Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: When Christian Fairy Tales Aren’t So Christian

disney sleeping beauty

Sleeping Beauty is one of those popular fairy tales that’s just a little bit embarrassing. Early last year I took a feminist look at the Disney Princess lineup, and Sleeping Beauty came up pretty much dead last when it comes to empowering feminist messages. Its leading lady could be replaced by a sexy lamp and you’d still have the same story, even if you have a whole lot more female supporting characters (and a female villain!) than in the typical Disney film. At least back then Disney wasn’t afraid of naming their movies with female leads after those leads (I’m looking at you, Tangled and Frozen). Disney’s Aurora is a pretty good example of the pure virgin power trope, in that Aurora’s worth comes from her goodness, which we assume to be true because of her status as the most maiden-like maiden to ever maiden. You’d think this is another result of prudish Christians enforcing gender stereotypes and shaming women into keeping their legs closed, but the real origins of the folk tale are far more interesting and far more pagan.

Trigger warning for rape and suicide after the jump.

Sleeping Beauty by Henry Rheam, 1898

Sleeping Beauty by Henry Rheam, 1898

Luce already wrote about the origins of Charles Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty, but let me summarize. Perrault’s version is the most adapted and the most familiar. His comes from 17th century France, and it’s inundated with religious influences from the time (think super Catholic). A king and queen throw a party to celebrate their daughter’s baptism, and invite all the good fairies. Each fairy gives the daughter a supernatural gift, and each gets some spiffy party favors from the king. An old, evil fairy’s invitation is overlooked, so she gate-crashes the feast. Enraged, she curses the princess so that she’ll die when she pricks her finger on a spindle. The last good fairy tries to mitigate the curse, and changes the death sentence to an enchanted sleep. The king orders all spindles to be burned, but upon the princess’s sixteenth birthday, she pricks her finger anyway. The princess is enclosed in a castle with a retinue of servants to help her when she awakes; they too are put under an enchanted sleep. A hundred years pass, and a prince fights through the overgrown brambles, kisses the princess awake, and the two marry. This is the part where the versions we’re most familiar with end: both Disney’s animated movie and Tchaikovsky’s ballet leave out part two.

In the second half of the story, the prince returns to his kingdom, but leaves his princess wife in her castle. He lies to his parents about what he was up to, and continues to visit the princess in secret. She eventually gives birth to two children. When the prince’s father dies, the prince brings his wife and children to his home. The prince’s mother, however, is a jealous ogre (literally). When the prince, now a king, leaves on royal business, she orders that the cook serve up her two grandchildren for dinner. The clever cook instead swaps them out for lambs, and the queen mother is fooled. Next she orders the cook to serve up her daughter-in-law, and the princess (now queen) offers to slit her own throat so she can “rejoin” her children. The cook confesses his deception, and the enraged queen mother plots to have her son’s family thrown in a pit of vipers. Just then the king arrives home, discovers what happened, and has his mother thrown in the pit instead. The moral of Perrault’s story is that good things come to those who wait, whether they be princes to wake you from a coma or a husband to save you from a vile mother-in-law. In the meantime, be a docile and obedient woman. All in all, it’s mostly Christian.

basile

Perrault’s classic was probably based on Giambattista Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia”. An Italian poet, he probably had the earliest compilation of national fairy tales in the early 17th century Kingdom of Naples (which, interestingly, also included Rapunzel and Cinderella). The story is very similar to Perrault’s, with a few important differences. Instead of a kiss, a king is supposedly so overcome by the sleeping Talia’s beauty that he rapes her in her sleep. Talia gives birth to twins while in her enchanted sleep, and one of them sucks the splinter out of her finger that was keeping her asleep. One day the king decides to visit her again, and is happy to discover her awake and the mother of his children. The king, however, is already married. When the queen hears the king muttering about Talia and the twins in his sleep, she is the one who orchestrates their demise. When the king discovers the plot, she’s burned to death and the king marries Talia.

The moral of this version is that “those whom fortune favors find good luck even in their sleep”. It’s not exactly a real moral, not in the way we’re used to. It sounds really tautological: fortune favors the lucky… because lucky people are fortunate. Some people are just favored by fortune, and some people aren’t. Perrault’s version gives us a lesson on patience. Basile’s version gives us a lesson about luck. But Talia, our heroine, isn’t lucky at all by modern standards. How could she possibly be lucky? One blogger, Katrina Cooper, suggests that if you look at the story from a puritanical Christian perspective, Talia doesn’t have to experience any of the potential “sinful” pitfalls of enjoying sex in order to fulfill her womanly duty of being a wife and mother. And not only does she get pregnant, she’s pregnant with twins! And her husband is a king! Still, it doesn’t seem like an entirely Christian mindset. The fact that her children are named for the sun and moon, often considered divine beings in themselves in ancient mythologies, doesn’t fit. Overall, it seems like this version was influence both by Christianity and by other, older divine ideas. The queen is described as having the face of Nero and the heart of Medea. Medea, from the Greek myths of Jason and the Argonauts, was a vengeful woman who killed her husband’s children. Even though Naples was mostly Catholic, Basile’s themes of luck have more in common with ancient mythology.

