“Sleeping Beauty” Through the Ages: A Comparison of Four Different Versions

 from ”Childhood’s Favorites & Fairy Stories”

Finding the earliest version of any given fairy tale is a great endeavor; as one searches, one can see how a narrative evolves. Before the Giambattista Basile collection of fairy tales was made into a single written volume Il Pentamerone, these stories followed an oral tradition by being passed on from grandmother to mother to children. What one may not know is that these oral versions of traditional fairy tales, and in some instances the earliest print version, are far from the clean-cut “good guy always wins” stories. The previous versions of these classic fairy tales included stories of murder, cannibalism, incest, rape, and various other despicable acts. It is shocking to see the difference between the modern and original versions of Sleeping Beauty.

Early collections of fairy tales often bare some semblance to the modern fairy tales, but it was not until 1634 that we find the first recorded version (Ashliman, 2006). Giambattista Basile wrote Il Pentamerone (Tale of Tales), which contained many tales such as “Cenerentola” (Cinderella), “Sun, Moon, and Talia” (Sleeping Beauty), “Petrosinella” (Rapunzel), and “Gagliuso” (Puss in Boots).  Their existence in this collection shows that the fairy tales did indeed exist in an oral form, which influenced Basile’s writing.  Basile’s Il Pentamerone is the earliest known written literary version of many of today’s classic fairy tales (Ashliman, 2006).

Shortly after Basile’s Il Pentamerone (1632), was written, Charles Perrault wrote and published the Tales of Mother Goose (1697) (Perrault, 1697). Followed by Grimm’s Fairy Tales written by the Grimm Brothers in 1812, and in 1902, Grimm’s Tales Made Gay, written by Guy W. Carryl; the story of “Sleeping Beauty” continues to this day (Ashliman, 2006).  There are many versions of “Sleeping Beauty” that bare a vague resemblance to the modern day version. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was written for adults originally as a warning tale but went through several editions as the Grimm Brother’s watered down the stories to make them more suitable for children.

Let us examine the first known written account of “Sleeping Beauty,” called “Sun, Moon, and Talia” written by Giambattista Basile in 1632 (Basile, 1632). In this version, wise men warned the great King that his daughter, Talia, was in grave danger – there was poison in the palace’s flax (a plant used for food and is a fiber crop that was cultivated for making linen); a poison that would put Talia into a deep sleep. The king ordered a ban on flax, but as expected, Talia still ran across a splinter while spinning flax. In great despair, the King placed her sleeping body on a velvet cloth in the forest and left her.

Some time later, a wealthy nobleman (in some versions it was a distant cousin) was hunting in the woods when he came across the abandoned princess. Far from planting a kiss, the nobleman instead raped her sleeping body, from which resulted in pregnancy.  Nine months later, Talia gave birth to twins, named Sun and Moon, the forest fairies took care of twins while Talia continued her slumber. One day, while placing the babies next to Talia’s breasts, the boy, named Sun, accidentally mistook her thumb for a nipple and sucked out the poisoned flax splinter and thus awakened Talia from her deep sleep.

Months later, the nobleman decided to return to the woods to once again have sex with Talia’s body, but he got a surprise – he found her awake. The lord confessed what he had done to Talia in her sleep. Then, in some versions, they had sex in a nearby barn (who wouldn’t want to have sex after a 100-year slumber?), and then the nobleman returned home to his wife.

The nobleman’s wife found out about the sexual encounter and ordered the children be cooked alive. The chef prepared the fiendish dish and served it to the wealthy nobleman. As he finished his meal, his wife boldly announced, “You are eating what is your own!” The cook, instead of killing and cooking the twins, had substituted a goat instead. Talia, the twins, and her rapist – new love interest – lived happily ever after. Basile gives a moral at the end, “He who has luck may go to bed, And bliss will rain upon his head” (Basile, num. 29), meaning that if you go to sleep with a clear conscience, then blessings will come.

