Monday, May 27, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood" by Charles Perrault

Illustration by Warwick Goble

I love Charles Perrault for spelling out his morals at the end of his stories and telling me exactly what he wants me to get from them. In "Sleeping Beauty," it's all about delayed gratification and not rushing into romance. The young princess in the tale waits a hundred years for true love.

And true love it is. I was surprised by how much energy Perrault invests in developing the romance. This isn't Snow White where the prince simply sees a beautiful girl and immediately wants to possess her. And in Perrault, there's no Love's First Kiss needed to break the spell.

There are some other surprises in the story, too, so let me get those out of the way first. I'm most familiar with the Disney version and expected a certain amount of malevolence out of the being who curses the princess, but it's simpler than that. We're dealing with fairies and if there's anything they teach you in Fairies 101, it's that you don't slight them, even accidentally. When the princess' parents give a banquet to celebrate her christening, they neglect to invite an older fairy whom no one's heard from in a long time. They assume that she's dead or busy or something. When she shows up, they're embarrassed, but immediately try to correct their error by inviting her to eat. She accepts, but is offended again when they're short a set of the golden table settings they'd had made for the occasion. It's nobody's fault, but that's what happens when you get involved with fairies.

Like in the Disney version, one of the other fairies is able to hold back her blessing until after the child has been cursed. But in Perrault, it's a young fairy who suspects that the old fairy will do something nasty and so intentionally waits until last to bestow her gift. When the old fairy curses the child with death by spinning wheel, the young fairy changes it to a sleeping curse. She stipulates that the princess will sleep for a hundred years, but "at the end of that time a king's son shall come to awaken her." There's no kiss or even love required to break the spell; just the boy's presence.

And it's also the young fairy who creates the forest of brambles and thorns to surround the castle so that no one messes with the sleeping girl. The young fairy is really quite thoughtful and foresightful in the story. She's got dwarfs for servants and a fiery chariot pulled by dragons. I like her a lot.

A hundred years later, the kingdom has been overthrown and a new royal family has taken over. When the new prince is hunting in the woods, locals tell him the story of the enchanted castle and he realizes that the time is about right and he is a prince, so he goes to check it out. Again, nothing is said of marrying or even kissing the girl. It's really just an adventure that the prince is curious to see through. The bramble forest parts automatically and forms a path for him.

When he finds the princess, she wakes up. All it takes is his being in the room. And it's her who immediately falls for him out of gratitude. "Is it you, dear prince?" she says. "You have been long in coming!" And because of how she reacts to him, he starts to fall for her, too. Perrault says that the prince kind of stumbles over his words, but that the two of them talk for a good long time. "The less there is of eloquence," Perrault writes, "the more there is of love." That's pretty cool.

After a few hours of conversation, they decide to have supper and then go ahead and get married. So it is fairly whirlwind, but not immediate and certainly not the shallow, courtly romance that I expected from a story by an 18th century Frenchman.

Another surprise is that the story doesn't end with Happily Ever After, either. If romance is worth waiting for, it's also worth working through. Perrault reveals right away that something is amiss, because the prince keeps his marriage a secret from his parents for two years. He even has a couple of kids with the princess before his folks find out.

Turns out that the prince's mom is part ogre and prone to eating children. I won't spoil what happens when she finds out, but the story is short and easily available online. It's worth checking out. It's a cool fairy tale adventure in itself and I like the refusal of Perrault's whole story to paint romance as something easy.

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