Everyone’s favourite fantasist, Neil Gaiman, has produced two reworkings of popular fairytales, Hansel & Gretel and The Sleeper and the Spindle. Of the two, Hansel & Gretel is the most straightforward, although – like Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales for Young & Old – his telling is driven, in large parts, by the most original version of the tale, that told by Henriette Dorothea Wild to one of the brother’s Grimm (the one she, curiously enough, ended up marrying) back at the beginning of the 19th century. In this version, there is no wicked stepmother, just a couple who are on the verge of starving, forced into a difficult decision by the situation in which they find themselves (a helpful afterword suggests the tale may have its roots in the Great Famine of 1315) – although, it should be said, mother is keener on losing the kids in the forest than dad is. The story is, of course, familiar, and it’s credit to Gaiman that his contextualising (the people in his story are so hungry that they have to eat the slugs in the fields) and his use of language is what makes the story fresh. Lorenzo Mattoti’s art – produced separately to illustrate the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Hansel and Gretel – inspired Gaiman to have a stab at the story and it’s not difficult to see why: black shadows, nightmare dreamscapes, vicious phantom horrors, menacing slabs of dark that even still manage to conjure the fragility of a falling leaf as brother and sister step gingerly through the woods all of which recall no-one quite so much as Jan Svankmajer. I read this one to my seven year old and she had a blast with it so I think it’s safe to say it’s one for almost all the family.
The same cannot be said for The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is an altogether more complex piece of work. As the title goes some way to suggesting, this is a tale that riffs on Sleeping Beauty, but is all the same distinct and apart. This isn’t Gaiman’s take on Sleeping Beauty; this is reboot, refresh, sequel and prequel and something entirely new. Of the two books, this is the one that Gaiman fans should be making a beeline for. In The Sleeper and the Spindle there is no handsome prince battling through forests of thorns to wake the sleeping princess; no, here there are three dwarves (which may recall The Truth is a Black Cave in the Mountains to those who try to keep up with everything Gaiman does) and a Queen. Here, there is a sleeping sickness gradually travelling across the land, a virus of sorts whose power is intensifying, town after town, city after city, struck fast with sleep. Worse still, as the dwarves and the Queen pass through, the sleepers rouse, eyes shut, covered in cobwebs, somnambulist zombies, given to talking of their mummies as they give slow chase. Within the castle itself, at the end of their quest, yes, there is a beautiful young woman asleep on a bed and a harsh looking old crone apparently stood guard but nothing is simple in this world – and our expectations are there to be played with. Chris Riddell’s art is just about the opposite of Mattoti’s – realistic, ornate, conjuring up a fairytale world of beauty and horror – and works to drive home the unusualness of the story. Whilst this one wouldn’t necessarily work as well for smaller children (the construction of the tale is challenging for a seven year old at any rate), it is certainly one that repays repeated readings.
Any Cop?: Two Gaiman fairytales, each of which provide a fresh spin on tales as familiar as sunlight. Essential purchases for Gaiman fans, certainly, but also good reads for parents who don’t mind their children having the odd nightmare.