Charles Perrault wrote the second version about 63 years later in 1697, known as, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods” (Perrault, 1697). This version differs in many ways compared to the Basile’s and is more literary in nature. Also, Perrault accentuates aspects of society from his time and makes fun of the aristocratic society.  Perrault’s version is more literary in the way it pays attention to detailed descriptions. For example, he describes the fairy’s place sitting at the celebration, “and before each fairy’s place was a solid golden casket containing a knife, fork and spoon of pure gold inlaid with diamonds and rubies” (Carter, 1967). He also pays attention to detail such as how they tried to revive the princess and how she looked while asleep.

Perrault’s version is inconsistent with oral tradition.  For instance, the story continues after the princess is awakened. In this version, the prince marries the princess, but the prince does not tell his parents about it. The prince tells his parents that he is going hunting, but he sneaks away and visits the princess – does this sound familiar? This goes on for two years, and they also have two children called Dawn and Day (similar to Sun and Moon). Eventually, the prince’s father dies, and he becomes king; he takes the princess and the children to meet his mother – who is of ogress descendent. The king goes to war and his mother orders the majordomo (the head cook) to cook her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law. The ogress thinks she has eaten them, but the majordomo tricks her.  She is infuriated and orders that her son’s family be killed by cooking them in a vat while she watches.  Just as this is about to happen, the king comes back and saves the day; the Queen-mother, filled with shame, jumps into the vat instead.  Another way in which Perrault broke a fairy tale convention is how he addressed time when he wrote about the princess’s clothes, “the prince was careful not to tell her that her dress, with its high starched ruff, would have been fashionable in his grandmother’s day” (Carter, 1967).  This is part of Perrault’s writing style.

Perrault criticizes society.  For example, “they traveled all over the world taking the waters, they made vows and pilgrimages, but all to no avail” (Carter, 1967). Here the reader sees the extent to what the King and Queen go to have a child, that an average couple probably could not do, which indicates the privileges of the aristocracy in these times. Another example of society is when a good fairy casts a sleep spell on everyone, “governesses, ladies-in-waiting, chambermaids, gentlemen, officers, stewards, cooks, scullions, errand boys, guards, porters, pages and footmen” (Carter, 1967). This suggests that Perrault was making fun of the aristocracy. Furthermore, at the end of Perrault’s version, he gives a moral to the poem. It is lengthy, but in a nutshell, it states that if you want a wealthy husband, you need to sleep for a 100 years and be raped by that man. This reiterates the issues with gender dynamics.

The third version was written about 115 years after Perrault’s version. It is known as “Little Brier-Rose,” written by the Grimm Brothers in 1812. This version compared to the others has a much different literary style. First, this adaptation seems to be faster paced; it jumps from event to event very quickly and does not give the reader time to get to know the characters. It is approximately three pages, compared to Perrault seven pages. The Grimm Brother’s use the same kind of archetypes in all their tales; it is clearly their literary style.  The reader will commonly see the utilization of a wicked stepmother, evil witches, and a hero or heroine saving the day. An interesting fact is how the Brother’s depict the peasant world they grew up in and their view of nobility. Another element of their writing style is how their tales always include magic, communication between animals and humans: “Please, do not look so sad. If you wish for a child your wish will soon be granted – you are to have a baby girl of your own” (Mathias, 1986). One other example is that in this version, it was a fish speaking to the Queen – not a frog. It seems to teach about moral values and teachings of social right and wrong of this time period.

Some main differences in this version compared to other versions are that a fish and not a frog foretells the birth of a baby girl. There are also thirteen fairies, and the thirteenth fairy is not invited, because there are only twelve sets of cutlery and crockery, unlike the other versions where she is not invited as they think she is dead or because she is evil. In this version, the wall of thick thorns parts for the prince to enter, when so many have failed and died from the poisonous thorns. Another significant difference is that the prince has to climb a tower and kiss the princess to wake her. Overall, the Grimm Brother’s version is a great deal shorter and includes a quick tale to demonstrate the moral at the end of it. This version doesn’t allow the reader to get to know any of the characters, so the reader is not as engaged as with Basile and Perrault.

