Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver loosely follows the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin,” reimagining the story of a young woman who (with the help of an otherworldly creature) spins straw into gold. However, while the source material clearly shines through the text and tugs on readers’ nostalgia for the Grimm brothers’ folktale, this tale offers a vastly different world, crafted in juxtaposition to the fantastical and utopian perception of fairy tale worlds. Miryem, this tale’s main protagonist, lives in a world of strife. She is an outsider in her own village, set apart and othered for her status as the local Jewish moneylender’s daughter. Immediately, then, Miryem flips the familiar story on its head, exploring the antisemitism within the European folklore tradition.
“The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard…Because that’s what the story is really about: getting out of paying your debts” (3).
A multi-perspective narrative, Spinning Silver primarily varies between Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter turned icily merciless moneylender herself; Wanda, a young woman whose father signed her away to work for Miryem’s family in recompence for his debts; and Irina, a duke’s daughter made enchantingly beautiful with adornments of magical Staryk gold. These three young women hold different worldviews, based on their disparate life experiences and social standing. However, each narrator’s perspective occurs in first person, thus assigning a stronger sense of agency and autonomy to these characters than a third person narrative would allow for, as well as connecting the reader more closely to the thoughts and actions of the protagonists.
Miryem performs the role of coldhearted moneylender, taking over from her father who could not achieve the same emotional detachment when collecting from the townsfolk. While Miryem’s cold mannerisms might put the reader off at first, the tale appeals to her family’s dire social and financial circumstances, as well as to her father’s empathy and his reluctance to collect debts given his family’s precarious position in the community. The townsfolk refuse to pay off their debts despite having ample wealth and demonize the moneylender due to his job as well as his Jewish heritage. Miryem recognizes the stereotypes—Jewish people as merciless and greedy, solely focused on their own self-interests—that the villagers place on her family. It is only after her mother’s grave illness that she decides to take an active role in the business, reclaiming the debts owed to them. Soon, as her mother’s health and the family’s living conditions improve, Miryem boasts of her near-magical ability to turn silver to gold, or, in other words, maneuvering herself from poverty to prosperity.
Beyond exploring the anti-Semitism Miryem faces, and her decision to reclaim her agency despite the village’s perceptions, Novik’s reimagining of fairy tales tropes allows for a more nuanced understanding of the various other social hierarchies and ideology that governs this world. Through Wanda’s peasant perspective, for example, Novik defamiliarizes these governing structures, likening them to magic. When Miryem teaches Wanda how to collect, count, and record money, an economic necessity to raise oneself out of poverty, Wanda adamantly thinks “she spoke as if it was ordinary, but I knew she was teaching me magic” (44). This process of rendering remarkably unfamiliar activities that readers likely take for granted allows the text to explore the nature of these ideologies that so often go unquestioned. By linguistically distorting and thereby estranging the reader from these practices, the text enables new perspectives on these social conventions. As Wanda learns to navigate her culture’s structures of power and privilege, readers can rediscover the power within their own simple acts of literacy and view them with the same wonder that she does. In this way, Novik heightens our awareness of truths ingrained within our own perception of the world.
Without giving away too much of the story, I want to emphasize how incredible this book is in terms of worldbuilding, plot, character development, and its connection to contemporary social and political issues (the novel was published in 2018). Spinning Silver has received much acclaim, having won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and having been nominated for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. This fractured fairy tale seeks to subvert the anti-Semitic stereotypes omnipresent throughout the text’s world as well as our own, and makes use of cleverly reimagined fairy tale tropes, like the significance of promises with Fae creatures and the implication of naming. The text emphasizes ambiguity, rupturing binary thinking about moral right and wrong, allowing for nuanced layers behind each character’s actions and their underlying intentions. For example, as I mentioned above, Miryem only assumes the coldhearted moneylender persona to save her family. Due to the alienation that her family felt at the hands of their community, she, and the reader, become increasingly confident and aware that, despite her initial façade of mercilessness, Miryem protects those towards whom she holds affection and affinity. As she later states, “I didn’t have a country to do it for. I only had people” (377).
“All of a sudden everyone around you was the same as each other but not like you. And then I thought, but it was like that for Miryem already. It was like that for her all the time, in town” (303).
Whittled down to its core, Spinning Silver calls for young people marginalized in society to exercise their own agency and autonomy wherever possible. Like this beautifully intricate fairy tale world, our own world is deeply flawed. Although we may feel powerless, Novik calls us to act anyway, like Wanda who “had not known that [she] was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and [she] had done them. [She] had to do the work first, not knowing” (381).
Content warning: domestic abuse and antisemitism
This genre of fairy tale retellings has become quite popular, especially within Young Adult literature. While working to achieve different ends, and with vastly different worlds and characters, here is a brief collection of my recommendations to check out if you enjoyed Spinning Silver: A.G. Howard’s Splintered; Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark & Grimm series;
Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest; Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles; and Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles series.
Ally Geoffray is a senior in English Literature and Professional Writing in the English Dept. at Purdue.