Sleeping Beauty is based on the story of a princess who is put to sleep by an evil curse and awakened years later by a handsome prince. The tale of the laziest dating method ever may go back as far as 14th Century Spain, so as you can imagine, tracking down an appropriate source text also took about 100 years.
The most famous non-Disney version is called La Belle Au Bois Dormant – The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood – which was written by Charles Perrault. This is the official source text of the film, but other than the princess’ conception being announced by a magical toad, there being thirteen fairies instead of three, and a disappointing lack of nuclear dragons, there are very few differences between them. There is another version of the story called Little Briar Rose that was penned by the Grimms brothers, but both this and Perrault’s are adaptations of an earlier and little known story called Sole, Luna e Talia (Sun, Moon and Talia). Earlier versions than this are a tad too diluted to qualify as “sleeping beauty” stories, so as with Mulan, I have chosen this text as it is the earliest one that is comparable to the film.
Written by a Napolitan called Giovan Battista Basile in the mid 17th Century, this is probably the most controversial version, and therefore the most interesting one to compare with Disney’s. It formed part of a collection of European fairy tales that later came to be known as the Pentamerone. Incidentally, the original Napolitan title is Lo Cunto de li Cunti, so apologies to any readers who came across this blog while looking for less wholesome entertainment material.
That being said, while there is no evil dragon in this version, you can rest assured you will be scared and corrupted by plenty else.
Picture a fairytale princess, and you already know too much about our protagonist, Briar Rose, a.k.a. Princess Aurora. Beautiful, innocent and naive, and with the obligatory animal entourage, she is the only child of the king and queen, but is raised in secret as a peasant girl for her own protection. Unfortunately, they had more success in hiding her personality.
The love of Aurora’s life is Prince Phillip. He is dashing, brave and would fight to the death for his lady love, and doesn’t mind being upstaged by three old grannies. Unlike Her Royal Blandness, he receives an added dash of charisma thanks to his grumpy and greedy steed, Samson.
Watching over the star crossed lovers are the aforementioned grannies: good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Their interests include drinking tea, bickering and storming evil castles single-handedly. They are instrumental in saving Aurora from the curse as well as instigating it in the first place.
Last but not least, there is Maleficent, the evil fairy. Her hobbies include being effortlessly elegant, social faux pas, spreading misery to gardeners and innocent princesses everywhere, and transforming into a dragon. She is ably assisted by her trusty raven, and somewhat less ably by her army of incompetent orcs and imps.
Although Talia is of noble birth, having been born to a lord or gran signore, she is not a princess in this version. However, she is just as naive, beautiful and innocent as Aurora, and is also a treasured only child. She lacks animal followers, but has plenty of other dependents to keep her busy later on, and demonstrates incredible coping skills.
The love of Talia’s life is not a prince, but a fully fledged
date rapist king. Who, incidentally, already has a wife in tow, in the form of the queen of a nearby kingdom. He enjoys a spot of hunting, but is also subject to the attention span and memory of a goldfish.
There are two fairies in this version, but their existence is due to plot convenience more than anything else.
As for the antagonist, it is the aforementioned queen, who seeks to punish her husband’s lover through the medium of murder, cannibalism and humiliation, rather than some tenuous plan involving a spinning wheel. Her minion consists of the king’s assistant, but she lacks any magical powers whatsoever.
The Disney version leans more towards traditional fairytale characters with its royal couple and good and evil fairies. Basile’s version, on the other hand, simply has human beings with complicated relationships rather than magical powers. Despite this, both versions feature a prophecy or curse of some kind, so given the difference in the main characters, how is this handled?
As well as King Hubert from the next kingdom, together with his young son Phillip, three good fairies are also invited to pay their respects to the baby princess. Each of the fairies wishes to bestow a gift on the child; Flora grants the gift of beauty, Fauna, the gift of song, but before Merryweather can give her gift, they are rudely interrupted by the arrival of Maleficent, who has not received an invitation.
This could have been glossed over without incident if Merryweather hadn’t pointed out that, due to the whole “being evil” thing, Maleficent was intentionally left out of the loop. To show there are no hard feelings, the evil fairy kindly offers to bestow a wish on the child as well. A wish which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t turn out to be all that good.
