Maleficent is coming! I saw the ad on TV.
Now, I’ve never been a big fan of Sleeping Beauty. She goes to sleep, a prince comes along, kisses her, wakes her up, everybody’s happy. She’s more plot than character if you ask me. In a place far away and a time long ago, I read Madonna Kolbenshlag’s feminist interpretation of Cinderella. One of her essays can be found here. That’s definitely not where I’m going today. (Pause for sighs of relief).[i]
I’ve decided that maybe, just maybe, I was being a little hard on Sleeping Beauty: the character and the story.
Once upon a time, I was resolved to keep my little girl away from that spiritless little thing of Sleeping Beauty.
I’ve long been on a personal quest for autonomy and control over my life, sometimes complete control. This journey has drawn be to stories of proactive heroines in children’s tales: Elsa and Anna in Frozen and Mulan come to mind. (You do not want to know how many times we’ve run around the house singing “Let it go.” Really. You don’t.) Even in grown-up fiction, I prefer heroines who take the reins: The Quick and The Dead is one I can think of. I absolutely cannot stand a helpless scream queen standing there shrieking instead of taking up arms and joining the fight. Hence, Sleeping Beauty (and Snow White and Cinderella) kind of got on my nerves.
I’m really struck (I tried to work in a pun) by the notion of Sleeping Beauty’s helplessness in the story, something I’ve always fought. I want my girl to feel empowered; heck, I want to be empowered, and I don’t see any empowerment in Sleeping Beauty.
However, I think for years now I may have missed the point. Quite frankly, our lives are not completely in our control. Every day I have to look at my kids and be reminded of that. My son will literally remind me. One day I was going on trying to teach him about choices and consequences and that no one forces us to do things, etc. In the middle of my little speech, he reminded me that it was true for grown-ups maybe, but not for kids. He’s had four different homes forced on him in a very short time; he knows about helplessness.
At S.B.’s christening, where the curse takes place, the king and queen are confronted with their own helplessness: tragedy is going to befall. The king does what he could by banishing all spindles and spinning, but as we all know, that attempt at avoiding bad luck just didn’t work.
In our adult lives, we do get cursed: illness, tragedy, loss, death. These are beyond our control. They happen to us, just like Sleeping Beauty’s curse. We’re sitting there, minding our own business, and some big ball of Something Very Bad lands on our life. For S.B., it was her parents’ honest mistake – not inviting the one fairy – that puts the damper on her life. It’s completely not her fault.
Life lesson: sometimes bad sh*t happens and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. You’re only choice is to cope well, or cope badly. Even then, either way, you’re coping. Your only choice is how well or how badly you’re going to do with the situation. And as things get worse, even your capacity to handle stress can get whittled to next-to-nothing if you’re not careful. I do not like that life lesson. I don’t like bad winters either, but that doesn’t stop them from coming. So there it is.
So, the rest of the castle is put to sleep, the king and queen kiss their daughter, and allow themselves to be put to sleep as well.[ii] The sleep lasts one hundred years.
During this period, the family and the castle population are completely isolated. What can that possibly tell anyone? Well, from experience I can tell you that it means that tragedy isolates you. I don’t mean in the lose-all-your-friends and have a pity party sort of thing. That surely happens, but that’s not what I mean. During hard times, some people who you believed in will turn around and run away; it’s true. But others will step in and do what they can. People you didn’t think knew your name. Some people who really didn’t even know your name. You’re not alone. There are people out there who will help simply because of the love in their hearts for their fellow man and all they need to know is that you need help.
The kind fairy makes sure that even in isolation the family is not without support or help: the castle staff falls asleep as well. In the Perrault version, the purpose of putting the entire castle population asleep is so that when the princess wakes up, she will not be afraid, but will have loved ones around to help her.
However, some isolation is inevitable. First, even the most well-meaning and helpful people are limited in what they can do. Doctors cannot heal everything, all the love in the world can’t stop grief from happening, injustices take time to unravel – sometimes lifetimes. Secondly, our experiences and our sufferings are ultimately our own: our grief, our helplessness, our pain at the suffering of our children, our rage at the injustices that become part of our world. Even my son’s suffering is his own: I can relate to it, I’ve had similar experiences, but no two experiences of tragedy are identical – they are as complex and unique as the histories and identities of the people who hold them in their hearts. In that sense, we are isolated. Our suffering is our own.