The final version was written about 90 years later in 1902 by Guy Wetmore Carryl called “How a Beauty was Waked and Her Suitor was Suited” (Carryl, 1912). This version by far is the closest to the modern versions of “Sleeping Beauty.” Unlike Basile or Perrault’s version, which was lengthy, this one short and a quick read – it is written as a short poem. This shift to poetry is when fairy tales were becoming more geared to younger children. Children’s poetry allows a story to be told in a simpler format, more upbeat, and easier to memorize or relate too. Carryl’s version is upbeat and the prince, known as Prince Charming, was penniless, but “down to earth” type of a guy. He constantly was putting himself into debt, and no one ever asked for payment. He was a smooth talker and wild in his ways, but everyone loved him. He came upon the princess in an abandoned church in Philadelphia; all he did was kiss her, spoke a word, and she awakened. The story continued, and the princess asked if he (the prince) wanted to marry her. Prince Charming replies with, “Are you rich?” The princess said yes and they got married.

Just like Basile and Perrault, Carryl ended with a simple moral, “When affairs go ill, the sleeping partner foots the bill” (Carryl, 1902), this means that no matter what, the second person in a relationship pays for the bill.

Details that differ from the Perrault and Grimm versions are that the Perrault’s version there is no foretelling of the birth by a frog or a fish or any type of creature as there is in the Grimm version. In the Perrault’s version, the princess awakes when the prince only kneels down beside her, which tells us that the prince does nothing to end the spell. Also, in this version the evil fairy does not give an age when Talia (Sleeping Beauty) will be pricked, nor is she there when the spindle pierced her; whereas, in Grimm’s version the evil fairy foretells it will happen at the age of fifteen. Perrault’s version there are only eight fairies, whereas, Grimm’s there are thirteen fairies.

In Grimm’s version, the evil fairy was not invited because there was not enough cutlery and crockery, but in Perrault’s she was not invited, as no one knew she was still alive. Perrault also presents a moral at the end of his story in the form of a poem.

The differences in Perrault’s version do not change the traditional plot of the story. Perrault is just more elaborate by adding mention of things in society at that time and making it more of a literary tale. Perrault’s only significant difference was to insert a second part of the story that is not evident in any of the other versions of Sleeping Beauty. The significance of all the different versions is that no matter what or how a narrative is given – written, oral, visual – it amusing to see that the overall theme of “Sleeping Beauty” has not changed. That no matter what, the prince and princess live happily ever after.

The reason why these changes exist is to have a meaningful societal impact, starting with the children. Storytelling, allows an author to express or convey his/her thoughts. Storytelling, whether in poetry or fiction, allows one to be immersed in a fantasy. It allows a reader to step from this world into a fictional world for a brief moment. For many children, poetry is easier to learn and memorize; it allows them to be part of a story. Children are like sponges, and they will reenact what their imagination sees.  It allows them to have a foundation and to express what they what to be when they grow up. Anthropomorphic, means giving an inanimate object human characteristics; this allows authors to use animals as people so it could add emotional distance for the reader when the story message is powerful or painful.

With the various versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” a reader or literature buff will find lots of enjoyment in each version. Each version represents the time and the culture in which it was written. It allows a reader to travel through these cultures and see changes which have happened over time.

Works Cited

Ashliman, D. (2006). Grimm Brothers’. University of Pittsburgh.

Basile, G. (1632). Sun, Moon, and Talia. Il Pentamerone. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg database.

Carryl, G. (1902). How a beauty was waked and her suitor was suited. Grimm Tales Made Gay. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg database.

Carter, A. (1967). The sleeping beauty in the woods. (num. 29). Perrault’s Fairy Tales. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Grimm, J. Grimm, W. (1812). Little brier-rose. Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Retrieved from Project Gutenberg database.

Mathias, R. (1986).  Little brier-rose. Tales from the Brothers Grimm. England: Hamlyn Publishing.

Perrault, C. (1697). The sleeping beauty in the woods. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg database.

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