Sleeping Beauty: The Meaning of Fate, Sleep, and Death

Throughout every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the presence of fate remains constant. Few other fairy tale heroines have their lives so dictated, or spend the majority of their story rendered so helpless. Although the circumstances surrounding her fate differ, Sleeping Beauty is always destined to fall asleep. But that’s not the only thing her future holds, and the line between death and sleep is not always apparent.

Some stories contain fairies or wise women, who bestow desirable qualities upon the princess. As Maria Tatar notes in The Annotated Brothers Grimm‘the gifts given by the Wise Women promise to turn the Grimms’ Briar Rose into an “ideal” woman – virtuous, beautiful, and wealthy. In Perrault’s version, the girl is given beauty, an angelic disposition, grace, the ability to dance perfectly, the voice of a nightingale, and the ability to play instruments.’ Both sets of gifts are trivial things, putting emphasis on physical attraction instead of personality. They also reflect, as Tatar says, society’s notions of ‘ideal’ women during the times they were told. A beautiful woman who could sing, dance, and play music would certainly have been popular in 17th century Versailles.

Sleeping Beauty fairies ballet
National Ballet of the Kiev Opera: Fairies visit Sleeping Beauty’s christening to bestow gifts upon her. Image by Jean-Louis Zimmerman, CC BY 2.0.

However, none of these gifts bear any relevance to the plot. In earlier versions of the story, there is not even any mention of them. In his book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Lüthi observes that in Giambattista Basile’s 1634 story ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ the ‘motif of prophecy’ and ‘threat of an unavoidable fate’ remain strong even without the gifts. The sleep curse is still predicted for Tahlia’s future, despite it not being given to her. The story doesn’t change.

The sleep is always caused by spinning — from pricking a finger on a spindle or a stray piece of flax. This also has a connection to fate, as mythology from several cultures contains beings called ‘Fates.’ These are women who spin the threads of mortal lives, determining lifespans and causes of death. My full discussion of Sleeping Beauty, fate, and mythology can be found in this article which I wrote for the University of Essex’s Centre for Myth Studies.

Greek mythology the Three Fates
The Three Fates of Greek mythology spin the threads of people’s lives. Image in the public domain – source.

Aside from the gifts and the notion of spinning fate, the other irrevocable fate in Sleeping Beauty is death. Both ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ and Charles Perrault’s 1697 ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ do not end when the princess awakens. Instead, they continue to detail her life with the prince (or king in ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’) and their children. Her new mother-in-law has cannibalistic tendencies, and plans to kill and eat the children. They escape, thanks to some assistance from a compassionate servant who hides them. The mother-in-law then prepares a horrific death for the princess, but the king/prince arrives in time to prevent it.

Of this ending, Max Lüthi writes that ‘the theme of the death prophesy and the fortunate deliverance is once again called to mind.’ The princess survives not only the death-like sleep, but also attempted murder. Peril occurs at defining moments in her life. The first is during adolescence, when she is on the cusp of womanhood. The second is when she is a mother seeking to protect her children. These life stages are reminiscent of the Neopagan Triple Goddess, which represents aspects of female life through the phases of the moon. The waxing moon is the maiden, the full moon the mother, and the waning moon the crone.

Wiccan triple goddess symbol
The Wiccan triple goddess moon symbol. Image in the public domain – source

The princess escapes death first as the maiden and again as the mother, which leaves only the crone stage to contend with. Things in fairy tales often happen in threes, with the third time being slightly different. Therefore, it can be assumed that when death comes the third and final time, the princess will not escape. Like for all living things, her ultimate unavoidable fate is death.

However, one Sleeping Beauty-inspired story challenges this fate. In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ by Angela Carter, the girl is already dead — or rather, undead. The main protagonist in this story is a vampiric countess; a simultaneous embodiment of life and death. Carter describes her as ‘both death and the maiden,’ showing that the mother and crone stages are absent. In an attempt to reconcile this, she wears ‘her mother’s wedding dress,’ which gives her the appearance of ‘a child dressing up.’ The countess’s servant is ‘a crone in a black dress,’ and through her the countess can vicariously experience the old age she will never have.

vampire photo shoot Angela Carter The Lady of the House of Love
Vampire Shoot by Charli Avery Make Up. Photography by Charlotte Clarke.

Instead of having her fate decided or predicted for her, the countess reads Tarot cards. But no matter how many times she shuffles them, she is ‘constantly constructing hypotheses about a future which is irreversible’ and they always show ‘the Grim Reaper.’ Her condition makes her biologically and emotionally dormant, so there cannot be any change in her future. She is, in a sense, sleeping. Carter acknowledges that ‘a single kiss woke up the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,’ but the only desire vampires feel is for blood. She longs for a lover to save her, but trapped in her maidenhood she doesn’t know how to respond when one arrives.

