Sleeping Beauties: Old-Time Styles

Want to know a dirty little secret, Internets?

I have never written an entirely original thing in my life. I’m a magpie. I pick up shiny ideas and take them home and throw them into a nest until they turn into a big glittery ball of a novel. I have to pick apart a lot of the ideas before I can use them (… with my beak, this metaphor is starting to fall apart) or turn them into something else that I think will better add to the structural integrity of my new avant-garde jewelry, but I always start from somewhere else.

Usually, I start from a story.

Guardian of the Dead is about stories and the way they shape us, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it engages with so many of them. It explicitly talks about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Orpheus tale, and the stories of Maui and Hine-nui-te-Po, but it’s also a Tam Lin story and a Beauty and the Beast story. I have it on very good authority that it’s a Gothic tale, which surprised the heck out of me, but sure! The Shattering is not about stories, so it doesn’t refer to as many, but it is explicitly and primarily a Summer King story and about the aftermath of that kind of sacrifice, from the point of view of those most harmed by it.

And When We Wake is a Sleeping Beauty story, through and through. I thought I would be a total nerd, and write some nerdly essays on Sleeping Beauty tellings and retellings. “One a month!” I said to myself. “Release one a month until the the publication of When We Wake!”

So let’s start at the very beginning (the very best place to start), with the old European origins of the story I transplanted to future Australia.

sleeping beauty in the wood

The Sleeping Beauty archetype has a looong history as European stories go, probably well over a thousand years long. The earliest written antecedent is thought to be in the Icelandic Volsunga saga, which is one of those sagas the Vikings liked to tell each other on cold winter evenings, of which they had many. It was around in verbal form for centuries before it was recorded in prose from the epic poem – the Ramsund carving depicts events from the saga. But not the part we are concerned with, which features one of my favorite Sleeping Beauty figures, Brynhildr. There are a few variations of her story; this is my favorite.

The Volsunga Saga ~1400 CE/AD (translation here):

The excellent Brynhildr is a shield maiden, and a Valkyrie, and a wise woman who knows a lot about rune craft and sayings of wisdom and power. She’s not a peaceful person at all; Brynhildr is all about riding into battle and slaying her enemies. But one of the enemies she slays is a chosen champion of Odin, to whom the god had promised victory.

Odin, instead of deciding that he maybe shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep, curses Brynhildr instead. He stabs her with a sleeping thorn and curses Brynhildr to never win another battle. He also curses her to be “given away in marriage.” Brynhildr clearly finds this an unpalatable proposition, and counter-vows that she will never marry a man who “knows the name of fear”. Basically, only a man who approaches her awesomeness is worthy of her! She duly falls asleep, fully dressed in her armor.

Siegfried_awakens_Brunhild Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

“Siegfried awakens Brunhild”, Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

Enter Sigurd the dragon slayer! Sigurd, like a lot of heroes from the sagas, is not a hero in the sense of being honorable and noble, as we tend to think has to be the way of heroes now, but he is a hero in the sense of being extremely good at killing things and people. And he is fearless! So he approaches this sleeping warrior, takes off the helmet, and realizes that the dude he thought he was rescuing is actually a beautiful woman.

He cuts her armor off (SIGURD that stuff is EXPENSIVE) and Brynhildr wakes. She recognizes him at once, and is on the whole pretty pleased about the fact that she’s been wakened by such a fearless man (who I suspect was pretty hot, as Norsemen go. Maybe like Eric from True Blood?).

hey there Eric

Well, hey there

Sigurd is like, “Wow, you are amazing, PLEASE TELL ME ALL THAT YOU KNOW.” I love that. They have an actual conversation (in verse!) where instead of being the helpless victim, Brynhildr is cast as a wise and doughty survivor who gives Sigurd a lot of useful information. AND THEN:

Sigurd spake, “None among the sons of men can be found wiser than thou; and thereby swear I, that thee will I have as my own, for near to my heart thou liest.”

She answers, “Thee would I fainest choose, though I had all men’s sons to choose from.”

And thereto they plighted troth both of them. .

Except, oops, this is a NORSE story. You can never assume a happy ending!

Brynhildr sort of repents promising to marry Sigurd, because after all, she is a shield maiden – she is about battles, not babies, and she doesn’t think it appropriate that they get married. Sigurd keeps pressing his point, and eventually Brynhildr’s like, okay, I love you too, but that is not the point! However, he wears her down and they exchange rings, essentially getting married right there. They even have a daughter! The problem is, Brynhildr knows Sigurd is also going to marry a king’s daughter named Gudrun, because she interpreted Gudrun’s dream about Sigurd. The result is going to be death and calamity for a lot of people:

Brynhild answers, “I will arede thy dream, even as things shall come to pass hereafter; for Sigurd shall come to thee, even he whom I have chosen for my well-beloved; and Grimhild shall give him mead mingled with hurtful things, which shall cast us all into mighty strife. Him shalt thou have, and him shalt thou quickly miss; and Atli the king shalt thou wed; and thy brethren shalt thou lose, and slay Atli withal in the end.”