Rather than giving Aurora chronic halitosis, endless facial hair, or something else to counteract the gifts already received, or you know, killing her outright, Maleficent opts for the most bizarrely tenuous curse ever. Before the sun sets on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. The sorceress then disappears in the usual puff of smoke and echoing laughter.
All is not lost, however, as Merryweather can still give her gift and tone down the curse a little bit. She is able to make it needlessly complicated, but not final – if Aurora pricks her finger, she will instead go into a deep sleep, but will only be awoken by love’s first kiss.
This is still not an ideal situation, so in addition to burning all of the spinning wheels in the kingdom, the royal family sadly agrees to let the fairies raise Aurora in secret, as a peasant girl, until her sixteenth birthday has been and gone.
Talia’s birth is not announced with quite so much fanfare, but the lord does invite all of the oracles and fortune tellers to his castle to predict her future. After consulting the stars and each other, they assure him that she will be beautiful and graceful, but that one day she will be killed by a piece of fabric. Specifically, a piece of flax.
Instead of falling over laughing or casting said oracles from his door, the lord becomes frightened for his daughter’s life, and decides to ban any flax or hemp-like material from his kingdom. Knee-jerk parenting at its finest.
However, he neglects to tell Talia any of this, so she grows into a happy and innocent young girl, completely oblivious to the horrors of material.
Princess Aurora could have avoided the curse entirely if everyone had just humoured Maleficent when she turned up to the royal party. However, at least in her case there are a couple of safeguards and get-out clauses – all is not lost if she does happen to prick her finger on a spinning wheel. Talia, unfortunately, had no such choice or protection. She was born with the curse already hanging over her head – the result of fatalism rather than a magical curse – and what’s worse, there is no mention of her falling into a magical sleep if she touches any flax: she would simply die, and that would be that. Despite the harsher terms of Talia’s curse, it’s Aurora’s family that goes to greater lengths to prevent the prophecy from coming true.
Thanks to the spoiler of a title, you already know what happens, but how does each young maiden meet her respective fate?
Sleeping Like the Dead
Aurora, now known as Briar Rose, is fast approaching her sixteenth birthday, having been raised in the woods by the three fairies in disguise. All seems to be going swimmingly, as the fairies have taken every precaution to avoid identifying her or themselves, even hiding their magic wands and living as mortals. Consequently, Maleficent has been unable to track Rose down and make sure that the prophecy is fulfilled.
Although Rose has not been warned about errant spinning wheels, and is quite happy to broadcast her existence by singing opera in the woods, this is not what leads to her downfall. It’s all due to a fairy cat-fight.
Flora and Merryweather have a disagreement when making a dress for Rose’s birthday present. They have agreed to use their magic on this one occasion, but can’t agree on the colour, and the resulting spray of magical fireworks attracts the attention of Maleficent’s raven. He overhears the fairies later revealing Rose’s true identity to her, and that they will be heading back to King Stefan’s castle that evening.
Later on, when Rose, now Princess Aurora, is left alone in the palace to contemplate her vast change in circumstances, Maleficient uses the lethal combination of spells and Tchaikovsky to entice her up into the tower. Here, she conjures up a spinning wheel and forces the princess to prick her finger.
The three fairies arrive too late to stop her, and find her in a crumpled heap as Maleficent gloatingly makes her exit, moments before the sun finally sets. Resisting the urge to group face-palm, the fairies gently lie Aurora on the bed and draw the drapes. To make sure no one else in the kingdom knows any different, they then proceed to put everyone else to sleep until the princess is awakened by love’s first kiss.
She has grown into a happy and curious young girl, but clearly hard up for entertainment, as one particular day she is fascinated by the sight of an old woman weaving. She invites the old woman up to her room for a demonstration, and tries her hand at the spinning wheel herself. It’s then that a piece of flax gets lodged under her fingernail, and she drops to the ground, dead.
While the old woman scurries off in the least incriminating way possible, the lord is thrown into despair, and decides to seal his daughter’s body up in the tower. He lays her down on a velvet recliner, and then orders the entire palace to be closed off before departing for another kingdom, never to return.
