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Literature / Deerskin

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Deerskin is a novel by Britain-based author Robin McKinley. It's a Grimmification of the Perrault fairy tale Donkeyskin, in which a king, who had been married to the most beautiful woman in the world (or in the book, the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms) promises his dying wife he will not remarry any woman who isn't as beautiful as she was. Of course through the years he never finds one, until their only child, a daughter, grows up to be the spitting image of her mother and thus draws her father's... attention.

Deerskin takes it up to eleven in grimness factor—the princess is shown as completely neglected long before her mother dies, the entire kingdom far too fixated on her beautiful, beloved, but fundamentally shallow parents. Neither parent even takes any notice of her until her mother dies, and her father looks at her in a way she can't interpret but really doesn't like. She spends the next two years largely hiding from him, until, the day after her seventeenth birthday, he announces his intention to marry her. Naturally she's as horrified as the rest of the court, but since the court can't bring themselves to think the King is wrong, they blame it on her.


She locks herself in her rooms, but after three nights her father breaks in and rapes her, leaving her unconscious, horribly injured, and as she will later find out, pregnant.

The rest of the story is a somewhat unsettling chronicle of her life in the wake of that—for months she can't remember anything much beyond her own name and that of her dog. She runs away into the woods and eventually finds a cabin where she passes the winter, subsisting on largely rotten food, hardly able to walk and unable to fully use one of her arms. A Convenient Miscarriage (wholly justified, considering she was half-starved and badly injured) temporarily brings back her memories, but a being called the Moonwoman takes them from her until she's strong enough to face them again.

Though it takes place in a fantasy setting, it's an at times gruelingly realistic portrayal of sexual abuse and its after-effects. One of McKinley's most adult books, it's definitely not one anyone younger than their mid-teens should probably be reading, unless they want to be traumatized.


Deerskin includes examples of the following tropes:

