History of the Tale
The earliest ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale appears in oral tradition around 1300, in the tale 'Troylus and Zellandine'. In this tale, a disgruntled deity places a curse on the young Princess Zellandine that causes her to go into a deep slumber. Many years later, Prince Troylus happens upon the princess and rapes her in her sleep. As a result, she has a child. In 1528, the same story appears in print for the first time, in Paris, in a book of romances called Perceforest.
The tale ‘Sun, Moon & Talia’ was written by Neapolitan writer and courtier Giambattista Basile in the early 1600s, and published posthumously in 1634 in a collection of stories called The Tale of Tales. This also included the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel.
Basile's story is not as pretty as the tale we know. It features the rape of the sleeping beauty, attempted infanticide, forced cannibalism and the threat of being burned alive.
Here is a brief outline of Basile's tale:
It is prophesied at Talia’s birth that she will one day face great danger from a chip of flax. Her father orders that all flax be removed from the kingdom. When she is grown, Talia manages to find the only piece of flax in the entire kingdom, gets a splinter of it stuck beneath her fingernail, and falls into a deathlike sleep.
Her father, beside himself with grief, orders the palace and surrounding countryside be abandoned so he can put the event out of his mind.
Eventually, another king stumbles upon the abandoned kingdom, and finds Talia sleeping alone. Unable to wake her, he decides to have sex with her while she sleeps. Talia falls pregnant and, without waking, eventually gives birth to twins. While the babies try to suckle, one sucks on her finger and the flax splinter is loosened. Talia wakes up, and is overjoyed to find herself the mother of twins, which she names Sun and Moon.
The king returns and finds Talia awake and his twin childrenborn. A relationship develops between them.
The king’s wife learns of the affair and, pretending to be the king, sends for Sun and Moon. She gives them to the cook, and tells him to slaughter and roast them and serve them to the king. The cook, unable to kill the babies, hides the twins and serves up two baby lambs instead. The queen watches gleefully as the king devours the meal.
She then sends for Talia, and demands she be burned alive. The King hears Talia screaming, and rescues her just in time. The awful queen is thrown in the fire instead, and roasts to death. The cook then produces the twins, alive and well, and they all live happily ever after.
In one 14th century version of the tale, the sleeping princess tells off the king and points out her lack of consent before deciding to give him another chance.
‘La belle au bois dormant’ was written by French author Charles Perrault in 1697, most probably drawing upon Basile’s stories which may have been brought to the French court in mid-1690s by an Italian publisher. Perrault's Mother Goose tales also included such well-known stories as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Puss in Boots.
In Perrault's tale, a king invites seven fairies to bless his newborn daughter, and prepares golden plates and cutlery for them. One fairy was not invited because she was so old and no-one had seen her for so long. However, she comes anyway and then is angry because there is no golden plate for her. She curses the baby princess to prick her on a spindle finger & die. One of the other fairies saves her by changing the curse of death to the curse of sleeping for 100 years.
At the age of 15 or 16, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep. The fairy puts the whole castle to sleep as well. A prince hears the story of the sleeping princess and goes to find her – the wood that hides the castle shows him the path. He finds the princess and kneels before her. The princess wakes up (NB: there is no kiss in Perrault's story) and they are married.
Perrault's story does not end here. The prince keeps Sleeping Beauty hidden for a few years and they have two children called Morning & Day. At last he becomes king & takes his wife and children to his home. The prince’s mother is an ogress – she conspires to eat the children and the princess but is outwitted by the cook, in a similar fashion to Basile's story. The Ogress queen dies in a tub of toads and snakes.
The uninvited fairy motif goes back to Greek mythology when he goddess Eris is not invited to a wedding, but arrives anyway, and throws the Golden Apple of Discord amongst the other goddesses with the inscription ‘For the Fairest’ which causes an argument over whom should claim it, and leads to the Trojan War.
'Dörnroschen' (Little Brier Rose) –
The story was told to Wilhelm Grimm by a young woman, Marie Hassenpflug, who had French ancestors and was included in the first 1812 edition.
The tale is different to Perrault's in the following ways:
- it has a much simpler style, closer to ‘oral’ traditions
- the Queen is told of her pregnancy by a crab (in later versions a frog)
- There are 13 fairies but the king only has 12 golden plates so he does not invite one
- The thirteenth fairy curses the princess to prick herself with a spindle and die
- The twelfth fairy changes the curse to a sleep of 100 years
- When she pricks her finger, the whole castle falls magically asleep
- A thorn hedge grows up around the castle
- Many princes try and fight through the thorns but fail – then the right prince comes along and the thorns turn into flowers
- When he finds the sleeping princess, he kisses her
- The princes wakes up and so does the whole castle
- The story ends with their marriage
Jacob & Wilhelm argued about including this tale because of its French origins (they were collecting tales with German origins), but Wilhelm argued for its inclusion because of 1) its beauty and romance 2) it had linked to the Norse myth Sigur and Brynhild – she was a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was cursed to marry a mortal. She feared being wed to a coward, so was allowed to sleep on a mountaintop surrounded by a ring of fire until there was a man brave enough to ride through it and wake her. She had fallen asleep after pricking her hand on a thorn from the ‘sleep tree’.
Motifs & Meaning Of Tales
Bruno Bettelheim , the Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote in his seminal work ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ that Beauty’s sleep is the physical lethargy that occurs at puberty. He sees the pricking of her finger as a symbol of menstruation, and sees sexual imagery in the girl’s search for a secret room, the circular stair, and the key in the lock. Therefore her awakening is a sexual awakening
Maria Tatar has written: “The story of Briar Rose has been thought to map a female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to passive, introspective period of latency”.
