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Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
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Kevin Yee

Sleeping Beauty, Part Two


Previously, we looked at the original source material for the story of Sleeping Beauty from the Italian author Basile, but found the story only barely resembling the epitome of romance that would become the Disney version. How did this tale of rape and child-cannibalism morph into the greatest romance ever told?

Perrault keeps many of the elements of Basile's tale. But, as usual, Perrault infuses the story with his own unique sense of decorum and logic of the aristocracy. Some of Perrault's changes will look familiar to those who know the eventual Disney result. For instance, Perrault introduces the idea of fairies at the celebration of the child's birth. But the slighted fairy was not invited because no one had thought to invite her - this was not a case of an automatically evil person. The fairies give gifts much like we'll later see in the Disney version, and the king bans all spinning wheels.

After 16 years the king and queen happened to be away, and the princess explored the castle and found an old woman spinning. She touches the spindle and falls asleep. The fairy who altered the prophesy from death to sleep returns, and puts everyone in the castle to sleep - except the king and queen. Perrault, in his courtly wisdom, knows better than to put the ruling body into suspended animation; the result to the country would be anarchy!

The Sleeping Beauty storybook is available through Amazon
The Sleeping Beauty storybook is available through Amazon

The fairy's prophesy was set to last exactly 100 years, during which time the castle became overgrown with trees and thorns. After the specified time had elapsed, the throne had been taken over by a new family, and the prince chanced to go hunting that way when the exact moment of prophesy occurs, and the thorns separate themselves into a path. He follows it to find the princess, and at that exact moment, the 100 years ends and she wakes up. Note there is no kiss!

Both parties are taken with each other, though the prince notices immediately that her clothes are very outdated - leave it to Perrault to be fashion-conscious. At this point an important translation issue occurs. We are told that the prince is charmed by her words: "le prince, charmŽ de ses paroles ·" Do you see the proximity of "prince" and "charming"? Except for the comma, one could almost see a typical French construction of "Prince Charming" here, giving rise to what was likely a mistranslation picked up by most English translations and culminating in Disney's Prince Charming (who shows up in Snow White, not in Sleeping Beauty).

They marry immediately, but the prince keeps it a secret from his parents since he fears that his mother, an ogress, will eat his new children. Indeed, she attempts just that after the prince becomes king and has to leave for business. She is stopped only because he returns fortuitously in time to save his wife and children.

At first blush, it looks like most of the eventual Disney tale comes from the Perrault version. Even the title! The sleeping princess is not named in Perrault, but the story itself provides the impetus: "La belle au bois dormant." If you speak French, you may recognize that the common English translation is actually a little off. Correctly translated, the title is: "The Beauty of the Sleeping Woods."

The Grimms' version inches closer to the Disney version. The story follows Perrault's pretty closely, with minor exceptions here and there (the 13th fairy, for instance, is not invited because the king ludicrously lacks enough place settings). The Grimms change the trees and forest into simply large brambles of thorns, which gives the girl the name "Briar Rose" in the legends during her slumber. In the Grimms' version, countless youths try to approach the castle, only to be rebuffed by the thorns until they are impaled upon them and killed. It is likely that the Grimms' bloodthirstiness here indicates that the "incorrect" suitors are akin to morally corrupt villains elsewhere in their tales: the good are rewarded, but the morally bad characters are always punished.

Once again the prince gains access to the castle simply by having good timing - the 100 years of the prophesy had just elapsed - but in the Grimms' version we finally get a kiss: "There she lay, so beautiful that he could not turn his eyes away; and he stooped down and gave her a kiss. But as soon as he kissed her, Briar-rose opened her eyes and awoke, and looked at him quite sweetly." Here the Grimms adopt a tone of romantic fantasy that corresponds with the popular literature sweeping Germany at the time, a positive Romanticism that far outstrips Wordsworth's later efforts in England. There is no need for talking - let alone fashion comparisons - for love conquers death in this retelling.

The largest contributions by the Grimms, then, are the prominence of the thorns and the presence of "love at first sight" - finally we have romance in the story. It is worth noting that the Grimms' princess is just as passive as that of Perrault and Basile: this girl has a Cinderella complex and waits for her prince to come to her - unlike the real Cinderella, who manipulates and guides the prince until she has him where she wants him.

Significant also is that the Grimms omit the "afterstory" of cannibalism and the ogress. For Basile, the ogress had been a jealous wife, while for Perrault, it was a hungry mother. Shuddering at any notion of cannibalism whatsoever, the Grimms jettison the subplot even before the first manuscript is recorded. Either that, or their sources had never heard the story with the attempted cannibalism at the end, but this was unlikely, as most of their purported illiterate peasants in fact were familiar with Perrault's stories - but more on this much later.

By the time Disney tackles the story, another 100 years of evolution and Mother Goose have further watered down the story and softened its edges, and of course Disney provides some unique touches as well: the dragon is new, as is the convention of naming everyone in sight - even the raven is named! Ultimately, Disney takes elements from both Perrault and Grimms. Perrault gives the story its name and has the fairy put the castle to sleep, while the Grimms significantly increase the romance of the story.

Promo art © Disney
Promo art © Disney

An intriguing question to ponder is whether Disney combined source material for a reason. Snow White was largely true to the Grimms' version, while Cinderella comes from the Perrault tradition - why should Sleeping Beauty not choose one tradition to follow? It bears mentioning that this is the first animated feature released during Walt's lifetime that received substantially less oversight by Walt himself; he was busy conceiving and building Disneyland during the film's creation. Would the movie have been radically different had Walt been as involved as he had been during Snow White? We will probably never be certain.

What we do know for sure, though, is that the overall tone of the Disney version differs in conjunction with its separate intended audience. If the original peasant tale preached warnings about men and the desirability of luck, and the Grimms highlighted punishment to promote Christian values, then Disney's version can only be seen primarily as children's literature - pure innocence infused with romance, a luxury peasants could ill afford. Indeed, these are observations that could also be made of the Disney Snow White and Cinderella. By removing the sex and and the violence of the source material versions, Disney concocts stories of middle-class atheist values rather than Christian ones, since the morally corrupt are no longer punished. Without a moral judgment, the Disney versions come across as more bland, but also more accepting - a testament to 20th century values, for better or worse.

These three tales - Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty - form the most obvious stories that Disney adapted from material in Perrault and the Grimms. Eventually we will examine the Disney movies that were created in between these three, but before we do, it is helpful to consider some more background on the fairy tales in general, and how people have been reading them. That discussion will both inform and frame our interpretation of the tales yet to come.

Promo art © Disney
Promo art © Disney

As we will see, there are a few set ways people have approached these tales - such as viewing them through historical or feminist lenses - but surprisingly the most common method is Freudian in nature. Care to speculate what Bettelheim - the one who summarized Basile for us - thinks the symbolism is of locking up the virgin Rapunzel in a single, lone tower that juts straight up from the ground?


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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