Sleeping Beauty: summary, symbols and more
The Story of Briar Rose: The Sleeping Beauty
Most of us know the story of Sleeping Beauty from Disney's adaptation of Grimms' fairy tale about a girl who is cursed to sleep for a hundred years before prince charming wakes her with a kiss.
But as most of other fairy tales the Sleeping Beauty (also known as Briar Rose) has very interesting background. We'll present it with short summary, presentation of different versions and basic analysis.
It is a story with many symbolic messages and if parents knew its origins they would certainly not tell it to their children until they grow up.
Let's explore the fascinating history of the Sleeping Beauty!
Sleeping Beauty: Original Story
Although the term original Sleeping Beauty can be debatable, we have to start somewhere, so I'll try to present it in short summary.
It all starts with a king and a queen desperately wishing to have a child. After long wait a frog (in some versions it is a fish) tells a queen she'll soon become a mother to a girl.
The prophecy fulfills and king and queen decide to have a big party.
They invite everybody including the fairies. But because they have only twelve golden plates, they invite only twelve of thirteen fairies. When the uninvited one finds out, she curse the child.
The baby will sting herself with a spindle on her fifteen's birthday and die.
Only one of the fairies still didn't give a gift to a child, so she softens a death curse into a hundred years of sleep. Not only a kid, everybody on the castle will fall asleep too.
King tries to avoid the fate and orders to destroy all the spindles in the kingdom. Of course his plan fails. Girl on her birthday finds a secret room in a castle's tower, where an old lady spins a threat. Girl wonders what is she doing, touches the spindle and falls asleep.
Everybody in the castle sleeps for one hundred years and a forest full of thorns surrounds it. Many heroes try to get through but nobody succeeds.
After one hundred years king's son comes to the forest where enchanted castle with a sleeping beauty supposed to be. The forest makes a free path for him, he enters the castle and wakes up the sleeping princess with a kiss.
The waking of sleeping beauty is start of big celebration and this is where the story of Briar Rose ends.
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Brothers Grimm titled Sleeping Beauty as Little Briar Rose after the thorny obstacles surrounding the castle. Thorns were their addition to older versions with which they were surely familiar.
But this was not the only thing they changed. They actually cut off about half the story!
If we want to understand the messages of Sleeping Beauty, we should travel more than hundred years back in time and check Perrault's version in Tales of Mother Goose.
Charles Perrault's Sleeping Beauty in the Woods
Basically the fairy tale starts as Grimms' with some minor differences. Perrault added some of his signature humor too.
In this version there is no frog at the beginning and there are only seven instead of twelve good fairies. We have no thorns in the wood and there is no kiss. The Sleeping Beauty wakes up simply because hundred years passed by and the curse is over.
But now the situation starts to complicate. The king's son has a problem. His mother is descendant of ogres and she is a cannibal. He is afraid to introduce the princess to his parents because he is afraid of his mother's insatiable apetite!
So he secretly marries the princess and starts a double life. He lives for some time in his parents' castle and goes 'hunting' for weeks to be with his wife (and soon their two kids). Years later his father dies and prince becomes a king. This apperantly gives him enough self esteem to finally bring his new family to his castle.
Soon after one of his neighbors starts a war and he has to leave the castle. Mother tries to seize the opportunity. She orders her grand kids and daughter in law one by one in sauce Robert (sauce with white wine, mustard and onion), but the cook served her lamb, goat and hind instead and hides the humans in his home.
Unfortunately the ogress finds out the truth. Just when she demands a revange, the young king returns and she dies of her own evil plans.
Giambattista Basile's version
Experts agree Charles Perrault's Sleeping Beauty is not based on folk tales. Instead it comes from Batista's The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, more known as Pentamerone. The title of the story is Sun, Moon and Talia.
This is a story for adults (like Perrault's was, but Perrault's at least has a moral in the end). Here are the astrologers who foretell the king's daughter named Talia will be in great danger because of the flax splinter.
King tries to protects her from any contact with flax, but eventually she meets an old lady with a spindle and some flax...
When she drops down, everybody believes Talia is dead. Her father orders to put her body in best clothes in her sleeping room and leaves the castle for good. Talia stays in alone, but she is not dead, only in deep sleep.
Waking of Sleeping Beauty
Later another king who was hunting pass by, finds a castle with sleeping beauty and took advantage of her. Than leaves the castle and forgets about the incident. He was married anyway!
So this makes him adulterer and rapist, right?
Well, his act in the castle of sleeping beauty have consequences: Talia with a help of some fairies gives a birth to twins and one of them sucks the flax splinter out, so she is awake when the young king finally remembers her and returns to the castle. They start a romance, but his wife becomes suspicious.