The Disney characters did everything they could to stop Aurora from pricking her finger, and her doing so was due to a couple of minutes of carelessness in sixteen years of diligence. Even if they had told Aurora about the curse, she would not have been able to avoid it due to Maleficent’s powers. Talia, on the other hand, would have been more than capable of not inviting the old woman up to her room, or not messing about with the spinning wheel, if she had only been told the risks. Also, either the lord was more lax in protecting his daughter as she got older, or the old woman was a master smuggler, as any similar material had supposedly been banned from the kingdom previously.
Both the fairies and the lord blame themselves for what has happened, and react by closing everything off or by trying to forget what has transpired. Fortunately, there is hope for both protagonists thanks to their respective love interests, who each come to the rescue in their own way, if you catch my drift.
Once Upon a Dream
After being gently nudged out of the house while the fairies prepare her birthday gifts, Rose wanders through the forest singing loudly about nothing in particular. Her beautiful voice catches the attention of Prince Phillip, who is out for a trot with his trusty horse.
Despite said horse’s objections, Phillip goes to investigate, and finds Rose dancing with with her animal friends, who somehow seem to be dressed up in his clothes. This, coupled with the fact that Rose is singing about an imaginary man she has fallen in love with, doesn’t appear to set off any bunny boiler alarms, so Phillip dives in and starts singing and dancing with her. He rather forwardly suggests that he is in fact the man she was dreaming about, and this works like a charm on Rose – further cementing any bunny boiler suspicions. Within a few moments (at least until the background song has come to an end) they are walking hand in hand through the forest and in love.
However, asking Rose for her name appears to be too much, and she suddenly panics and runs away as she is not supposed to talk to strangers. Phillip asks her if he will ever see her again, and she all too quickly changes her answer from “never” to “this evening at the cottage”.
Things don’t quite go to plan, as when Rose returns home, the fairies reveal that she is really a princess, betrothed to a Prince Phillip, and that she can never see her handsome stranger ever again. The nice dress, huge cake, and revelation of riches may have taken the edge off for most people, but fulfilling another Disney princess requirement, Rose runs to her room and collapses in a sobbing heap.
Due to Rose never uttering her name, and Phillip not offering his, the pair don’t realise that they are betrothed to one another. Phillip only discovers this while imprisoned by Maleficent later on, whereas Rose is completely in the dark about the whole deal – some might say literally – right up until Phillip wakes her from the spell with love’s first kiss. Fortunately, she welcomes this news, and the kingdom rejoices as the royal couple reveal themselves at the palace.
When we last left Talia, she was left for dead inside the sealed up tower, which has been left to overgrow. After an unspecified amount of time, a king stumbles across it while out hunting with his falcon. When the falcon flies in the window of the tower and doesn’t come out again, his curiosity is piqued, and he goes to investigate further.
He finds the room where Talia has been left lying on the velvet recliner, suspiciously well preserved despite being apparently dead, and thinks she is asleep or sick. When several attempts to wake her fail, he is suddenly overcome by her beauty, and, in the words of the original, lies her down on the bed and “gives her all of his love”. He then leaves. So, our handsome royal visitor has gone from this:
or, since it’s unclear precisely how old Talia is at this point, there’s this option:
The king then disappears for a while, during which Talia both conceives and gives birth to a twin boy and girl – while asleep, or dead, depending on your interpretation. Either way an achievement. Luckily, two fairies appear out of nowhere to care for the babies while their mother is still in a delicate position.
You may have noticed that love’s first kiss, or similar expression of affection, wasn’t enough to wake Talia from the curse. Instead, Talia is somehow revived by one of her babies – while on the quest for boob, one of them latches on to her finger, and inadvertently pulls out the piece of flax. This instantly wakes her, and she seems scarily capable of accepting puberty, rape and childbirth in one fell swoop.
Some time later, the king suddenly remembers the girl in the deserted tower and presumably goes back for another go, only to find she is there and awake with her new babies, which he names Sole and Luna. The couple rejoice at having found each other and are delighted by their accidental offspring, but rather than take them back to the castle straight away, the king says he will go back home for a while and then send for them at a later date. Funnily enough, when he returns to his own castle, he doesn’t breathe a whisper of this to the queen.
