In Deerskin, Robin McKinley delves into a dark tale of royal incest, derived from Frenchman Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”. At its simplest, this oft-neglected, disturbing tale revolves around a deathbed promise extracted from a King by his Queen, to marry no woman not at least her equal. The Queen may have had good intentions, or maysimply have been petty; either way, the result is inevitably the same: the King dutifully promises, remains unmarried for a number of years, then notices the striking resemblance of his daughter to her late mother. The King proclaims his intention to marry the Princess, to her dismay. If the Princess is lucky, she is able to escape this incestuous prison, to hide behind the anonymity offered by the titular, otherwordly Donkeyskin until time and her resilience bring about healing.McKinley’s retelling, her first foray into adult literature, follows this journey of neglect, pain, self discovery and eventual recuperation as revealed through Lissar, Princess and daughter to the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms‚ and her equally matched King. As middle age encroaches, the Queen takes mysteriously ill, and manipulates her besotted King into promising that he will remarry only if he can find a woman who meets or exceeds her own legendary beauty. After the Queen’s death, the King takes little immediate interest in his daughter, Lissar, leaving her to the company of her ladies-in-waiting, and, more significantly, her fleethound, Ash, gift of a neighboring kingdom’s Prince, Ossin.
It is only upon his daughter’s seventeenth birthday ball that the King realizes that Lissar’s beauty surpasses even that of her mother’s, and he declares to all that he will marry his daughter. Horrified, Lissar refuses, and bars herself and Ash in their room. Lissar’s childhood comes to a violent conclusion, as her overcome father destroys her innocence, nearly killing both young woman and dog in the process.
Lissar and Ash flee far from home and seek refuge in solitude, anonymity and a lack of memory. During this time, the Moonwoman, whom Lissar calls The Lady, visits the wounded woman, granting her the gift of time (four years, in the passage of hours), her dress of deerskin, and an altered appearance, that she might walk among others without fear of discovery. Bolstered by this assistance and driven by her own determination, Lissar makes her way back into the world of people, come the next spring. Her path brings her to Ossin’s kingdom, where she is taken on as a dog trainer in the royal house.
From here, the novel tells of Lissar’s healing, both through her own hard work, and the patient friendship of those around her, Ash and Ossin, most importantly. Her final catharsis, though not complete healing, comes when she is at last able to confront her father publicly, accuse him of his misdeeds, and reveal her identity.
This is not an easy book to read. A few parts are simply sluggish, and much of it is extraordinarily painful. However, McKinley has deftly woven twinned bright strands of self-determination and friendship through the rough weave of her story. Despite the neglect and horrors they experience, Lissar and Ash share a bond that no one can rend asunder. And Ossin, patient and good-hearted, is willing to accept Lissar as less than perfect, if she can but accept herself for who she is — which she promises to at least try to do, by book’s end. These themes, and fine story-telling, make this a book definitely worth reading.