At the end of the story, the countess cuts her finger and the sight of her own blood overwhelms her. This could be interpreted as an analogy for menstruation, as some folklorists interpret the blood drawn by Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger. However, instead of a long sleep to process the change and move on to become the mother, spilling her own blood is what kills the Countess. In true death, ‘she looked far older, less beautiful and so, for the first time, fully human.’ Her fate could not provide the remaining life stages, so instead it returned her to nature.

tarot cards
The countess reads her own fate. Image by Sonya Cheney. CC BY 2.0.

Fate in Sleeping Beauty stories goes far beyond the prediction of the sleep. They connect to the perennial cycle of life and death, and how we progress through its stages. The princess is always doomed to sleep and a pivotal moment in her life, and she can never be the same once she awakens. Life’s movement and nature’s processes carry on regardless of curses, spindles, fairies, or vampirism. 

Sources

  • Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
  • Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Indiana University Press, 1976.
  • Angela Carter, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ in The Bloody Chamber, Vintage Classics Edition, 1995.
  • Giambattista Basile, ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia‘ in Lo Cunto de li Cunti, 1634.
  • Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood‘ in Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, 1697.
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose‘ in Kinder-und Hausmärchen, 1812.

The History of Sleeping Beauty

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the most widely-known fairy tales. However, the currently recognisable version has evolved from older stories. There are four tales often referenced in the history of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and studying these provides some insight into the themes the story deals with.

Like Chinese Whispers, fairy tales become slightly different each time they are told. Sleeping Beauty is no exception, so here is a summary of each of the four older versions.

1. Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine (anon, 1300s)

Read this version here.

This story is one in a collection entitled Le Roman de Perceforest, a fictional narrative containing many folkloric references and connections to Arthurian legends. It’s author is unknown, as well as its exact date of publication.

‘Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine’ is taken to be the earliest recorded version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and it goes something like this: Three goddesses, Lucina, Themis, and Venus, are invited to celebrate the birth of a girl named Zellandine. Themis is upset that her cutlery is not as fine as that given to the other two, so she curses Zellandine to fall into a sleep, from which she will not awaken, upon stabbing her finger on a piece of flax.

Sleeping Beauty Henry Meynell Rheam
Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam. Image in the public domain – source

When the curse is fulfilled, Zellandine’s lover enters the tower where she is sleeping. He tries and fails to awaken her, but is so overcome by her beauty that he makes love to her anyway. Nine months later, Zellandine unconsciously gives birth to a son. He sucks the piece of flax out of her finger and then she wakes up.

2. Sun, Moon and Talia (Giambattista Basile, 1636)

Read this version here.

Sleeping Beauty Alexander Zick
Sleeping Beauty by Alexander Zick. Image from Wikipedia.

A girl named Talia is born and her father, a Lord, requests that all the seers in the land come and read her fortune. They all reach the same conclusion: that she will be in danger from a piece of flax. When Talia is grown up, she sees an old woman spinning and asks to try it. As soon as she begins, a piece of flax stalk becomes lodged under her fingernail and she dies. Saddened by her fate, her father shuts her away in a palace in the country and leaves.

A travelling King discovers the palace some time later. When he beholds Talia, he believes she is asleep and tries to awaken her but cannot. So he stays awhile and admires her beauty, before returning home and soon forgetting what happened. Awhile later, two children appear by Talia’s side (a boy and a girl names ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’). Now, some versions of this story state that Talia gave birth to them, whereas others say that they just ‘wandered in’ from somewhere unknown. Either way, there is a strong implication that the King raped Talia and Sun and Moon are their offspring. As in Le Roman de Perceforest, one of the children sucks the flax out of Talia’s finger and she wakes up.

But this story doesn’t end here!

One day, the King recalls his encounter and goes looking for Talia, and finding her with the children, he is joyful and vows to take them home with him soon. But the King’s stepmother (or, in some versions, his wife) becomes suspicious that he is keeping something from her. She sends a spy, and learning of Talia’s existence, she requests to meet Sun and Moon. Talia sends them gladly, believing them to be safe with the King and his family, but the stepmother has other plans. She orders the cook to kill the children and serve them to the King for dinner. But the cook is kind and hides them, and serves up goats instead, unbeknownst to the stepmother who them summons Talia.

Upon arrival, the stepmother is hostile to Talia and angry at her for stealing the King’s affection. She orders a fire to be made and Talia to be burnt, but the King arrives in time to save her and burns his stepmother instead. The cook reveals that Sun and Moon are safe, and the family are reunited and live happily.

At the end, there is this moral:

‘He who has luck may go to bed, and bliss will rain upon his head.’

This implies that if fate is on your side, then you can sleep soundly, for any length of time, and things will still be okay when you wake up. Just like they are for Talia. 
 

3. The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (Charles Perrault, 1697)

Read this version here.
This story follows the same narrative as Sun, Moon and Talia, but with a few alterations. 

Sleeping Beauty spindle
Image from Psychology of Fairy Tales.