Gudrun answers, “Grief and woe to know that such things shall be!”


brunhilde says no to gutrune arthur rackham

“Brunhilde says no to Gutrune,” Arthur Rackham

Sure enough, Gudrun’s mother Grymhild drugs Sigurd, and he forgets all about Brynhildr, and marries Gudrun as well. Oops. Grymhild then decides that her son Gunnar would be a good husband for Brynhildr (lady, let it GO) and tells him to go a-wooing.

But Brynhildr has set up a magical fire around her castle, and only a man worthy of her can safely cross through the flames. Gunnar can’t do it! So he and Sigurd swap faces (can you see where this is going?) and Sigurd, looking like Gunnar, rides through the flames and he and Brynhild get engaged AGAIN, only this time she thinks she’s getting engaged to Gunnar. They stay together in her castle for three days and nights. Sigurd won’t sleep with her, though, because that would be betraying his friend. Your morals are very SELECTIVE, Sigurd. Sigurd and the real Gunnar swap faces again on the ride home. Gunnar and Brynhildr, unaware she’s been deceived, get married and everyone seems to be pretty pleased about it.



Brynhildr finds out, of course, and is rightfully furious. Both her husbands deliberately deceived her! Her first husband married someone else! And absolutely no one is on her side about this. Everyone thinks she was lucky to marry Gunnar, and tells her to stop moping about and being angry. She tries to kill Gunnar, but is prevented from doing that, and enters what is essentially a deep depression. Eventually she tells Gunnar that unless he kills Sigurd, she’s going to leave him. Gunnar doesn’t want to do the dead himself, so he talks his younger brother into doing it, and Sigurd is duly slain in bed, while Gudrun is holding him.


Brynhildr tries to be happy about this, but it’s kind of a difficult situation!

And Gudrun said, “My kinsmen have slain my husband; but ye, when ye next ride to the war and are come into the battle, then shall ye look about and see that Sigurd is neither on the right hand nor the left, and ye shall know that he was your good-hap and your strength; and if he had lived and had sons, then should ye have been strengthened by his offspring and his kin.”

Brynhildr stabs herself, and is borne out to be burned up on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. These Norse! Everything ends in Ragnorak.

Sun, Moon, and Talia, by Giambattista Basile, 1636:

Brynhildr’s story is one drenched in blood and anguish. There’s a lot of drama and excitement, but it is not what you could call a fairy tale – the loose ends don’t tie up in a handy (and happy!) knot. The story continues with Gudrun’s next husband and her brothers, and Sigurd’s children, to the usual despair and kinslaying. Nevertheless, that whole “cursed to fall asleep; wakened only by the right man” thing has distinct literary possibilities for a fairy tale structure.

the rose bower by sir edward burne-jones

“The Rose Bower” by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

A lot of people no doubt recognised that possibility, but the next well-known version we have is that of Gimbattista Basile, an Neopolitan writer who collected and doubtless edited a collection of fables and literary fairy tales, called Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille, later titled The Pentamerone. In the process, he pretty much invented the fairy tale collection, though Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm (of which more later) tend to get more of the credit for popularizing the genre.

Basile’s version of the Sleeping Beauty trope is about a lord’s daughter named Talia. It was foretold that she would be hurt by a piece of flax. The lord thereby forbade all flax to enter his lands, but in the way of such things, Talia eventually sees an old woman spinning flax into linen, and asks to try. A splinter of flax pricks her finger and she falls into a deathlike sleep. Instead of being buried, her dad puts her in a lovely country manor and then drops out of the story.

the king and his falcon basile sleeping beauty warwick goble

“The King and his Falcon” by Warwick Goble

After a while, a king turns up and spots this beautiful sleeping woman, and here’s where things get awful. He tries to wake her up, but she won’t wake, so, naturally… he rapes her. And then rides back to his own country! And his wife.

And you thought Sigurd was a horrible person.

Still asleep, Talia gives birth to twins, who crawl up her body, and, trying to nurse, suck the piece of flax out of her finger. THEN she wakes up! With these two babies she can’t recall having! Probably lying in a pile of fluids and blood, and oh my god, this is a really terrible story. She names the babies Sun and Moon.

The English translation that I have (Taylor 1847; web version here) bowdlerizes the heck out of the rape and sleep-labour:

when the King saw her, he called to her, thinking that she was asleep, but in vain, for she still slept on, however loud he called. So, after admiring her beauty awhile, the King returned home to his kingdom, where for a long time he forgot all that had happened.

Meanwhile, two little twins, one a boy and the other a girl, who looked like two little jewels, wandered, from I know not where, into the palace

“Admiring her beauty.” Uh-huh.

