Fairy Tale Tuesday No.8 – The Sleeping Beauty In The Wood

Roses and thorns. Blessings and curses. Princesses in towers, princes with swords. So many fairy tale motifs are woven into this story. It’s one we all think we know so well, but I wouldn’t be so sure about that if I were you. This retelling comes from 1999’s Puffin Book Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales and let me put it this way, happy ever after isn’t so simple as the picture books say.

A royal couple, long childless, are unexpectedly blessed with a daughter and throw a triumphantly dazzling celebration for her christening. All the fairies of the kingdom are invited, providing the infant princess with no less than seven godmothers, all of whom can offer a christening gift somewhat more impressive than baby clothes. But oh dear. There is an eighth fairy, an elderly relative whom everybody has overlooked, perhaps understandably given she’s locked herself up in a tower for the past half century. The king tries to be conciliatory, quickly offering her a place at his banquet table, but she is in no mood to be appeased. When the other fairies present their gifts to the little princess – bestowing her with every virtue from beauty and physical grace to a heavenly temperament and innate dance skills – the overlooked latecomer drops a bombshell of pure melodramatic malice. The princess shall prick her finger on a spindle, she declares, and die of it.

All is not lost, however. The youngest of the seven official godmothers, having suspected foul play, kept her blessing in reserve and now uses it to negate the worst of the curse. The princess will indeed prick her finger on a spindle, there’s no preventing that now, but instead of dying she will fall into a deep sleep from which she shall be awakened by a prince. There’s only one problem. It will take a hundred years for him to get there. Don’t ask me why, it’s probably the only equivalent of death that is magically manageable, but the princess’s devastated parents aren’t hugely comforted by this news. The king uses rather more tangible means to thwart the curse, by banning all use of a spindle within his lands. How clothes continue to be made is a mystery. Perhaps they import.

Anyway, fifteen or sixteen years later, the princess is still very much alive and awake, and her parents have relaxed enough to leave her alone for the day. The girl entertains herself by running about the castle, exploring, and comes across a tower where another elderly hermit will seal her doom. This old lady has never heard of the king’s edict (has she been living under a ROCK?) and is spinning away industriously. No sooner has the fascinated princess reached out to touch the spindle than she pricks her finger and falls into a stupor. The horrified spinner calls for help. Everything is tried to waken the princess, but of course nothing works. The curse has claimed her.

The youngest fairy godmother is off in someone else’s kingdom just then, where she was hopefully providing the resident monarch with full contact details for all her relations, but luckily a dwarf with seven-league boots is available to inform her of events and she uses her dragon-drawn chariot to return with all speed to her goddaughter’s side. For the first time, it occurs to the fairy that maybe the princess might be a teensy bit upset to wake a hundred years from now to find out everybody she knows is long dead. So she bespells the entire household into an identical sleep – apart from the poor girl’s parents, who presumably still have their kingdom to rule. They leave the castle, which the fairy then enshrouds with a protective tangle of trees and briars to prevent its being disturbed over the long years of its enchantment.

With the princess gone, the royal bloodline dies out. Another family claim the kingdom; the decades pass and the story of the hidden castle fades into legend. Then one day a curious young prince sees the distant towers and hears the story of a beautiful princess, doomed to sleep for a hundred years until a king’s son comes to free her. The prince takes immediately to the challenge, determined to be that royal rescuer. It seems the magic agrees. No sooner does he approach the castle than the impassable forest of thorns draws away to either side, leaving a clear path for him – and him alone – to tread towards the castle. He finds bodies sprawled everywhere and is at first horrified, mistaking them for corpses and the castle for a tomb. When he realises they are only sleeping, however, he finds the courage to explore further, and finds his way to a beautiful chamber where the loveliest girl he has ever seen lies lost in sleep. It is the princess from the old legend.

If she is enchanted, so is the prince the second he lays eyes on her. Falling to his knees beside her bed, his very presence is enough to break the spell. The princess opens her eyes. Her first words are a gentle remonstration about his timing, which is kind of understandable given it has been, you know, one hundred years. The prince, interpreting this as a symbol of predestined love, pretty much proposes on the spot. The newly woken cooks get to work preparing a magnificent supper; the princess dresses in a gown that’s a few generations out of style but looks stunning because it’s on her. The royal couple are married directly after dinner. I suppose after waiting a hundred years, the princess didn’t need much time to make up her mind.

