Sat
Jan 24 2009 12:06pm

Fairytale Rape: Robin McKinley’s Deerskin

People sometimes ask me if there’s anything I wish I’d written. Of course, there are whole libraries of books I wish I’d written, from The Iliad onwards, but the only book I’ve ever felt that I would have written exactly the way it is is Robin McKinley’s Deerskin. Yes, it’s a dark and disturbing fairytale retelling about rape and recovery, and I wouldn’t change a word of it. It’s not an easy book. But it is an important one.

I said in my Hero and the Crown post that it’s possible to see McKinley’s whole career is telling fairytales as if they happened to real people and had consequences. Deerskin takes that to new dimensions. One of the things fantasy can do best is to tell a mythic story that is simultaneously an immediate and distinctly personal story. Deerskin does this and holds the hard balance astonishingly well.

A lot of McKinley is, or could be, YA. This one is definitely a book for grown-ups. McKinley doesn’t pull any punches at all. Deerskin begins with a child being told her parents’ happily-ever-after story. The words are those of fairytales—nobody has names, it is the King, the Queen, the Princess. And the princess (whose name, we later learn, is Lissar), is born into the ever after. She is neglected and unloved because her parents have eyes only for each other. Her mother is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and when she loses a little of that legendary beauty she dies. And as she dies she makes her husband promise not to marry anyone less beautiful than she was—and you can see that this isn’t going anywhere good. But as well as the story of the incestous rape, it’s the story of recovery. And both are on a mythic scale, as well as a personal scale. Her father is a monster, and yet he is also a confused man. And Lissar is damaged but healed by a goddess to give her time to make her own healing. That healing isn’t easy, and the scene where she denounces her father is almost as hard to read as the rape scene, but it’s an amazing achievement.

There are plenty of books in which a heroine is raped. But there are surprisingly few genre books in which rape is the subject. I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s a very difficult subject to write about. It’s amazing that McKinley makes it work. It’s not the only thing in the book, of course. When my son’s girlfriend saw the beautiful Canty cover and asked what it was about, my immediate response was “Dogs.” This was only partly cowardice. It is a book about dogs. Lissar is given a puppy, Ash, and she becomes human in loving Ash and being loved by her. Then later a good part of her recovery comes about working in kennels and saving the lives of motherless puppies. The dog bits are extremely well done. The dogs are like dogs—McKinley’s always good at animals. And it’s a book about different ways of running a fairytale kingdom—the economics are a lot more realistic than in most fantasy of this type. As usual the details are wonderful and entirely convincing—I entirely believe the part about living in a hut in the snow and wishing for two buckets instead of just one. It’s just right. The magic is everyday and domestic, too—Lissar can find lost children, and the Goddess heals her. She’s a very interesting goddess, too, one who chooses to spend her magic helping people instead of saving it up to be a greater goddess.

The only part of it that doesn’t work for me is the romance. Romances are never McKinley’s strong point. She has written two different novel-length versions of the fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” Beauty and Rose Daughter, and sometimes it seems to me as if that’s the only romantic story she believes in—the girl who falls in love with the man who at first seems like an enemy. Ossin here isn’t quite that, but while I believe that Lissar in some way loves him I don’t understand why—and this is the same with Luthe, and Tor, and all the heroes who aren’t in some way beasts. Odd.

I think this is an important book not just because it’s tackling a generally difficult subject and doing it well, but because it takes the darkness that is at the heart of fairytales and doesn’t flinch away from dealing with it. People ask why, in this day and age, we tell fairytales, and it’s because they express universal truths, in a metaphorical way. We all know these stories, they’re part of Western culture. They often get prettified and Disneyfied, and they’re more than that, they’re darker and older and connect to deeper parts of people. People also ask, why are we talking about kings and queens and princesses. The answer to that is sometimes that it’s a magnified way of talking about families. Fairy tales are about families, about growing up, about love, about danger, about being a child and being a parent. This one is about a dysfunctional family, in a dysfunctional kingdom, but McKinley balances that with a functional family in a functional kingdom, and links the two with the love of a dog. It’s brave of her to tell a story like this one and make it real.