By the end of the story, the king and Talia are married, and Talia is overjoyed and completely unfazed by this ready-made family that materialised while she slept.
It’s safe to say that both couples fall in love extremely quickly. However, Aurora has the privilege of getting to know the love of her life before waking up from the curse. Both the prince and the king are smitten by beauty and have no concern for status (or consciousness), but the former demonstrates more patience when it comes to extending the royal line, and the latter is only indirectly responsible for Talia’s revival. He’s also a bit of an inconsiderate git for leaving his family in a deserted tower for his own convenience.
The course of true love never did run smoothly, so before both sets of characters can reach a happy ending (at least in their own warped realities), they must first deal with the antagonists.
After Rose/Aurora has fallen under the spell, Maleficent decides to give the fairies an extra kick in the teeth by capturing Prince Phillip and holding him prisoner. Her plan is to lock him up for 100 years - a nod to one of the story variations – so that he is unable to kiss Aurora and wake her up. If being cock-blocked by an evil fairy wasn’t bad enough, Phillip then suffers the indignity of being rescued by three plump and jolly old ones.
Flora, Fauna and Merryweather find out that Phillip is being held at the Forbidden Mountain, Maleficent’s fortress, and that he is the only chance they have of breaking the evil spell. Shrinking themselves to avoid detection, they infiltrate the castle and release the prince and Samson from their respective cells. Just as Aurora has birds perch on her hand and runs crying to her room, Maleficent fulfills her role of classic villain by openly revealing her plan to Phillip while he is locked up, including the identity and exact location of the princess.
Although he knows where to go, Phillip encounters a few obstacles on his way out, in the form of angry orcs, a crumbling castle, and hefty pot-shots from Maleficent’s magical staff. The fairies manage to remedy this by giving him a powerful sword and shield, but it’s when Merryweather turns the raven to stone that the evil sorceress really loses her temper, and conjures up an entire forest of thorns to block the path to King Stefan’s castle.
It seems whenever Maleficent has the chance to kill her foes outright, she suddenly realises it’s too mainstream, and decides to baffle or irritate them into submission by casting an off-tangent spell. There appears to be no exception this time, until Phillip realises his sword can actually hack things, and begins to make his way towards the castle entrance. It’s then Maleficient decides to up her game, and transforms into one of the most awesome dragons ever.
Of course, he defeats her by slinging his sword into her heart, and then rushes up to the tower to wake his lady love. The spell broken, everyone else in the kingdom wakes up too, and carries on with what they were doing – conveniently celebrating the return and implied engagement of Princess Aurora. While Aurora and Phillip enjoy a romantic waltz, two of the fairies continue to fight over the colour of her dress, and the king, queen and Phillip’s father King Hubert sit back and watch as the happy ending plays out before them.
After the king has returned from his bout of rape and molestation, his wife the queen becomes suspicious, as he was away hunting for longer than usual. When he sets off to Talia’s for a second visit, the queen tells his assistant that he can either tell her what the king has been up to and be fabulously rewarded, or be brutally murdered. A combination of greed and genuine fear for his life results in him revealing everything to her, presumably while rubbing his hands gleefully.
The queen is outraged to find her husband has been firing more than just arrows, but instead of confronting him directly, she makes his assistant send a message to Talia, purportedly from the king, asking her to send the children to the palace. Talia willingly accepts, never questioning why he wouldn’t invite her along at the same time, and allows the assistant to take Sole and Luna away. Perhaps if she hadn’t slept through puberty she would have been taught about stranger danger.
Once the children have arrived, the queen orders the royal cook to kill them and serve them to the king as a special dish. The cook appears to have more backbone than the assistant, as he agrees but actually secretly serves up a couple of baby goats instead, letting his wife hide the children at their house.
During the meal, as the king presumably feasts on his own young, the queen nudges and encourages him to eat up and enjoy his meat. Since he is a young child in attention span only, the king gets annoyed and leaves the table afterward, pointing out that the queen never brings much of anything to the table.
One might assume that making your opponent devour their own young without realising would galvanise you against any further insults, but this additional slight enrages the queen further, and she decides to go for Talia this time. She asks the assistant to invite her to the palace, again under the guise that the king wants to see her, and when she has arrived, calls her all sorts of jolly names and says that she will burn her as a witch as punishment for corrupting her husband.
