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An Adult Returns to ‘Sleeping Beauty’

February 8, 2011 | by

Sleeping Beauty is often cited these days as the ultimate antifeminist tale.

Recently, while visiting my parents, I came across my childhood edition of Sleeping Beauty. As I opened the book again, the decades collapsed: the old illustrations recalled how dire that sleeping palace had appeared to me as a child, how thick its rooms had seemed with dark, ungraspable truths. The story had seemed entirely indecent, and that was precisely why it was so magnetic.

Sleeping Beauty is laced throughout with inchoate threat, which is why it feels so bottomless. Most obviously, there is an outrageous fact that the story passes over and that most children do not consciously note: Beauty is a century older than the prince who kisses her and ends her sleep. When he enters her dusty room she is one hundred and fifteen years old. As the reader bends with him over her inert form, adoration is tinged with something else entirely—the apprehension of death.

Earlier versions of the story, such as Charles Perrault’s (1697), make this explicit: the prince, seeing the newly awoken princess, “took care not to mention that she was dressed like his grandmother.” Later versions—the Grimm brothers’, for example—got rid of such details so as to make the ending more youthfully nuptial. But the fact of Beauty’s age still lurked in the background as a kind of unfamiliar smell; even a child reader has the sense that this apparently straightforward love affair is stalked by impossibility and decay.

There is another kind of corruption buried in this story. I can’t be the only child who bristled with excitement at the idea of walking into a palace full of insensible adults. What an irresistible opportunity for transgression! The situation is so ripe for exploitation that the prince’s chaste behavior seems disingenuous—which, in historical terms, it is. In one of the earliest written versions of this story—Giambattista Basile’s Italian version of 1634—it is no presexual prince who finds the sleeping princess but a fully virile king with his own wife and family. He is out hunting when his falcon flies into the silent palace, and he follows it into the princess’s room:

Thinking she was asleep he called out to her but she did not reply, so he tried to wake the beautiful maiden, thinking that she had fallen sick, but without success. Finally, inflamed by her beauty, he took her in his arms and laid her on the bed, kissed her and gave her all his love. Then leaving her laid out there he returned to his palace and for a good amount of time he did not think again of what had happened.

In this altered world, far from judgment or consequence, the king realizes our worst fears of predatory manhood. He is a powerfully menacing figure, and it is obvious why he had to be defanged in the later version for children. But his shadow remains, clouding the story with the threat of another kind of death—moral collapse

Sleeping Beauty is often cited these days as the ultimate antifeminist tale: a princess waits a hundred years for prince to rescue her, and then marries him in helpless gratitude. This is partly because of the Disney version (1959), which tries to recast the tale as a celebration of romance and marriage. Here the fairy says nothing about a hundred years; it is romantic love, not time, that will defeat the spell:

Not in death, but just in sleep
The fateful promise you will keep
And from this slumber you shall wake
When true love’s kiss the spell shall break.

The word love did not appear in the Grimms’ tale. Though the overt lust of earlier versions was removed, what remained was still unmistakeably erotic. To ensure their story is entirely hormone-free, however, Disney established love at the beginning: the two are sweethearts before Beauty ever pricks her finger. She thus cannot sleep for a hundred years, so the whole point is a little lost. She goes to sleep, and then he wakes her up.

The enigma of a century passing without effect on a young woman is gone, as is the mystery of a young man wandering alone through a dormant palace and finding a beautiful object of desire. In the Disney film, he’s gone in precisely to find her and get her out of there. He delivers his kiss like a well-aimed grenade, then stands back and smiles with self-satisfaction. The whole thing is a parody of itself: “off he rides on his noble steed,” it says in fairytalese, “to wake his love with love’s first kiss and prove that true love conquers all.” The film climaxes with a great thwack-out between the prince and the wicked witch, a battle that is won with the prick of a tiny sword so that you realize, in the end, there never was any true danger to begin with.

The Disney impulse to produce a world without shadows results in a story that is not only uninteresting but also, even to a child, completely lacking in authentic feeling. In the Grimm story, it is as though happiness was won improbably and even in the final celebrations there remained a surplus of perennial terror. That's why it drew us back again and again. The amazing attraction that fairy tales exert on us derives from this: that the feelings they produce have nothing “fairy tale” about them.

These days I read a lot of contemporary children’s books to my three-year-old daughter, and I’m disappointed how sanitized they are. They restate obsessively the truth of the nuclear family. They teach kids how to be responsible members of society, how to cure their own negative impulses, and how to shun others who persist in negativity. It’s boring to read this stuff as an adult, but for a kid? I don’t want my daughter shut in by endless domesticity; I want her to think about the big world. I want her awe-struck.

Rana Dasgupta is the author of the novel Solo.

4 COMMENTS

3 Comments

  1. susmita | February 9, 2011 at 4:21 am

    a great read… seems like articulating some impressions that lay deep in the reader’s mind… the compact expression …”The amazing attraction that fairy tales exert on us derives from this: that the feelings they produce have nothing “fairy tale” about them.” is so simple and yet not so simple … just like the fairy tales …

  2. Zwartendÿk | February 9, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Ah, I had never thought about the 100 years that way, but I love how it’s treated by Perrault. BTW an interesting equivalent from reality was the case of Mats Israelsson, the petrified miner of Falun.

  3. vivek m | February 11, 2011 at 3:01 am

    so what’s your short list of the best books that you’ve found for your three-year-old, Rana? I’ve got one of them at home too…

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