Sleeping Beauty (Continued)

by Midori Snyder

We then presented two European versions of the tale from the 17th century. The first, titled "Sun, the Moon, and Talia," comes from the Italian storyteller Giambattista Basile,published in his popular collection The Pentamerone. Italian fairy tales were among the earliest versions of such stories to be published in Europe. These old renditions were bawdy and sexually charged (and clearly not meant for children).

Illustration by Peter Newell

In Basile’s version (learned from women storytellers in the countryside near Naples), Beauty,known as Talia, falls into a death–like sleep when a splinter of flax is embedded under her fingernail. She sleeps alone in a small house hidden deep within the forest. One day a King goes out hawking and discovers the sleeping maiden. Finding her beautiful, and unprotesting, he has sex with her — while Talia, oblivious to the King’s ardent embraces, sleeps on.The King leaves the forest, returning not only to his castle but also to his barren wife. Nine months later a sleeping Talia gives birth to twins named Sun and Moon. One of the hungry infants, searching for his mother’s breast, suckles her finger and pulls out the flax splinter. Freed of her curse by the removal of the splinter, Talia wakes up and discovers her children.After a time, the King goes back to the forest and finds Talia awake, tending to their son and daughter. Delighted, he brings them home to his estate — where his barren wife, naturally enough, is bitter and jealous. As soon as the King is off to battle, the wife orders her cook to murder Sun and Moon, then prepare them as a feast for her unwitting husband. The kindhearted cook hidesthe children and substitutes goat in a dizzying variety of dishes. The wife then decides to murder Talia by burning her at the stake. As Talia undresses, each layer of her fine clothing shrieks out loud (in other versions, the bells sewn on her seven petticoats jingle). Eventually the King hears the sound and comes to Talia’s rescue. The jealous wife is put to death, the cook reveals the children’s hiding place,and the King and Talia are united in a proper marriage.

Later in the same century, a French civil servant named Charles Perrault wrote his own version of Sleeping Beauty based in part on Basile’s story. Fairy tale scholar Marina Warner (in her book From the Beast to the Blonde) notes rather wryly that while rape and adultery were too scandalous for Perrault, he had no problems with the cannibalism of the Italian version. Perrault changed the King and his firstwife into a Prince and his dreadful mother: an ogress with a terrible temper and a fondness for human flesh. Beauty’s children are to be served up in a gourmet sauce, and then Beauty herself is to be butchered. But the kind cook fools the ogress, hiding Beauty and her children and serving a kid, a lamb and a hind in their places. When the ogress discovers the truth, she becomes enraged and makes plans to throw them all into a pot of vipers and toads.Once again the Prince arrives in time to save his lover from harm — throwing his mother into the pot instead, destroying her.

"Flaming June" by Lord Frederick Leighton

These European versions show a shift in emphasis from the older Arabian narrative. Sleeping Beauty is still the centerpiece of the tale — but less as an actor and more as an object of power to be acquired, even at the expense of one’s marriage and one’s mother. On our panel, I noted that the European tales seem to be focused on the men, not the slumbering heroine. The need for an heir (first by her father, and then by the younger King who wakes her) is pivotal here.Basile spares not a moment of sympathy for the dishonored first wife of the younger King. Her barrenness defines her as evil, and her replacement by the fertile magical bride is a triumph. Talia, on the other hand, is able to give birth even while she lies in the semblance of death — making her not quite human but almost a supernatural creature — and making her impregnation not a crime (the rape it appears to our modern eyes), but the act through which the King engages with the fantastic,simultaneously proving his virility. Heinz pointed out that the children’s names, Sun and Moon, suggest a resonance with older cosmological tales and creation myths — many of which involve the birth of children through magical means. Despite this emphasis on the actions of the male characters, Terri argued that the conflict between the women in the tale is also an important element — particularly in the context of women’s lives in the 17th century. A new bride, brought to her husband’sfamily home, was firmly under the thumb of her mother–in–law in large parts of Europe — while in other areas it was the mother–in–law who was threatened by the loss of power to a younger woman. (In France after the Revolution, for instance, a widow lost all right to the family home upon her husband’s death, the property generally passing to the eldest son. In such a case, she would have been dependent on the goodwill of her son — and of his wife, the new mistress of the house.)

Fairy tales use emotionally evocative images to engage their audiences and draw them into the web of the story (as Elizabeth, the oral storyteller on our panel, reminded us); the underlying power struggle between the young bride–to–be and the older, established woman was one that would have been very familiar to 17th–century listeners, and thus useful to the storyteller as a means of personalizing the tale. Symbols of feminine power struggle can be found in the figures of the evil fairy,the old woman spinning, the barren wife, and the ogress mother. Read in this context, Perrault’s Prince achieves heroic status not only when he passes through the thorns and awakens Sleeping Beauty, but when he is able at last to protect her from the machinations of the older women and assure her a place of authority at his side.

"Briat Rose" by Sir Edward Burne–Jones

Sleeping Beauty underwent more changes in the 19th century when the Brothers Grimm published their version ("Little Briar Rose") in fairy tale collections aimed at children. While the Grimms retained some of the dark imagery from the oral storytelling tradition, the sexuality and bawdy humor of the tales all but disappeared. In 19th–century England, Victorian publishers further sanitized fairy tales, toning down the violence yet again and simplifying the narratives.Victorian readers wanted these stories to be charming, to reflect the gender roles of the time, and above all to instruct proper upper– and middle–class children in appropriate morality. Innuendo replaced the overt and troubling activity of carnal sex and violence. . .but as modern writers from Angela Carter to Marina Warner have pointed out, these underlying themes are tenacious. Looking at the original German language version of the Grimms’ "Little Briar Rose," Heinz pulled outa staccato list of suggestive language: the hedge is "penetrated," Briar Rose is "pricked," and she sleeps not in a shrine or a wooded cottage but enclosed within a phallic tower. And yet on the surface, the narrative remains almost painfully chaste. The Prince need not even kiss her to wake her — he merely bends on one knee beside her bed. Sleeping Beauty is diminished in other ways in these later, more "civilized" versions. Earlier variants suggest that the father is the character most at fault,bringing the curse down on his daughter through improper dealings with the fantastic (such as slighting an important fairy). But Victorian versions seem to suggest the girl is responsible for her own fate, punished for her disobedience to her father’s command not to touch the spinning wheel. In these versions, it is not only Briar Rose who suffers, but her parents and the entire court who must sleep for a hundred years. (One can imagine that to the class–obsessed Victorians, a privileged daughter handling the tools of the lower classesprovoked alarm, threatening to lower the status of the family. Briar Rose’s sin can only be expiated when a man worthy enough, both in heart and noble status, redeems her from her transgression — restoring both Beauty and her family to its former social position.)