How many children have heard the story of Sleeping Beauty and dreamed of the beautiful sleeping princess woken by true love’s kiss? However, the older, darker versions of this tale are better suited for nightmares, and the prince is often anything but charming.
It’s difficult to say how far back in time the legend of Sleeping Beauty began. In Icelandic legend, Brunhilde was a warrior maiden punished by Odin to fall into an everlasting sleep, similar to her more familiar counterpart. The hero, Sigurd, crossed through a wall of fire to awaken her with a kiss. However, rather than live happily ever after, he left and married another woman, then returned in disguise to trick Brunhilde to marry his own wife’s brother. After his deception, and being a warrior maiden so not likely to take such deceit lightly, she plotted his murder. After his death, she was filled with such remorse that she threw herself on his funeral pyre.
So much for happily ever after.
Later, in the 1600’s, Giambattista Basile retold a folk tale under the title of Sun, Moon and Talia, which would later be praised by the Brothers Grimm. When a great lord had a daughter named Talia, he was warned that she would be in danger from a piece of flax. He took appropriate fatherly precautions by forbidding that sort of thing in his house. However, when she grew to be a young lady, from her window she spied an old woman spinning. (I thought that a bit odd at first, but it turns out the drop spindle was a portable way of spinning) The predictable thing happened; she got a splinter of flax under her nail and DIED.
Her father mourned her, sealing her body up in one of his mansions and abandoning it to forget his grief. One day, a king happened by and ultimately discovered the maiden in the empty house. He thought she was asleep, she was so beautiful, and since she didn’t wake up when he called to her “he beheld her charms and felt his blood course hotly through his veins. He lifted her in his arms, and carried her to a bed, where he gathered the first fruits of love.” Then he left her there and went home and forgot all about her for awhile because the king was a really busy guy.
Meanwhile, back at the mansion, nine months later Talia gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Obviously this was quite a feat for a dead woman, but luckily there were two fairies that came and put the kids at mom’s breast. However, the kids were unable to find the nipples (apparently, the fairies weren’t terribly competent) so the infants sucked on their mother’s fingers instead. One sucked out the flax, which woke her up. Of course, she was surprised to find she’d had two children, but after breastfeeding them, she loved them more than her own life.
The king eventually remembered Talia, so he said he was going hunting, and returned to discover her awake with two kids. He told her who he was, what happened, and “When she heard this, their friendship was knitted with tighter bonds, and he remained with her for a few days.” He promised to come back soon and bring them home.
So… he went home to his wife. No mention is made about when he got married, but needless to say – after hearing him continually talk about Talia, Sun, and Moon (Sun and Moon were the names of the children), she became suspicious.
Naturally, she did what any red-blooded queen would do when he husband is an unfaithful rapist. She sent, under false pretences, for the victim’s children to have them slaughtered, cooked, and served to her cheating husband. She must have been a fan of Greek mythology, since she took a page from Medea’s playbook. At the very least, she went a great deal farther than Brunhilde. The evil queen was able to enlist the help of one servant, but another servant, the cook, hid the children with his wife and cooked two lambs instead. The queen, none the wiser, gloated as her husband commented on all the tasty dishes until he’d had enough and left. The queen decided that eating his own children wasn’t payback enough, so she sent for Talia saying the King wished to see her.
“Talia departed as soon as she heard these words, believing that she was following the commands of her lord, for she greatly longed to see her light and joy, knowing not what was preparing for her.”… which is a bit hard to believe, but given the circumstances, she had little choice. However, the queen met her instead and wanted to throw her into a fire. Talia reasoned with the queen, saying that the king had “taken possession of her territory when she was drowned in sleep”, but the queen wouldn’t hear of it. However, she allowed Talia to undress so she could keep the beautiful clothes for herself. The delay allowed enough time for the king to return and order the queen thrown in the fire instead. He was about to do the same to the Queen’s accomplice and the cook, but when the cook produced the children he was spared. In the end, the King got his kids back, married Talia, and they lived happily ever after, thus proving the proverb:
“Those whom fortune favors
Find good luck even in their sleep.”
By modern standards, the truth of this particular proverb is a bit hard to see, though the sexual and violent connotations are writ bold. The recurring themes of sex and consumption, of the helpless sleeping victim and the masculine (and feminine) hunters, are indeed hard to miss. Talia is destined for misery, cursed with a blood curse upon maturity, pursued by a hunter and taken unawares as she lay sleeping and helpless, yet blamed for her victim nature by another woman. She died, yet was brought back to life by the needs of her children. In the end, she finds her “good luck” in the death of the another woman and marriage to her rapist.
The hunting and predatory nature of the man towards the maiden is emphasised more than once. The hunter consumes his prey, the man sexually consumes the maiden. The king’s wife, presumably an older woman, preys upon Talia’s innocent children as well as Talia herself. The young and the blameless are repeatedly victimized. Jealousy turns the queen into a monster, though in the end she also is consumed – by fire upon the king’s command. In Jungian terms, the male and female characters could be seen as the anima (female aspect of a man’s pysche) and animus (male aspect of a woman’s psyche).
A later retelling, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood by Charles Perrault in 1697, softened many of the tale’s more vicious and gruesome features. Perrault paid attention to details and descriptions, lending the story a more romantic air. Instead of a simple prediction and warning, there is a curse cast upon the princess by a slighted fairy whose invitation to the christening was overlooked, which meant she was the only fairy without a golden place setting. This part of the tale resembles the Greek myth of the goddess of discord, Eris, who – annoyed at not being invited to a wedding, tossed a golden apple amongst the gods which eventually caused the Trojan war.
