Deerskin is a dark fantasy novel by Robin McKinley, first published in 1993. It is based on an old French fairy tale by Charles Perrault called Peau d'âne (English translation: Donkeyskin). It was nominated for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.
First edition cover
|1 June 1993|
The book contains numerous adult themes including incest, rape, and miscarriage. It features McKinley's typical protagonist, the resourceful heroine overcoming psychological trauma, and her favored motif of the animal helper.
Although Lissla Lissar is the daughter of the most beautiful queen and most handsome king in all the land, she is a lonely child whose only true companion is her dog, Ash. She was mostly ignored during her childhood due to the fact that her parents were the two most splendid people in all the seven kingdoms.
Lissar's mother falls ill and starts to lose her beauty. This causes her to lose her will to live, because she wants to be remembered as the most beautiful person, and nothing less. She sends for artists from all the kingdoms, and eventually one is chosen to paint a portrait of her as she was before her illness. He works nonstop, as if driven, for a fortnight until the painting is completed and shown to the queen.
After looking at the painting, she forces the king to swear that he will only remarry if he can find a bride more beautiful than she, and after he acquiesces, she dies. At the queen's funeral Lissar comes to her father's attention and is also presented with a puppy, Ash, from prince Ossin of a neighbouring kingdom.
After her mother's funeral Lissar devotes herself to raising Ash and trying to avoid her father for reasons she fears to name. At her seventeenth birthday party, when she is old enough to be married off, her father dances with her for most of the night and the following morning announces that he intends to marry her. Lissar tries to hide herself in her chambers, locking herself in, but on the third night her father enters the room through a forgotten door, and violently rapes Lissar and almost kills Ash.
The following morning Lissar, finds herself struck with amnesia. Knowing only that she must flee, she manages to escape and she and Ash walk until they find a cabin in the mountains. They stay there an entire winter until Lissar, impregnated by her father the king, miscarries and nearly dies. Lissar is saved by a moon goddess, who heals Lissar's wounds, gives her a white deerskin dress and alters both Lissar and Ash so that they are unrecognizable; Lissar's hair changes from black to white, and Ash grows a coat similar to that of a borzoi. As another gift the goddess gives Lissar time to heal and to forget what happened to her. After being saved, Lissar feels a compulsion to be among people again. She travels to a different kingdom where she is given the chance to present herself before the court. When she mentions that she needs work and likes dogs, prince Ossin, who is in attendance, assigns her to raise a litter of puppies whose mother had died.
Though hand raising the puppies is considered thankless, demanding work, Lissar takes to it. She succeeds in saving all six puppies she is assigned, with some help from Ossin who tends to his dogs himself. The two grow friendly, though Lissar notices that though she goes by Deerskin, everyone else begins to call her by the honorific of Lady or to refer to her as Moonwoman. This is further encouraged when Lissar manages to find a child that had been lost with absolutely no guidance.
Lissar asks Ossin to explain who the Moonwoman is, and Ossin tells her it was a legend of a beautiful princess who was raped and then abandoned the earth for the moon when her father was dismissive of her. Ossin also shows Lissar a room full of portraits that princes and princesses send in order to be considered for marriage eligibility. While there Lissar recognizes a portrait that contains Ash and realizes that the princess in the portrait is herself. Because of her vast physical changes Ossin, though suspicious, does not realize that Deerskin is princess Lissla Lissar.
She falls in love with Ossin and he with her, but, still burdened by her past, she flees when Ossin proposes to her at a ball and returns to the cabin in the mountains with Ash and the puppies.
After spending the winter recovering, Deerskin feels compelled to return to Ossin's city, following an urgent call. As she nears the city, she hears about a wedding and assumes that it is Ossin's. She realizes to her horror that the king, her father, is going to marry Ossin's younger sister. Deerskin reveals her true identity as the bridegroom's daughter and calls her father to account for his actions, using the goddess's powers to punish him for his crimes. Confronting her father finally frees Lissar to accept Ossin's love. The story ends with Lissar tentatively coming back to Ossin, offering to give their relationship a chance.
- Rutledge, Amelia A. "Robin McKinley's Deerskin: Challenging Narcissisms." Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tales Studies 15.2 (2001): 168-182. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 127. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 May 2011.