Monday, February 25, 2008

Obscure Fairy Tale: Sleeping Beauty and Her Children

I love Disney movies. I love Cinderella's talking mice, Sleeping Beauty's song in the forest, and Robin Williams as the Genie. I think Disney's Little Mermaid is far better than the Hans Christian Andersen's original tale. And I think the Lion King is the most brilliant retelling of Hamlet ever done. (My pet theory: the primary difference between the two versions is that the Ophelia in the Lion King is a strong character and therefore tragedy is averted.)

But I do NOT love how passive so many of the Disney heroines are (particularly in the older movies). For example, Sleeping Beauty is lied to by her loved ones, entrapped by Malificent's spell to touch the spindle, and then konks out for most of the movie. She doesn't really DO much of anything.

I used to grumble that Disney chose the most passive versions of the fairy tales to retell. But while I was researching fairy tales for INTO THE WILD, I discovered that this isn't true. While Disney's Sleeping Beauty is no Buffy-esque heroine, Disney actually didn't choose the worst version of Sleeping Beauty.

THIS is the worst version of Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Beauty and Her Children (from Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales)

Once upon a time... a queen wants a baby. She prays, "Please, let me have a daughter. Even if she has to die at fifteen from pricking her finger on the spindle, I want a daughter."

I am all in favor of the importance of having a good imagination. Hyperbole is a lovely literary tool. But for heaven's sake, leave it out of your fairy-tale wishes! Or at least promise something less, y'know, death-related.

Nine months later, the queen has a baby girl. They name her Carol.


When Carol is nearly fifteen, the queen remembers her prayer. The king orders all the spindles to be destroyed and offers to financially recompense anyone who made their living by spinning.

It just slipped her mind for fifteen years? Denial much? As for the king, I really like that he thinks of all the careers he's ruining. Dork that I am, I always worried about the impact on the economy that destroying all those spindles would have. Now I'll just worry about what everyone will wear. Pleather? Latex? Spandex? Gold lame?

As further protection, the king locks his daughter in a tower.

Overkill much?

Alone and bored, Carol watches an old woman secretly spinning thread in her house across the street. Curious, she asks the old woman what's she's doing. The woman says, "I'm spinning," and Carol asks to try it.

Why does no one ever tell Sleeping Beauty not to touch the spindle? Seriously, how hard would it be? You don't need to have an actual spindle. Just show her an illustration. Use words. Wave your hands about to demonstrate. Mime.

She lowers a bucket down to the street, and the old woman loads in a spindle and wool.

I'm thinking that there's no spinning wheel in this version...

Carol tries it, pricks herself, and falls to the door dead. Later, her parents find her. Unable to believe she's really dead, they refuse to bury her. Instead, they dress her in a bridal dress with seven skirts with silver bells, and they build a castle with a single window and no door. They place her in the castle and leave.

Well, that's... weird. At least all those spinners got work again with those seven skirts. But why bells?

Many years later, a young king discovers the castle. Using a rope ladder, he climbs up to the window. He finds a woman so beautiful that he cannot resist kissing her and kissing her. He returns day after day and stays for so long that his mother begins to worry about him.

I'm with the mom. This isn't healthy.

Eventually, the sleeping maiden gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl.


After their birth, the twins are hungry, but their mother lies there like a dead woman. So they suck on their mother's thumb instead, and they suck out the spindle tip.


The princess wakes and is surprised to see two babies with her. She's even more surprised when the young king climbs in through the window.


They talk, discover each other's royal origins, and rejoice. They name their children Sun and Moon.

Rejoice?!? REJOICE?!? He... She was... "Well, at least he's not a peasant?!?" That's her reaction?!? AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

The young king returns to his castle and falls so ill that he cannot eat. He only repeats, "O Sun, O Moon, O Carol, if only I had you at my table!" His mother, hearing this, suspects he's been bewitched. She searches the woods and finds the castle. She orders soldiers to seize the baby Sun.

Why am I suddenly thinking of that grammar joke "Eats, shoots and leaves"?

The queen-mother gives the baby to the cook and tells him to roast the child for the king.

Oh, yes, that's why I was thinking of that joke. Word of advice: If you ever fall into a delirious illness, please make sure you don't accidentally beg to eat your family.