However, in Perrault’s story, the fairies gave the princess gifts, and since one fairy had not given her gift yet, she was able to soften the curse. According to the curse of Eris – er, the evil fairy, the princess would prick her finger on a spindle, but now the princess would be spared death and instead would fall into a hundred-year sleep from which a prince would come and wake her.
As often happens in fairy tales though, just when the parents should be most attentive, they happened to be conveniently away. The princess, now a young lady, happened upon an old woman spinning in the castle, the inevitable happened, and the good fairy put the rest of the castle – except for the parents – into a sleep so the princess would not be scared to wake up in a creepy, abandoned castle. A thick forest now protected its sleeping occupants.
A century later, a prince was out hunting nearby when he heard of the sleeping princess. When he went to investigate, the woods magically parted for him, and when he saw her he fell instantly in love. She awoke, sans kiss, and they married. So far, Perrault’s version is much closer to most modern children’s retellings, but from here on out the tale darkens considerably.
The prince was secretly married to Sleeping Beauty for TWO YEARS, returning to his kingdom but visiting her whenever he could by making the standard “hunting” excuse, during which time the couple had two children named Morning and Day. When his father died and the prince became the king, he finally brought his family home to his kingdom. His mother, an ogress, had been suspicious of his frequent “hunts”, and the reader can only imagine what she thought of being lied to for two years.
Eventually, the king had to go to war, so he left his mother in charge. She decided she wanted to eat her granddaughter, then her grandson, then her daughter-in-law – all with “sauce Robert” Apparently, she was quite the connoisseur ogress. Just as in the Talia story, the cook saved them by hiding the children. He tried to force himself to kill Sleeping Beauty, going upstairs and confessing his intent, and she told him it was alright because she thought her children were dead. Unable to go through with the evil deed, the cook reunited her with her children and cooked a hind instead.
The queen was satisfied, but sometime later discovered she had been tricked. Throwing nasty creatures like snakes and toads into a large tub, she planned to throw in everyone one else, including the cook, when her son came home early. The ogress queen then threw herself into the tub and was instantly devoured, thus sparing her potential victims from death and her son from the burden of matricide. He soon got over his mother’s death though, because he had a pretty wife and children with which to live happily ever after. The moral of the story? According to Perrault:
Many a girl has waited long
For a husband brave or strong;
But I’m sure I never met
Any sort of woman yet
Who could wait a hundred years,
Free from fretting, free from fears.
Now, our story seems to show
That a century or so,
Late or early, matters not;
True love comes by fairy-lot.
Some old folk will even say
It grows better by delay.
Yet this good advice, I fear,
Helps us neither there nor here.
Though philosophers may prate
How much wiser ’tis to wait,
Maids will be a sighing still –
Young blood must when young blood will!”
Though the first two stanzas refer directly to the story itself and that “true love” is magical, the last stanza seems to be yet another warning – though of a far tamer variety than Talia’s, of the risks of succombing to sexual desire. The themes of sex, violence, and consumption remain, but are tempered by magic and the first hints of true love. The prince is still a hunter; the previous queen, an ogress mother instead of his jealous wife, but the romance of the modern story begins to shine through as well.
In the early 1800’s, when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published Little Brier-Rose in their book of fairy tales, they retained most of the familiar elements. The fairies and hundred year curse remained; everyone in the castle fell asleep with the princess. A thorny hedge grew around the castle, and when curious princes would venture to pass they would die “miserably” caught in the thorns. However, when the right prince came along, the thorns turned to flowers and let him inside. He awoke Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, everyone else woke as well, and the story mercifully ends with a wedding and “they lived long and happily until they died.”
Now, we come to perhaps the most familiar adaption of modern times, the 1959 animated Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty. This version is so familiar, the barest of reminders should suffice. The sleeping princess is visited by fairies and succombs to a sleeping curse, but the role of the evil queen/ogress is replaced by Maleficent, the evil fairy – the one who cast the curse. Instead of an old woman accidentally causing the princess to prick her finger, Maleficent tricks her into succombing to the curse. However, this time the princess has actually met and fallen for her prince first, so despite Maleficent’s malicious plans and taunting of the prince, he escapes to free his true love. But not before fighting Maleficent as a gigantic dragon and defeating her with a magic sword. True love prevails, and the prince and princess live happily ever after.
Since the Disney boy-meets-girl classic of 1950’s popular culture, this fairy tale has evolved to reflect the gender politics and psychological views of our modern society. The warrior maiden who later became the helpless victim, once again becomes empowered as the roles of modern women evolve. Not confined to magical realms, the story becomes science-fiction, where a cyborg named Cinder shares traits of Grimm’s and Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, but without the princess’s passivity. She’s someone who fights back. In the television series, Once Upon a Time, the magic remains but the princess uses her experience with the sleeping curse to help her friends. In the Princess series by Jim C. Hines, Talia is a martial artist whose “fairy blessings make her almost unbeatable.” Now Disney has even created a more feminist version, by retelling their Sleeping Beauty classic from the point of view of Maleficent – a now justifiably angry protagonist who is both victim and hero, and who empowers both herself and others.
If the retelling of fairy tales – along with myths, legends, and modern cinema – are the expression of our collective psyche, the dreams of our cultural unconscious, what dreams may we look forward to in our future?
*image courtesy of BigFoto.com