After reading a few more recent fairy tale retellings, I thought I’d go back to the “classics” of the sub-genre. I have yet to read a negative opinion on Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, a retelling said to be very faithful to the original.
Published by: Bloomsbury Books, 2003
Paperback: 383 pages
Series: The Books of Bayern #1
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open here eyes for three days.
- The Goose Girl
Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, spends the first years of her life under her aunt’s guidance learning to communicate with animals. As she grows up, Ani develops the skills of animal speech, but is never comfortable speaking with people, so when her silver-tongued lady-in-waiting leads a mutiny during Ani’s journey to be married in a foreign land, Ani is helpless and cannot persuade anyone to assist her. Becoming a goose girl for the king, Ani eventually uses her own special, nearly magical powers to find her way to her true destiny. Shannon Hale has woven an incredible, original and magical tale of a girl who must find her own unusual talents before she can become queen of the people she has made her own.
The Goose Girl was never my favorite fairy tale as a child but there was this one scene that has stuck with me until now and that still sends shivers down my spine. Falada, the princess’ loyal horse (or rather his head) mounted on the wall in the passage that she has to cross every day when walking her geese. People always worry that movies or books are not suitable for children, but honestly, when I was little it made me sad, no more than that. I was reading a fairy tale, after all, and knew that the bad guys would get theirs eventually. Now as an adult, my heart seems to be more raw and I am quite shocked at the cruelty and brutality this fairy tale contains.
As many reviewers of Shannon Hale’s book have said, it is incredibly loyal to the “original” (I never feel comfortable talking about an original fairy tale because their whole point is that there isn’t one official version) and merely wove some backstory around the existing tale. The first thing I noticed and loved about this book was that Ani isn’t a typical fairy tale princess. She isn’t confident in her role, she doesn’t know how to talk to people, how to lead, how to stand strong when others look to her for guidance. She is just a young introverted girl who seeks her mother’s approval and her lady-in-waiting’s friendship. This made it easy to like Ani and a pleasure to watch her grow.
But Shannon Hale makes sure the main villains, namely Ani’s lady-in-waiting Selia and her guard boyfriend Ungolad, get believable backgrounds and agency. Selia even raises some points that make her seem less evil and more misguided.
‘Royalty is not a right, Captain. The willingness of the people to follow a ruler is what gives her power. Here, in this place, by this people, I have been chosen.’
And so she has. During their journey to Bayern, where Ani is supposed to marry the prince, Selia and some of the guards lead a mutiny that kills almost everyone. Ani escapes and follows them to Bayern, only to find out Selia has taken her place at court. This is where the next reason for loving this book comes in. Naturally, my very first urge was to scream at Ani to go and tell someone the truth! Somebody would believe her, surely she could prove she is the real princess somehow. To my utter delight and astonishment, Ani does just that. Or she tries, at least. By adding these small scenes of Ani making rational, intelligent decisions, the author not only gives us a heroine we can root for but also a very believable reason for why she becomes the goose girl. Because nobody believes her! Additionally, Ungolad and his men are on the lookout for a young girl with yellow hair and, let me tell you, they don’t plan to throw her a party.
In her new job as goose girl, Ani makes real friends for the first time in her life. Outstanding among them is Enna, who I’m delighted to hear is the protagonist of the second book Enna Burning. Instead of the false friendship, the intrigues and manipulations she knows from Selia, Ani finds a true friend who stands by her and who believes what she says no matter how strange it sounds.
However, Ani’s transition from the luxury of being royalty to living the life of a servant happened a little too smoothly, even though she did hate political chit chat over afternoon tea and other royal appointments. I imagine if you are used to frequent baths, other people washing your clothes and preparing your food, suddenly having to do all of this yourself – or not being able to do it at all (the baths for example) – would lead to at least some unhappiness. But Ani, maybe because she really isn’t the queenly type, takes to it and learns to love her new life.
Her decision to bring justice to Selia and reveal that she is the real princess is more political than emotional. Bayern politics were a little black and white (servants poor, royalty bad) but Ani’s good heart shines through when, for the first time, she realises that her position gives her power to change things for the less fortunate. Seeing how her new friends struggle to make ends meet, how unfair certain laws or rules are, she wants to make the world better.
Other than my first few FTF books this month, The Goose Girl doesn’t focus on the romance. Neither does it happen in such a rush. Ani – or Isi, as she calls herself as the goose girl – has a tender little romance with a member of the royal guard. Giving up that love for marrying the prince shows even more how she has grown as a human being, and above all as a princess. Her responsibility towards her new people outweighs what she feels is a personal crush – after all, one of these things can make life better for many, while the other would just make her happy.
Here is the part where I nag a little. I adored the romance. It was believable and grew from interest to affection to love. So far, so good. However, the twist at the end was obvious from miles away. I might have preferred an ending where the heroine doesn’t get everything she wants. Where her decision to save a kingdom really demands that she give up something else. Ani grows immensely as a person, develops confidence and even pride, sacrifices a romance for the sake of helping others. Only to end up with everything she wanted anyway.
I admit I completely forgot how, in the fairy tale, the princess manages to convince the king that she is indeed herself. All the more fun reading the ending, with the added suspense of not knowing how Ani will save herself from the cruel punishment reserved for traitors. That scene was very well done and required some quick thinking from people other than Ani. Once again, her friendships and budding love make it clear that she isn’t alone in the world anymore.
The Goose Girl is a quiet, slow-moving book that puts its focus on characters and their growth. Magic may help, but it is smart thinking and loyal friends that make Ani succeed and that make this novel so satisfying in the end.
RATING: 7/10 – Very good
- The Goose Girl
- Enna Burning
- River Secrets
- Forest Born