Cannibalism and Other Nightmarish Things: Sleeping Beauty

Stories of enchanted sleepers stretch well back into ancient times. In European mythology, they appear in multiple forms: stories of fabled warriors resting under mountains or on enchanted isles until it is time for them to return to serve their city or country in the time of greatest need—though if England hasn’t actually faced its greatest need yet, I shudder to think what it would take to bring King Arthur back to its shores. Stories of sleeping saints. Stories of women sleeping in caves, in mountains, and in towers.

Unchanged. Static. Beautiful. Waiting, perhaps, for a kiss from a prince.

The literary version of Sleeping Beauty probably originates from Giambattista Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” one of a collection of tales published posthumously in 1634. It’s a cheerful little story of a girl who in this version is not quite a princess, only the daughter of a lord, who, after pricking her finger on a bit of flax and swooning, is placed on a lovely canopied bed in nice country mansion. Naturally, a king rides up, as they do (Basile calls this “by chance”), and goes into the mansion without asking, because, well, king. Basile sums up the next bit quite nicely:

Crying aloud, he beheld her charms and felt his blood course hotly through his veins. He lifted her in his arms, and carried her to a bed, where he gathered the first fruits of love. Leaving her on the bed, he returned to his own kingdom, where, in the pressing business of his realm, he for a time thought no more about this incident.

Notice what little detail is left out of these three sentences? Yeah, that’s right: the waking up part. Talia even brings this up later, pointing out that the king had “taken possession while she was asleep.” The romance is giving me chills here. Between this and Snow White, I’m beginning to have some serious doubts about fairy tale kings and their choice in sexual partners, is all I’m saying.

Though, to be fair, to this king it was the sort of incident that he could easily forget about.

Nah, I don’t want to be fair.

After this bit, it will probably not surprise anyone to read that Talia manages to sleep right through her pregnancy, which worries me—I can’t help but feel that she did not get proper nutrition during any of this. What does wake her up: her twin babies sucking on her fingers—since one of them sucks out the little piece of flax that puts her to sleep. Talia handles the whole waking up to find baby twins crawling all over her very well, I must say; it’s an example to us all.

Until, that is, the king remembers that oh, yes, that happened, decides to visit his rape victim, and after seeing his kids decides to tell Talia the truth. It goes remarkably well:

When she heard this, their friendship was knitted with tighter bonds, and he remained with her for a few days.

What friendship? you might be asking, given that this is the first time they’ve actually, you know, spoken, but there’s no time to focus on this because the story has a lot of cannibalism, betrayal and infidelity to get to and not all that much time to get to it.

Oh, did I not mention that in this version, Prince Charming isn’t just a rapist, he’s an already married rapist, who has the nerve to complain after cheating on her with Talia that his wife didn’t bring him a dowry when he got married. Granted he says this just as his wife is serving him up what she thinks is a dish that includes the delicate tender flesh of his little twin children—it’s that kind of story—so clearly, the dowry issue isn’t the only problem here, but this king is a total jerk, is what I’m saying.

Also, Talia/Sleeping Beauty ends up doing a strip tease for this wife, partly to make sure that her jewel encrusted dress doesn’t get burned up, because that’s important. Also also the story ends with an implication that Talia, this king, and their kids end up in a rather incestuous foursome, which, this story.

Additional detail that you probably don’t want to know: This version strongly implies that Talia aka Sleeping Beauty has no nipples. You’re welcome.

Also two fairies are flitting around the story, but I must say they don’t help much.

Astonishingly enough, when Charles Perrault came across this story about sixty years later, his first thought was apparently not “So, this is mildly appalling,” or even “Why is this guy so hung up about this dowry thing when he might be actually eating his own kids,” but rather, “Wow, this is exactly the sort of story I want to tell the French court and my kids!”

Which he did.

But not without making some changes. As we discussed in a previous post, Perrault believed strongly in the aristocracy—or, more specifically, the French aristocracy and Louis XIV. Whatever else can be said about the Talia story, it is not a particularly pro-aristocratic tale. The most sympathetic and heroic figure in it is the cook, who, as a bonus, is also the one character—apart from the fairies—who also manages to keep all of his clothes on and not participate in adultery, cannibalism, burning people alive, or incest, like, you go, cook, you go! Perrault liked tales featuring upper middle class characters and social climbers, and stories that emphasized the benefits of an aristocratic system, but was less fond of stories where the main hero turns out to be the happily married cook. He was also, apparently, not fond of strip teases in his fairy tales.

