The meaning of a curious fairy story – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Sleeping Beauty’ is, depending on which version of the story you read, called Sleeping Beauty, Talia, Little Briar Rose, Rosamond, or Aurora. This is because, like many other classic fairy tales, the tale of Sleeping Beauty exists in numerous versions, each of which is subtly – or, in some cases, quite strikingly – different from the others. In the Italian version published in the Pentamerone, an Italian collection of fairy tales published in 1634, the heroine is named Talia. Charles Perrault, in his version published later in the century, calls her the Sleeping Beauty. The Brothers Grimm call her Dornröschen or ‘Little Briar Rose’, which is sometimes adapted as ‘Rosamond’. In the Disney film, the adult heroine is named Aurora. For the purposes of clarity here, we’re going to call her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘the princess’.
Nevertheless, the overall plot of these different versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ remains broadly the same, so it might not prove entirely impossible to offer a short plot summary. A king is protective of his beautiful daughter, the princess. An evil fairy curses the princess, pronouncing that she will die when she is pricked by a spindle. However, a good fairy manages to intervene so that the prophecy is softened: the princess will not die if she is pricked with a spindle, but she will fall unconscious for a hundred years. The king bans flax and spinning equipment from his palace, so as to protect his daughter from such a fate.
However, around fifteen or sixteen years later, when the king and queen were away from the palace, the princess was exploring many rooms when she came upon an old woman with a spindle, who knew nothing about the spinning ban. The princess asked if she could have a go, and the old woman let her – you can guess what happened next. The princess pricked her finger on the spindle, and dropped down unconscious. The old woman fetched help, and everyone tried to revive the princess, but to no avail. So there was nothing for it but to let the princess sleep for a hundred years. The good fairy cast a spell that essentially protected the princess in the palace, with trees grown up around the building and all of the princess’s servants, attendants, and pets made to sleep for a hundred years too.
After the century had elapsed, another king (of a different royal family) sits on the throne. His son, the prince, heard tales of the palace where the princess slept, and became interested in what he’d find if he ventured there. So he cut a path through to the palace and at length came upon the sleeping form of the princess, falling to his knees at the sight of her beauty.
His timing couldn’t have been better. For at that moment, the hundred years came to an end and the spell was lifted; the princess woke, and seeing the prince she fell in love with him, and they talked a great deal (well, after all, the princess had missed out on a hundred years of news). The whole of the palace then woke up – the servants and animals that had been put under the spell by the good fairy – and the prince and princess lived happily together, having two children, a daughter and a son whom they called Morning and Day respectively.
The prince returned to his parents, the King and Queen, but said nothing about the princess whom he had fallen in love with, because the Queen was part ogress and there were rumours that she had ‘ogreish’ tendencies – in other words, she wanted to eat people. The prince married Sleeping Beauty in private, without his parents’ knowledge.
A couple of years later, the King died and his son, the prince, became King, and brought his wife publicly to the court. But shortly after this he had to go to war with the emperor of a neighbouring country. In his absence, his mother, the Queen Mother, sent away Sleeping Beauty to the country, and sent the cook to kill Morning, the young daughter of the King and Sleeping Beauty, and cook her so that the Queen Mother could eat her with a nice sauce. But the cook was a kind man, who instead slaughtered a lamb and dished it up for the Queen Mother to eat. (She couldn’t tell that it was Lamb and not Little Girl that she was eating.) Meanwhile, the cook sent away Morning to be kept safe by his wife in their chambers in the palace.
But the Queen Mother was soon hungry again, and wanted to have Day for her dinner this time. Once again, the cook sent away the little boy and served up a young kid or baby goat for the Queen Mother to feast upon instead. But the Queen Mother’s appetite was insatiable, and next she wanted to eat the Queen, Sleeping Beauty, herself. The cook despaired of being able to deceive the Queen Mother a third time, so he went up to Sleeping Beauty’s chambers with the intention of slitting her throat. When the Queen saw him, she told him to kill her, so she might join her children, whom she feared dead. The cook told her that her children were alive and well and of how he had tricked the ogreish Queen Mother, and he took her to where his wife was looking after the Queen’s children. Then the cook dished up a hind for the Queen Mother to eat, thinking it was Sleeping Beauty.
But soon after this, the evil Queen Mother heard Sleeping Beauty and her children in the palace, where they were concealed, and she realised she had been tricked! She set about plotting her revenge, ordering that a huge tub be placed in the courtyard and filled with vipers and venomous toads and other dangerous creatures, so that Sleeping Beauty, Morning, Day, the cook, his wife, and his maid, might be thrown in there the next day, and suffer a horrible death. Next day, the prisoners were brought out for the sentence to be carried out – but just as they were about to be thrown into the tub, the King returned, and, angry that her plan had been foiled, the ogreish Queen Mother threw herself in the tub and was killed by the snakes and toads. The King was reunited with Sleeping Beauty and his children, and they all lived happily ever after.
This summary of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is based on the tale that the Opies include in their The Classic Fairy Tales; there are some minor differences between the various versions of the tale, which has been told by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, among others. Indeed, the only reason the Brothers Grimm didn’t throw out ‘Sleeping Beauty’ from their catalogue of fairy tales for being too French was the tale’s suggestive affinities with the myth of Brynhild in the Völsunga saga, which was the inspiration for Wagner’s Ring Cycle among other things. (Brynhild was imprisoned in a remote castle behind a wall of shields and doomed to sleep there in a ring of flames until a man comes along, and rescues and marries her.)
It was Charles Perrault, however, who first made the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty famous, when he included it in his landmark 1697 collection of fairy stories. Yet as we remarked at the beginning of our summary and analysis of this, one of the most famous of all fairy tales, the basic story predates Perrault, and a similar version can be found in the 1630 Pentamerone. Yet even by this stage, the story of Sleeping Beauty was a few centuries old: one of the stories in the anonymous fourteenth-century prose romance Perceforest features a princess named Zellandine who, like Sleeping Beauty after her, is cursed to end up being pricked by a spindle, an accident which prompts her to fall asleep until – you’ve guessed it – a dashing prince, in this case a chap named Troylus, arrives to wake her up. (Unfortunately, this important medieval collection of tales remains criminally out of print and in need of a good translation/edition: Oxford University Press or Penguin, please commission one!)
‘Sleeping Beauty’ features many of the common tropes of classic fairy tales: the beautiful princess, the evil stepmother figure (the evil Queen Mother), the handsome prince, the good fairy, and the patterning of three (the Queen Mother’s planned meals of Morning, Day, and Sleeping Beauty respectively). Throw in a palace and a bit of suspended animation, not to mention a cunning servant (that enterprising and kindly cook) and you have all of the ingredients of a classic.
Continue to explore the world of fairy tales with these classic Victorian fairy stories, our history of the ‘Puss in Boots’ fairy tale, our discussion of the Bluebeard myth, and our analysis of the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ fairy tale.
Our book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now in paperback, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam (1899), via Wikimedia Commons.