Deerskin by Robin McKinley
This post will probably contain spoilers, but there is no way to write a reaction/review/discussion on Deerskin without mentioning a few key points. Readers have been warned.
I love Robin McKinley and read every one of her books with a voracious appetite the moment I get them into my hands. That said, I was wary about Deerskin. Not because I doubted that it would be a wonderful bit of storytelling, but because of the subject matter. Deerskin opens with an author’s note:
There is a story by Charles Perrault called Donkeyskin which, because of its subject matter, is often not included in collections of Perrault’s fairy tales. Or, if it does appear, it does so in a bowdlerized state. The original Donkeyskin is where Deerskin began.
Donkeyskin is a troubling fairy tale (read a copy of it here or a synopsis on the wikis) involving a princess’s despair as she tries to save herself from her father’s unnatural desire to marry her. With the aid of a fairy godmother, the princess runs away and conceals herself in a donkeyskin before finding her happy ever after. McKinley’s retelling, as always, adds depth and narrative to a straightforward, if complicated tale.
That’s part of what I was afraid of… to create a fully realized narrative, McKinley explores themes, such as child neglect, incest, rape, violence against women and animals, and deadly despair, that make for a dark, often disturbing tale. The threat of incest in Donkeyskin is fully realized in Deerskin in a scene that is surreal and dreamlike, but no less horrifying for this. Violence and rape are two elements that I often avoid in my reading selections–not because I want to censor my reading experience, but because I find these all too real and hate the idea of anyone being victimized in such a manner, even a fictional character.
Deerskin tells the tale of Princess Lissla Lissar, whose mother is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms and whose father won the hand of this woman by accomplishing the most magnificent, impossible feats. Lissar grows up on stories about her extraordinary mother and father, but is rarely tolerated in their presence for more than a few minutes at royal events. Alone with her nursemaid, the princess does not know how to name the relationship she has with her parents, but knows it is not entirely right. As she grows, the Princess fails to fit in among her courtiers, her untrained manner disappointing those who would wish to curry favor with her father and mother. When her mother’s health begins to falter under a mystery ailment, the princess does not know what to feel. Instead, she waits. When the queen orders a portrait to be made of her as she was in her former glory, the king gives in to her wish but begins to go mad with the idea of her dying. When the queen orders the king to remarry after her death, but only to one as magnificent as she, Lissar’s fate is sealed by the curse of her mother’s final request.
The king becomes a madman and vows to marry his daughter, who refuses but does not know how to escape his will. The rest is a violent, bloody encounter that nearly destroys Lissar, who is only saved by her love for Ash, the dog she received as a gift from a foreign prince.
The experience of rape and Lissar’s subsequent quest to save herself, if only for Ash’s sake, are imbued with a sense of urgency and dignity. No time is spent dwelling on the details of Lissar’s victimization, but the idea off its horror is clear. Lissar’s bravery in fighting for Ash’s safety and trying to stop her father from killing her dog and hurting her reveal a side to her character that was not present during her time as a sheltered princess. It lays the foundation for the strong, if haunted woman she becomes in years that follow her escape.
Despite the darkness that marks much of Lissar’s inward narrative, there is a sense of hope and magic behind the story. Adapting the idea of the fairy godmother, McKinley introduces a moon goddess figure, a protector of the weak that intercedes on Lissar’s behalf just when she is about to falter and saves her, offering her salvation by granting her the time she needs to come to terms with the terrible things that happened to her and Ash.
Lissar becomes Deerskin, a goddess-like figure herself, and finds a place where she can thrive among people who accept her without asking questions. There is love and friendship and peace, and Lissar finds herself in a way that is not always idyllic but which earns her respect and acceptance and her own happy ever after, on her terms and no one else’s.
It is a beautiful novel that explores salvation and liberation even as it presents the more troubling elements of rape and violence. These are treated with care and dignity, just as Lissar is treated with respect and honor by her would-be lover upon learning of her past.