I was never named and never asked for a thing.
I am only a girl, and for me that must ever be enough. [...] I have but two eyes, one nose, three dresses and ten fingers. I have spun-straw hair and a stucco smile.
Little Posts on Little Books #2: The Tale of the Miller's Daughter by JoSelle Vanderhooft (Papaveria Press, 2006). Vanderhooft is one of a number of young,* exciting fantasy authors currently to be found in the small presses and the quirkier short fiction zines, and her work (or so much of it as I've read) is very much in the lyrical, introspective, heavily-fairytaled vein of Vera Nazarian, Catherynne M. Valente, et al. This is a Good Thing.
[ * she's only a month older than I am, which is... sobering :-) ]
Miller's Daughter is a novella-length reworking of the tale of Rumpelstiltskin (the original is available to read online, in translation, in both the 1812 and the more elaborate - and gory! - 1857 versions). As set down by the Brothers Grimm, it is fable about the dangers of pretense, the inevitability of being found out, and the consequences of hubris: the miller's daughter is trapped by her father's false claim that she can spin straw into gold, which causes a King to claim her for his bride if she can spin for three nights in a row, and by her own deal with Rumpelstiltskin (who can make gold) to hide the lie from the King; in turn, Rumpelstiltskin is caught out by (what he believes to be) his private gloating at the now-Queen's expense.
As the title suggests, the retold story's focus is the put-upon female protagonist - our first-person narrator - rather than the elaborately-monickered "manikin". Much of the structure is preserved - the three nights of spinning, the deal and subsequent dilemma, the three chances at guessing the name - but the concerns, and the outcome, are rather different. The name of Vanderhooft's miller's daughter is also a mystery - to herself, as well as to the world, as her mother died early and her father never cared to dignify his unwanted, ill-treated daughter with a name of her own:
"[D]on't let them know your name."
"I haven't one," I told him honestly. The green light made me feel so heavy, as if I were lying in the riverbed and staring at the clouds. In this I had spoke true. Once upon a time I had a name; my mother gave it, cradling me against the ebb tide of her heart. But there was a cold winter, and her pulse grew softer, like the river under ice. Soon it was gone and my name washed away with her, somewhere deep beneath the surface, tangled in the mud and leaves. It may have lain there still for all I knew, but that was no more matter than the fact that night is cold and day is warm.
Her name goes unstated in the original, too, of course - the character changes from daughter to Queen, without ever gaining an identity separate from her station in life, and the men who define it for her. Neatly reinterpreting the motifs and resonances of the original, Vanderhooft makes this search for a name, and thus for autonomous identity and a voice in one's fate, the central tension of the story:
"What is my name," I insisted, [...]
If you had one, I don't remember it, [her father] persisted. And if you did, what need you of a name? A name's a dangerous thing, my girl. Without one, you are safe. You can remain in your father's house, your husband's bed. You can sew your tapestries behind the window, safe from storm and heat. You have no fear of burning with no name, for none may publish it, and you cannot speak ill of anyone. [...]
"And still, it is my name."
Vanderhooft also shifts the centre of villainous gravity from Rumpelstiltskin to the King, who is here a vicious tyrant (with a different method of punishing dissenters for every season):
There was a pain inside this palace, a sickness in these walls. I could feel it in the space between my wrists, in the emptiness around my eyes, in the cathedrals of my forehead. This kingdom was unwell; this I had known but dared not think for treason in thought is treason in deed, as the adage gives it out.
The King's essentially mercenary motives for marrying the miller's daughter - that handy (apparent) straw/gold trick, plus heir-production - and her father's in getting rid of her, are presented as the true villainy at work. Rumpelstiltskin, who in his nights of aiding the miller's daughter becomes a surrogate father to her, is but another victim of the King. While it is still his name that she must guess, it is the King who insists upon the contest - the prize of which is not (as in the original) redeeming a first-born child rashly promised to the manikin in return for aid in spinning, but the liberation of Rumpelstiltskin himself. In the end, our narrator rejects the slavery of her marriage and the disdain of the miller, electing to take Rumpelstiltskin as her replacement father - and, in doing so, is granted her name (very appropriate, but I won't spoil it...).
Just time to demonstrate how lovely - if, at times, a tad ponderous - Vanderhooft's prose is. This surely must be one of the prettiest descriptions of someone contemplating suicide that I've ever read:
The walls were thick with mirrors reflecting day and a filthy, thick-haired girl with hollow eyes, old, dented clogs and petticoats that streamed onto the floor. She had a sour-pinched mouth, a dented nose and scars upon her palms. She had a knife still tucked inside a pocket. She touched it to a wrist and thought she could. The red would match the curtains and all released. Perhaps the King would find her circled on the floor and mistake her for rubies and rare alabaster. Perhaps she'd be a statue in his yard covered by sun and rain and soon forgot. I touched it there, a pulse.
(Up next: Ysabel :-))