My current work-in-progress is a retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Having done one heckuva rewrite after throwing ideas back and forth with my editor, I sent it back to her for a ‘reader’s report’. Her overall reaction – she liked the changes I’d made:
“The characters all feel well-rounded and each feels like they have a purpose and role to play. The pace is well-set. The plot feels both familiar and yet you’ve given it new life and made it completely new.”
Colour me oh-so-very-chuffed! But – and isn’t there always one of those – there are still sections that could do with improvement. So, while I’m working on those, I thought I’d start posting some of the research I’d done for the story, starting with the different versions.
By now, it's surely common knowledge that fairy tales didn’t start out in written form but followed an oral tradition. And they weren’t traditionally meant for children as they featured murder, rape, incest, even cannibalism.
The first recorded version of a collection of such tales was ‘Il Pentamerone’ (the subtitle, ‘Lo Cunto de li Cunte’ translated to ‘The Tale of Tales’), written by Giambattista Basile and published posthumously in 1634. The collection included familiar tales like ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rapunzel’ and, of course, ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Written in 1632, Basile titled his story, ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’.
After her birth, Talia’s father, a great lord, consults with wise men and astrologers to predict her future. When they warn him that she will be in danger from a piece of stalk in flax, he orders a ban on flax in his household, hoping that will keep his daughter safe. But, thanks to her curiosity, she ends up handling a spindle and the dreaded piece of stalk gets under her nail and she falls, supposedly dead. Her heartbroken father has her placed on a velvet seat and leaves his house, shutting the doors behind him forever to try and forget the misery of her death.
One day, a king happens by and his falcon flies into the house. Thinking the place to be empty when there is no answer to his knocks, he enters and discovers Talia alive but unconscious.
“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.”
Now pregnant and despite still being asleep, Talia’s pregnancy progresses. Which is actually a disturbing thought but not as disturbing as her giving birth while still asleep. To twins, no less. Anyway, one of her babies sucks on her fingers and, clever baby sucks out the piece of stalk and Talia awakes.
Meanwhile, the king remembers the sleeping woman and returns for more of the same only to find her awake. Seeing his children, who are called Sun and Moon, he confesses to what he’d done. Apparently, this doesn’t bother Talia in the slightest for they end up growing closer. Neither does she seem to be bothered by the fact that the king is already married. It’s not clear if he ‘justifies’ his actions by telling her that his wife did not bring him a dowry when they were married.
Back home, his wife finds out about his other family. She orders the cook to kill the twins and serve them to their father. But the cook takes them to his wife who hides them; he cooks and serves lambs instead. As the king eats, his wife tells him, “Eat, eat, you are eating of your own.” Potential cannibalism, right there.
It’s only when the wife tries to burn Talia, that the king discovers what’s going on. The wife is executed, and Talia and the king live happily ever after with their twins.
In 1697, Charles Perrault wrote and published ‘Tales of Mother Goose’, which contained his version, titled ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ or ‘The Beauty in the Sleeping Wood’. Unlike Basile’s version, Perrault infuses his story with great attention to detail:
“There was placed before every one of them, a magnificent cover with a case of massive gold, wherein were a spoon, and a knife and fork, all of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. But as they were all sitting down at table they saw a very old fairy come into the hall. She had not been invited, because for more than fifty years she had not been out of a certain tower, and she was believed to be either dead or enchanted.
The King ordered her a cover, but he could not give her a case of gold as the others had, because seven only had been made for the seven fairies. The old fairy fancied she was slighted, and muttered threats between her teeth.”
Interestingly, in this version, although everyone else in the palace, including the animals, are put to sleep, the King and Queen remain awake and leave. The good fairy then makes sure none can come near:
“… there grew up all round about the park such a vast number of trees, great and small, bushes and brambles, twining one within another, that neither man nor beast could pass through; so that nothing could be seen but the very top of the towers of the palace; and that, too, only from afar off.”
A hundred years later, a prince happens by, sees the towers, learns of the sleeping princess and decides to try his luck. And here we have a significant and welcome change to the previous version:
“He approached with trembling and admiration, and fell down upon his knees before her.
Then, as the end of the enchantment was come, the Princess awoke…”
The explanation for their instant connection was that the fairy had given the princess pleasant dreams about the prince, so she felt she already knew him.
In this story, Perrault does away with the first wife, replacing her character with the prince’s mother who, for some strange reason, is an ogress. The only explanation as to why the prince’s father married her is he wanted her vast riches. That the prince would be half-ogre is never talked about. Which again is strange, as the story makes a big deal about ogres constantly hungering for the flesh of humans, especially children.
The prince doesn’t tell his parents about his newly discovered love. Pretending he is away hunting, he secretly visits the princess and their twins, Dawn and Day. After two years, the prince’s father dies, he inherits the kingdom and brings his new family home.
When the prince, now the king, goes to war, his mother gives full vent to her ogress’ tendencies and demands that the twins be cooked for her. But the cook gives them to his wife to hide away and tricks the queen mother, preparing a lamb and kid instead, which she happily devours. When she insists the young queen be cooked for her, the cook prepares a young hind and tricks her again.
But the queen mother discovers the truth and is about to have all of them cooked in a huge vat when the king returns. Enraged, the queen mother inexplicably throws herself into the vat instead and dies.
“The King was of course very sorry, for she was his mother; but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife and his pretty children.”
The version most are familiar with was written in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, titled, ‘Little Briar Rose’. Their version zips along at a fast pace, making it difficult to make any connection with the characters. Given their penchant for gory details, they surprisingly got rid of the whole second part to do with eating the children, ending the story with the princess being woken and living happily ever after.
A few other differences – here, the baby’s birth is foretold to the queen by a fish.
The Grimm version ups the number of fairies to thirteen, and the reason the thirteenth fairy is not invited is because there are only twelve sets of cutlery and crockery, which I find sadly basic.
Unlike the first two versions where no age is given as to when the princess will fall into her deep sleep, the Grimm’s evil fairy states the curse will take her when she is fifteen.
Whereas in Perrault’s story, the princess is wakened by the prince kneeling before her, the Grimm’s introduce the kiss to wake her.
As for the princess’ name – she is called Talia in Basile’s version. Although unnamed in Perrault’s story, her daughter is named ‘Aurore’, which translates as ‘Dawn’. The Brothers Grimm give her the name, ‘Briar Rose’. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet, she is named ‘Princess Aurora’, which is also her name in the Disney film where she’s also called ‘Briar Rose’ by the fairies who are raising her in secret.
When I first started researching the different versions, I was gobsmacked at what I found in ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’. That it featured rape - she was asleep, for pity's sake! - potential cannibalism and, apparently, even incest was very disturbing. Was it the accepted thing when it came to stories back then, that kings and noblemen were allowed to have their way with women and suffer no consequence? It’s no wonder that Disney opted for the version by the Brothers Grimm.