Some isolation is even desirable. The fairy makes the trees and vines and branches grow around the castle into an almost impenetrable thicket. Honestly, I think it’s one of the kindest acts from the good fairy – to protect the castle. Some amount of privacy in our suffering is appropriate. Society has become way too voyeuristic in looking at other people’s suffering. Even institutions and corporations want to peer into our innermost workings. I’m all for law enforcement wanting to know if people are about to commit a crime. I’m all about protecting the public. But sometimes things go too far when it’s not law enforcement and not about protecting the public. Media sensationalizes and broadcasts every tiny minutiae of some celebrity; institutions and even people sometimes just want to know too much. The good fairy knew what she was doing when she kept the castle’s tragedy away from prying eyes.
Life lesson again: some things are private, just between loved ones. That lesson I like.
Then along comes the prince. The thicket magically parts for the prince, and only for him. Something about him is allowed in to help the kingdom. When the prince approaches the castle, there’s these lines about his approach, where he is “pushed on by love and honor, resolved that moment to look into it.” Then, “he came into a spacious outward court, where everything he saw might have frozen the most fearless person with horror.”[iii] He went through a great deal of uncertainty, risk and danger just for a pretty girl. Either way, he’s determined, he’s brave, and as the story tells us, he has honor.
In the Perrault version, the fairy’s prophecy is simply that a king’s son will wake the princess. No kiss. So, that’s what happens: he walks in; she wakes up and basically says “hi.” They fall in love of course. I’ve always had a problem with that instant love thing. I’m like Kristoff from Frozen: “you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” Love in an instant? Really?
Now, this is a fairy tale, so the prince and princess absolutely have to fall in love and get married. It’s also the only way to make the second part of the fairy tale work.[iv] Who wants a fairy tale without the couple getting hitched in the end? Not much marketing appeal there, and I’m all about marketing appeal these days.
Then again, maybe it’s a chance to talk about a whole ‘nother brand of love.
So, let’s look at another kind of love that we can imagine the prince had. It’s a fairy tale, we can do that. Let’s say that maybe the love he had, mixed in with all that honor, was a love of his fellow person on need, a kind of love that draws people to help others, that enjoys seeing resolution and healing to others’ tragedies and injustices, a love of what’s right and good. That would explain all that bravery all on his own. It’s not just the promise of a pretty girl, it’s the possibility of a human being in need. Not everyone answers that call, but he did.
And when S.B. does wake up, the story doesn’t talk about how she cried and felt sorry for herself and went on and on about how could this happen to poor little her – by the way, that would have been my reaction. She just knows it’s the foretold king’s son and goes with the flow. The prince is “charmed with these words, and much more with the manner in which they were spoken.” So, she’s got some poise and class on her side. That’s not to be dismissed.
So, maybe there’s another kind of love going on between these two. Now, Perrault does hint around at a good bit of lust, but if I can pluck out something meaningful, why not?
Let me take a quick step back …
The biographical movie about Pope John Paul II was on recently. Now, I’m not Catholic, but I was quite drawn in. The overriding theme of the movie, and what was ultimately the message of John Paul II’s ministry, was how love must prevail. He didn’t mean some squishy, furry little love we tell our kids about. In the midst of Nazi-occupied Poland, then later Communist Russia-ruled Poland, he was talking about a love that seeks always justice, what is good, the helping and healing of our fellow human being. A strong kind of love that protests and seeks peace at once. In the movie, this is the kind of love that leads one man to confess on his spying to the younger priest and then ultimately convert. It is a love with which the future Pope instantly forgives the man and embraces him with pride for his courage in confessing his wrong-doing.
So, maybe this is the kind of love that helps a king’s son go it alone through a mysterious, magical thicket, to an unknown, mysterious castle to help a fellow person cursed by tragedy. Maybe this is the kind of love that helps someone who has been rendered helpless by a death-like to curse reach out past any sense of anger or pity and see the goodness right in front of her. I pray every day for the kind of clarity.
In that sense, love really did conquer all and save the kingdom.
I can live with that kind of moral from a fairy tale. I really can.
To Sleeping Beauty, the story and the princess,
You’re not so bad after all. Accept my apologies, with love.
[i] I do want to issue a disclaimer, as I may be unintentionally recalling some of what I read. I did not reread the essay because I want to present what I believe is my own impression.
[ii] Charles Perrault’s version is considered the basis for the Disney. You can read it at the link: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0410.html#perrault
[iii] Perrault at: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0410.html#perrault
[iv] There’s more drama with this couple, their children, and the prince’s mother.