Detail of one of the manuscript pages from the 16th century

Detail of one of the manuscript pages from a Perceforest collection dated to the 16th century

A few centuries earlier, we see some strong similarities between the first half of Basile’s and Perrault’s tale and one of the stories in the Perceforest. From the 13th century, Perceforest is a medieval collection of romantic stories of the fictional founding of Britain. Alexander the Great conquers Britain and leaves a man in charge called Perceforest, nicknamed so because he tries to pierce the “evil”, pagan forests of Britain with the light of Christian faith. There’s lots of mixing of both pagan and Christian symbols and themes. One story is an almost exact retelling of the first half of Basile’s tale. A young beautiful woman named Zellandine falls into an enchanted sleep, is raped by a man whom she later falls in love with, and gives birth to a child who sucks out the offending splinter in her finger. Instead of fairies, this time we’re treated to Roman gods and goddesses playing key helpful roles. Fast forward back to Perrault’s century, and the German Brothers Grimm include Perrault’s story of Sleeping Beauty in their collection. Why does a French story fit in a group of German folk tales? Probably because the woman in that story was so similar to the Germanic heroine Brunhilde, also spelled Brynhildr.

Postcard by Bussière

Postcard by Bussière

Brynhildr is a valkyrie, a shield maiden, and a major character in Germanic mythology. As punishment for battling a king, Odin condemns her to a mortal life, in an enchanted sleep, locked in a castle encircled with fire, until a man comes to rescue her. The great hero Sigurðr comes to save her. Brynhildr awakens, and Sigurðr promises to come back and marry her. Brynhildr is then visited by the princess Gudrun, who asks her help in interpreting a dream where Sigurðr betrays Brynhildr and marries Gudrun instead. Gudrun’s mother, an evil sorceress, wants Sigurðr to marry her daughter instead, so she bewitches him to forget Brynhildr. The sorceress also wants Brynhildr to marry her son Gunnar. Sigurðr, bewitched by the sorceress to forget Brynhildr, helps Gunnar out by disguising himself as him and fetching Brynhildr. Brynhildr marries Gunnar, and Gudrun marries Sigurðr.

So here we have a story with an important woman locked in a tower, in an enchanted sleep until a worthy man can rescue and marry her. We also have an evil mother-in-law, who gets in the way of our heroine’s happiness. Brynhildr accuses Sigurðr of raping her in her sleep when he came to fetch her a second time, and gets revenge by having him murdered and killing his son herself, before she wills herself to die. Instead of being happy about being raped, Brynhildr gets revenge. Even though Sigurðr is innocent, the fact that Brynhildr reacts with anger and revenge is a much more appropriate message for modern audiences. This time, Brynhildr is a very active part of her own story, and has more agency than any of the other heroines put together.

What’s interesting is that the more pagan the story seems to be, the more active women we get in the tales. The version of the story that seems to have the most Christian influence is, ironically, the 1959 Disney animated movie. While Perrault and Basile gives us tales that would horrify modern audiences (a woman falling in love with her rapist), the overall themes of their stories are pretty standard fairy tale fare: patience is a great virtue, some people are just fortunate. Their women are traditional feminine archetypes, but at least Basile’s gets enough agency to decide the manner of her death. Disney’s version gives Aurora zero agency. Aurora is cursed, she’s compelled by enchantment to a spindle, she’s forced to live with fairies, she’s forced to return to the castle, and she’s captured by the evil fairy. She seems to appreciate Prince Philip’s attention, but we have no idea if she really wants to marry him. After all, they’ve been betrothed since she was born. Aurora gets the largest treatment as the Christian feminine ideal out of any of the women in any version of the story. She’s beautiful and good. She’s the most pure because she’s been sexually untouched, unlike most women in the stories. Prince Philip must kill the evil fairy Maleficent to save Aurora, and what form does she take? A huge black dragon. Maleficent, the self-described mistress of all evil, becomes a huge symbol for Satan. Did Disney really mean to turn their villain into the literal Devil? Possibly—she does reference the “powers of Hell” being on her side, but the imagery ingrained in our culture that dragon equals evil does come straight from Christianity.

While Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty is a classic, story-wise it’s a very straightforward good-versus-evil tale with strong traditional Christian themes. But those themes may not be the ones we want to keep using as we keep telling the story. Looking to the early pagan roots of the story of Sleeping Beauty may just be more fruitful and give us a fresh take on a centuries-old fairy tale.


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3 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: When Christian Fairy Tales Aren’t So Christian

  1. This was really interesting! I thought since I’d read Sun/Moon and the different Sleeping Beauties that I knew the history of Sleeping Beauty but I’ve never connected it to the Ring Saga and I’ve never even heard of Pierce Forrest!

    This makes me appreciate Deerskin by Robin McKinley even more, since that story does such a good job showing the darkness of fairytales and letting the heroine react in a better way than never calling out rape and never being proactive or angry about her shitty life.

  2. Pingback: Throwback Thursdays: The Brothers Grimm | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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