Firstly, the heroine is a princess, and is given no name. At her christening, a banquet is held in honour of the fairies who were invited to become godmothers to the princess. However, one fairy was not invited, as she was believed to be dead, but she turned up anyway and the King ordered a place to be set for her. But since he had not anticipated her arrival, her cutlery was less fine than that given to the other fairies. Feeling slighted, when the time came to bestow gifts upon the princess, whilst the other fairies give her beauty, good temper, grace, dancing and music skills, the uninvited fairy declares that she will prick her hand on a spindle and die. The last fairy then attempts to undo the curse, and instead casts a spell ensuring that the princess shall sleep for 100 years and at the end of this time be awakened by a prince.

So the princess grows up, and sees an old woman spinning, then asks to try it and pricks her finger to invoke the spell. She falls asleep, and the last fairy returns and puts the rest of the people in the castle to sleep as well. Except for the King and Queen, who leave and order no-one to enter the castle. Over the years, the royal family changes and a new one takes over. The son of the new King discovers the sleeping princess, and falls to his knees before her just as the enchantment ends. She rejoices to see him, and they spend a long time talking and fall in love. Everyone else awakens, and the prince and princess are married.

But like in Sun, Moon and Talia, this is not the end. Enter the mother, who this time is related to the prince by blood and is also a child-eating ogress.

The prince and princess have two children, a girl and a boy named ‘Dawn’ and ‘Day’ respectively, and the prince hides his young family from his mother. But then his father dies, and so the prince becomes King and announces his marriage. Then he has to leave for war, and the princess, Dawn and Day and left unprotected. The ogress tells the steward that she wants to eat the children, but like the cook in Sun, Moon and Talia, he hides them and serves her a lamb and a goat instead.

The, the ogress announces that she wants to eat the princess. Stricken by grief believing her children are dead and eaten, the princess consents in the hope that in death she might see them again. But the steward tells her the truth, then takes her and reunites her with Dawn and Day and serves up hind to the ogress. The ogress discovers she has been tricked though, and ties up the princess, steward and children and plans to throw them into a pit of snakes. It is then that the King returns, and the ogress throws herself into the pit of snakes in a fit of rage. The King then lives happily with his family.

This story also has a moral:

‘For girls to wait awhile, so they may wed
A loving husband, handsome, rich and kind:
That’s natural enough, I’d say;
But just the same, to stay in bed
A hundred years asleep – you’ll never find
Such patience in a girl today.

Another lesson may be meant:
Lovers lose nothing if they wait,
And tie the knot of marriage late;
They’ll not be any less content.

Young girls, though, yearn for married bliss
So ardently, that for my part
I cannot find it in my heart
To preach a doctrine such as this.’    

What Perrault meant by this is that love grows over time and it is best to wait for the right person, and if you do so then the relationship will be better. Rushing into love doesn’t improve it, and you will enjoy the perks of it no less if you get it at a later stage.

4. Little Briar-Rose (Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, 1812)

Read this version here.

This version is much closer to the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that is so well-known.

A King and Queen are sad because they do not have a child, when suddenly a frog appears before the queen and tells her that their desire shall be fulfilled. Nine months later, the Queen gives birth to a daughter. The King holds a feast in celebration and invites twelve of the thirteen Wise Women in the kingdom, as they only have twelve gold plates. Of course we know what’s going to happen here! The thirteenth Wise Woman arrives, upset that she was not invited. Instead of giving the baby princess a virtuous gift like the others do, she announces that the princess shall prick herself with a spindle at the age of fifteen and die. After that she leaves, and the final Wise Woman eases the curse by changing it to a sleep of one hundred years instead of death.

Sleeping Beauty thorns
The forest of thorns. Image from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.


In an attempt to protect his daughter, the King orders that every spinning wheel in the kingdom must be burnt. The princess grows up with all the attributes bestowed upon her by the good Wise Women – beauty, riches, grace, wisdom and modesty. But one day she is left alone in the castle, and come across an old woman spinning (seem to get about a bit, these random old spinning women!). Like in the previous versions, the princess tries spinning for herself, pricks her finger and falls asleep. Everyone else in the castle falls asleep as well, and a thorny hedge grows up around it.

Many princes try and penetrate the thorns, only to die in their clutches. But when the hundred years are almost up, the wither, and one prince is allowed to pass. He finds the princess, Briar-rose, as she has come to be known, and cannot turn his eyes away from her beauty. He kisses her and she wakes up, along with the rest of the castle’s inhabitants. Briar-rose and the prince marry, and live the rest of their lives happily together.

Each of these stories has its own unique message and purpose, and brings something new to the concept of Sleeping Beauty. From reading these, the only two consistent plot points are a prophecy, a reference to spinning, a sleeping girl, and a man discovering her before she awakens. And if you think about it – on the surface, that’s basically all there is to it. This also goes far in proving how versatile fairy tales are, which is what makes it possible to intervene with them.

 

Sources

  • Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)