Dec 5, 2011

Sleeping Beauty: Evolution of a Kiss

Sleeping Beauty: Who doesn’t know the story of a princess who falls asleep on her 15th birthday and is woken up by love’s first kiss? In this familiar story, the princess’ parents forget to invite a malevolent fairy, who curses the princess to die on her 15th birthday from a spindle’s prick. But a good fairy negates the curse by saying that the princess will just fall asleep for a hundred years, and wake up with love’s first kiss. However, this romantic story once had other, not so romantic versions. What we know today is the result of numerous revisions and substantial censoring throughout the ages.

To start with the earliest written version, a story called “Sun, Moon and Talia” can be found in a 1634 Italian collection by Giambatista Basil. In this story, the princess’s sleep is not the result of a curse. Instead, her horoscope forecasts that she will incur great danger from flax. The prominence of horoscope is surprising in a European story, but Sun, Moon and Talia has more surprises to offer. After the prince discovers Sleeping Beauty, the story follows in this way:
“He called to her, but she would not wake. As he looked at her, and tried to wake her, she seemed so incredibly lovely to him that he could not help desiring her, and he began to grow hot with lust. He gathered her in his arms and carried her to a bed, where he made love to her. Leaving her on the bed, he left the palace and returned to his own city, where pressing business for a long time made him think no more about the incident.” (sic)
The famous kiss is conspicuous by absence in this graphic description of intimacy. Talia becomes pregnant and in due course bears two children. She wakes when her child sucks her thumb and removes the cursed piece of flax. She takes her two children and goes in search of her husband. To her dismay, she finds that the prince is already married. The much married prince surprised me too, as the story is European, and presumably polygamy hasn’t existed in Europe for many centuries. The prince nevertheless allows her to live in his house, but his wife is jealous of Talia. The first wife is an ogress and schemes to kill and eat the children. However, the prince finds this out in the right time, burns the ogress to death, and happily settles down with Talia. This version has many objectionable parts that were edited out later, eg. a prince who has sexual intercourse with a random corpse, a married prince with a roving eye, the birth of illegitimate children from a corpse, and a cannibalistic first wife.
Later, the French writer Charles Perrault published his version of Sleeping Beauty in 1697. For the first time, the evil fairy and her curse are introduced. Also in this version, the princess is unnamed and the prince is thankfully unmarried. But here too, there is no kiss, the good fairy prophesizes that the king’s son will come and wake her after a hundred years have passed. When the princess wakes, she finds the prince kneeling in front of her, mesmerized by her beauty. They talk and decide to get married. The censored part comes later in the form of the prince’s mother, an ogress who wants to eat her grandchildren “in piquant sauce.” But again, the prince finds out in time, burns his mother, and settles down happily with his wife. This version gets rid of most objectionable parts like sex with a corpse, illegitimate children, and a polygamous situation.
In the best known text of Sleeping Beauty from 1812, the Grimm brothers call the princess Brier Rose. There is a demure kiss after the princess wakes up. The story ends here, and thus avoids the cannibalism depicted in earlier version. But the most famous version with even more editing was yet to come. In 1959, Disney released the movie Sleeping Beauty, where for the first time it was prophesized that a prince’s kiss would wake her up. There are many other firsts in this story. The princess is called Aurora and is obsessed with love, she walks around singing love songs and mooning for her beloved all through her adolescence. Also for the first time, the princess and the prince are in love with each other before she falls asleep. She does not stay asleep for a hundred years, and the prince battles a dragon which was nowhere to be seen in any of the earlier versions. It is this version of the story that we know today, and it has become so pervasive that it has come to symbolize all fairytales.

Why was there so much editing in the folktales? First of all, folktales were never meant for children in their original form. Before the advent of mass media, stories entertained people of all ages. I think of them as the precursors of sms jokes and facebook videos that people now share with each other, which are usually uncensored. Even a cursory glance at Nepali tales will confirm the same: there are many stories with a lot of violence and mature themes. When the Grimm Brothers’ first collection of folktales came out in 1812, it was not meant for children and contained a lot of mature themes. However, the collection instantly became popular with children, though children were disturbed by many of the themes. For example, in the 1812 version, Snow White’s real mother, and not the stepmother, is the villain and tries to kill her. Grimm brothers, one of the earliest people to realize the potential for a children’s market, edited many of the mature themes for their next edition. By the 1819 version, Snow White’s mother is already dead, and she is attacked by her stepmother.
Today the folktales are specifically marketed towards children with much editing. Especially after Disney took over, disturbing themes were completely eradicated. With its movies, story books, coloring books, dresses, tents, pillows, pencil boxes, and all sorts of other pink merchandizes, Disney leaves no stone unturned in popularizing its watered down versions. But it is interesting to note that true folktales are not necessarily childish, and maybe worth an adult’s time too. They provide a window into the minds of people who enjoyed such types of stories, and give us clues about contemporary social constructions and values.

All the versions mentioned above, except the Disney movie, can be found here



mahesh said...

Mahesh loves your selection of topics. Good job Sewa.

Srujan said...

Very nice post!! :) And I'm glad to see you writing for The Kathmandu Post- excellent! Keep writing! :)

sewa said...

thanks mahesh and srujan :)

Sumedh Sharma said...

wow Liked that ! i will tell these developments to my kids one day!

yuwaraj said...

I am touched with the Subject Matters what Sewa DD has choose to write. Seems Common matter but Perception???

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