So far, so familiar, right? This is the point where most versions draw the curtains of happy ever after, but that doesn’t factor in the in-laws. Because instead of introducing his new wife to his parents, the prince sells them some ridiculous story about getting lost in the forest and staying the night with a charcoal burner. His mother isn’t deceived for a minute, but for two years he manages to keep his secret, disguising his constant absence as nothing more than daily hunting trips. During that time the princess gives birth to a daughter, Dawn, and a son, Day. All without her husband admitting she actually exists. He does, as it turns out, have good reason for the deception. The princess’s mother-in-law is quite literally an ogress, or at least in possession of ogreish blood, and is rumoured to be untrustworthy where small children are concerned. Not that anything can be proven, but clearly it’s enough for even her son to have his doubts.

When the king dies, however, and the prince takes the throne, the truth must come out. His wife and children are brought into his palace with due pomp and ceremony and everything seems to be going smoothly. Then war is declared. The young king leaves for battle, appointing his mother regent while he is away. That being the same woman he hid his wife and kids from for two years. Yeah, fantastic idea, your Majesty.

The queen-mother wastes no time. She sends her son’s young family off to a remote country mansion and joins them shortly afterwards, calmly announcing to her steward that she fancies eating her granddaughter Dawn. Frightened of his ogress mistress, the steward fully intends to carry out the deed, but when the four-year-old princess comes bouncing out to beg him for sweets – totally ignoring the enormous knife in his hand – he can’t go through with it. He kills a young lamb instead and hides the little girl with his wife. It’s not long before the ogre queen is hungry again, however, and demands her grandson for supper. This time the steward already has a plan. He whisks the little boy away like he did Dawn and serves up a young goat instead. I could make a macabre joke about kids here, but it’s all too disgusting, particularly given how poor Sleeping Beauty must feel about all this. Her children are disappearing and she hasn’t a clue why, because her stupid husband hasn’t told her what his mother really is.

Her grief, though, isn’t long to last. Now the insatiable ogress has devoured her grandchildren she intends to eat up her daughter-in-law. The steward is at a loss. At twenty years old, the queen is a fully grown woman with distinctive white skin, the sort you get only by a century’s beauty sleep. What animal could be passed off as princess? He takes his big knife and tries to get angry enough to kill an innocent young woman, but when she tells him she’s so full of grief for her lost children she would rather die than continue to live without them, the steward cracks. He hides the queen with Dawn and Day and bends all his skills as a cook over preparing a deer in her place. The ogress is convinced. Finally satisfied, she decides to tell her son that his wife and children were killed by wolves in the forest. There is perhaps a touch of malicious tit-for-tat in that particular lie. The hidden princess and her children have disappeared for good.

Or so she thinks. One day while prowling about the mansion, sniffing longingly for more raw meat, she overhears the children arguing with their mother and realises she has been tricked. Livid with rage, she fills a vat with poisonous snakes and brings out her son’s young family, the unfortunate steward and his wife, and even the mansion’s serving girl, intending the throw them all in the vat to die an agonising death. What she doesn’t expect is for her son to ride into the courtyard at the last minute, hero-style, and demand to know what’s going on. Quite mad with rage, the ogress throws herself into the vat and is eaten by snakes. The king has a moment of token regret – she was his mother, after all – but is soon comforted by his wife and children, who are after all ALIVE.

It’s not a pretty story, but I have a soft spot for it all the same – a well-known fairy tale having a secret sequel is pretty cool, even if the prince comes out of it as a total idiot and the princess as a girl with serious trauma to process. I like the little details too: the prince noticing his wife’s outdated fashion sense, the fairy godmother’s chariot being drawn by dragons. I’ve read several retellings of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, but none of them tackled the full story. And what on earth happened to the kind dwarf with the seven-league boots?

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.4 – Patient Griselda

I’ve referred to this story before as ‘Patient Grethel’, but apparently my efforts to forget its existence were of some use after all because it’s actually ‘Patient Griselda’, at least in the 1999 edition of Puffin Books’ Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales I have on loan from the library. For classics like ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Cinderella’, we have the retellings of Charles Perrault to thank, so it’s not like I can completely ignore him, but he’s also to blame for retelling this particular story. If you haven’t heard of it before, let this be the warning you need to avoid it for the rest of your life.

