Sleeping Beauties: Transformation and Codification

It’s been another month, Internets! And that means it’s time for another Sleeping Beauty essay, looking at the history of the story, and the influence that it’s had on my forthcoming young adult novel, When We Wake.

In my first essay, I looked at the European genesis of what we now call the Sleeping Beauty story – Brynhildr, Talia, and the princess of Perrault’s tale. Those were the ur-Sleeping Beauties, and they were undeniably influential, but not quite the version we know today.

This month, we’re hitting the Big Three, the versions that codified the Sleeping Beauty story into the one that, by our time, gets retold over and over, as straight up retellings in picture books, as trope-twisted feminist spec-fic novels, as gender bent cartoons and comics, and you know, my book.

When We Wake cover final

A Sleeping Beauty story! With cryogenics!

This essay is enormous, so it’s coming in two parts. Hold onto to your applicable accessories.

Let’s begin!

Little Briar Rose – The Brothers Grimm, 1812.

Oh, those Grimm boys. Look, I don’t want to be too down on Wilhelm and Jacob, because they made a massive contribution to fairy tale lore. They collected and preserved over a hundred stories that might have been lost for good.

Jacob and Wilhelm

I do go for the scholarly type.

They also saw fairy tales as valuable – not just as entertainment or a little light didacticism with a good moral before bedtime. To them, these folk tales were a reflection of German oral tradition, and in capturing them on paper, in the naturalistic style of the storytellers from whom they collected them, they were preserving an important part of German tradition. This was a consciously political act; they were deliberately trying to conceive of an united creative German literature.

Except they fully appropriated and modified a lot of stories in the process, claiming them as wholly German stories when they really weren’t.

1812 Heineman map

Some of these countries don’t exist anymore. Some of them hadn’t existed two decades earlier.

It’s hard for an island girl like me to really grasp this on a fundamental level, but Europe is, like, fluid! Borders shift! People near borders often have way more in common with the people in the next town than they do the people across the other side of the country, near another border, like a common language, and a common landscape – and common stories. And then their stories might shift to the next town along, and so on, and so on – and then the Grimms decided they were German. BAM. Red Riding Hood is a German story. It’s written down, it must be true!

So that frustrates me. And the other thing is that most of the actual storytellers were women. There’s a perception they were all old peasant grandmothers, but that’s not true – most of them were bourgeois women, including Dortchen Wild, who later became Wilhelm’s wife. Rather than roaming the countryside and visiting cottages, the Brothers Grimm sat at home and had stories told to them, largely by other dudes interested in folklore, or educated ladies (go ladies!). But these educated women heard many of the stories from their nursemaids and servants – poor women were the ultimate source for a lot of the tales.

The Grimms did give these women some credit (“This story is from an old peasant woman named Anna!”) but the profits (such as they were – this really wasn’t a moneymaker for the brothers until much later), went to the boys. I guess Dortchen profited from her husband getting wealthier? However, she also had to flee for her life when he took a dangerous political stand against the new German ruler so, uh, basically, ladies, not doing so well out of the Grimms.

And that’s not even mentioning all the name-brand creditability. Does Anna the peasant get a fantasy procedural crime show on NBC named after her? NO she does NOT!

Grimm promo image

Oh, murder TV. So tough on the ladies.

Moreover, Children’s and Household Tales was revised a bunch of times, and in the process it was sanitized, overtly Christianised, and written with a definite bias towards aristocrats and wealthy people. Fewer resourceful peasants, for example, and more bumbling ones.

