The Sleeping Beauty fairy tale appeared in Europe all the way back in the 16th century in French. It existed as a story called “Troylus and Zellandine” in Perceforest, a romance of adventure that included King Arthur and his famous knights. The only major difference between this early instance of the classic story is the fact that the fairy godmothers who protect the princess are replaced with the Greek Goddesses, Lucina, Themis, and Venus. It is in fact, without fairies in the traditional sense and is much more consistent with the medieval period’s romance of adventure tropes with the focus being on a knight’s martial prowess and his bloody adventures.
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The Sleeping Beauty tale that we recognize today was first set onto paper by an Italian man, Giambattista Basile, in his Il Pentamarone collection of fairy tales in 1634. He called his “The Sun, the Moon, and Talia.” In this version, a married king finds sleeping beauty and after failing to wake her up, he rapes her while she is sleeping. She then becomes pregnant with twins, and gives birth to them all while still asleep. The fairies take care of the babies and one day one of them sucks on sleeping beauty’s finger (which had a flax splinter stuck under her nail which is what triggered the curse in this version of the tale) and she wakes up. The king remembers her and goes back to check and finding her awake they immediately fall in love, but he is still married. His wife finds out and she orders the children killed and cooked and served to the king for dinner, but a servant hides them away. She orders sleeping beauty burned on a pyre and says she will go straight to hell, but the king bursts in and saves her and orders his wife killed instead. With her out of the way, the king and sleeping beauty get married and lived happily ever after.
He includes a proverb at the end: “Those whom fortune favors
Find good luck even in their sleep.”
I am not entirely sure how being raped and waking up with two children you didn’t know you had counts as finding good luck, but that is what Basile wants us to believe. As you can see, the Italian version of the story is very gruesome compared to the Disney one that is most familiar today, but Disney was not the first person to censor it. In 1847, John Edward Taylor was the first to translate the Pentamarone, Or the Story of Stories into English. It includes the original rape, but due to Taylor’s belief that “the moral sense of our age is happily too refined and elevated to tolerate indelicacy,” he implies that the king rapes her, but he does not state it outright.
If you want to read Taylor’s original English translation, you can find it here: Il Pentamarone, Or the Story of Stories. Scroll to pages 362-369 to find “Sun, Moon, and Talia.”
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The next version of the fairy tale appears in French in Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose’s Tales published in 1697, and is called “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”
This story is interesting because it begins like the Disney version, except it has seven good fairies and one vengeful one. Sleeping Beauty even pricks her finger on a spindle to enact the curse. She and everyone around her (except for her parents) falls asleep for 100 years until the prince finds her castle in the woods and she wakes. They secretly get married, and have 2 children, Morning (a girl) and Day (a boy), and the prince keeps his family a secret until 2 years later when his father dies. Then he announces his marriage to the world and brings his family to the castle to live.
The only problem? His mother is an ogress who eats little children. One day the new king goes off to war and although his mother, at first, tries to avoid her desires, she eventually orders the cook to kill her granddaughter and serve her for dinner with special sauce (Mickey D’s wasn’t the first to come up with this concept apparently) but the cook hides the girl with his wife and serves the queen mother a kid (as in goat kid) instead. Then she demands to eat her grandson and the cook does the same thing. Finally, she wants to eat the queen and the cook goes to kill her, but can’t follow through so he hides her away with his wife as well, and serves the queen mother a hind (cow). Everything is fine until the queen mother, on a ramble late one night searching for fresh meat, finds out what the cook did. She orders the queen, her grandkids, and the cook and his wife arrested and gathers all these frogs, and poisonous snakes and puts them in a barrel and just when she is about to have them thrown in the king returns. He asks his mother what she is doing and she is so distraught that she casts herself into the barrel and dies and everyone else lives happily ever after. The author includes a moral at the end of this tale as well:
- To get a husband rich, genteel and gay,/ Of humour sweet, some time to stay,/ Is natural enough, ‘tis true;/ But then to wait a hundred years,/ And all that while asleep, appears,/ A thing intirely new./ Now at this time of day,/ Not one of all the sex we see/ To sleep with such profound tranquility.
- But yet this Fable seems to let us know,/ That very often Hymen’s blisses sweet,/ Altho’ some tedious obstacles they meet,/ Which makes us for them a long while stay/ Are not less happy for approaching slow;/ And that we nothing lose by such delay.
- But warm’d by nature’s lambent fires,/ The sex so ardently aspires/ Of this bles’d state of sacred joy t’embrace/ And with such earnest heart pursue ‘em:/ I’ve not the will I must confess,/ Nor yet the power, nor fine address,/ To preach this moral to ‘em.”
(Fun fact: “Hymen’s bliss” refers to Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, here, not the ahem… body part, which completely threw me off the first time I read it, let me tell you.)
It was translated into English in 1729 by Robert Samber.
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The last version of the fairy tale came from Germany and appeared in the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 Children’s and Household Tales. They titled their version “Rose-Bud,” or as it appears in Edgar Taylor’s 1823 English translation, “Briar-Rose” (Where I’m guessing Disney borrowed the name for their own Sleeping Beauty). Surprisingly, compared to the other two foreign versions, the Grimms’ tale lacks the gruesomeness that its authors are so famous for. In fact, it seems that Disney borrowed more than just the princess’s name from the brothers. The animated version that we are all so familiar with today seems to have come entirely from the Grimms’ very clean version of the fairy tale. The only dark part is when all sorts of princes tried to free Briar-Rose from the thorn hedge surrounding the castle and died in horrible ways (But it can’t be entirely without the bloodshed. I mean that would just be boring, right?). 100 years later the worthy one manages it and kisses her awake. As you can guess, the two of them live happily ever after. (This one does not add a moral or proverb at the end)
If you would like to read Edgar Taylor’s first English translation you can here: Grimm Brother’s “Briar-Rose”. The story appears on pages 51-57. Enjoy!
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Whew! I know that is a ton of information, but it really is interesting to see the different country’s versions of the same story, and to see how the oldest versions start out with the awfulness of rape and gradually, over time, are sanitized as society’s sensibilities shift. But even after cleaning up the narrative, the core themes of the fairy tale remain the same. It is still a story that deals with an unavoidable fate, revenge, a passive, silent princess (that literary feminists critique with gusto, as you can probably imagine), and ends with happily-ever-after.
I might go into more detail about the themes of the story in a later post, but that is more than enough to put people to sleep for now. Until next time. (;
(p.s. the image at the top is Hans Zatzka’s Sleeping Beauty)