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?