Earlier versions were much spicier, but condemned for being too salacious and “not suitable for children”. The Grimm brothers hadn’t collected the stories for children, but since the children of wealthy people seemed to be the biggest market to tap, Wilhelm cleaned up later editions to be more appealing to children – or, as Jack Zipes says, more appealing to “adults who who wanted the tales censored for children”.*

What does that mean in terms of the Sleeping Beauty story? Well, for one thing, it was claimed as a German tale instead of a French one. I mean, there was the Brynhildr Germanic influence so it’s not that wild an idea, but Perrault’s fingers were definitely all up in that pie. For another, there’s no ogre mother-in-law (or first wife to the prince). No cannibals wanting to eat children! That’s inappropriate! Instead, that second part of the tale was relegated to a fragment, a not-quite-complete story in itself not attached to the first section.

But boy, did those Grimm boys know how to create an archetype.

Sleeping Beauty illustration

Here’s what happens in their version:

– The King and Queen want a child, and when they have one are so happy they have a huge party.
– They invite all the fairies in the land except one.
– The fairies bless the child with various gifts.
– The left-out fairy turns up and curses the child – when she turns 15 she will prick her finger on a spindle and die.
– The last good fairy modifies the curse – it will only be a deep sleep of a hundred years.
– The King orders every spindle in the land burnt anyway, just in case he can prevent the curse.
– The princess grows up beautiful and so on.
– On her fifteenth birthday she goes wandering around the palace, and climbs to the top of an old tower. There she goes in and finds an old woman with a spindle. She reaches out to try, pricks her finger, and falls asleep.


– Everyone else in the palace falls asleep and a deadly hedge of thorns grows around the palace. Many princes try to break the spell, but are caught in the thorns and die.
– A hundred years later a prince turns up, and the thorn hedge gives way. He sees everyone asleep, but he finds Briar Rose and , overcome with her beauty (Dude! Boundaries!) he kisses her. She wakes up and “looked at him quite sweetly”, as well you might if there was an armed stranger hovering over you with a dopey look on his face.
– “And then the marriage of the King’s son with Briar Rose was celebrated with all splendour and they lived contented to the end of their days.”

BOOM. That’s the Sleeping Beauty story right there. That’s an ideal archetype and a lesson in plot point planning all in one. I mean, look at it: Good thing (child!) – Bad thing (wicked fairy curse!) – Good thing (good fairy helps out) – Good thing (princess grows up gifted) – BAD THING (the curse takes place!) – BAD THING (all those dead princes) – GOOD THING (the princess is woken and all ends in a happy ever after). If I could plot that perfectly I would spend way less time grinding my teeth at pacing issues.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this story is so attractive to people who wanted to modify or adapt it for other media – including, in the late 1800s, some gentlemen who wanted to put on a little dance show.

Sleeping Beauty Ballet

If this is like the dance movies I’ve seen, one of these people taught the other one to bring in the real flavour of the streets.

Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky, Petipa, Vsevolozhsky, 1890

Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was approached by the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky. His mission was turn the Grimms’ Little Briar Rose into a ballet score, with Imperial Balletmaster Marius Petipa doing the choreography. (Actually, the initial approach was for the story of Undine, which would have been totally freaking cool, but never mind.)

This sounds great and all, but Tchaikovsky’s previous (and first) ballet was some ridiculous frothy piece called Swan Lake, and it hadn’t been that popular among the intelligensi. In fact, it was deemed a critical failure.

It seriously was.


Poor Tchaikovsky. He wrote a metric buttload of stuff that’s considered classical canon today (The Nutcracker! The 1812 Overture!) but during his lifetime he usually rated a resounding “Enh,” from the critics, especially those of his native land.

Of course, what he was trying to write wasn’t the classical music of the time – it was the popular music of the time, or at least for the people in that time who could afford trips to the opera, concert hall, and ballet. And while his compositions were reasonably entertaining for the general public, the critical success just wasn’t there.

Tchaikovsky was given a scenario by Vsevolozhsky, who had approached the plot via the Grimm version, but had also hit up Perrault, French being way more fashionable in late 19th century Russia than German. While writing the scenario, Vsevolozhsky (maybe with Petipa, who was very specific about what he wanted from the music) had a really brilliant idea to make more of the evil and good fairies.