It starts off as many fairy tales do, with a prince who is introduced as ‘youthful and gallant’, his greatest pleasure being in the continued happiness of his people. Or at least 50 % of them. The modern definition of the word gallant is all about courtesy, particularly towards women, but in ‘Patient Grethel’ it would seem Perrault is using a different application of the term, because this prince hates women. Convinced they are all faithless deceivers, he sees every woman as ‘a hypocrite…a cruel enemy whose unbroken ambition was the gain the mastery over whatever unhappy man might surrender to her’. So frail orphans and oppressed widows are okay, but if you’re just a regular woman in this man’s kingdom, watch out. His idea of the perfect wife is someone who will be totally subservient to his wishes without the slightest will of her own. And oh dear, one day while he’s on the hunt, rampaging through the woods after some unfortunate stag, he finds an innocent young sheperdess who offers him directions and a drink of water. She will come to regret that.

Her name is Griselda. She’s pretty and shy, used to living a simple life with her father in the hills, and the prince quickly decides she’s the One. The other girls who have been trying to get his attention start copying this new demure style, hoping to win favour; grandstands and floats are built, ballets and operas are written. The day of the wedding arrives and the prince heads off to propose. Because he hasn’t actually asked her yet. And when he does ask her, his condition is – and I QUOTE – ‘swear that you will never have any other wishes than what I shall desire’. Poor little lovesick Griselda agrees.

Despite her inexperience, she settles into her new role well, displaying homespun wisdom and making herself liked at court. When she gives birth to a beautiful little princess it seems everything couldn’t be more perfect. Her husband, however, relapses into his old misogynistic paranoia, suspecting her of lies and insincerity. His behaviour turns abusive, confining her to her rooms and stripping of the jewels he gave her himself not so long ago. She gives in to his every order, sure it is all just a test to prove her love. When he fails to raise a reaction with imprisonment and humiliation, he comes up with a plan so cruel it actually makes me sick to re-read. He walks in on his wife while she is nursing their baby and tells her that she is such a bad influence that he’s taking the princess away to be raised by somebody else. He isn’t even brave enough to watch when his people come to tear the baby from her mother’s arms. Griselda somehow forgives him for this, broken doormat of a woman that she is, but he can’t seem to resist torturing her. Only days later he goes to her again and says the baby has died. Mistaking what guilt his ugly heart is capable of producing for grief, she then tries to comfort him.

For FIFTEEN YEARS he sticks to this lie, leaving his daughter to be raised by nuns and his wife to grieve over the baby she lost. The princess grows up with her mother’s beauty and her father’s deadly charm, though without that sadistic streak that has totally consumed him. When she is glimpsed by a passing nobleman, it’s love at first sight. Her lover is wealthy, handsome, brave – her father is bound to try and make amends for wrecking her mother’s life by allowing her to be happy, right? Wrong. No, instead the prince announces that he’s marrying again. Marrying his own daughter. You heard me. Not that his poor deluded subjects know she’s his daughter, any more than the princess or her grief-wracked mother. Why is he doing this to everybody, when he knows the truth and has no intention of marrying the girl? Because he’s crazy. Totally, stark raving crazy.

So he breaks three hearts in one blow. He’s very good at that sort of thing by now. He sends Griselda back to her old life as a shepherdess, claiming she’s so ill born that he can’t possibly stay married to her. And what does Griselda do but apologise for making him angry. She hasn’t a clue what she’s done and she’s still feeling sorry for him, sure she’s done something terrible to make her deserve all this – a typical mindset in domestic violence cases, of which this whole story is so staggering an example. Her father is heartbroken at his own fall in stature and it falls to Griselda to be the strong one, insisting they will find peace and rest in their simple cottage. Which they might have done, if the prince could have left her the hell alone. But no, we’re dealing with a full-fledged psychopath here. He summons her back to the palace to attend his new bride-to-be – that is, their daughter. Brow-beaten and oblivious, Griselda obeys. She becomes so protective of her charge that she dredges some grit from somewhere and tells the prince that if he wants to marry this girl, he’ll have to show her more kindness than he ever showed her. The prince, predictably enough, tells her to shut up and do as she’s told.

