Thursday, January 13, 2011
Why Fairy Tales are Important and a Few Things you probably didn’t know about Sleeping Beauty
Since her grandfather died suddenly, shockingly, alarmingly, 2 days before Christmas, Leda (oft-mentioned beloved grandchild) has, more times than I can count, asked me to read or tell or enact the story of Sleeping Beauty.
As you surely know, the story’s power relies on this conceit: the disgruntled fairy’s curse is partially alleviated by the final good fairy’s wish and Sleeping Beauty’s death sentence is commuted into a century long siesta; a hundred years of sleep not only for the lovely maiden – she was on the very cusp of womanhood when she pricked her finger – but for every living inhabitant of the castle. Just as Morpheus takes over inside, the rose bushes outside the castle grow with the speed and ferocity of a rainforest on steroids. In minutes thick thorny vines have knit an impenetrable cloak around the castle walls. From a distance, only the very tips of the castle spires can be seen, like red noses in the snow or Bambi’s white tail in the forest.. That is the story we act out and this is how it goes:
Leda*: Nana, let’s play Sleeping Beauty.
Me: Fine. Let me get my wand.
Leda: Nana, I’ll be Sleeping Beauty. You find me [and this is when she lays herself down in the position of rigid death] like this. You’re the prince.
Me: I’m going to go out and start outside the castle walls.
Leda: Don’t forget, Nana, you have to kiss my hand first. Watch, my eyes are shut. [Squeezed shut, cracked open.]
Me: [Walk away 6 steps, turn and return to recumbent child.] O behold! A poor dead Princess! And she is so beautiful that I am already in love with her! But wait! She is not dead but only sleeping! [Bend over and kiss her.]
Leda: Nana! You have to kiss my hand first! I told you!
Me: Sorry. Let’s do it again. [Leda repositions herself in sleeping pose. Take hold of her limp hand and utter more sweet nothings. Kiss her hand.]
Leda: [Bolts upright] My Prince! O I love you too. Let’s go wake up the castle.
It seems simple enough, our ritualistic enactment of the story pared down to its essential elements, defined as Type 410 in the Arne-Thompson folktale classification system.
In other words, it is never that simple. The Sleeping Beauty or Briar Rose, which most of us have read in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob 1785-1863; Wilhelm 1786-1859) is just one incarnation, and perhaps the kindest iteration, of the tale.
The story was first written down by Giambattista Basile (1575-1632) in his Pentamerone, or Tales of Tales. Like the Thousand and One Nights, it is a collection of tales within a tale told to keep a drowsy emperor awake, or to keep Scheherazade alive one more night, or to stop the wicked trickster servant/wife from “punish[ing] my belly and murder[ing] little George.” Over five days (thus the Penta) ten stories or diversions are told.
And like the Thousand and One Nights, the version of the Pentamerone I read was translated into English by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), the Victorian explorer, pornographer (depending on whom you ask), linguist (29 languages) and lover of convolutions, purple prose and then some.
Sole, Luna e Talia is the Fifth Diversion of the Fifth Day. Talia is the much beloved child of whom it is prophesied that she would incur great danger by means of a chip of flax.** Being a king and able to make such pronouncements, Talia’s father orders that all spindles and all flax are banned from the kingdom. It being prophesied, Talia nevertheless comes upon an old crone and inquires about the flax she is spinning, and gives it a try. A chip of flax pierces her finger and she falls dead. When the king finds Talia’s lifeless body (the old crone having wisely fled) he is so distraught that he props her up on a velvet throne, closes the doors and abandons the castle.
An unspecified number of years later, a Prince is roaming the countryside, comes upon the castle and finds Talia, as beautiful as ever. (Not that I want to interject any saints into this narrative, but the annals of hagiography are full of beautiful virgin saints whose dead bodies remain incorrupt, and often sweet-smelling, for centuries after death, such as Saint Rita of Cascia, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, and Saint Catherine of Siena, she who is the reason Prince William and Kate are to be married on April 29th.) And now here we encounter a somewhat ruder awakening than that experienced by Perrault’s, or Disney’s, Sleeping Beauty. As Burton translates:
“At least he came to the saloon, and when the prince beheld Talia, who seemed as one ensorcelled, he believed that she slept, and he called her, but she remained insensible, and crying aloud, he felt his blood course hotly through his veins in contemplation of so many charms and he lifted her in his arms, and carried her to a bed, whereon he gathered the first fruits of love, and leaving her upon the bed, returned to his own kingdom, where, in the pressing business of his realm, he for a time thought no more of this incident.” In other words, he rapes the sleeping princess and then decamps, giving new resonance to the old saw, “Love ‘em and Leave ‘em.”
Nine months later the still sleeping Talia gives birth to beautiful twins, a boy and a girl who will be called Sun and Moon. Sometimes they manage to suckle at her breasts, but one day the baby boy can’t find the breasts and starts sucking her finger instead. He sucks so vigorously that he extracts the flax chip from her finger and voila! She wakes up. Naturally, she is confused to find herself the mother of two. Until a while later when the prince recalls his quickie in the castle and returns for more. He finds Talia awake with her beautiful babies, and tells her what happened, and “when she heard this, their friendship was knitted with tighter bonds, and he remained with her for a few days.” At this point in the story I want to speak rather strongly to Princess Talia about statutory rape and her reproductive rights, just for starters. But it’s a fairy tale.
