The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley ~ 1981. This edition: Firebird (Penguin), 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 0-698-11960-6. 216 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10.
Nudged on by a comment from Jenny (of the former Jenny’s Books, now all spiffed up and better than ever at Reading the End) on my yesterday’s post about Robin McKinley’s later book of short stories, A Knot in the Grain(1994), I temporarily sidelined (again!) the Agatha Christie (The Murder on the Links) that I was sporadically reading and settled down to a power read of The Door in the Hedge instead.
I knew I’d read this collection of four short fantasy-fairy tale retellings before, but I honestly could not drag up any strong memories regarding it, just that I had mentally filed it in the “wordy” category of McKinley’s writings. And this re-reading proved me right on that count, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that the two stories Jenny liked the most, The Princess and the Frog, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, were really pretty darned good, and my own favourites of the collection, too.
This was Robin McKinley’s second published work, after her very well-received first novel, Beauty (1978), which was a creative retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The four stories in The Door in the Hedge follow that same pattern, though two of the stories are touted as original creations, versus re-imaginings.
The Stolen Princess
The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbour…
And that uneasy truce is occasionally broken, with the abduction of the occasional child; a rare occurrence, indeed, but frequent enough to be always a nagging “maybe” in the minds of all parents. The faeries (for it must be them) are most interested in baby boys from birth till their first birthday, and in teenage girls in the first flower of blossoming womanhood, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or so. And they always take the best: the most perfectly formed, the beautiful, the kind, the accomplished, the wise. Who are never, ever, seen again…
So when the beloved king and queen of the mortal country produce a lovely princess, we just know that this is not going to end well. The princess is predictably spirited away on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but this time, instead of just casting up hands and sighing forlornly, as this fantastical country’s parents are wont to do in these circumstances, the royal couple set off in pursuit, seeking to find the elusive boundary between the two realms, which, of course, proves to be the titular “door in the hedge”.
A not particularly original “original” tale; seriously overwritten in places, and with an overwhelmingly sweet ending, with every conceivable loose end neatly tied up.
The writing has moments of originality and great readability; the characters are quite genuinely likeable as well as being too beautiful, kind, gifted, nice, etc. for words, but the whole package oversteps my personal tolerance for tis kind of thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I fear this one gets only an unenthusiastic 4 from me.
The Princess and the Frog
The princess in this case loses a terrible gift from a sinister suitor; a necklace of cloudy grey stones which emanates an awful power. She is afraid to admit she has dropped it in the garden pool; who knows what consequences her carelessness will bring?
She knelt at the edge of the pool and looked in; but while the water seemed clear, and the sunlight penetrated a long way, still she could not see the bottom, but only a misty greyness that drowned at last to utter black…
What a grand contrast this piece is to the first. This is a retelling of the well-known tale in which the young princess loses her golden ball, and then reluctantly adopts the helpful frog as a companion. In this version the princess is older, and she loses something much more crucial; the frog is welcomed with gratitude after his assistance, and the complexities of the scenario are rather more interesting than the usual morality tale about always keeping promises which the original is too often preachily presented as.
The helpful frog has a sense of humour; the princess is the antithesis of the spoiled little rich girl she is usually portrayed as; the suitor is gorgeously wicked; the denouement is absolutely predictable but yet with an element of surprise in the instinctive cleverness of the princess.
Well done, Robin McKinley. I hereby award this story a very respectable 9/10.
The Hunting of the Hind
This is the second “original” tale in the collection; “original” is in quotation marks because it contains strong traditional elements, though Robin McKinley has put together a story that goes in its own direction.
Here we have a beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to follow and confront a beautiful golden deer which appears suddenly to hunting parties. The catch here is that every time someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home disappointed and forever marked by his pursuit; an deep depression descends upon him and he is never the same. Several men have nor returned; the worst is assumed.
The prince follows the deer, comes home raving, and slides into a feared-to-be-fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off on her own quest to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life.
I don’t think it will be a spoiler to mention that of course she succeeds.
This was the weakest tale of the four, to my mind. The characters never came to life; their actions are clumsily presented and then glossed over, and much is asked of the reader in order to accept the progress of the narrative; it never really worked for me. Too many “glowing eyes” and “tall stallions” and (not really explained) “malicious spells” and a weird (and also unexplained) laying on of hands “empty your mind” thing going on at the dramatic climax. The magical happy ending inspired not a contented smile, but a desire to violently chuck the book into the nearest waste receptacle.
This one gets a 3.5/10. It had a certain early promise in the storyline, but it went way past my personal tolerance level for unexplained fantasy magic. And it was, as my daughter would say, way too mooshy at the end.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses
What a relief to turn to the last story, a retelling of the old fairy tale of the same name. In this one, Robin McKinley redeems herself after the overblown slosh of the Golden Hind thing, by presenting an extremely likeable, slightly cynical, tired old soldier as her hero. I loved this guy; he did everything right, for all the right reasons.
We never get to really know the princesses in question, aside from little glances now and again, but the story is so nicely presented that it doesn’t really matter. There is also a cloak of invisibility which has almost as much character as the hero it hides. Here’s the bit where the soldier and the cloak come together, after a predictable good deed to a typically important (in fairy tale world) innocuous-seeming old crone.
“Wait a moment,” said the old woman; and he waited, gladly. She walked – swiftly, for a woman so old and weak that she had trouble drawing up her bucket from the well – the few steps to her cottage, and disappeared within. She was gone long enough that the soldier began to feel foolish for his sudden hope that she was a wise woman after all and would assist him. “Probably she is gone to find my some keepsake trinket, a clay dog, a luck charm made from birds’ feathers that she has not seen in years and has forgotten where it lies,” he said to himself. “But perhaps she will give me bread and cheese for what she has eaten of mine; for cities, I believe, are not often friendly to a poor wanderer.”
But it was none of these things she held in her hands when she returned to him. It was, instead, a cape…”(W)oven of the shadows that hide the hare from the fox, the mouse from the hawk, and the lovers from those who would forbid their love…”
Along with the cloak the crone proffers some useful advice; the soldier files it away in his shrewd mind, and it serves him in good stead once he is locked in the bedchamber with the his king’s twelve daughters, and as he follows them to their sinister dancing floor…
Nicely done. This one rates an approving 8.5/10.
Judging this collection against A Knot in the Grain, I have to admit that I personally liked the later collection better. It was a bit more astringent, and way more “clean” – in an editorial way – tighter and better edited; the writing overall was more assured, and the writer’s unique voice much more developed. And, much as I often find Robin McKinley’s writing a little too over-the-top and descriptively overwritten, I do find it interesting and admirable that she has continued to develop her style as the years go on, and to experiment with new ideas, some of which (ahem – Sunshine – absolutely loved that one, the anti-Twilight vampire novel) work out very well indeed.
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