted, shows them the power of the written word and promotes compassion, respect and understanding. He can be easily spotted because of his love for black T-shirts, messy hair, and his extravagant wife, who often appears by his side.