The cook can't bring himself to kill a baby so gives the child to his wife and instead serves roast lamb. The king's mother brings the meat to her son and says, "Eat. You're feasting on your own!"

Yuck. Read The Juniper Tree if you like this story element.

The next day, the queen sends soliders for the baby Moon. Again, she instructs the cook to roast him, and again the cook gives the child to his wife and secretly roasts another lamb.

Okay, Carol. We have to talk. Even though you are in a fairy tale, you still have options. You could hide your second child. You could run away. You could attempt to rescue your firstborn. You could seek out the cook's wife. You could seek out your parents and persuade them to declare war on this kingdom. You could DO SOMETHING. ANYTHING!

The third day, the queen's soliders fetch Carol. At the palace, the queen beats her, and Carol asks why. The queen says, "You're a witch who has bewitched my son!" And she threatens to boil her in burning pitch.

I kind of sympathize a little tiny bit with the queen. Okay, the baby-eating thing is over-the-top, I'll grant you that. But she's worried about her son and rightfully so. He's a sick, sick boy.

The queen orders Carol to remove her skirts. She removes the first skirt, and the silver bells ring. But the young king is listening to a band of musicians and doesn't hear it. She removes skirt after skirt, and by the seventh skirt, the young king hears it.

I like that the skirts with bells serve a purpose. One might argue that the purpose could be served by Carol shouting loudly, "Help! It's me, Carol! I'm about to be thrown in a kettle of boiling pitch! Turn off the music and save me, you self-centered evil man!" But of course, that would mean Carol was actually DOING SOMETHING. Not her style.

The young king springs out of bed and stops the queen from putting Carol into a kettle of burning pitch. He then learns that his children were saved by the cook. He rewards the cook, throws his mother into the kettle of burning pitch, and lives happily ever after.

And that, my friends, is the version of Sleeping Beauty with a heroine too passive even for Disney.

For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior obscure fairy tale posts.



At 11:40 PM, Blogger Enna Isilee said...

Sarah, you are absolutely hilarious. Absolutely.

At 1:13 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Once again, you totally cracked me up. :) Thanks!!

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Faith said...

Okay, so that is the grossest version of Sleeping Beauty.

But you know, don't you, or is your daughter too young yet, why they didn't just tell Sleeping Beauty to avoid the spindles? Have you ever told a teenager to do or not to do something, and expected said teenager to obey? I mean, if you'd told me when I was 15 to avoid spindles or I'd die, I'd have been all, "I'll show those spindles!" Or if you'd tried reverse psychology on me and told me to spin every day, I'd have probably stuck the spindle into my own thumb just so I wouldn't have to spin every day.

I'm just sayin'.

You're awesome!

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Libby said...

this is my favorite version of Sleeping Beauty to teach. It's just so weird, and gets weirder all the time. My students go wild. "She had twins without waking up?" I love it. And your commentary is fabulous.

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Erin said...

Oh my WORD! That is the hardest I've laughed in ages. ("AAAAAAHHHHH!" - pure brilliance.)

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Enna Isilee: *blush* Thanks so much!

Belgatherial: Thanks! Glad you liked it!

Faith: Ooh, I didn't think of that. But I still think a "this is your brain; this is your brain after you touch a spindle" kind of PSA might have helped.

Libby: So cool that you teach this! What other fairy tales do you teach?

Erin: So glad you liked it! Thanks!

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

If anyone's interested, you can find other versions of Sleeping Beauty here:

The version called "Sun, Moon, and Talia" from Giambattista Basile is a close relative to the one in this blog entry.

At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lion King is a retelling of Hamlet? Seriously? I mean, thinking about it, I see the similarities but...never saw it that way.

That was hysterical. I was seriously giggling as I read through, which was kind of embarrassing as my father is washing dishes right behind me. Fortunately, he didn't ask what was so funny.

Yeah...fairy tales...the characters are so impractical and illogical at times. Can't blame the strange events because without them, they wouldn't be fairy tales. ;-)

At 10:26 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Anilee: It's not an exact retelling, but The Lion King is definitely based on Hamlet. I was really surprised the first time someone pointed this out to me, but when you think about it, the parallels are clear.