So Perrault, like fairy tale writers before and after him, tweaked the story. The fairies were inserted much earlier on, adding a touch of magic and fate. To eliminate the adultery, the king’s wife was changed into the king’s mother, and to more or less justify all of the cannibalism, she was further transformed into an ogress. This change doesn’t entirely work, given that it brings up all kinds of questions, like, why, exactly, did the previous king marry an ogre in the first place? Presumably for political reasons, but what sort of alliance was anyone hoping to get from this? Was this meant as a reference to one of the many political alliances Perrault had witnessed in his years in Louis XIV’s court? If so, which one? Enquiring minds want to know. And, well, this makes the prince half ogre, right? How is that working, and did Sleeping Beauty ever notice this? And did the prince ever warn Sleeping Beauty before finally bringing her to his castle that, hey, my mother is a bit of an ogre? And did Sleeping Beauty—who, in this version, is just a teenager—realize that in this case, the prince was serious, and not just speaking in metaphors?

And speaking of oddities, in this version, after the fairy puts all of the servants and nobles at the court to sleep so that Sleeping Beauty won’t feel alone when she wakes up, the king and queen just…ride off. Actual enchantment, or method of getting rid of some troublesome court attendants and a few unskilled cooks for a hundred years or so without killing them? Especially since the fairy knew full well that a handsome prince—well, ok, a half ogre prince, if we’re quibbling—would be right there at Sleeping Beauty’s side when she awoke? You decide.

In more positive changes, the prince in this version doesn’t even kiss Sleeping Beauty to wake her up: he just kneels in front of her. This is apparently enough to make her fall in love with him the second she wakes up, like, see how much not raping women can help you out romantically, guys, although Perrault kinda softens this by pointing out that the fairy had probably given Sleeping Beauty some delightful dreams of the prince while she was sleeping, so she’s pretty prepared for the whole marriage thing.

One interesting detail in Perrault’s version: the court failed to invite the old fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty to the christening not because the fairy was evil—but because the court believed that the fairy was trapped in a tower, much like Rapunzel, or Sleeping Beauty later. A reflection, perhaps, of Perrault’s observations of Louis XIV’s court, where princesses and grand duchesses could disappear for years, mostly forgotten, before making rather less than triumphant returns?

The second half of the story—the bit with the ogre—certainly does seem to reflect a bit of court society, first when the prince, later king, attempts to hide his marriage from his mother the ogre queen, a nod, perhaps, to the many secret court marriages that Perrault had witnessed, and later when the rival queens—Sleeping Beauty and her ogre mother-in-law—play games of murder and deception against each other in the king’s absence. It’s also an example—unintended, perhaps—of just what can go wrong when the king leaves his court for a foreign war, and an illustration—intended, almost certainly—of a king as the source of order and safety.

Not that the story is all about the aristocracy. Perrault also added an adorable puppy. We don’t really get to hear much about the puppy, but I like the thought that Sleeping Beauty has a dog beside her for the entire century. It’s sweet.

This still wasn’t sweet enough for the Grimm Brothers, who, in a change of pace from their usual acceptance of blood and gore, decided to axe the second part of the story—the bit with the ogre and the eating of small children, typically a Grimm staple—though they did leave in the idea of dead princes hanging from the briar roses outside the castle, as a warning, perhaps, to those who might want to cross boundaries. In an unusual twist, they added more fairies—typically, the Grimms liked to remove French fairies from every tale they could, but in this case they had thirteen fairies to Perrault’s eight—twelve or seven good fairies to a single bad one. They also made their Briar-Rose just a touch younger—fifteen, to Perrault’s sixteen.

And as a final touch, they added a kiss to wake the sleeping princess.

Andrew Lang preferred the longer, richer Perrault version, including that tale in The Blue Fairy Book. But despite this, the Grimm version was the one to persist, and the version Disney chose to work with. Perhaps because it suggested that everything really could change with a kiss.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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