Robin McKinley-The Door in the Hedge

Themes Explored: fairy tale retellings, fiction, faerie tales, short stories, magic, elves,  dual realities, spells, curses,  fantasy, changelings, romance, princesses, falling in love, mysticism, legends, mythology, lore, ancient customs

Synopsis: Master storyteller Robin McKinley here spins two new fairy tales and retells two cherished classics. All feature princesses touched with or by magic. There is Linadel, who lives in a kingdom next to Faerieland, where princesses are stolen away on their seventeenth birthdays-and Linadel’s seventeenth birthday is tomorrow. And Korah, whose brother is bewitched by the magical Golden Hind; now it is up to her to break the spell. Rana must turn to a talking frog to help save her kingdom from the evil Aliyander. And then there are the twelve princesses, enspelled to dance through the soles of their shoes every night. (From Goodreads)

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Review: Short stories, I think, pose a greater narrative challenge than a full length novel. By definition, short stories need to be concise, on point, and significantly more condensed than novels. Recently my soon to be sister-in-law lent me The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley, an author I have never read. This is a collection of four short stories: two original and two retellings.  I think it is apparent by now that I love fairy tales, especially new twists on old classics. All four of these shorts are excellent. A good mark of a fairy tale retelling is whether or not they feel timeless; as in there are no discernable time periods or overly modern word choices. After all, fairy tales are meant to exist outside of time. McKinley has an ethereal writing style that evokes the mood of the original tales while infusing a new approach.

All four stories are full of the warm feeling romance and love at first sight meetings typical in fairy tales. However, as these are short stories, the romance is not developed and may seem a little abrupt. Only one of the stories had true one-dimensional characters, the other three had enough development to make the characters seem plausible. Regardless, this is an enchanting collection and I thoroughly enjoyed all four stories. The Door in the Hedge includes the following stories: The Stolen Princess (original),  The Princess and the Frog (retelling), The Golden Hind (original), and The Twelve Princesses (retelling).

The Stolen Princess: In the last mortal realm near the faire lands, the fairies are notorious for taking mortal babies and the most beautiful teenagers. When Princess Linadel is taken by the neighboring fairies; she must choose between the love and her responsibilities as heir apparent.

This story also provides the title; the door in the hedge refers to the entrance between the mortal and fairy realms. The Queen and the King of the last mortal kingdom have only one child, the Princess Linadel. On the eve of the beautiful princess’ seventeenth birthday, the fairies come and spirit her away. Unlike most of the human population, the King and Queen decide to do everything their power to get her back. This original tale evokes the classic tales of the Middle Ages. It is beautifully written and easily read. Of course, everything ends on a cheerful note and there are no dangling subplots. It contains everything needed for a good fairy tale: intrigue, love, fairies, parental affection, and conflict.

The Princess and the Frog: Princess Rana’s kingdom and family are being threatened by the evil and sinister sorcerer Prince Aliyander. One day, while briefly escaping Aliyander’s presence, Rana happens upon a frog. In return for a favor, the frog asks to come back to the palace. Will the cursed frog help save Rana from an evil marriage?

The Princess and the Frog is one of the better known fairy tales in modern times; partially thanks to the 2009 Disney movie. I have always been partial to the Grimm version. Regardless, in this version Rana meets the frog when she accidentally drops a cursed necklace from Aliyander into a pond. She gladly welcomes the frog helps when he offers to retrieve the necklace. Coming back without it would have meant certain punishment from the evil prince. She gratefully allows the frog to come to the palace; in direct contrast to the original tale where the frog’s request is reluctantly granted. The frog has a sly sense of humor, the princess is clever, the suitor is wickedly evil, and the ending is perfect. While not complex in any sense, this short retelling is a great snapshot of excellent narration. With minimal writing McKinely is able to perfectly capture the soul of each character. I think this is the strongest addition, narrative wise, in the collection.

The Hunting of the Hind: After her brother is enchanted by the cursed Golden Hind, misfit Princess Korah rides out to chase the hind him. She follows the hind into a stone hill where she finds the hind has transformed into a beautiful woman. The woman and her brother tell her of their imprisonment by a jealous sorcerer and implore her to break the curse and let them go free.

In case you were wondering, a golden hind is a type of deer. In this tale the kingdom’s beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to confront a beautiful golden deer that haunts the forest. However, whenever someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home deeply depressed and forever changed.  The prince follows the deer, comes home deeply sadden and listless, and slides into a fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life. In my opinion, this was the weakest of the four. The characters never really come to life and the malicious spell is never explained. It just did not click with me. However, it is very well written.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses: Every night the kingdom’s twelve princesses disappear. In the morning they reemerge and their dancing shoes are completely worm through. In a desperate attempt to save them, the King allows any man three nights to solve the mystery and a promise to marry any of the princesses. A recently discharged solder decides to try his hand at breaking the curse.

This retelling of the classic fairy tale follows the original quite faithfully with a few twists. When king find out that his twelve daughters are cursed, he does his best to free them. He sends out an invitation allowing any man to have one of his daughters’ hand in marriage in return for breaking the curse. Meanwhile, in another part of the kingdom, a weary soldier is told the story of the curse by an old woman. The princesses are being forced to dance with a twelve demon princes.The soldier accepts the King’s invitation and tries to uncover the mystery. For three nights he follows the princesses into an underground, magical kingdom and takes a couple of objects back with him to prove his tale. The princesses are never really developed, they are not even named. This story is about the soldier redeeming himself, not about the princesses. It is a predictable tale but very endearing and wonderfully rendered. It is an excellent retelling and the perfect to note to end the book.  

The Door in the Hedge, Firebird, 1981, ISBN: 9780698119606

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