Simba = Hamlet
Mufasa = Hamlet's (Dead) Dad
Scar = Claudius
Timon = Rosencrantz
Pumbaa = Guildenstern
Nala = Ophelia (but not a flake)
Sarabi = Gertrude
Zazu = Polonius

I'm not sure if Rafiki (the monkey shaman) has a direct Shakespearean counterpart. Maybe Yorick, sorta?

The biggest difference is in the Nala/Ophelia character. Nala's strength and bravery save the day in The Lion King, where Ophelia's weakness ensures tragedy in Hamlet.

Even the direct-to-DVD sequels of The Lion King have Shakespearean counterparts. Lion King 2 is Romeo and Juliet. And Lion King 1 1/2, which retells the Lion King story from Timon and Pumbaa's point of view, is almost certainly an homage to Tom Stoppard's wonderful play, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which looks at Hamlet from the point of view of R and G. This amuses me to no end.

Anyway, I digress. So glad the post made you laugh! I always have a lot of fun writing these obscure fairy tale posts.

At 11:34 PM, Blogger Q said...

I think I'm going to have to go with you on this one, Sarah.


I still love your commentary. And I never realized The Lion King was Hamlet, but now that I think about it it's so true!

Have you read The Red Shoes?

At 12:25 AM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

(Feel free to delete this if it's too gross/inappropriate, but a couple things to add to this version.)

What you have is nearly the grossest SB I've heard, except the version I read adds the obsessed father of the twins being already married.

So not only did he essentially (forgive me) rape this passed-out girl, and get his mom mad at her, the girl's got the wife all over her too-- blaming her for being some sick seductress enticing her beloved husband from the path of righteousness.

Sorry, I'm not usually a "blame the man without question" person, but I'd say that's safe to do here.

And then my cycle-savvy husband points out that the amount of (forgive me) *mess* produced by a female able to conceive would be the antithesis of attractive, which again casts questions on the mental health of this cheating, um, fellow.

This *totally* gags me out to think about at all, but you did bring up gross here.


At 12:26 AM, Blogger Enna Isilee said...

Oh. One more comment on your hilarious-brilliance:

My mother just finished The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and came to me very depressed. "I finished," she said glumly, handing the book back to me, "And I've never cried so much." After a moments hesitation she said, "What do I read now?"

It took me all of ten seconds to hand her Into the Wild which she is now quite a bit into saying "I love this! It's just what I needed."

That's my [true] story.

At 9:39 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: Yep, I've read the Red Shoes. (I assume you mean the Hans Christian Andersen tale?) I LOATHE it. Girl dares to wear red shoes to church instead of black and is punished for her fashion sin with endless dancing until she chops off her feet. What a charming message.

Amy Jane: In Sun, Moon, and Talia, the queen is the king's wife rather than her mother, and her violence toward Sleeping Beauty and her children is in part out of her anger at being cheated on. Talk about blaming the victims.

Enna Isilee: Oh, that totally makes my day! Thank you!

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Libby said...

Oops, actually I teach Sun, Moon, and Talia rather than this one. They're similar but not, as the comments above all note, the same. I use the fabulous Broadview Press Folk & Fairy Tales, which has multiple versions of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty; I always teach at least the LRRH and Cinderella variants as well as selected others. Fun stuff.

At 6:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Caffeinated Librarian sent me over and I will be eternally grateful. We're going through a Sleeping Beauty phase at our house and while I love the Disney version, I had to laugh when my 13 year old asked, "Why didn't anyone want to make her smart?"

You're right. That is possibly the worst retelling of Sleeping Beauty ever. Eating the babies? AAAAAHHHHH!

At 12:09 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Libby: I haven't read that one. I'll definitely have to get my hands on a copy. Thanks for pointing me to it!

Jennie: Welcome! Glad you found me! I am 100% with your daughter about the fairies' gifts. Beauty and song?! I'd vote for good health and intelligence. A talent is nice, but it's not like her parents are going to let their royal daughter become a professional singer. Have you read An Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye? In it, the fairy gift is to be ordinary (which includes a strong dose of common sense). Fabulous book.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger AnnaDee said...

i grew up on calvino's collection, and you comentary is needs a word. i was thinking 'awsohilariotaining'
please do more fairy tales with the cometary. it makes them wayyy more entertaining!

At 5:26 PM, Blogger AnnaDee said...

i grew up on calvino's collection, and you comentary is needs a word. i was thinking 'awsohilariotaining'
please do more fairy tales with the cometary. it makes them wayyy more entertaining!