Now we come to the second part of the story, which Charles Perrault (1628-1703) includes in his version, but the Grimm Brothers excise, and Disney most certainly excludes. And so does Leda.
In the second part, the Prince’s wife (sometimes it’s the mother-in-law) figures out that he has another family, and manages to trick Princess Talia into sending her the children. Her wicked plan is to have the children cooked up and served to their father (shades of Medea, Tantalus; there is nothing new under the sun). But because this is a fairy tale, the softhearted chef saves them and serves (sacrificial) lamb instead. In the end, the wicked wife or mother-in-law is punished, and the happy family is alive and reunited.
Only in Charles Perrault’s version (Surely because he is French.) is it specified which sauce the children are to be cooked with: sauce Robert. It is made with mustard, onions, butter and a reduction of white wine and said to be excellent with pork and other meats.
The Brothers Grimm omit the faked infanticide of Basile’s and Perrault’s version. The Grimm’s Briar Rose ends when the prince kisses and wakens Briar Rose, and in an instant, the whole castle awakens. I am particularly fond of certain details: the horses stand up and shake themselves, the flies on the wall start crawling, the fire in the kitchen rekindles and cooks the food, and the maid finished plucking the fowl.
In the mid-20th century Italo Calvino collected and retold 200 Italian folk tales***. Sleeping Beauty and her Children is #139. In his version, the heroine’s fate is neither prophesied nor cursed, but brought upon by the barren queen foolishly praying for a child in this foolhardy fashion: “Blessed Mother, help me to have a daughter even if she should have to die at 15 from pricking her finger on a spindle.” Naturally, the king banishes all spindles from the kingdom, and just as naturally, the princess finds the one rogue spindle and pricks herself. Her parents are distraught and they stand at her bedside for weeks, we are told, not believing she is dead, even though is neither breathing nor is her heart beating. Finally, still unbelieving, they install her beautiful body a mountaintop castle and then brick up the only door. Years later the Prince arrives, breaches the castle walls and finds the undead Princess. Calvino describes the rape thus: “The young king’s love was so intense that the sleeping maiden gave birth to twins.” The next part follows Basile’s tale: the jealous mother orders the children to be cooked up and served to their father; the cook subverts her orders, the wicked mother is found out and cooked instead.
Just one more. The inimitable Angela Carter (1940-1992) radically skews the tale in “The Lady in the House of Live”, which appears in her collection, The Bloody Chamber. In her version, it is the ‘prince’, an English soldier, who is the virgin and innocent. In his rambles, the young soldier happens upon a rotting, mildewed and cobweb-infested castle in Transylvania. It is inhabited by Nosferatu, a child-like female vampire whose only companion is a mute housekeeper who regularly brings in wayfarers who have foolishly stopped at the fountain for water. The travelers are given dinner and then introduced to the beautiful but very creepy Nosferatu, always wearing dark glasses because even the candlelight is painful to her vampire eyes. She then sucks their blood and discards the rest like chicken bones. The innocent English soldier arrives and dines, like the others, alone, served by the mute maid; but when Nosferatu enters, he is overwhelmed with compassion for this pale and nymphic woman, photophobic and possessed of unfortunate dentiture and taloned hands. He wants to save her. Her glasses fall to the ground and shatter, she pricks herself on a shard, and then, for the first time, sees her own blood . She is unable to staunch it. The soldier wraps her bleeding finger with his handkerchief, but when it continues to bleed, he kisses the finger and tastes the blood – and this somehow makes her human. And being human, she will now die.
Leda and I took the train into Grand Central last week. We like to sit on the western side of the train and watch the slow- moving barges and the tectonic ice flows on the river. Steeped as we have been in all things Sleeping Beauty, when we pulled into Glenwood and found ourselves staring into the old power station: a ruined brick hulk, with its broken windows and strangling vines, we looked crazily at each other, a little bit frightened but also tingling with recognition, because this was surely the sleeping castle of Sleeping Beauty.
*It is rarely necessary to change into costume because Leda is normally garbed Princess-wise, in tattered dress-up clothes from my youth or fancy outfits sold in Costco at Halloween.
** Nothing in my far-flung researches can adequately explain why a chip of flax should be prickly, so I am crediting Burton with yet more fabrication. I did however learn that there is a cave in Dzudzuana, Georgia where 30,000-year old dyed flax fibers have been found. And they are significantly older than the 6,100-year old red wine residue recently found under sheep dung in an Armenian cave. Along with a 3,000-year old size 7 moccasin.
*** I was doing fine until I went to the bookshelf and found – it was right where it belonged between Cosmicomics and Six Memos for the Next Millennium - and opened the Calvino collection. Then came the kick–in-the-gut of pain and remembrance as I read the birthday inscription inside the Folk Tales, in Jeff’s forever-recognizable scrawl: “For Christine, the smartest, prettiest, kindest twenty-nine year old [something illegible] from her loving husband and daughter.” Three months later he fell madly in love with another woman – someone from the yacht club and why was that extra painful? - and for the next three years he desperately wanted to leave me, and just as desperately I pled for him to stay.
Grief, like Sleeping Beauty, is complicated.