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Fairytale Friday: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter II

December 7th, 2012

…and the prince kissed Sleeping Beauty, she opened her eyes – and so our story begins:

(Picture by Disney)

Actually the story begins a bit earlier, when the king (later transformed to the prince) finds this beautiful maiden who has been pricked by a seed of flax, sleeping in a hut in the wood. He makes love to her (still sleeping) and leaves. Nine moths later she gives birth (still in her sleep) to a boy and a girl named Moon and Sun. One of the twins suckles her finger in search of her breast and accidentally removes the flax imbedded there. Beauty is finally awake. She lives in the hut with her children until the king comes back (for another round in the hay?) and finds them. Since his wife is barren the young king is overjoyed to find offspring in the forest and brings the three of them home to his castle. The barren queen, needless to say, is not pleased. While the king is away she orders her cook to slay and roast the children for their father to eat. The cook however, is a gentle soul, and hides the children, substituting their meat with goat. The queen then wants to kill Beauty herself by burning her at the stake. But Beauty’s clothes make sounds (they are conveniently hemmed with silver bells) when removed prior to the burning, and the king can hear them. He comes home and finds out what has been going on. The evil wife is executed, and he is free to marry Beauty. This story was written down by Gambattista Basile in the 17th century. He had learned the tale from female storytellers around Naples.

(Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam)

Our friend Perrault, writing for the French court, picked up the story less than a hundred years later. In his story the adultery is gone, but the cannibalism prevails: The king is now a prince, and the wicked wife has become his Ogress mother, known for her difficult temper and taste for human flesh. Instead of burning Beauty, the Ogress wants to eat her too, and the cook substitutes the children and Beauty with respectively lamb, kid and hind. The Ogress realizes she has been fooled, and as good plan B she wants to toss Beauty and her children into a pit filled with vipers and toads. Our prince, luckily, arrives in time to save them, and throw his mother into the pit.

But why – truly – did the Ogress want to kill them (besides her taste for the other white meat)? Some claim that the story is really about female rivalry: the barren wife and the old mother have lost their value in contemporary society since they cannot produce heirs. This marks them as evil. Beauty, being able to reproduce even in her sleep/death, is pure good – and the ultimate rival. The Ogress-mother may have had great cause to be worried, since she could not hold anything in her own right: after her husband’s death all her assets passed down to her son. She was in other words dependant on him and his wife’s good will. She was quite powerless, in fact, and that is not a good place to be, especially not if you are used to being queen.

The fairytale was polished, made less gruesome and gained some fairies over the years to come; first when it was published as “Briar Rose” by the Brothers Grimm, and later in several other editions throughout the Victorian era – until it all ended with a kiss in Disney’s movie version in 1959:

Your mother-in-law?
(Disney’s Sleeping Beauty movie, 1959)

The most popular modern interpretation of Sleeping Beauty is that of a virgin awakening to sexuality and maturity by the touch (kiss) of the prince. You even have “pricking” and the (virginal) blood. She lies enclosed in a phallic tower surrounded by blossoming flowers to draw the prince in. There is something ethereal about the archetypical maiden; lost in thoughts and dreams while her body slowly changes: the erotic, creative (and fertile) potential is still asleep. Anne Rice wrote a Fifty Shades… of the time with the Sleeping Beauty trilogy, where Beauty awakens to a fulfilling life as a sexual slave, and last year’s Sleeping Beauty movie by Julia Leigh, is also focused on Beauty as a sexual icon. In that respect the story has arrived back where it started: The Italian 17th century version was bawdy and sexual and definitely not for kids.

There has also been much discussion about the early Sleeping Beauty’s encounter with the king/prince in the wood. Was it rape? It certainly sounds like it – though it probably wouldn’t have been seen as such at the time. Here‘s an interesting scholarly debate which touches the topic. The elderly, male professor’s insists that it was definitely not rape: “She responded,” he claims and points to his sources. To me that sounds a bit like “she was wearing a skimpy skirt…” though I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that…

(Sleeping Beauty Secret Desires by Katerina Belkina)

So who is this Sleeping Beauty? Did she just stroll in on the Italian countryside one sunny afternoon in the 17th century? Of course she didn’t:  the earliest version of the story is found in India – the most interesting however is found in 1001 Nights. The story is called “The Ninth Captain’s Tale” and begins in a familiar fashion with a woman who dearly wishes for a child; “…even if she can’t stand the scent of flax”, and of course that is exactly what she gets, and her beautiful daughter who doesn’t like flax soon cathes the eye of the Sultan’s son. Unfortunately, during their courtship she touches some flax and falls into a death-like sleep. The enamoured young man is so in love with her though, that he cannot help but visit her shrine, where he awakens her with a kiss. Fourty days of sexual bliss follow before he abandons her. The young girl is furious. She uses the power of the Ring of Salomon to acquire a palace next door to the Sultan’s, and changes her looks so she becomes even more beautiful – but also unrecognizable for the young man. He soon falls in love with his gorgeous new neighbor, but she refuses all his gifts. Finally he begs to know how he can prove himself to her. She answers that he will have to be declared dead, mourned and buried for her to change her mind. The young man agrees to this, and is shrouded and put in the ground. His mother is mourning him on his grave. Our heroine then comes to retrieve him, she tells him who she really is, and they live happily ever after.

(Sleeping Beauty by William A Breakspeare)

Strangely enough, this version of Sleeping Beauty is the one that makes most sense in our time: their first relationship wasn’t “real”, in the sense that he was not mature enough and left her. They both had to go through the transformation from child to grown-up (symbolic death) in order to establish a proper relationship. It is also worth noticing that this Sleeping Beauty is confident and powerful in her own right, and their relationship in the end is one of balance and equality.

In my own childhood version of Sleeping Beauty, her children arrived after the marriage, but there was a wicked mother-in-law. I got the vipers and toads too – but instead of the prince throwing his mother in the pit, she threw herself in (no mother’s blood on his hands). The last sentence in the book reads: “…and no one was a happier wife and a more selfless mother than Beauty.”

Scan from the actual book. Apparently I didn’t like
Sleeping Beauty very much. 
I also seem to have had
issues with the prince’s hair color.
(Illustration: Jane Carruth, enchanced by yours truly, age 4)

 C.B.

 

Sources/links:

SurLaLune: The Annotated Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault
Midori Snyder: Sleeping Beauty

 

One Response to “Fairytale Friday: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter II”

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