  • 100% Adoration Rating: Lissar's parents, to the point that everyone adamantly refuses to believe that they are capable of doing any wrong.
  • Adults Are Useless: Even the other adults in her life who become vaguely aware there's something... off... in the way her father thinks of her don't even try to interfere. Even Lissar's nurse worships the king and queen and doesn't believe they are capable of doing anything wrong.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: What Lissar's father decides he's going to do with his daughter. She is of course horrified.
  • Babies Ever After: Ash is likely expecting puppies at the end.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted. Lissar's parents are beautiful to the point of being living legends, but neither is a good person. Also Ossin, who should be the handsome prince according to fairy tale conventions, is rather plain. Played straight with Lissar herself.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Technically, Lissar has this for Ossin's sister, who becomes betrothed to Lissar's father. She storms the wedding and calls out her father for what he did. Ossin is grateful to Lissar for saving his sister from a terrible marriage, telling her that she's very brave to admit her trauma so as to prevent her father from hurting someone else. It's implied if he had known, Lissar's father would have been in for hell.
  • Break the Cutie: This happens to Lissar, but she manages to prevent Camilla's innocence and sanity being taken in the same way, and she does recover to an extent.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Lissar eventually lets her father have it when he nearly marries Ossin's sister.
  • Child by Rape: And even worse, by incest, too. Lissar ends up miscarrying, which given the circumstances, can probably be seen as a good thing.
  • Chekhov's Gunman, Averted, a character is very curious about Lissar, thinks that the she reminds him of someone, shows that he might really have met her in her previous (now secret) identity. He then promises not to tell anyone and points out his address very carefully and promises to help if Lissar ever needs him... and is never heard from again.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: Happens to Lissar in the hut in the woods. Considering her injuries, her so-called food, her mental state, and the squalor in which she was living, it's really more surprising that it didn't happen sooner. When a woman is dying, as Lissar pretty explicitly was, her body will naturally jettison any pregnancy it can't support. The strange thing, though, is that Lissar didn't have the miscarriage until the moment she realized she was pregnant; at that point she was actually in pretty good shape compared to how she had been a month or two prior: broken, bleeding, bone-weary and starving.
  • Darker and Edgier: Than the original fairy tale, which was already pretty dark. Interesting in that almost all other retellings Bowdlerise the whole issue of incest by making the princess adopted - this adaption takes it up to eleven.
  • Dances and Balls: Lissar's seventeenth birthday party.
  • Deconstruction: Of the original fairy tale. The book digs into how horrific and traumatizing the events of Donkeyskin would actually be if somebody really lived through all that—not to mention how awful a person the king in question would have to be to even consider marrying his own child as the fulfillment of what's a pretty selfish and conceited last request from his dead wife.
  • Defiled Forever: Lissar sees herself this way, after being raped by her father. The fact that she is no longer a virgin is part of the reason why she is reluctant to marry Ossin.
  • Deus ex Machina: Sort of. The Moonwoman, a quasi-religious, quasi-mythological creature, takes away Lissar's memories and grants her some divine gifts to make her strong enough to deal with them when they are returned to her.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Lissar, once she's left the mountains for lower country, tells a friend "I like to know where I'm walking. In shoes, I'm always walking on shoes."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Oh so very, very much, and even then the ending is more realistic than completely happy.
  • Engagement Challenge: How Lissar's parents met and married.
  • Ethereal White Dress: Lissar in her white deerskin dress and white hair. The effect is enough to make people think she's not quite human.
  • Foil: Lissar's kingdom is the wealthiest of all, and her people worship their king and queen for their physical beauty - while snobbishly looking down on Ossin's people, who are considerably less wealthy, with rulers beloved for their down to earth nature and humility rather than their looks. Ossin's father was once a suitor for Lissar's mother, but fell in love with and married another woman, whom Lissar's people regard with contempt simply because she is not physically beautiful, describing her as having "thick legs" and a "heavy jaw" - a direct contrast to their own queen, the "most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms".
  • Grimmification: Where most other adaptions of this fairy tale tone down the disturbing subject matter, this one takes it up to eleven.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: When the Queen is dying, though no one speaks of it, everyone but the King is terrified of her. Her spirit at one point apparently literally tries to attack her daughter as well. This is especially terrifying for everyone because until her health started failing she was strongly believed to be The High Queen.
  • Growing Up Sucks: At least, what happens to Lissar when she does grow up certainly does.
  • Happily Ever After: The story makes a point of subverting this. Although Lissar does finally find a degree of relative happiness and peace, she knows she will always bear the scars of her past, and isn't yet emotionally ready to be married to Ossin (but does agree to give their relationship a chance).
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Lissar and her fleethound Ash are devoted to each other, while Lissar and Ossin initially bond over their mutual love of dogs.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: Completely and totally averted with Lissar, thanks in part to the unsettling vibes she gets from her father; her main interests are gardening and her dog. Robin McKinley tends to avert this trope in general.