With a help of treacherous servant she gets both kids (daughter named Moon and son Sun) in her hands. She orders to cook them and serve to her unfaithful husband. The cook hides children and prepares lambs, king enjoyed the dish and later the queen wants to take a revenge on his mistress too.
She prepares a bonfire to punish her and Talia facing cruel death delays her end by slowly dressing off. This takes just enough time for king coming back, finding out the truth and queen dies by her own plan. Not too many good role models here, agree?
First of many princesses cursed to sleep
Talking about Sleeping Beauty we have to mention at least Frayre de Joy and Sor de Plaser, catalan novel and Perceforest, a romance written in France, both from the first half of fourteenth century and both with the same motiff.
Perceforest is a king who is surounded by noble knights just like king Arthur with the knights of the round table. Any similarity with fairies on the feast is coincidental...
Well, we have fairies in the episode about Zellandine too. She was a daughter of noble man, he invited three fairies and one apperantly didn't get a knife, so she cursed a child.
Nothing is known about the curse, so protection is out of the question. When Zellandine grows into a beautiful girl, she has the well known incident with flinter of flax, falls asleep and after few years prince Troylus gets in the tower, sleeps with her and she gives a birth to a child before she wakes up. In the end she marries the prince and everybody is happy.
This is the first known episode of sleeping beauty and it looks all known literary and folk tales origin from here.
Illustration by Viktor Vasnetsov
Viktor Vasnetsov was famous by his mythological and religious motifs. Sleeping Beauty is among his most popular ones
The problem with collection of brothers Grimm
Brothers Grimm included this fairy tale as Little Briar Rose in their first collection. There was also a fairy tale titled The Evil Mother-in-Law, which is really the second part of Perrault's version with cannibalism, but this tale was not included in later editions.
We can actually find several fairy tales in first Children's and Household Tales which were not part of German cultural heritage. Grimms later threw them out.
But Grimms found enough similarities with a Norse legend about Brunhild (also Brynhildr), valkyrie who made a mistake and was punished by Odin to sleep surrounded by fire in a difficulty accessible castle until a brave man finds and marry her.
Grimms loved the idea about fairy tales being only echoes of the myths and Sleeping Beauty served as great example to support this theory, just like Wolf and seven kids and its resemblances to the myth of Cronos.
We should really not neglict the important symbol of spindle in relationship with fairies. Everybody with basic knowledge of Greek mythhology certainly knows about three spinners of fate: Clotho, who spins, Lachesis, who catches up the thread; and Atropos, who cuts it.
The tale about Sleeping Beauty in older versions always tells the same: you can not escape your fate. It is not surprising we find a similar tale (titled The Ninth Captain's Tale) with same elements (pair without children, flax, spinning, death girl is not buried, she is put on piedestal in the garden, waiting period and prince in impossible mission) in the collection of fairy tales where fate plays probably most important role of all widely known collections: Arabian Nights.
The Sleeping Beauty as animated movie
Are there any fairy tales similar to the Sleeping Beauty?
A girl in isolated place with secret love affair and two kids born out of marriage - Rapunzel.
Royalty couple seeking for a kid and a jealous queen who orders death to her 'competitor', a dead girl who is not buried - Snow White.
An animal as a symbol of fertility - Frog Prince.
Cannibalism - Juniper Tree or Hansel and Gretel.
And so on and on!
Can we now provide a simplified mythological explanation?
Sure. It is actually very easy.
We can start with the parents, who represent late summer or autumn providing a fruit (their daughter) who represents nature.
In versions before Grimms' parents retire from the scene when the curse is fulfilled (evil fairy represents winter and autumn should really go away).
After some waiting the prince (he is obviously spring) comes and nature wakes up. And with babies we have a full circle!
From Brynhildr to The Sleeping Beauty - Both illustrations are made by Arthur Rackham (press picture to know more about him)
We will probably never find the clear pattern how legends mix with fairy tales, which comes first, and how both mix into each other. But one thing is for sure.
The message of the sleeping Beauty is clear: you can not escape your fate.
Your child will grow up.
Yes, fairy tales were written for parents too. To console and comfort.
My resources - Beware: some are written in Slovene!
I translated and dramatized Sleeping Beauty by brothers Grimm years ago and adapted it for the audio book. I made some research than and later I published in prose together with some speculations about the origin and possible hidden meaning.
- Trnuljcica (Sleeping Beauty)
My view on Trnuljcica (in Slovene we translated the title from Briar Rose, not Sleeping Beauty), its variants and almost a thousand years of history.
- Pravljice in njihovi simboli (Fairy Tales and their Symbols)
My blog about the symbols in fairy tales. Sometimes we can find astonishing meaning behind very ordinary objects.
- Public Domain pictures of Sleeping Beauty
This immortal story inspired many artist and here is nice selection of their creations: paintings and illustrations.