Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ten Things You Never Knew About Sleeping Beauty

I've been on a fairy tale kick for the last year and a Sleeping Beauty kick specifically for the last few months. Think you know the story? You'll be surprised. Here are a few things I've learned.
1. A Tale of Two Countries
 There are two completely separate versions of the tale. Yes, I know all fairy tales have myriad different versions, but this one has two official ones. The older of the two-Sleeping Beauty in the Woods-was written by a Frenchman called Charles Perrault. It crept over the border into Germany where it became known as Little Brier Rose.
Then the Brothers Grimm came along. They were German nationalists who wanted to collect German stories and put them in a big ol' German book for German people to read and realize how great it was to be German. Poor Sleeping Beauty almost got cut for being too French. Then they decided there were enough similarities between Brier Rose and Brynhild-a valkyrie from Germanic mythology-so they called it good. Personally, I don't see it. They both have magical naps but the similarities end there.
Some of the famous elements of the story-like the briers that grow up around the castle-come from the German version. Today it's more popular by far.

2. But Wait, It Gets Older
The oldest real version of the story (you don't count, Brynhild) is Sun, Moon, and Talia. It was written by Italian Giabattista Basile in 1634, sixty three years before Perrault's. It's quite different from the story you know. Princess Talia isn't cursed by a fairy. There's just this prophecy saying she'll be put in great danger by a splinter of flax. Her father is smart enough to ban flax from the castle but stupid enough to never tell her what it looks like. So one day a random old lady is passing by with some flax and a spindle. Guess what Talia does next.
The prophecy and splinter and sleep stuff lasts about two paragraphs. Then the story deviates wildly from the Sleeping Beauty we know, focusing mostly on her relationship with the prince after she wakes up. It's closer to Perrault's version than the Grimms'. More on that later.

3. Baby, Baby, Baby, Oh
Sleeping Beauty is a baby mama. In Sun, Moon, and Talia, the princess has twins named Sun (boy) and Moon (girl). Perrault's version calls them Dawn (girl) and Day (boy). In both cases the boy gets the brighter name because he's prettier than his sister. Dawn is l'Aurore in French, which is why the princess is Aurora in so many adaptations. Perrault's princess was nameless.

4. Is This A Kid Book?
And it's not exactly clean. At all. Think a guy kissing a dead girl is creepy? Well, the French and Italian versions go far beyond that. Those kids I mentioned? They're born while their mother's asleep. Their mother who went to sleep a beautiful young maiden. Yeah.
Their father is a random king who happened to be hunting nearby when he discovered this defenseless maiden. Girls, if you ever thought this story encourages you to wait for a "knight in shining armor", you're dead wrong. Oh, and the king is married in the Italian tale.
The queen isn't happy that her husband's having an affair. So she does what any wife would do: order the cook to fry up the children for dinner. The cook's a decent guy-unlike everyone else in this story-so he feeds her two lambs instead. Then she summons Talia so she can burn her at the stake aaaaand the king shows up. Just in time. Talia survives, the queen gets burned, and they all live happily ever after. The end!
The Grimms liked to clean things up. That's why so many of their other stories have evil stepmothers-they started out as evil mothers. They also replaced the king's wife with his mother, a perfectly nice woman who only eats children because she's part ogre. And children taste good.
Aurora for most of the movie
Aurora for the last few minutes

5. What's Wrong With Your Eyes?
Enough with the old stuff. On to Disney. Aurora's eyes are brown for most of the movie, but when she wakes up, zing! Blue! It's kind of creepy. Granted, she's not the only Sleeping Beauty to wake up with a changed body (cough cough Talia cough) but Disney had no good explanation. Is it a side effect of the magic? Did the animators run out of brown? Are her eyes supposed to match her dress?
I've got nothing.

6. Someone Got Paid to Do This
This is Helene Stanley. She gets to dance around like Aurora for a living. She also modeled Cinderella.

7. Shut Your Mouth
Aurora has less screen time than any other Disney princess. 18 minutes total. The only Disney protagonist with fewer lines than her is Dumbo. And he can't talk. She gets two songs-one that's less than a minute long and another that's a duet-and that's about it. Like many retellings, Disney chopped the story off at the kiss so they didn't have to deal with the baby drama. What remains isn't terribly long. Girl is born. Girl is doomed. Girl pokes spindle. Girl is sleeping. Girl wakes up. Infants and dead people aren't very chatty, so Aurora never gets a chance to speak up.
Can we even call her a main character? I say that title goes to the fairies.

8. Tchaikovsky Helped Out Here
We've already established that the story for Sleeping Beauty ins't new. But what about the songs? Disney came up with those, right?
They actually came from an old Russian dude. They just put the lyrics in.
It was written for the ballet, which uses the name Aurora as well. 

9. Aurora failed as a princess. Disney princesses have one job: sing, dance, and make money in the box offices. Her movie didn't exactly rake in the cash. After that flop, Disney took a break from fairy tales. Hers was the last princess movie made in Walt's lifetime, and he's said to have preferred Cinderella. The next princess, Ariel, didn't come around until 1989, thirty years after Aurora hit theaters.
Fortunately for Aurora, Disney made her part of their princess franchise. She lives on in backpacks and Halloween costumes.
I want to be just like Sleeping Beauty!
10. It's Kind of True
In 1870, an eleven year old English girl named Ellen Sadler fell asleep. She didn't wake up for nine years. She had a history of medical problems but nothing that quite explained her condition. Her village, Turville,  became a tourist site for journalists and medical experts. Here's one journalist's description of her condition:
"Her breathing was regular and natural, the skin soft and the body warm, as in a healthy subject; the pulse rather fast. The hands were small and thin, but the fingers quite flexible; the body somewhat emaciated; the feet and legs like those of a dead child, almost ice cold ... the aspect of her features was pleasant, more so than might be expected under the circumstances ... her eyes and cheeks were sunken, and the appearance was that of death ... but although there was no colour on her cheeks, the paleness was not that heavy hue which betokens death."
Some people accused Ellen's mother of drugging her for attention. She did wake up a few months after her mother's death, so that theory's pretty sound. Modern experts and historians think she might've been narcoleptic. Whatever the case, Ellen's life definitely sucked. She missed nine years of her life, lost her mother, and because her jaw locked up while she was asleep, her family removed two of her teeth to feed her.
Then there's this girl.
Poor thing. She looks exhausted during the interview. Bottom line: being Sleeping Beauty sucks.

So that's Sleeping Beauty-a hodgepodge of German, French, Italian, American, and Russian creativity. In many ways it's a lot creepier than the story we're familiar with. But it's also fascinating and complex. What is it about this sleeping princess that has captivated the world for years? 

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