Fairy tales from around the world such as Sleeping Beauty are stories that have traveled eons. They have been part of our collective consciousness for so long that that as P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins — a great lover of fairy tales — put it, even if we are reading them for the first time, there is a sense of recognition, of having found something already near and dear and close to our heart. Perhaps a sense of longing for what has been lost and might never be found again spurs us on to re-tell the tales endlessly, crossing and re-crossing the bridge from a dim past into our own time.
Tales of enchantment fell from the lips of storytellers in the 10th century marketplaces of Baghdad and made their way westward with merchants on the Silk Road. The old wive’s tales of medieval Europe have their roots deep in the orient, and have been re-incarnated time and time again, first orally and then pouring forth into written form.
One of the earliest versions of the tale is The Ninth Captain’s Tale of “The Arabian Nights.” This goes back a thousand years! The story has traveled from the Middle East to Europe, where it resurfaced as The Sun, Moon, and Talia, an Italian literary fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in his 1634 work, the Pentamerone. Charles Perrault then retold it in 1697 as The Sleeping Beauty. We know this version well. We also know the tale as it traveled to Germany and appeared in the Grimms’ fairy tales in 1812, as Little Briar Rose.
Each version of Sleeping Beauty involves the prediction of some terrible thing happening to the young girl, if she pursues her curiosity or desire. One of the reasons fairy tales are so enduring is that many of the tales involve a curse or prediction of some kind. These can come from animals, who can talk, either being under a spell or whatever..or a wicked fairy, as in Sleeping Beauty. Once the prediction has been uttered, the reader is set up with an expectation of the coming promised event. The sense of fate, of moving towards something, sparks a desire to see what will happen next.
Cultural theorist Catherine Driscoll has pointed out the “…girl’s role as a marker of cultural identity” that also “installs her as representative of the coherence of an historical period.” If that is true, then the character of Sleeping Beauty is a kind of archetype, The Girl, able to shape-shift throughout multiple times and cultures.
There are multiple modern re-tellings of this tale, from Disney to numerous contemporary re-tellings. The underlying inborn story continues to fascinate us. In the contemporary world, as in all ages, she could well be a symbol for that tween or teen girl on the cusp of awakening. Each one of us has either been or known someone like that — and we all love that girl.
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Sleeping Beauty: the Evolution of a Fairy Tale