Anyway, the king remembers that he totally raped this hot sleeping woman, so he goes back to the country manor and finds her awake. He swears eternal devotion etc, but uh, he is already married (Not in the Taylor translation! In that one he is single, and has a wicked stepmother instead! Taylor was pretty determined to cover up any unsavory aspects of his adulterous, rapist hero). The queen, growing suspicious about her husband’s time away, discovers his secret and orders Sun and Moon to be killed, so that she can serve them to her husband FOR DINNER. The cook instead serves up kid goats, and the queen is duly deceived, gleefully feeding her husband with what she thinks are his children.

Then she orders Talia to be brought to her, strips her down, and prepares to throw her into a huge bonfire. Luckily, the king returns in time to prevent this atrocity. He orders his wife executed instead, and is about to kill the cook too, when the man reveals that SURPRISE he didn’t kill the children! Here they are sir, we cool? We cool!

Talia then gets to marry her rapist and live with him and the children of that rape for many years. Yay? Happy ending? Apparently?

The Sleeping Beauty In The Wood, by Charles Perrault, 1697:

French folklorist Charles Perrault was an interesting dude, who didn’t get around to publishing Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé (Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals) until nearly the end of his long career. Before that he was all about advising Louis XIV and picking literary fights in the court of the Sun King, with the requisite intrigue and nepotism. It’s kind of hilarious to me that he was this influential political and artistic figure, who even in his own time, was eventually best known for a collection of stories that he only put together in his late sixties, when he lost his post at court and decided to write something nice for his kids.

In Perrault’s version, the Sleeping Beauty is for the first time officially a princess, not a lord’s daughter or noblewoman. Her parents had trouble conceiving, and so were delighted with her birth, and they held a huge party, inviting all the fairies they could find, which was seven.

After the ceremonies of the christening were over, all the company returned to the King’s palace, where was prepared a great feast for the Fairies. There was placed before every one of them a magnificent cover with a case of massive gold, wherein were a spoon, knife and fork, all of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. But as they were all sitting down at table, they saw come into the hall a very old Fairy whom they had not invited, because it was above fifty years since she had been out of a certain tower, and she was believed to be either dead or enchanted. The King ordered her a cover, but could not furnish her with a case of gold as the others, because they had seven only made for the seven Fairies

That detail about the golden cutlery is SO court of the Sun King, I can’t stand it. Anyway, the eighth fairy is angry, and after six fairies give their blessings, she pronounces that “the Princess should have her hand pierced with a spindle, and die of the wound.”

At the very instant the young fairy came out from behind the hangings by Harry Clarke

“At the very instant the young fairy came out from behind the hangings” by Harry Clarke

The last, youngest fairy, manages to ameliorate the curse: “The Princess shall indeed pierce her hand with a spindle; but instead of dying, she shall only fall into a profound sleep, which shall last a hundred years; at the expiration of which a king’s son shall come and awake her.”

Of course, the princess hits sixteen, pricks her finger on a spindle, and falls asleep. The good fairy turns up and makes sure everyone else in the palace falls asleep – except the king and queen, who presumably have ruling to do, and can… do it without their staff? I don’t think that’s very practical, good fairy, have you never watched The West Wing? The king and queen leave, and then: “in a quarter of an hour’s time, there grew up, all round about the park, such a vast number of trees, great and small, bushes and brambles, twining one within another, that neither man nor beast could pass thro’; so that nothing could be seen but the very top of the towers of the palace; and that too, not unless it was a good way off.”

A hundred years later, a prince turns up, and the thorns give way. He walks through to find the Sleeping Beauty and falls on his knees before her in admiration (respectful of boundaries! Good lad!) and she wakes up. She’d dreamed of him, so she’s more than ready to fall in love with him, and as they chat about how I love you, no, I love you MORE, the rest of the palace wakes up.

There’s this little detail, which I love: “The Prince helped the Princess to rise, she was entirely dressed, and very magnificently, but his Royal Highness took care not to tell her that she was dressed like his great grand-mother, and had a point-band peeping over a high collar; she looked not a bit the less beautiful and charming for all that.”

She’s a woman out of time. Fashions have changed!

They have a nice meal, they get married in the castle chapel, and then they go to bed where “they had but little sleep”. IF YOU KNOW WHAT CHARLES PERRAULT MEANS.

The prince doesn’t tell his royal parents about his new wife – Perrault doesn’t explain why, but I think it’s assumed, from his point of view, that royal scions can’t just go around marrying people at will, and especially not without their parents’ approval. You’ve got to wed with an eye towards politics, son! Instead, he keeps his princess a secret for TWO YEARS, during which they have a daughter and a son, named Aurora and Day. When the King dies, the prince declares his secret, and brings his wife to the palace to be acknowledged at last.

