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Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
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Kevin Yee

Sleeping Beauty, Part One


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, not death.

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 spell.

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
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 sleep.

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 chance.
  • 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...


Sleeping Beauty - Promo art © Disney
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 France, 1697.

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