McKinley, Robin: Deerskin

Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is her “except” book; any description of her accumulated novels will probably include an “ . . . except Deerskin.” It’s a re-write of “Donkeyskin” in its Charles Perrault version, in which a widowed king wants to marry his daughter. (McKinley talks about her problems with Perrault’s version on her website.)

In case you don’t follow those links, Deerskin gets an “except” because the pivotal event is the beating and rape of the princess, Lissar, by her father. It’s a brutal yet non-exploitative piece of writing: an amazing sense of foreboding and dread before, and very little physical detail during, just reactions and effects—which are more than sufficient. I have heard that Lissar’s reactions ring very true to people who have been severely traumatized; I personally couldn’t say, but the force of her trauma, and the distance she must travel to healing, makes the book a powerful and lingering one.

That said, I still want to argue with quite a lot of it. It’s possible that fairy tales—particularly the kind with helpful goddesses—might not fit very well with psychologically realistic trauma. It’s not that Lissar couldn’t use the help, or wasn’t due for something easier than her life to date—but I can’t help but obscurely feel that the magical help diminishes her very real accomplishment of recovering (partly this is because I think some of the magical help wouldn’t actually have worked). The conflation of her with the Moonwoman also makes me slightly uncomfortable in ways I am unable to articulate.

I should point out that there’s at least one way in which this isn’t an “except” book for McKinley: the ending jumps up several levels of abstraction, going as mythic or more as Spindle’s End, which is to say, very mythic. I think I followed it, but it’s too bad that because it went so mythic, it couldn’t answer a few practical questions I had about the aftermath.

(I think I’m going to put spoilers over on my LiveJournal, for people who’ve read the book and are wondering what I’m talking about. I’ll leave the link in comments.)

For people interested in taking apart fairy tales and getting them to work as stories, Deerskin is worth looking at. I’m not convinced that it succeeds, but I freely admit my reaction may be idiosyncratic.


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  1. Forgot the spoiler link for Deerskin: it’s here.

  2. I always felt that the Moonwoman was a symbol for something else. Sisterhood maybe or the strength of women as opposed to the artificial weekness of Lissar’s life at court. In fact I believe that a lot of the things happening outside Lissar are symbols for what is going on inside her. I read the book as highly archetypical with blurry divisions of what is story and what is symbols for something else. /Beatrice

  3. Beatrice: Hmmm. I wouldn’t have thought of that at all, because McKinley does work so firmly within genre and because there are physical manifestations of her encounters with Moonwoman. But much of the book is at such high levels of abstraction that I agree that it’s very blurry.

  4. Yes but if you look at what McKinley wrote about fairytales in the link above you see that what she likes about them are that they are about the subconsciuos done up in metaphors without the limitations of reality: “They’re the sub- or, sometimes, the unconscious, brought up into the sunlight and done up in the metaphors of princes and princesses and ogres and enchantments because the nonrational bits of our brains and spirits can’t be bothered (and good for them) with the standard draconian limitations of so called reality” I don’t think this level of symbolism need to be outside the genre, rather it goes back to the roots of the fairytale in stories such as the Romane de la Rose (uncertain about the spelling)where all the characters the hero meets are aspects of the heroine. Still, even if this is the case, I agree that it was unnecessary to introduce the Moonwoman as a sort of deus ex machina come to fix everything. The subject-matter is difficult though. How would you have described Lissar’s healing without the Moonwoman? The shortcut saves the reader a lot of pain and prevents the healing process from seeming too easy.

  5. Beatrice: True. But I think that saying, fairy tales are a way of talking about emotional truths via non-realistic characters and plots, is a very different thing from saying, _within the story_ the characters don’t actually exist. As far as the Moonwoman’s effect on the story, you say, “The shortcut saves the reader a lot of pain” which I fully agree with, and then “and prevents the healing process from seeming too easy.” Here I don’t follow you–I think exactly the reverse. If you care to elaborate, I’d be interested to hear. FWIW, I think the minimum needed for the story would be healing Lissar’s physical wounds (and maybe Ash’s coat), and yes for that you need magic. I think Lissar could do the rest herself.

  6. Kate: Now I’ve read Sunshine – and I thank you; this is what should have won the Hugo – I think Deerskin may not turn out to be an “except book”. It may be that the posthumous study will say that all of her books were about Beasts. In many of them, the Beast chose to strive out of the heart of darkness. In Deerskin and the Damar books, the Beast didn’t. (This would explain why Rose Daughter exists, btw. Rose may be less of a character than Beauty, but her Beast is more Beastly.)

  7. Paul, re: Deerskin and Beasts–that’s a really interesting thought. My first instinct is to contrast this with the literal animals she does so well, but maybe that’s pushing it too far.

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