Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip
Posted April 24, 2007on:
I made an aborted attempt at writing what it was about fairy tales in the fantasy genre that stand out for me, even apart from the more expected fare that I love to bits. It didn’t work because I was making all these sweeping generalisations when a) I love fantasy but I’m not a junkie ie I don’t read all that many and b) I’ve read, like, three fairy tales excluding the Andersen collection. It would be better if I narrowed the scope of my observations. So McKillip leap frogs over all the other books I plan to write about.
In the Winter Rose Patricia McKillip draws heavily from The Snow Queen, written by Hans Christian Andersen: you know the one where a shard of a troll’s be-spelled mirror lodges itself into the heart of a boy, he’s kidnapped by the Snow Queen, and his friend tries to rescue him. I mean to re-read the original because I remember little beyond the basic plot, but for now I’ll reflect on the book as it stands.
Rois Melior lives with her father and her older sister Laura in a house on farmland. Her mother died when she was a baby from no illness that anyone could name; she simply stopped eating and wasted away. Rois, like her mother, is as familiar with the woods as she was with her house, always barefoot, collecting various herbs and flowers in rain or shine, and making new discoveries. It was while she made a new discovery, a well covered by thorny rose briars, that she first saw Corbet Lynn. He had returned to the village to claim and re-build the run down Lynn Hall. This caused much talk in the village for his grandfather, Nial, had been despised by all, including his son. Rumour had it that Tearle had murdered his father and that with his last dying breath had laid a curse on him and his descendants. What exactly were the specifics of the curse, or of Niall’s death, was a matter of debate among the locals.
Everyone agreed on the details of Corbet’s arrival: he rode in on his horse through the village. But Rois saw something different.
That’s how I saw him at first: as a fall of light, and then something shaping out of the light. So it seemed. I did not move; I let the water stream silently down my wrist. There was a blur of gold: his hair. And then I blinked, and saw his face more clearly.
I must have made some noise then. Perhaps I shifted among the wild fern. Perhaps I sighed. He looked toward me, but there was too much light; I must have been a blur of shadow in his eyes.
Then he walked out of the light.
Chances are I may have been very thick and too practical, for at first I took this as no more than a striking way of describing him appearing with the sun shining from behind him. (Before she saw him her face had been turned toward the sun.) It was not until later that I realised she literally saw him walking out of a burst of light. Rois’ understanding of the world is fluid and she is less surprised than others would be of such logically inexplicable moments. Her acceptance is not uncritical though, and she is as wary as she is attracted to this mysterious stranger whose cursed past is viewed as more remarkable to most than his vaguely unearthly air.
McKillip’s metaphorical, notably visual style helps to develop this layered, expansive vision of the world in which characters are not transparently human and the rain and the trees have their own character. Where people can learn the details of a murder but with no one clear on how they either gained the knowledge of the event, much less which version of the alleged curse was true. It encourages ambiguous interpretations where at times comparison is just for effect, and in others where the wind that jostles her “like invisible horses” eventually forms into the Wild Hunt.
What left the deepest impression on me was the artful way in which she developed the darker themes and imagery under the light. The small village is usually a quiet, contented one, the most excitement typically being a wedding, prompted by the coming of a bairn. At Rose’s home her sister Laurel is the conventional, pleasant, stable centre of the family, pretty as a picture and engaged to a kind, simple farmer, Perrin, who plays the flute. Her father is gruff, affable man, often bemused by his wandering Rois. But the quiet area was the scene of a murder, and the perpetrator was never caught (which no one minded). Laurel becomes entangled in a situation far beyond her ken, and in doing so threatens more than her personal future. Her father has his own secrets and doubts, linked to the mysterious death of her mother.
The rose, a prominent image and symbol, brings her as much if not more pain than pleasure. She pricks her finger on the thorns, or they scrape her skin as she moves past briars, and at one point she is completely entangled in the vines and falls ill. Its blood red colour is often extended literally in violent scenes. Corbet’s family history is a violent one and a confrontation with his father is one of the darkest moments of the book. To see the continuation of the abuse in a second generation jolted it out of the white-washed fairy tale frame in which the child is robbed of his/her rightful high station, forced to be a servant, into something more sinister and too familiar; one feels as if such offences do not belong in a fairy tale.
Death and mortality linger on every page. Besides Rois’ mother’s death and that of Corbet’s predecessor’s, it’s present in the conversations between Rois’ father and Laurel’s fiance Perrin, both farmers who talk more of their animal’s maladies than of any births. When Rois visits the apothecary, the older members of the village are always there, waiting for treatments to extend their lives. And when winter comes its bleak dominance seems permanent. There are fewer more daunting images in the book than when Rois and Corbet try to reach out to each when the strange frigid barrier between them strips their hands to the skeleton.
As you can probably tell this is not a merry tale. I read most of it with a tense chest that ached in sympathy for Rois. Her relationship with Corbet and his with her family is complicated, right up until the very end, and there is no ecstatically mushy moment to bring ease. The love she feels is painful but she does not shrink from it. “…you must hold fast to him, as fast as those thorns hold you, no matter what shape he takes, what face he shows. You must love.”
After I re-read the Andersen (which will not take long) I will post more on the snow queen character, compare Kay and Corbet and how McKillip passed on Andersen’s heavy-moralising and made different use of the cursed glass shard.