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Sleeping Beauty -- can be considered
one of Walt Disney's masterpieces, at least in terms of the public
consciousness. If you ask those who have seen it recently, the
reaction to the film may be a bit more mixed - there are those who find
the movie slow moving and a bit boring. Nevertheless, it stands for
ROMANCE in capital letters; as this is Disney at its most romantic, and
arguably at its most clichˇd.
You all remember the film, right? For a complete summary, check Steve
Liu's site here.
Here is a thumbnail sketch:
A king and queen finally have a daughter and name her Aurora. Her
birth party was visited by King Hubert and his son Phillip, to whom
Aurora will be betrothed. Also in attendance are Flora, Fauna, and
Merryweather: three good fairies who give her gifts. At that point the
evil Maleficent arrives, angry at not being invited, and pronounces that
Aurora will die on her 16th birthday by pricking her finger on a
spindle. Merryweather counters that prophesy by changing it into sleep,
The good fairies take the child for safekeeping, while the king burns
all spinning wheels. Maleficent searches for Aurora by dispatching her
raven Diablo. Meanwhile, Aurora dances in the woods with animals until
discovered by Phillip - perhaps the movie's most memorable scene. She
doesn't know it's him, however, and cries upon learning she is already
betrothed. The raven, witnessing all this, reports to Maleficent.
Phillip and Aurora both make their way back to the castle, where
Aurora is mesmerized by a glowing ball (created by Malificent) and led
to a spindle, where naturally she falls into a deep trance once she
touches it. The good fairies, out of deference to everyone's expected
disappointment at this turn of events, put the entire castle and
everyone in it to sleep. In the process of doing so, the fairies realize
Phillip (who is not in the castle) had met Aurora and could break the
Phillip is captured by Maleficent, but the fairies sneak in and free
him, and provide him with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue.
Angered, Maleficent creates a forest of thorns around the castle, but
the Sword of Truth can cut through them. Maleficent then turns herself
into a dragon, which Phillip can only defeat by throwing his sword (even
then, the fairies had to guide it to her heart). She dies, and Phillip
kisses Aurora. With this kiss of true love, she awakens.
It all sounds so romantic, doesn't
it? Perhaps that's not surprising, as this is the Disney
version we are dealing with.
The Sleeping Beauty storybook
is available through Amazon
But is it the Grimms' version or Perrault's version that Disney used?
Truth is, it's a little of both. Perhaps it would be more fun to look at
the original source material here first. For this tale, we have access to
something older than Grimms or Perrault, in the form of Italian author
Giambattista Basile (1575-1632), whose posthumous collection of tales
called The Pentamerone in 1634 would prove to be a major source of
material for both Perrault and the Grimms. The Pentamerone - so
named because its framework of storytelling by various people mimicked
that of Boccaccio's famous Decameron - also featured Cinderella and
Snow White, which we didn't consider at the time mostly to keep the
argument more lucid.
Here is the paraphrased story, as
told by fairy tale analyst Bruno Bettelheim, who we will
discuss at some length in a later column. I think you will agree with me
that while many elements of the story are familiar, the ultimate meanings
and messages (especially to the peasants) are pretty different from the
Disney version. Basile titles his story "Sun, Moon, and Talia":
On the birth of his daughter Talia, a king asked all the wise men and
seers to tell her future. They concluded that she would be exposed to
great danger from a splinter of flax. To prevent any such accident, the
king ordered that no flax or hemp should ever come into his castle. But
one day when Talia had grown up, she saw an old woman who was spinning
pass by her window. Talia, who had never seen anything like it before,
was therefore delighted with the dancing of the spindle. Made curious,
she took the distaff in her hand and began to draw out the thread. A
splinter of hemp got under her fingernail and she immediately fell dead
upon the ground. The king left his lifeless daughter seated on a velvet
chair in the palace, locked the door, and departed forever, to
obliterate the memory of his sorrow.
Some time after, another king was hunting. His falcon flew into a
window of the empty castle and did not return. The king, trying to find
the falcon, wandered in the castle. There he found Talia as if asleep,
but nothing would rouse her. Falling in love with her beauty, he
cohabited with her; then he left and forgot the whole affair. Nine
months later Talia gave birth to two children, all the time still
asleep. They nursed from her breast. Once when one of the babies to
wanted to suck, it could not find the breast, but got into its mouth
instead the finger that had been pricked. This the baby sucked so hard
that it drew out the splinter, and Talia was roused as if from deep
One day the king remembered his adventure and went to see Talia. He
was delighted to find her awake with the two beautiful children, and
from then on they were always on his mind. The king's wife found out his
secret, and on the sly sent for the two children in the king's name. She
ordered them cooked and served to her husband. The cook hid the children
in his own home and prepared instead some goat kids, which the queen
served to the king. A while later the queen sent for Talia and planned
to have her thrown into the fire because she was the reason for the
king's infidelity. At the last minute the king arrived, had his wife
thrown into the fire, married Talia, and was happy to find his children,
whom the cook had saved. The story ends with the verses: "Lucky
people, so 'tis said, Are blessed by Fortune whilst in bed."
Not quite the sanitized Disney
version, eh? Notice that this king (not a prince, like in
Disney) does substantially more than kiss the princess - he rapes her.
That the princess is dead, not just asleep, and that her state is caused
by a magical foreign object in her body reminds one of the original story
of Snow White.
The attempted Hansel-and-Greteling of the children is a familiar topos
in fairy tales. Peasants, you will remember, never ate meat - they were
too poor to own enough animals to eat them. The animals you owned produced
other material you needed: milk from cows, eggs from chickens. Thus their
general distrust of rich folks, who had meat to eat. Where did they get
this meat, they wondered, and whispered to each other that it must be
young children they are eating.
We might conclude that this tale is decidedly unromantic. Talia is only
the king's mistress, and it is not until she attempts to eat the children
that the king intervenes and marries Talia. Not a ringing endorsement for
marriage or middle-class Christian values, if you ask me.
The basic messages to the intended
peasant audience seems clear enough:
- Even as the king's daughter, you are not safe in this world.
- You cannot count on your parents to protect you.
- Men are driven by sexual instincts and will rape you given the
- Older women are dangerous because they can get jealous.
- You need luck to survive and conquer.
Oddly enough, this fairy tale has no fairies in it (despite Disney's
later rampant use of them). This is a real- world situation here, if you
discount the magic of the splinter, and the very realism adds punch to the
tale's messages about the dangers of the world.
And did you notice that nowhere in Basile's version do we see anything
about the name "Sleeping Beauty?" That's a title which will have
to wait until Perrault to be created...
Promo art © Disney
Grimms - published their fairy tales
in 1812 / 1814, with an unpublished and unedited collection of raw
stories in 1810
Perrault - published his tales in