Next on our list of tales to destroy, one of my personal favorites: Sleeping Beauty. First, I have a confession. The reason I really like this story is because of the Disney version. Maleficent rules! Not the later live action version, the original animated version.
And here we go. I am going to look at the Little Brier-Rose version of the story. I generally prefer the Grimms to Perrault (Perrault gets preachy and has to include some kind of moral to the story. I’d rather derive my own from reading the story.).
So go ahead and read. I’ll wait.
No, seriously, go do it.
Done? Good. So here are a few quick ideas for analyzing the story.
The story criticizes the inability of the upper class to do what are common tasks to the ordinary people. Spindles have points, but are not sharp. For Brier-Rose to prick her hand on it would be a very difficult task, and shows that she knows nothing of how to operate a spinning wheel. A princess like Brier-Rose is unsuited to any kind of manual labor. The story may even be commenting—sarcastically—that the merest effort at manual labor made her faint.
Hospitality is a big thing in the ancient world, and comes up in many mythological stories including Odysseus, Sinbad, Sodom & Gomorrah, and others. So it’s not surprising that the thirteenth fairy (so omitted because of the unlucky number) is quite put out that she was left off the invitation. The offenders in the story, then, are the king and queen for failing to be hospitable to the fairy. The fairy only offered up a just punishment for their behavior (In many cultures, failure to offer hospitality was a death sentence).
This story is laden with sexual imagery and language. Brier-Rose is pricked by the spindle and bleeds. The Prince promises “[he] shall penetrate the hedge and free the beautiful Brier-Rose” (emphasis added). As an expanded commentary, the story offers up commentary that women should avoid solitary sexual practices because of negative consequences, and that women must have a man in order to feel fulfillment.
Many princes tried to reach Brier-Rose, but most failed to “penetrate the hedge and free the beautiful Brier-Rose” because they didn’t possess the necessary courage, skill, and fortitude to reach her. The prince who succeeded demonstrates his virtues and that those who failed were not true men. Even the hedge barrier recognized the prince had the right qualities since it parted for him.
This story talks about the princess falling asleep, and then the kingdom falls asleep with her, but really what it means is a frozen time state. The description is quite clear what with the “fire on the hearth flickered, stopped moving, and fell asleep” and “the roast stopped sizzling.” This timelessness is to preserve the opportunity for a happy ending. Without it, the princess would sleep and live, but time would pass her by as her family, her entire kingdom, ages without her. The story is silent on exactly how much time has passed, relegating it to “many long years.” However, it’s enough time that an unknown number of princes became trapped in the hedge. So either Brier-Rose would be awakened to aged parents, or her parents would have long since passed away, nullifying the ability for her (and the kingdom) to live “happily ever after.” Stopping the passage of time becomes a necessary device for the story’s intended ending.
The halting of time throughout the whole kingdom for the princess places an emphasis on continuation of society. The royal family is tied to the society, without it, society cannot (dare not?) function. So everything is halted while the status of the heir is in jeopardy. Once the situation with Brier-Rose is resolved, society can resume. Though in reality the peasantry would likely mourn the passing of the princess and get on with their lives, the story focuses on the idea that the two concepts are linked, and that without a continuation of the royal line, the society would come to an end. There is some truth to this as small kingdoms relied on political ties cemented through marriage in order to protect themselves from warring kingdoms. Without an heir to tie one kingdom to the next, Brier-Rose’s kingdom would be in jeopardy.
As with Red Riding Hood, there are many other ways to analyze the story. This should simply whet the appetite for interpretations.
I should mention, too, that, recently, sexual interpretations of fairy tales have become popular. Some attribute this to current literary (and film) trends; however, the motifs are there if looked for. The prince’s line is unmistakable to interpret. Examinations of Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, and other tales (particularly princess stories) reveal enough evidence to lend credence to a sexual interpretation. These interpretations can be applied to gender specific roles, and would have little trouble fitting into the chivalric code, popular in medieval romances.