Joseph Campbell notes that fairy tales are often about girls who resist growing up. At the crisis of the threshold crossing, she baulks. So she goes to sleep until the prince comes through all the barriers.
Contrary to most feminist readings of the tale as being a bout a passive princess, many scholars have seen the Sleeping Beauty tale as containing remnants of matriarchal myth.
In ‘The Feminine in Fairy Tales’, Marie-Therese von Franz says: ‘ the mother of the Sun and the Moon is not an ordinary human being, so you could say it is a symbol. But if the children were Sun and Moon, or Day and Dawn, as in other versions, you are [. . .] in the realm of what we normally call the world of the gods.’ (ie Sleeping Beauty is representative of the Great Goddess)
This interpretation is borne up by some of the symbols in the story, such as the spinning wheel, a feminine tool and an instrument of the Fates. It symbolizes death—i.e. the cutting of the thread. The hundred-year sleep of the princess is evocative of winter and Persephone’s ordeal, and her awakening to love is therefore the awakening of spring.
In ‘Once Upon a Time’, Max Luthi builds on this mythological interpretation, saying Sleeping Beauty ‘tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of a new day.’(Aurora)
Luthi finds it significant that Sleeping Beauty is fifteen when she touches the spindle and falls into her enchanted sleep: she is 'in the time of transition from childhood to maidenhood.' Every important turning point, every transition from one stage of life to another, are times of threat and danger and change.
'The story of Sleeping Beauty is more than the imaginatively stylized love story of the girl and the breaking of the spell through the young lover. One instinctively conceives of the princess as an image for the human spirit: the story portrays the endowment, peril, paralysis, and redemption not of just one girl, but of all mankind,' Luthi writes.
Luthi also examines the idea that the twelve good fairies in the Grimm version of the tale may reflect "the twelve months (of the year) which bestow their manifold gifts of the earth and on nature.' The thirteenth fairy who was provoked to anger may then personify the "dethroned , neglected thirteenth month (and thus may) portray the transition from the lunar year with its thirteen months, to the solar year, with its twelve.'
In the same line of thought, 'the 100 years ... is nothing more than a poetic overstatement for the 100 days of winter, when the earth lies imprisoned in its sleep.'
Luthi warns to be careful of such 'sophistical allegorising', saying 'one must guard against the desire to interpret every single feature, every thorn and every fly.' Nonetheless, he says, Sleeping Beauty is not just a romantic fairy tale but a story filled with powerful themes of 'danger and redemption, paralysis and rejuvenation, death and resurrection.'
'Sleeping Beauty' was a 1959 Disney animated musical fantasy film, the 16th in the Animated Classics series, it was released to theaters on January 29, 1959, by Buena Vista Distribution. This was the last Disney adaptation of a fairy tale for some years because of its initial disappointing box office gross and mixed critical reception. The studio did not return to the genre until years later, after Walt Disney died, with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989).
The film's musical score and songs, featuring the work of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, are arrangements or adaptations of numbers from the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
The heroine has only 18 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film & appears in the film for 18 minutes. Her first line is spoken 19 minutes into the film, and her last is delivered 39 minutes into the film. However, she does sing two songs during this time frame.
The seven fairies were changed to three so that it was not too much like Snow White & the Seven Dwarves.
Sleeping Beauty is also the name of a 2011 Australian film written and directed by Julia Leigh. It stars Emily Browning as a young university student who begins doing erotic freelance work in which she is required to sleep in bed alongside paying customers. The film is based in part on the novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.
In Matthew Bourne’s 2013 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty, the action starts in 1890, the year the ballet first premiered in St. Petersburg. Baby Aurora is humorously portrayed by a puppet and the fairies are both male & female. Instead of beauty, grace and modesty, they bestow passion, plenty, spirit, temperament and presciently, rebirth. The wicked fairy Carabosse is danced by a man.
The Disney movie Maleficent has recently been released, starring Angelina Jolie.
Maleficent is a fictional character from Walt Disney Pictures's 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Here is the blurb:
Maleficent is the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain, from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king's successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realises that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.
I find this new take on the story particularly interesting, with the story being told from the point of view of the villainness allowing a new complexity of character and new moral ambiguity.
My Favourite Retellings of 'Sleeping Beauty'
Sophie Masson. Clementine. Lady Aurora, daughter of the Count and Countess of Joli-Bois, and Clementine, the local woodcutter's child, have been firm friends for all of their sixteen years. Until, that is, the day they stumble upon a castle they never knew existed … A century later, Lord Arthur, a young amateur scientist, is determined to find out. But he discovers that science is no match for a magic that has been lying untouched for over one hundred years...
Adela Geras. Watching the Roses. Raped on the night of her eighteenth birthday by the despicable Angus, Alice remains in her room, in a near-catatonic state, communicating only with her diary, in a modern version of Sleeping Beauty in which the princess must ultimately save herself.
Helen Lowe. Thornspell. - reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince. Read my review and an interview with Helen Lowe here
Robin McKinley. Spindle's End. Katriona, an apprentice fairy sees the wicked fairy, Pernicia, delivers the curse: one day before her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle, fall into a poisoned sleep, and die. Katriona flees with the infant princess in order to save her.
Jane Yolen. Briar Rose. Written by one of the true greats in the field of folk and fairy tales, this novel explores the Holocaust with a storyline borrowed from Sleeping Beauty – brilliant!
Sleeping Beauty & Me
Sleeping Beauty has always been one of my own personal fairy tales, and images of roses and thorns are entwined through many of my books.
I am currently working on a fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults inspired by the fascinating story behind the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones's creation of a series of paintings inspired by 'The Legend of Briar Rose'. He painted it a number of times over thirty years, including this gorgeous version:
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