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

AnnaDee: So glad you like them! They're really fun to write. I'll do another one soon...

At 8:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Job!: )

At 8:55 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Carlo: Thanks so much!

At 8:01 AM, Blogger mixedblessings89 said...

Aah, the joy in finding a blogging genius.
Long live Queen Sarah!
Hey do you mind if I post a link to your blog from mine?

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

mixedblessings89: Of course I don't mind! Thanks for your kind words!

At 5:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's how to sum up this story in one word: What?!!

At 7:55 PM, Blogger Jakob Dailes said...

Just a thought: In stories like this, maybe, just maybe, it would help by telling the girl to never spin. D-U-H!

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

UMMMMMMMMMM why would u kill ur mom??!?!?!! plus, waats with the 'oh, lets name our kids that i had while in a coma Sun and Moon" thing? PLUS i agree with faith, who is probeby my best friend from spectrum!

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: I always wonder that with all the Sleeping Beauty variants! At least Disney has her enchanted.

Olivia: You're so right. He's so casual about the mom-killing. And those are definitely... unusual name choices.

At 1:48 AM, Blogger skatej said...

The Lion King special edition commentary actually mentions that they realized as they were developing the movie that it sounded a lot like Hamlet. When they realized it, they started to try to engineer it to sound more like Hamlet, even having Scar wisper "goodnight, sweet prince" in Mufasa's, ear believe it or not, instead of "long live the king." Thankfully they realized that forcing the issue made for a bad movie, so they just let it go naturally without purposefully manufacturing it like Shakespeare.
So my guess is that the writers were good scholars who studied their Shakespeare so hard that they inadvertently modeled a story after his work, much like someone writing like Jane Austen because they read her work so much in their formative years.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The versions of this I've read in the past generally have SB living with the prince when Mother-in-Law decides to be all evil and all.

So the Mother-in-Law steals and tries to eat the kids, and then accuses her daughter-in-law of the same crime! And right when she's about to shove SB into a pit of vipers/vat of boiling oil for her crimes, the cook arrives with the kids and the prince comes home from his trip and says "WTF?" and, in shock, the Mother-in-Law plunges in herself because she can't bear to tell her son the truth.

Which, really, I think is awesome, all the rape and crazy notwithstanding.

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Erica said...

Oh. My. Gosh. What the heck is wrong with all these fairy tale characters?!?!?! I mean, rape and completely idiotic princesses is fine and all, but what about human independence? I think you have a point, these characters are too passive; the son just sits around eating, and doesn't even bother thinking his kids could be in danger even though the mom practically tells him that he's eating them. Problem much? And no one rescues the kids from the tower either....

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Jakob Dailes said...

"The Mother-In-Law", a story from the Bros. Grimm, is almost just like this story (as in the parts about the evil mom, not the spinning-curse or comatosed-pregnancy. In this story, the female already lives with the prince). Except in the Grimm version, the princess actually has a brain, and is in fact, the one who comes up with the "switch the kids for take-out and hide them" plan. However, the story ends with a cliff-hanger leaving the queen asking for the princess to eat (the queen's the cannibal here), the chef and princess trying to formulate a plan, and the fact that sooner or later, someone will hear the children crying...

At 12:19 AM, Anonymous Laura May Cuthbertson said...

ok- so a note on the spindle aspect of this:

at the point when this story was originated (i'm assuming here, because i dont know any actually dates and am far far too lazy to be researching it right now) spinning wheels were probably not in existence yet. people spun on drop spindles for many many years (like, centuries) before anyone ever came up with the spinning wheel.

drop spindles are essentially a pointy stick with a ball or a disk on one end of it. they were/are much easier, cheaper, and practical to use, although can (for some) be more time consuming, and definitely require more skill to be efficient at it.

they tend not to be so much anymore, but they were traditionally very sharp.

a girl was expected to be able to spin by the time she hit puberty, because otherwise she wouldve been unfit to raise a family. so by keeping her daughter from spinning, the parents were essentially just trying to keep her from growing up.

i do think the comment about the *mess* left by a woman "of age" left sleeping in the tower was an interesting observation, most particularly because my little sister had just asked me about a month ago "how did she go to the bathroom" after watching the disney version. (and that one she wasnt even asleep for all that long.)

btw, i love this string of posts on fairy tales, i just came upon it today, and i am absolutely going to have to read Into The Wild. somehow, i feel like my life isnt going to be complete till i do

At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so im assuming the young king impregnated her with kisses? or technically raped her sleeping body....?