Why should they just show up, make curses/blessings, and disappear?

No, in the ballet, Carabosse, the evil fairy, is the one who entices the Princess Aurora to prick her finger by disguising herself as a harmless stranger. And the (good) Lilac Fairy turns up to extend the spell to the other members of the court. She then sort of hangs around the woods until lonely prince Florimund appears, where she shows him a picture of the sleeping princess, leads him to the hidden castle and tells him how to break the curse.


(Ballet is awesome, you guys. Petipa’s incredible choreography is full of exciting leaps and pirouettes.)

Carabosse tries to stop Florimund, and a battle ensues. ALSO IN DANCE. Internets, you know I love a good dance off!

Brint it on 4 cheer off

This is actually a cheer-off, but I love those too

Of course, Florimund’s dance is MIGHTIER than hers, and he defeats Carabosse. He kisses the princess to wake her up. Then, instead of just ASSUMING she’ll be cool with this kissing stranger dude, he actually proposes, and seeks her family’s approval for the match.

I think Vsevolozhsky’s idea of doing more with the fairies was an excellent addition to the story. They added character and interest, spun out more of the plot, and made much more of the roles of the female characters. We don’t just have a passive princess here, however blessed she is – the fairies, good and bad, have active roles to play in the unwinding of the story.

But Vsevolozhsky also had another brainwave. Why not include lots of the other fairy tale characters that Perrault/the Grimms had used? And thus, while the first two acts of Sleeping Beauty are the story above, Act III is a whole bunch of people like Puss in Boots and Red Riding Hood turning up to join the wedding celebration. And because this is a ballet, they all have to do a special dance.

This is why the full Sleeping Beauty, with intervals, is over four hours long, and also why it’s frequently cut down, and ALSO why no one’s super into the last act except maybe the dancers who get to have a solo or pas de deux.


Everybody look at us!

But oh boy, that music. It’s really something.

The composition of Sleeping Beauty went relatively smoothly for a guy who had destroyed opera scores in a fit of rage because they just weren’t good enough. In 1890 the ballet premiered; all four hours of it. The Imperial Czar ordered the composer to his box, and Tchaikovsky went, expecting FAME and GLORY. The Czar told him the ballet was, quote, “Very nice.”

DUDE. That’s just one step up from, “Well… I really like the font on these programs.”


The original cast, looking super happy about this review.

Everyone else followed the Czar: Sleeping Beauty had a slightly better critical reception than Swan Lake had received, but it certainly wasn’t a praisefest for the composer.

However, that changed with time – Tchaikovsky was a bit of a Sleeping Beauty himself, popularity-wise. By 1903, Sleeping Beauty was the second most popular ballet in the repertory of the Imperial Ballet. By 1921, the ballet was gaining international recognition, and now, of course, it’s an acclaimed and integral part of the classical repertoire.

But alas, real people don’t get to sleep until they can wake into a world that’s ready to welcome them. While Vsevolozhsky and Petipa were both around to see the ballet’s critical stock rise, Tchaikovsky died in 1893, three years after the premiere. In his lifetime, he never received the rampant critical acclaim he so desired.

However, he left the music. That beautiful, beautiful music.

Let’s pretend it’s 1950s USA and we’re thinking about this Sleeping Beauty tale. What have we got here?

We’ve got a very popular Russian ballet of an also very popular German folk tale revision of a French fairy tale of an Italian fable of a Norse myth. We’ve got a basic plot that can spin out for up to four hours – or maybe 90 minutes or so. We’ve got an ensemble of characters that go beyond cardboard cutouts. And we’ve got some really amazing music.

And none of it was copyrighted.

Did somebody say well-loved family-friendly classic story? DID SOMEBODY SAY NO COPYRIGHT?


sleeping-beauty castle

And join me here for part two, tomorrow!

* Jack Zipes is an excellent Grimm scholar. I recommend The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World to anyone interested in more.

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.

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