19 comments
Katy Maziarz
1. ArtfulMagpie
The scene in which Lissar finally confronts her father is one of my favorite scenes in all of fantasy literature. So dark, so powerful.
Sean Fagan
2. sef

Deerskin is the reason I read McKinley. Which is good, because it lead to me reading Sunshine. Both of which are books that I buy every couple of years to replace the copy I'd lent out or misplaced. (The result being I think I have five copies of Deerskin at this point.)

Diatryma
3. Diatryma
I agree with you on Beauty and the Beast. McKinley uses it as a crutch in many ways. Parts of Chalice were very similar to Beauty in that way. I like B&B too, but I'd really like to see something else.
Diatryma
4. V47
You're making me wonder if this book will grab me by the insides the way Bear Daughter did. And I hate romances yet am willing to brave it to investigate. Nice review.
Kate Nepveu
5. katenepveu
Huh. What about the romance in _Spindle's End_?

(As-you-know-Jo, I disagree about the balance of realism and fairy-tale in this book, but I agree that it's got some very powerful bits.)
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Kate: There's a romance in Spindle's End? I should read it again.
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
Two or three, even, depending on how you count.
Tex Anne
8. TexAnne
I'd call it two romances and a marriage.
Diatryma
9. Mary Frances
I'm not going to re-read Deerskin; that book gave me cold chills, and I don't need that right now. But one thing occurred to me, re: the discussion of McKinley and romance--she seems to me to write her most believable love stories when the hero is damaged and needs rescuing by the female protagonist-heroine. Don't know if that's a pattern, really, but it might relate to the echoes of Beauty and the Beast in Chalice.
Erica The Poet
10. aspiring
I loved Deerskin. I reread it recently and it was just as good as I remembered. I didn't mind the oddness of the romance-or-whatever it ended up being, but I thought that it had more to do with its secondary nature - that the romance was secondary to the core subject, or the core story of Lissar's return to the human world. Of Mckinley's other works I have only read Spindle's End, but have never felt the urge to reread it as I have Deerskin.
- -
11. heresiarch
Has anyone read Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier? It's also a retelling of a fairytale (the Seven Swans), and is also the story of a girl recovering from rape (while trying to focus on spinning shirts from nettle.)

It also has a deeply weird romance, that sort of pops out of the woodwork after she finishes her brother's shirts.
Diatryma
12. overtheseatoskye
I've been meaning to read this for a while now - thanks for reminding me! I found the romance in "Sunshine" pretty compelling, but was frustrated by the coy ending - it seemed like a failure of nerve.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
I think Sunshine is also "Beauty and the Beast". She thinks he's an enemy and he's going to do horrible things to her, and he turns out to be nice and she falls in love with him. It's in that emotional "Beauty and the Beast" area, which McKinley writes with conviction. It's her romances with nice people that somehow seem like afterthoughts.
Tex Anne
14. TexAnne
Because I'm a fiber geek: I recently found out that it's really possible to spin yarn from some kinds of nettle.
Diatryma
15. Mary Frances
TexAnne, I'm not a fiber geek, but I've learned over the years that it's possible to spin yarn or thread out of just about anything. Have you read Bujold's Sharing Knife series (the subject of another of Jo's review threads)? Because if you haven't, Book Two has an awful lot to say about fiber magic.

Bujold has also recommended a book called Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Not my field, so I can't really judge it, but I did find it fascinating. Do you know it?

And now, back to our regularly scheduled thread . . . sorry.
Tex Anne
16. TexAnne
Mary Frances, the Sharing Knife books are on my to-be-read pile, and I don't know the Barber. Thanks for the tip!
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Mary Frances: I haven't read that, and it isn't directly relevant to anything I'm working on but I think it's the best title ever and I'm ordering it from the library right now!
Diatryma
18. Intertext
Thank you for such a lovely tribute to one of my all time favourite books. I even like the romance in this one :)
Diatryma
19. Beth Caron
Thank you for your post about Deerskin. It is such a lyrical read. Both challenging and beautiful at the same time. I agree with you about the romance aspect of the book, although I felt their connection was depicted in their common love of dogs. I believe that the dogs symbolized innocence, healing, love and much more.
Can you recommend any books along the lines of Deerskin?
I also suggest The Foretelling, by Alice Hoffman for a good read that has a fairy tale quality and is a beautiful read that is also fable-like.

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