I will have it so replied the queen and will eat her with a sauce robert harry clarke

“‘I will have it so,’ replied the queen, ‘and will eat her with a sauce Robert’,” by Harry Clarke

His mother, who is part-Ogre, is unhappy about this whole business. When the new King goes off to make war on his neighbor, he makes his mother the Regent (why not his wife? You’re not making friends here, dude), and she promptly decides that eating her grandchildren would be an awesome idea. As in Basile’s tale, the cook manages to hide the children and serve up animals in their place. When the Queen Mother requests a dish made out of her daughter-in-law, he pulls the same trick with a young hind, and mother and children hide in the cellars, until, one day, the Queen Mother hears the kids talking and is furious.

She gets all the hideous poisonous creatures she can find thrown into a large tub, and intends to throw in the young queen, the children, and the cook and his wife, until, dum dum DUM, the young King comes home and discovers all! The Queen Mother throws herself into the tub of poisonous things and so dies, and the story ends like this: “The King could not but be very sorry, for she was his mother; but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife, and his pretty children.”

You can see how this story was gradually getting codified into what we recognise today as the “real” Sleeping Beauty story – a king’s daughter, fairies, a curse, a spindle, a sleep that will last a hundred years, the princess sleeping with all her faithful retainers about her, a thicket of thorns, a king’s son to break the curse (not with a kiss, yet) and, most importantly, the royal wedding! BEFORE the sexy times, please, we are trying to be good Catholics here.

The “real” Sleeping Beauty story in Western consciousness is the Grimm version as filtered through Disney – about which more next month. This is how the Grimm version ends:

And then the prince and Briar Rose were married, and the wedding feast was given; and they lived happily together all their lives long

But Perrault’s story, like Basile’s and Brynhildr’s, continue well after the Sleeping Beauty wakes. She has hardships to face and overcome, and that really appeals to me.

I mean, obviously – in When We Wake I shoot my heroine dead in the first chapter (I swear, that is not a spoiler; it’s on the back cover copy.) I needed Tegan to do stuff after she is woken from a century-long death “sleep”, or it would be a very short novel and my editors would be cross.

But there’s a problem with the Basile and Perrault stories (and not just the obvious rapist hero thing). Talia and Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty are more done unto than people who do things – they don’t have a lot of agency in their stories, which makes me sad. I like it when ladies get to do stuff. And a protagonist in a sci-fi adventure novel obviously has to do things, or the book should be about someone else!

Which brings us back to my favorite, Brynhildr.

brunhilde by arthur rackham

“Brunhilde,” by Arthur Rackham

Brynhildr is done unto. She’s tricked and betrayed by people she ought to be able to trust. She’s placed in an untenable position from which she sees no escape but death – and as you’ll see in When We Wake, Tegan is also faced with that moment of despair. But Brynhildr does stuff too. Grim, bloody stuff, but she gets to make her own choices and deal with the consequences as best she can. Some of her choices are pretty ugly, but that’s real to me; that’s what people do, especially people who are pushed to their limits.

So Tegan wakes up, and her story, which she had thought ended forever, has only just begun. What choices will she make? What limits of will and endurance will she discover? Will there be kissing after her death-slumber?

The answers to the first two questions remain to be seen.

The answer to the last one is, “Yes”.

When We Wake cover final

When We Wake will be available from Little, Brown and Allen and Unwin in March/February 2013. Pre-order through, Barnes and Noble, or IndieBound.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.
  • hope

    Wonderful blog post, thank you!  Fairy tales are endlessly fascinating and horrifying to me. Marina Warner and Ellen Datlow scarred/hypnotized me when I was young. :)  And why the hey should a spindle be sharp? It just doesn’t seem practical.  

  • Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling would have SCARRED me, but Tanith Lee got to me first. Damn, that lady does some scary rewrites.

  • This is such a great post!! I have loved as a child nitpicking through all the fairy tales and seeing similar trends in multiple cultures and storylines, even though plenty of them gave me nightmares when I came to understand what they were truly about. Are you familar with Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber? She had some pretty interesting perspectives on the way women were portrayed in fairy tales specifically, and some of the examples you have mentioned are also in that tier as well. Brunhildr and Morgan le Fay are my two most favorite women in mythology.

  • Pingback: A Trail of Breadcrumbs | Beyond the Dreamline()

  •  Angela Carter was a freaking genius, and the way she tears at established notions of fairy tale women in that collection was incredible.

    Which is to say, YES, and I totally get it!

    And Morgan le Fay, that brilliant, twisted woman, so fantastic.

  • Pingback: Sleeping Beauties: Transformation and Codification | Karen Healey()

  • Pingback: Sleeping Beauties: Disneyfication | Karen Healey()

  • Pingback: Sleeping Beauties: Let’s Talk About The Future | Karen Healey()