  • Kick the Dog: Literally, when the king attacks Ash for protecting Lissar.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: At first Lissar does this to herself, wiping out everything but her own name and her dog's; later the Moonwoman does it for her, shutting her memories away until she might be capable of dealing with them.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: It takes several years, but Lissar eventually gets revenge on her father.
  • Maybe Ever After: Ossin seeks out Lissar after the climax, and tells her he loves her, tragic backstory and rape be damned. The novel ends before she decides to accept or reject him, but the tone is optimistic.
  • Modest Royalty: In direct contrast to Lissar's proud and elitist parents, Ossin and his family enjoy practical everyday tasks that most royals would leave to servants.
  • Missing Mom: The death of Lissar's mother is what sets off the chain of misery.
  • Mystical White Hair: The Moonwoman, a goddess or nature spirit, has white hair. Lissar also gains white hair after the Moonwoman heals her and takes her memories away. Only when this spell is broken and Lissar remembers does her hair return to being black.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted.
    • The Moonwoman is the goddess who protects the downtrodden and finds things that are lost, but there's also a lot of symbolism about the moon's cycle.
  • Parental Incest: Lissar and her father; it's implied there was some of this going on with her mother and HER father as well, seeing as it's stated repeatedly that the Queen's father was so unhealthily attached to her he'd rather kill all her suitors than ever let her marry and leave him.
  • Parental Neglect: Lissar's parents were too obsessed with each other to pay any attention to their daughter, and had no direct involvement whatsoever in her upbringing. In her narrative, she states they were "only a little more real" than the characters in the stories her nursemaid told her.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Lissar wears one for her seventeenth birthday.
  • Prince Charming: Ossin is something of a reconstructed example. He's fat, shy, homely, and would rather be out at the kennel with his dogs than in the royal court, but he has the personality to a tee. He sits up all night with orphaned puppies and is, as a child, apparently the only person who cares enough to remember that Lissar exists in the midst of all the chaos and grief that follows the Queen's death - despite never having actually met her at that point. (Somehow, this adds up to making him more endearing than a straight example of the trope would be.)
    • Lissar's father was a classic example of this in his youth, but later morphs into a very, very dark subversion.
  • Rape as Drama: A brutal but respectfully written example; the bulk of the book is devoted to Lissar's slow journey toward recovery. The book ends before the recovery ends - true love doesn't make her forever free of her fragile memory, fear of romance, or feeling that she isn't whole. But she does get stronger and healthier, becomes able to remember her identity without panicking, makes the friends she couldn't as a child, and finds a love interest who's willing to go as slow as she needs. By the end she is willing to take a chance on herself and Ossin.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Lissar and her mother. The queen was celebrated throughout seven kingdoms as the most beautiful woman in the world, particularly for her black hair with red hints. Lissar, her daughter, greatly resembles her mother as she grows older. That resemblance is unfortunately her undoing.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Ossin's family is very practical. They help out with tasks like canning food, send thoughtful and useful gifts, and make time for the people in their kingdom. This is in direct contrast with Lissar's parents and kingdom, who continually look down on them for being down-to-earth.
  • Shout-Out: There's a reference to the dragon Maur and Princess Aerin, from the author's The Hero and the Crown. Possibly a Continuity Nod, though there's no other sign that the two books share any continuity.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Played disturbingly and realistically straight, as the princess's resemblance to her beautiful mother brings her absolutely nothing but grief.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Lissar's entire kingdom seems to be this, being the wealthiest of the seven kingdoms, but her parents are most especially.
  • The High Queen: On the surface, Lissar's mother seemed to be this. Under her fancy exterior, though, she's really an incredibly vain and selfish woman who completely neglects her only child.
  • They Just Dont Get It: Her father's courtiers are all too willing to think that Lissar has seduced him, in spite of the fact that she's constantly withdrawn and flinching around him even before his announcement that he intends to marry her, and the fact that she faints when he makes said announcement, and immediately protests the idea when she comes around again. This trope, disturbingly, has occurred among readers as well: one reader wrote McKinley an irate letter telling her that she had ruined Lissar's capacity to be a heroine, because fairy tale heroines have to be virgins.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: When she runs away from her father, Lissar's brain suppresses nearly everything of her past, from her name and identity to even the herblore she learned from Rinnol, because all of it is associated with her father's abuse. The memory comes back, very traumatically, when she miscarries. The Moonwoman helps her put the memories away again until she's ready for them. This doesn't mean that the next time she remembers her name it's all fine and dandy, though; realistically, her trauma and recovery are more a cycle than a straight line, though there is gradual improvement.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: While Lissar is fairly average as a little girl, as she gets older she resembles her mother more and more. To the point that her father decides to marry her.
  • Wedding Deadline: When Lissar discovers that her father is marrying Ossin's sister Camilla, she races to stop the ceremony before the vows can be said.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Lissar finds out that her father is marrying Camilla, while she's living in isolation. She debates the fact that her spirit is still broken, and asks if she is ready to face him to save Camilla. Lissar realizes she can't let Ossin or Camilla suffer what she did, and storms the wedding.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: What the queen was in life, and eerily more so after her death.