Fairy tales have been retold time and again throughout our history, and the versions of popular stories differ depending on what year and in which culture the stories are being told. For example, in the oldest version of Cinderella, her slipper is made of gold, and in the version popularized by Disney, the slipper is made of glass. And who can forget Tangled’s Rapunzel saying, “I have magic hair that glows when I sing!” (I sure can’t.) These smaller differences only served to make stories that were meant to teach morals a little more fanciful. But there have been bigger differences as well.
Recently a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, Maleficent, hit theaters. As you know or might have guessed from the title, it’s a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view. It added a whole magical world full of fairy creatures onto the original kingdom ruled by King Stefan. But in the original tale, fairies didn’t exist, and obviously none of the “magic” they performed did either.
Trigger warning for rape after the jump.
There are three historical versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale. The first is “Sun, Moon, and Talia” by Giambattista Basile, in 1634. In this one, a number of wise astrologers tell a king that his daughter Talia will be in “great danger” because of a splinter of flax. The king, of course, bans all flax from his kingdom, but Talia soon fulfills the curse, is pierced by a splinter of flax, and falls into eternal sleep. Her grief-stricken father lays her out in his house and leaves her forever. Then another king, just passing by, sees Talia, is struck by her beauty, and rapes her. In her sleep, Talia gives birth to twins. One of the twins sucks out the splinter of flax, and thus Talia wakes up. The rapist king returns and takes Talia home, but he’s already married to a bloodthirsty queen who demands that Talia and her children be cooked for her consumption. Fortunately, the chef doesn’t comply, and eventually the king demands that his wife be thrown into the fire meant for Talia. He and Talia marry and, I assume, live happily ever after.
Next is the Charles Perrault version of 1697, in which we start seeing some fairies. In “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”, a king and queen have a young daughter, and they invite several fairies to the christening, all of whom give the baby gifts. An older fairy, who had not been invited, cursed the baby to die when pierced by a spindle. Fortunately, one last good fairy subverted this curse, saying instead that the child would fall into an eternal sleep, not die. When the curse came to pass, the good fairy put the rest of the castle to sleep along with the girl, so that they would all awaken when she did.
Lo and behold, after a hundred years a young prince came along the castle and found the girl. When he knelt before her, she woke up, and the two of them fell in love and had two children. After the prince’s father died, he brought his new family to court and declared his wife the queen. This displeased the prince’s mother, who had ogre blood, and when the prince-turned-king left for war, she demanded that the castle cook kill the wife and her children and serve them to her in a special sauce. Again, the chef doesn’t comply, and the ogress mother assembles a great mess of vipers and snakes in a huge tub and orders the wife and children to be thrown in. The king returns at this moment and the ogress mother throws herself in the tub and dies.
And finally, there’s the Brothers Grimm version from 1812. This is very similar to our Disney version, except without all the Maleficent scheming. The princess falls under the evil fairy’s curse, and a hundred years later, the prince finds her and awakens her with a kiss. They get married and live happy ever after, and this version skips the jealous woman who tries to eat everyone. The Disney film added Prince Philip’s escapades with Maleficent, as he fights against Maleficent’s transformation into a dragon so that he can kiss Aurora and wake her up.
So in the past, fairy tales used to be dark, moralistic stories to teach people lessons, yet as time went on, people decided that fairy tales ought to entertain children as well as educate them—they weren’t meant to please ancestors of Hannibal fans. Throughout these versions, themes of rape, adultery, and cannibalism were gradually erased from the overall plot, leaving a sanitized version behind. To fill in the blanks with respect to the characters, numerous writers used magic instead. Evil fairy solves all your problems, right? Then the king doesn’t commit adultery and the queen isn’t a heinously one-dimension villain and the princess isn’t raped, but just kissed without her consent, which is… better, kind of. What sort of person wants to eat other people? Not humans, so—ogres, obviously. And wait, what if the princess wakes up all on her own without her servants or family? Okay, so everyone falls asleep with her. You can do that sort of handwaving with magic.
But looking at each version in sequence, that sort of handwaving makes the magic seem like some sort of deus ex machina. Wise men exist in history, of course, and to have them be the progenitor of the curse on the princess makes sense—but it doesn’t make for a very compelling story, as the prince isn’t going to fight a bunch of old, probably very revered, gentlemen for informing the king of a curse. Fairies are easier to handwave, because they’re fictional, so the writers can make up their own rules. Maleficent’s only motivation was not being invited to the party, which as motivations go is fairly weak, but perhaps fairies take that sort of slight more strongly than do humans (a guess, as the narrative doesn’t tell us either way). Similarly, the jealous wife becomes a jealous ogre—because you wouldn’t want a monstrous cannibal as your queen, of course, but if she’s actually a monster then it’s more understandable. None of the characters really have any character development—it’s just meant to be a cautionary tale for kids, and as long as the moral is learned then the story has served its purpose.
Yet when Maleficent did get her own movie, a movie that was meant to be a story and not just a moral lesson, the worldbuilding and character development didn’t go that well, either. Maleficent somehow had horns, even though the other fairies didn’t? She was friends with the good fairies as a child, but then suddenly wasn’t? How did the fairy world intersect with King Stefan’s, oh, and also why was Stefan such a douche? The magic seemed tacked on as an afterthought, not like an integral part of the story.
So what does it mean that writers throughout the ages seem to have taken “make fairy tales more fit for children consumption” as “just make it more magical”? Does the magic help to prove tired, outdated morals such as “true love conquers all” and “find luck even in your sleep” (depending on which version of the story you’ve got)? In the case of Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent, it seems that magic was used solely to erase human wrongs and replace them with “magical” ones. Maybe it worked for entertaining and teaching young children correct behavior, but it’s pretty bad writing.
You can read each version of Sleeping Beauty mentioned above at this link.