The day of the prince’s second wedding arrives. In front of his assembled guests, he begins a little speech on how deceptive everybody really is and proves himself to be the ultimate hypocrite when he finally reveals his bride-to-be’s true identity. Griselda almost has a heart attack. All she can do is cry and hold her lost little girl. The princess, meanwhile, realises she’s got her life back. She marries her lover before her father can change his mind again and there’s a huge party in which everybody sweeps the horror story of the past fifteen years under the carpet, holding Griselda up not as a martyr to marital abuse, but ‘a model for women everywhere in the world’.

This story is disturbing on so many levels. Like, the prince survives, completely unpunished. Why didn’t his daughter’s boyfriend do the honorable thing and cut off his head or lock him up or something, like they do to all the other monsters in fairy tales? I would absolutely rather be kidnapped by dragons or ogres than live with someone like that. This is, at least, one of Perrault’s most obscure fairy tales. I was in my early teens when I came across it during a raid on my local library’s folklore and mythology section. Reading to the end in the naïve expectation that the evil prince would get his comeuppance, I was left in a state of dumbfounded outrage. My only comfort, re-reading it for this review, is remembering the immediate reaction of my younger self. That was, essentially, ‘Screw you, prince. I’m going to write my own fairy tales and you are going down’.

Here’s to impatient women everywhere.

The Week That Begins With Roses

If we don’t tell strange stories, when something strange happens we won’t believe it.
– Shannon Hale, ‘The Goose Girl’

Looking back over my posts, I’m seeing an unintentional theme developing – reviews of three different fairy tale reinterpretations, an analysis of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a Red Riding Hoodish vignette, and of course, Oracle’s Tower, itself a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’. I don’t live solely in a world of enchanted castles and poisoned apples, I swear, but fairy tales are a crucial corner of my literary foundations and affect me all the time in unexpected ways. Oracle’s Tower, for instance, was not intended to be the retelling of any fairy tale, let alone ‘Rapunzel’, to which I have no real sentimental attachment. One morning I stumbled across a tower in my head and started writing about it. Stories are like that.

Neither did I realise what I’d written was that grim until it was published and people started saying how dark they thought it was. I have to say, I don’t think anything in Oracle could be grimmer than the original fairy tale, in which the enraged witch puts out the prince’s eyes for daring to fall in love with her imprisoned ward and kicks Rapunzel out into the desert. With twins. For years. Fairy tales are not as child-friendly as Disney would have you believe. They are the old stories, told in the dark of the night when the forest was wild and a path was all that kept you from the wolf. It was a world of sudden, ugly death. Stories were a way of making sense of that and I think in a way they still are. Isn’t every story, at heart, a question and one writer’s attempt to answer it?

That’s not to say they are all good answers, not by a long shot. There are some fairy tales that are total rubbish and only survive by irregular resurrection in those vast anthologies I loved so much as a little girl. I have a long-standing grudge against Perrault for ‘Patient Grethel’, and I don’t think I ever quite forgave the Grimm brothers either after reading ‘King Thrushbeard’. I really hope mentioning these stories won’t make anyone go out and actually read them. If you want consistently excellent stories skilfully told, there is one collector of folk tales who has never received her due recognition as far as I am concerned – the incomparable Ruth Manning Sanders. Her books were first released in the sixties, re-released in the eighties and are increasingly difficult to find. All my family’s copies are second-hand and jealously hoarded. The stories from her anthology A Book of Witches define my perceptions of sorcery to this day.

Fairy tales lie at the root of collective literary consciousness. They’re being heavily mined at present, with a swathe of adaptations ranging from reinterpreted fiction to recent Hollywood releases and even a TV series based in ‘Storybrooke’. (More on that in another post.) I both enjoy this and worry about it. There are people out there, and I’m not just talking about kids, whose only experience of fairy tales will be the retellings, not the originals. And they are not the same. At all.

So I am starting a new strand of reviews. Every Tuesday I will post my thoughts on a different original fairy tale. Some are widely known, some are not. To narrow the vast selection of choices, I’ll start off by reviewing stories from these four storytellers only – Manning-Sanders, the Grimms, Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen – and begin  with a personal favourite, Snow White and Rose Red.

Everyone say it with me, now. “Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away…”