by Midori Snyder
And what, then, became of Sleeping Beauty as she entered the 20th century? What does this fairy tale mean to us in our post–industrial age? As we examined contemporary versions of the story, we discovered that the modern response to the themeproved to be as varied as the individual artists drawn to the old narrative. In our century, Sleeping Beauty no longer speaks to a common identity, a single icon to shape the female image for new generations. Instead, our Princess finds herself portrayed in many different guises: as a helpless 1950s stay–at–home girl, a bold space opera heroine, an oppressed time–traveling queen,a stoic Holocaust survivor, a sexually abused child, and myriad others. Her tale ranges in tone from unbearably bright to psychologically dark and sinister, reflecting our century’s ambiguity toward female sexual roles and women’s identity.
In 1959, the Disney studios created the animated film version of the story that most Americans know today — simple, bright, squeaky clean, romantic, and unambiguous. This Sleeping Beauty is innocent and demure, her Prince noble and chaste. . .and helpless without the aid of a pair of grandmotherly fairies. Perhaps it wasn’t Disney’s intention to relieve the Prince of any sexual threat, but there is a certain humor in the way the elderly fairies correct the aim of his sword to insure his success!Everyone in the tale is divided neatly into Good or Evil, and there is only one true villain, the bad fairy Maleficent. All in all, it is a sweet but utterly bland rendition, reflecting the values of post–war America: the world divided into Good and Evil, a passive, pretty girl awaiting her prince before her life can begin, and a square–jawed hero who must fight to save her. The raw emotions that gave the older narratives their vitality have been successfully repressed; the ogress mother,the barren first wife, the twins, and other tangled threads have been neatly snipped off. Yet while the Disney film version (and the countless picture books inspired by it) established the story as a children’s tale, stripping it of all complexity, other 20th–century artists began to reclaim it for an adult audience, re–envisioning a Beauty who had lost her innocence and her incorruptibility.
To Gunther Kunert, an East German poet (whose "Sleeping Beauty" can be found in Spells of Enchantment, Jack Zipes, ed.), the sleeping princess is a lie, her story a falsehood that drives young men to their deaths in the thorn hedge. But even death is better than the disillusionment of the Prince who discovers her at last, "her toothless mouth half open, slavering, her eyelids sunken, her hairless forehead crimped with blue. . .a snoring trollop." In Anne Sexton’s poem "Briar Rose" (from her collection Transformations),Sleeping Beauty is the vulnerable child feigning sleep in the night while the shadow of an abusive father looms over her. "In due time," Sexton writes, "a hundred years passed and a prince got through. The briars parted as if for Moses and the Prince found the tableaux intact. He kissed Briar Rose and she woke up crying: Daddy! Daddy!" The poem ends on a sinister note: "It’s not the prince at all," says the poet, "but my father drunkenly bent over my bed, circling the abyss like a shark, my father thick upon me like some sleeping jellyfish." Howard Nemerovimagines a young boy’s sleepy reaction to the tale in his own "Sleeping Beauty" (in Nemerov’s New and Selected Poems), while Maxine Kumin portrays Sleeping Beauty at fifty in her wry poem "The Archaeology of a Marriage" (from Poetry 132, No. 1). Randall Jarrell, Joan Swift, Charles Johnson, Leonard Cohen, Hayden Carruth, and other modern poets have all been inspired by the theme; you can find their work collected in Disenchantments: An Anthology of Fairy Tale Poetry, edited by Wolfgang Mieder.
Elizabeth Matson, looking at fairy tales from a storyteller’s point of view, spoke about her own approach to stories like Sleeping Beauty. Before a performance, Elizabeth reads as many variants of a tale as she can find — and then, with this range of imagery to draw upon, she allows her own experience and interaction with her audience to shape the story anew. We were intrigued by Elizabeth’s take on another sleeping heroine, a story she calls "Snow White Dreams," suggesting an area of Sleeping Beauty’s tale that had not been explored in the past. The drama in Elizabeth’s pieceoccurs during the heroine’s period of seeming–passivity, within her trance–like sleep. It is then that the young woman re–examines her relationship to her mother, who appears in her dreams. This is reminiscent of Robert Coover’s astonishing novel Briar Rose — a dense, poetic work in which Coover explores rich layers of possible meaning in the folk narrative by contrasting the thoughts of the struggling Prince with the dreams and nightmares of the Princess. Both Briar Rose and her Prince are plagued with doubts; they fear they shall fail to fulfill the expectations of their emerging roles.Briar Rose’s fear of adulthood is described in relentless nightmares of bizarre sexual assaults. She struggles unsuccessfully to wake herself, crying out in her sleep, "Why am I the one? It’s not fair." Meanwhile the Prince, hacking his way through the thorns, taunted by the bones of failed suitors, suffers his own doubts. As the thorns close in on him, he wonders on the verge of despair, "Perhaps, I am not the one."
Other authors have used the skeleton of Sleeping Beauty to create larger, more panoramic stories. In his recent novel Enchantment, Orson Scott Card combines a Russian variant of Sleeping Beauty with an adventurous time–travel plot — cracking open the narrow world of the tale, populating it with a large cast, and giving it both historical and contemporary settings. In Card’s novel, an American graduate student is transported back to the 9th century, where he wakens the Sleeping Beauty, Katerina, who lies hidden in a forest. Katerina’s kingdom is threatened by none other than Baba Yaga — aneven more formidable foe than the ogress mother, capable of crossing time and hijacking a 747 airliner in her pursuit of Card’s heroes. Sheri S. Tepper draws upon the Sleeping Beauty tale in her science fiction novel Beauty. Like Card, she has opened the confines of the tale into a broader adventure. With her creative powers linked to an older fairy world, Tepper’s Beauty is thrust forward in time (at the moment she falls asleep) into a battle between light and dark to salvage what is left of the earth. Once again Beauty is the divine bride, infusing a devastated world with the promise of her creative power.
Jane Yolen has created one of the most effective retellings of Sleeping Beauty in recent years in Briar Rose, a slim novel told in deceptively simple language reminiscent of old folk tales. Despite the homespun flavor of the prose, this is a brutally modern story, weaving the fairy tale into the history of a Jewish family during the horrors of World War II. Sleeping Beauties by Susanna Moore is an evocative mainstream novel mixing Sleeping Beauty imagery with Hawaiian lore. On the Young Adult fiction shelves, Robin McKinley creates a charming version of the tale (with a distinctly feminist subtext) inSpindle’s End, and Alyxandra Harvey–Fitzhenry gives the story a contemporary setting in her poignant novel Waking. For other contemporary renditions of the tale, see our Further Reading List below.