At 3:37 PM, Anonymous Victor said...

Good afternoon, miss Durst:

I was reseaching Italo Calvino's work, and I randomly found this blog. As you present yourself as an author, I decided to check your thoughts in this particullar tale - And initially I was quite happy to find that you posted reviews on other tales as well, but my expectations quickly turned to a disappointing end when I start reading them.

English is not my first language so I can't have a fundamented and coherent long discussion about your tale review - as I lack the syntatic skills and vocabulary required to do so - but let me express my opinion on this article, and you can extend it to the others: this Calvino's tale (as HC Andersen's, and arguably Grimm's tales) is more about the ingenuity and pureness of their characters - an extension of Perraut's tales "line of thought", as the early Modern authors started to emphasize their characters moral traits to the detriment of the intellectual features, actions and plot itself, wich were very much exploited during Renaissance and Greek literature BC, and latter Modern authors reiterate, attempting to combine the best of several styles) - than about the story feasible details. More: those horror/non-moral scenarios give impetus to the characters personal traits, and serve as a degradation scenario to contrasts with the pureness of their "feelings" - as fairy-tales were supposidly made for toddlers, who wouldn't understand arguable moral questions. Some authors like Italo (not the Grimm Brothers in this one) wanted to explore the limits of that purity, associated (even in the bible story of the Adam and Eve) with the lack of knowledge.

Now let me tell you more: the 7 skirts are a metaphor for the 7 perversions/sins the queen commited and the bells were the alert signs. When she commited the last perversion, she was sentenced to dead by the one she was trying to protect. That's the moral and the true meaning of all the tale: don't do stupid shit because of your own believes.

The tale-form doesn't need explanation of detail, like, for example, the novel-style, nether it has to be plausible. In fact, thats quite the contrary of a tale's purpose.

Having that said, I'm really surprised with your lack of depth and knowledge on the literary genre, when you admin a bolg dedicated to it. Almost as I am impressed with your disrespect towards the intellectuality of the authors you criticize, wich I highly doubt you'll ever fully apprehend.

Now, I'm not an author, but my authority is like anyone's in this matter, and my arguments have the validity you can give to their fundaments. I would also like to underline that I'm not trying to offend you, I'm just giving my point of view, wich you can use or misuse.

I'm a med student, but I'm very keen on literature, and if you could send me a structurated answer, defending your disregard for the authors you criticize, and recommend me good authors YOU value, I would like to establish a thought provoking dialog between two different cultures, and, obviously, different ways of thinking.

Greeting, victor

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Victor said...

P.S.- sorry about eventual errors, but English is not my mother-language, neither I live in Anglo-Saxonic countries, so grammar may not correctly apply to all my sentences. Also, reviewing my reply I realized that some pontuation, and even words, are missing because I probably erase them while constructing the sentence and didn't write them back.

P.S.S. - If you could recommend me an american respected blog with valuable information and consideration about books, and not perconceituous, sentimental driven, outflows from a mindless author, I would see in you more than the mindless author I refered before. My google and pc definitions are set to europe and I can't find these with direct 'google search', so I keep stumbling in posts without content like this one. And no, I can't outrun the quality of your blog, mainly because of time-related issues - but that's not even the point - so although that may be your first thought, it doesn't give any strength to your possible counter-argument. Besides, I gave more information and depth in one reply than you did in a whole post.

Cinism is a simplistic way of critical thinking, sarcasm is a reducer - for both thinker and object. Who said this? Me, and still didn't found counter-evidence to that premisse. Now go ahead and steal this, before I have time to publicate it under my name.

I would post my e-mail so you could send me a good answer - or, eventually, see who am I trought a social network search engine - as I won't come to this blog again, but I'm pretty confident that an attempt of text dialogue with you would result in a mailbox full of 'hating' messages. But the name is Vitor Hugo Moura Ramos, for the record.

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Emma said...

i started choking on my hoagie this was so funny

At 2:30 AM, Anonymous Martin said...

Sarah kindly verify is this story by Russell Josh. Thank you


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