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Literature / The Sleeper and the Spindle

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"The Sleeper and the Spindle" is a short story by Neil Gaiman, which manages to be both a Fractured Fairytale and a Canon Welding of "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty". It has also been published as a picture book illustrated by Chris Riddell.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. The queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems.

Tropes for this story include:

  • Adaptational Badass: Snow White in her original story was The Ingenue and a naive teenager with no survival skills. It's unclear if in this story she was always like that but by the time she sets off to prevent an enchanted sleep, she arms herself with chainmail and a sword.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The enchantress manages to be even worse than in the original version. Instead of cursing the princess purely out of spite, she deliberately drains her youth and beauty over several decades, and builds herself an army of enslaved sleeping victims to take over the world; plus her curse forces the princess to remain awake for all those years, powerless to escape or do anything to stop her tormentor.
  • Adaptation Species Change: In the original fairy tale, Snow White's stepmother was a human witch. In this version it's revealed that the stepmother was actually one of the Folk, which was why she was able to curse Snow.
  • Ambiguously Human: Crosses over with this trope. Within story, side characters debate whether the curse on Sleeping Beauty was cast by an enchantress, witch or fairy (itself sort of Self-Referential Humor to adaptations of the story, which tend to go back and forth to the issue too). While the villain is referred as the witch several times, and ages and grows old, untypical for fairy folk in stories, she also calls normal humans mortals. Side characters make references to "forest witches banished thousand years ago", the queen’s hallucination of her stepmother says how mortal kind rose against her and her sisters who used to rule the world, and the villain references existence of surviving members of said "Sisterhood", while the queen describes the villain and her stepmother's kind as creatures hungering for youth and beauty because they wasted their own long, long ago, leaving it ambiguous whether we are dealing with Mage Species, or remnant members of The Magocracy who achieved Age Without Youth status.
  • And the Adventure Continues: At the end of the story the queen decides not to return to her country in order to be married and spend the rest of her life without choice, and she sets off with the dwarfs on a new journey.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The queen and dwarfs assume that the story is going to follow the formula: they'll find a sleeping princess and a bitter enchantress waiting to die. Nope; the witch is the one sleeping, stealing youth and sleep from the aged princess who is a Scatterbrained Senior at times.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The curse is broken, the witch defeated and deceased, everyone who was enchanted has woken up and the queen decides to choose her own path in life with her friends, rather than resign herself to a role she doesn't want — but the princess remains an old woman whose life was stolen from her, and she might never wake again.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The old woman is revealed to be the real princess, nearly ninety years old. Realizing who she is, the queen gives her the spindle and tells her she knows what to do. The old woman, freed from the previous Geas not to be able to harm her in her sleep, stabs the witch in the heart.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: It's revealed the princess gave up her sleep and youth to the witch, to protect her people. When she became an old lady, that's when the curse spread.
  • Hoist by Their Own Petard: The witch ends up being defeated by her own magic when the princess stabs her with the very spindle that she was cursed by — 'a scratch is all that was needed'.
  • Literal-Minded: The dwarfs are of a practical and unromantic turn of mind, so when they're told that the cursed princess will need to be wakened by the traditional method (meaning True Love's Kiss), they interpret it as "dump a bucket of water on her and shout 'Wakey wakey!'"
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Zigzagged; the witch hints this along with We Can Rule Together to Snow White when the queen realizes that the young waif in bed was not the princess. The witch is a hundred years old at least, and the queen is in her late teens. Snow White turns her down because it would be wrong and the witch is also a member of the Folk.
  • Mundane Solution: To get to the sleeping princess, the queen and the dwarfs have to get through a barrier of razor sharp thorns, which has already claimed the lives of several would-be rescuers. However, the briars have been growing for so many years that by this stage they're long dead, even if they're still sharp, so the queen sets them alight with help from a tinder box.
  • Nameless Narrative: None of the characters in the story are referred to by name, instead being referred to by occupation or physical appearance, although it's pretty clear who the queen and the princess are.
    They had names, the dwarfs, but human beings were not permitted to know what they were, such things being sacred. The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty. Names are in short supply in this telling.
  • Never Wake Up a Sleepwalker: Not for lack of trying; the dwarfs initially try to shake some of the people they find awake, but it doesn't work. Later, they run from a mob of sleepwalkers that the witch is controlling, realizing that an enchanted sleep doesn't allow for easy waking.
  • Rapid Aging: When the witch is defeated, she withers into dust. All the youth she stole from the world is returned.
  • The Reveal: The beautiful girl who's slept for seventy years is not the cursed princess, but rather the witch who cast the curse. The real princess is the old woman who's been forced to stay awake for all those years.