I grew up with fairy tales and have always had a fascination with them. When I was a kid, I watched the classic Disney movies based on them and read anthologies of fairy tales over and over. I recently started reading more about them to understand their cultural significance more.
We’ve heard of Grimms’ collected tales being much more gruesome than our sanitized current versions, but I just learned how certain aspects were actually toned down in subsequent editions after their first collection. The violence stayed, but certain disturbing elements got cut out. The most interesting one to me is the changing of evil mothers to wicked stepmothers. It seems this was changed to preserve the idealized view that mothers will always care and look out for their children. So if a mother figure is cruel to you, she must not be your real mother.
I noticed a curious thing when I just read the original Sleeping Beauty. Several curious things that have been sort of transmogrified to fit into more acceptable ideas of good and evil, or fate, or men and women.
First, when the king holds a celebration for the birth of the princess, he invites tons of people, and it specifically mentions that he didn’t just invite family, friends, and acquaintances but also the wise women of the area. There were 13 wise women, but the castle only had 12 golden plates to serve their food on, so they only invited 12. The thirteenth that was not invited was just the same as the others. She was left out for an arbitrary and pretty ridiculous reason—it wasn’t because she was evil. This obviously contrasts with a character like Maleficient, whose being left out of the party is absolutely personal.
In the original story, the thirteenth wise women still shows up, but it is quite briefly, and only to pronounce the curse on the baby that she will die from pricking her finger on a spindle when she is fifteen (not on her birthday, just “in her fifteenth year”). Then she leaves. 11 wise women have already given blessings, so the twelfth gives one that softens the curse by saying she will not die but will sleep for 100 years. No mention of an enchanted sleep being broken by “true love’s kiss” or anything.
This brings me to the second feature of the original, regarding the prince. When the princess pricks her finger, it is on her fifteenth birthday, and she is alone, wandering through the castle. She finds a little chamber with a rusty key in the lock where an old woman is spinning. When she tries to spin too, that’s when she pricks her finger.
OK, slight other idea to mention: the misguidedness of the parents. Immediately after the curse is pronounced, when the princess is still a baby, the king orders all of the spinning wheels to be burned. Which…doesn’t address that she’s not supposed to prick her finger until she is 15. Do all of the people in the kingdom just not use spindles thereafter? Do they make them again after burning the ones that existed at the time of the curse? Obviously there’s one available. And why not just tell the princess that once she turns 15 to stay away from spindles? Why was she all alone the day she turned 15, or in other words, the day that started the year wherein the curse was able to come true? Oh, yeah, I dealt with that curse thing 15 years ago, thinks the king. I burned the spindles. I don’t ever use a spindle, so I don’t know how they work or who needs to use them and I don’t need to worry about anything when my daughter is actually 15, so I’ll just leave her alone and also somehow never tell her about the curse. Wonderful, sounds good.
Also, the princess just happens upon a winding staircase in her castle and a door with a rusty key and there’s a woman alone in a tower spinning? Was that just normal in the castle? You find a person who might belong there and might be a servant or might not and might just be an old lady in a tower? I don’t care how big my house is, if I find an old lady shut up in a room I didn’t know existed, I’m not just going to be like, “Hi, ma’am. What are you doing? Can I help?” I guess she’s just used to finding random servants places she didn’t know they would be. I guess I’m also overthinking this.
Back to the prince. Thorny branches grow around the castle, wherein everyone from the princess to the flies on the wall is asleep. Any prince who tries to get through to see the girl with the famed beauty dies because he gets caught in the thorns. The prince who actually gets through does so because it just so happens to be the day 100 years later when the sleep will end. There is nothing special about this prince and there is nothing fateful about him. It is a complete coincidence that he chose this day to try to get in the castle.
So when he kisses the princess and she wakes up, it is just one of those weird coincidences. He does something, and something happens, but it would have happened anyway, meaning it didn’t happen as a result of his action.
I think of the prince like someone who tries to walk into a grocery store and doesn’t know what automatic doors are. He waves his arms around and the doors open and he thinks he’s a wizard because he made the doors move on their own. That is how much comparable power he has. He is doing nothing more difficult than walking into a grocery store.
The end of the story wraps up by saying that everybody wakes up, the prince and princess get married, and then they live happily ever after. How exactly did that even happen? Did the prince convince everyone that his kiss broke the spell? Did the parents just forget that the sleep was going to last 100 years? Were they ok with the marriage because he had showed up so I guess he’s as good as any prince? Did they find themselves bewildered, trying to live 100 years in the future? Did they realize their daughter was now 115 and was marrying a guy about 100 years younger? Who knows. They just got married, don’t question it.
The modern version of this tale leaves out every oversight by the king (not inviting one woman from a group of 13 because he couldn’t be bothered to get another plate or just use another set?*) and instead paints the woman who makes the curse as just a different sort of person—a monster, a witch, evil. Only an evil person would be upset. Also, of course a prince who marries this enchanted princess must have earned it with his superior strength and courage and also true love. He deserved it, and it wasn’t just a coincidence that he ended up in the tower when the spell broke.
Everything is meant to be, and there are two types of people: evil and good. The end.
*Oh, wonderful, 12 golden plates for the 12 wise women!
Sir, there are actually 13 wise women.
Oh, ok, we’ll just invite 12 then.
We can use a different set…?
No, no, I want my daughter to have gifts, but 12 is plenty. She doesn’t need 13. Just invite 12 of them.
[after the curse debacle]
King: Oh yes, that is why I didn’t invite that woman. Because she is evil and I knew she would do something absurd like curse a baby. That’s why she wasn’t invited.