Thorn by Intisar Khanani (2012)
In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Goose Girl, a princess is sent off by her mother to marry a king in another kingdom. Travelling with the princess is her maid and a talking horse. The maid turns treacherous and forces the princess to exchange clothes and horses, that she might act as an imposter princess and marry the king herself.
On arrival at the kingdom, the true princess is sent out as a servant to mind a flock of geese; the false princess has the talking horse beheaded, so he cannot expose her, and attempts to have the goose girl killed, even devising a particularly cruel form of execution for her.
In true fairy tale fashion, the fake princess is exposed, and the real one is raised up to her rightful place, and the nasty form of execution is carried out on the imposter.
Intisar is faithful to the Grimm tale in her retelling. I confess that if I were writing a version of The Goose Girl, I would not have the stomach to have the horse beheaded, or the gruesome execution carried out. Intisar does have her heroine act to ameliorate the execution method, but she does have the stomach for having the horse killed, as well as adding a few other brutal and disturbing deaths, most of them carried out on women. Despite my dismay at such scenes, I came away from Thorn with an appreciation of the themes Intisar was exploring. Fairy tales frequently do contain brutal acts of violence and cruelty, and to women and children in particular. An essential function of fairy tales is in portraying the extremes of good and evil, but ensuring justice is meted out in the end. The wicked are killed or thwarted, and those who are faithful in their goodness are raised up and rewarded with a happy ending.
Not only does Thorn not shy away from exposing brutality in all its forms – bullying, child abuse, rape, murder – it also explores how the desire for vengeance and the inability to forgive can corrupt the victim into a mirror of their abuser, both on an individual level, as in the character of the Lady, and on a societal level – i.e does making the punishment fit the crime justify a measure of vengeance in the form of corporal punishment?
Following the character of Thorn, aka Princess Alyrra, through her trials was a visceral experience - she spent 99% of the story either being abused, in fear of abuse, or simply being very cold and very miserable, and yet I found I could not stop reading, I just had to see her come to the end of her sufferings and get her consolatory ending.
Thorn/Alyrra, faces up to every enemy – the abusers without, and the self-doubt within – and never lets fear or threats keep her from seeking to act with kindness.
In the Grimm’s version the princess comes across as rather passive, her maid makes her promise she will not tell anyone the truth, and she does as she’s told without much of a struggle. Thorn/Alyrra finds her courage as she grows internally, and I was left with a strong impression that she would live on beyond the last page as a strong, proactive future queen who would seek true justice for the poor and the oppressed in her kingdom.
But I still wish the horse didn’t have to die…