So far, Talia has coped exceedingly well. She has been unconscious throughout the majority of her life so far, then woken up to find her father and everyone else she loves have left her locked up in a tower, with two unexplained babies to look after, magical fairies that appear out of nowhere, and to find that she has been rogered by a stranger, without really understanding how the whole “rogering” process works. Despite shrugging this off, the thought of being burnt at the stake terrifies her, but given what happened when she touched a piece of fabric, you can understand her anxiety at touching flames. To stall the queen, shes asks if she can at least take off her fine clothes so that they are not destroyed too.
The queen allows her to do this, enjoying the chance to revel in her humiliation, but probably regrets her decision soon after, as with every layer she slowly takes off, Talia emits a loud scream. Since this is all happening in the middle of the palace courtyard, right next to a burning stake, it doesn’t take long for the king to take notice.
Shocked at seeing Talia in the palace, he asks his wife where his children are, and she gloats that she made him eat them, and jolly tasty they were too. Not the wisest revelation to make in front of the king and said burning stake, so it’s no surprise that she and the secretary are sentenced to be burnt instead of Talia. Stricken with grief at what has happened to the children, the king threatens to burn the cook as well, who quickly reassures him that he and his wife rescued Sole and Luna and that all is well.
The cook’s wife brings out the children, alive and well and without any seasoning, and there is a tearful reunion between the new found family. The cook is rewarded by being made a nobleman, and the king marries Talia, who lives happily ever after.
The last line of the original? That you can get lucky even if you are sleeping.
There is arguably another reason why these are known as “sleeping beauty” stories: both Aurora and Talia are the most passive characters ever, even when they are conscious. They are subjected to a curse, to a drastic life change, promised to people they don’t know, and even if they don’t agree, they do very little to fight their respective corners. Worse still, both stories suggest that they should be grateful for what has happened to them, regardless of how happy they were previously. Talia was happy enough living with her father and exploring her own kingdom, and Aurora seemed perfectly content living a simple life in the woods with her fairy aunts and her animal friends, aside from the occasional bout of loneliness.
The controversial elements of Sole, Luna e Talia are beyond evident here, but it’s worth noting that this is a story of its time, and once you enter into fairytale territory, reality is somewhat warped. For instance, people being eaten alive, burnt to death or decapitated is deemed fairly run of the mill and glossed over, so we should not be surprised that date rape was considered acceptable at this stage provided the perpetrator was rich, good looking and did the honourable thing afterwards.
The main difference between Sleeping Beauty and Sole, Luna e Talia is that the former is really a story about fairies protecting the innocent from evil. The romance is also given a socially acceptable upgrade (at least to 1950s standards), and the peril comes from the supernatural, which can only be thwarted by the power of love. Conversely, Sole, Luna e Talia is the story of a doomed young woman whose luck turns around, despite her being born with a curse and being unwittingly roped into a vicious love triangle. She is the victim of human wickedness (curse aside) rather than any supernatural evil, and by going along for the ride and never complaining, she gets what most people of her time were supposed to aspire to.
In essence, these stories teach us that if you’re innocent, or lie back and take everything that life throws at you, eventually someone will come along to put things right. In addition, they teach us that tact is of the essence when organising a birthday party, and that there are more advisable ways of ending an argument than serving your opponent’s children on a platter. Also, dragons rule.
Personally, I think the latter three are the better lessons.
1) Sleeping Beauty, 1959. Film. Directed by Clyde Geronimi, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Letteratura italiana Einaudi, 1995. Basile, Giovan Battista: Lo Cunto de li Cunti. [online]
3) Basile, Giovan Battista. Sole, Lune e Talia. http://www.pinu.it/sole_talia.htm
4) Perrault, Charles. La Belle au Bois Dormant. Unknown publisher, 2010. ISBN: 978-1176753273
5) Kurtti, Jeff. Sleeping Beauty, 50th Anniversary Edition – the Storybook and Making of a Masterpiece. Disney Editions, U.S.A. 2008. ISBN: 978-1-4231-1917-3