Myths of Female Malevolence from the Dark Ages to Disney’s Maleficent 2014. Part 2
The Sleeping Beauty and the Bad Fairy
The cycle of fairy tales (Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) that pin a picture of female hatred and cruelty onto the older woman, whether mother, wife or hag, began with Apuleius (born AD124). His story in Latin, Cupid and Psyche opens with the Goddess Venus ordering her son Psyche to destroy her rival in beauty.
“Venus was the first – and maybe the worst – of tyrant mothers-in-law, and she had Psyche beaten for daring to sleep with her son” (1530)
Over the course of centuries, oral story tellers kept this original tale alive, elaborating and turning part of it into different stories.
In 1528 Sleeping Beauty first emerged in its present recognisable form. During the 16th and 17th centuries the men publishing this story didn’t mince words about its terrifying evil –doers, both male and female.In one of its earliest versions written by Italian Giambattista Basile, and 60 years later in France’s Charles Perrault’s 1697 story, The Sleeping Beauty in theWood features adultery, rape and bigamy on the part of the king involved. The king’s cannibal mother (or wife) is depicted as an ugly infertile ogress who likes eating the fresh meat of little children. Briar Rose is the name of the vulnerable, innocent heroine who bears twins named Aurora and Day. The king ineffectually hides his younger family from the ogress, and they narrowly escape a horrible death at the hands of the jealous older woman (whose social and financial position is threatened by the beautiful newcomer).
When the Grimm brothers published Little Briar Rose in the 19th century, they edited out the grisly ending of the original Sleeping Beauty, ending with an unmarried prince’s kiss - a satisfying Victorian conclusion for children who were becoming more and more the target of these older folk tales.
I suspect that because we moderns have become accustomed to categorising fairy tales as children’s stories, we have forgotten how to read their underlying symbolism. So here is a digression about some of the symbolism in the Grimm’s story:
Little Briar Rose features 13 fairies, one of whom is not invited to the baby girl’s Christening feast. The 13 fairies represent the 13 lunar months of the ancient pagan calendar and the 13th month is the dark, winter solstice that signals death and regeneration. The changeover to the 12 month solar calendar meant the 13th month was eliminated and forgotten. In this story, the lunar ’spirit’ is insulted and angry.
We ignore the death hag at our peril for she is immanent in life. She returns as the old lady at her spinning wheel (one of the Fates) ensuring Briar Rose is pricked by her spindle, despite the efforts of her loving parents. It causes a little blood – symbolising the girl’s onset of puberty which of course is part of the natural aging process. This is overseen by the older woman who knows from experience the mysteries of the female body and its sexuality .The old lady is also teaching the younger girl the art of spinning – “woman’s work” of the time.
The 13th fairy ‘curses” the girl to her fate – no female can escape her body’s metamorphosis from girl to woman.
However menstruation happens when girls are still too young for sexual awakening and having a baby. Thus an incubation – a ”sleep” - is in order, from which in due time she shall be awoken by the right man. The ability to make a baby is a huge wake-up of both body and soul. In Perrault’s story the sleeping girl is not kissed by the man – she is already awake; awaiting him because he’s arrived in the right place at the right time.
“It is you my Prince. You have tarried long” she says to him. The sleep for 100 years signifies a whole cycle that has to occur before she is ready.
Not just young girls, but all of us experience a time in our lives when we need solitude and stillness, a slow ripening into self-hood, before we are quite ready for the next metamorphosis. It comes about organically and from the inside out. A prince doesn’t have to conquer and rescue us – the natural processes will ensure the right thing/opportunity/person will turn up when we are good and ready. The thorn hedge that grows up around the sleeping world of our castle is a necessary protection we need to support our innocence and vulnerability.
Maleficent - Mark 1, 1959
The 13th fairy is Fate and sometimes that is malign and cruel like Death can be. In 1959 Walt Disney named this fairy Maleficent. Spiritual heir to the Grimms, Disney first tapped into fairy tales for the movies and masses with his awesome Snow White 1937. The rest is history. He has managed to deeply implant female malevolence into the imagination of children and their elders world-wide, with his marvellous animated portrayals of bad older women who endanger and destabilise Disney’s idea of the “natural” order – ie the patriarchy. His evil queen/witch is ‘unnatural” in her jealousy and unmotherly rage.
In an inspired re-write of the 19th century story, Disney positioned Maleficent at the centre of his re-relling of Sleeping Beauty. He changed the focus into a duel between the witch (who turns herself into a dragon) and the young hero, for possession of the heroine.
In 1959 the Cold War and a sexist gender-power imbalance were both deeply entrenched in American consciousness. The movie’s conflict is pitted between Good and Evil. America felt it needed saviour male heroes to fight victorious against the wickedness of the external ‘Other’. In Sleeping Beauty evil takes monstrous female form, preying upon the helpless young, desirable heroine (ignorance equals ‘Good’). Her survival depends upon a royal hero rescuing her.
There are other older women in this movie, as in the recent Maleficent. The 3 fairies present at the Christening are bumbling silly girl/women.
They become mother-substitutes for Aurora (Briar Rose no longer, she has taken on the name of her baby in the older story). Unlike the full-size Maleficent, these fairies are small in stature, so are deemed incapable of bringing up a child. They shape-shift into adults, but their stupidity makes them just as incapable of motherhood.
In both the 1959 and 2014 movies, Sleeping Beauty serves a humble domestic apprenticeship in the woods, whilst really raising herself.
Snow White also does a domesticity stint in the forest with small guardians – the more famous 7 male dwarves. But although both children’s’ minders are small, the dwarves are savvy to the Queen’s power and give solid advice and strategies to their darling Snow White. Aurora’s brainless female stewards clearly know nothing of sex and power that their sister fairy Maleficent so overtly symbolizes. Disney’s subtext is deafening – “don’t listen to your stay-at-home mothers girls; they may be good hearted dears, but are completely unable to protect you from the real and dangerous forces at work in the outside world.”
Before Women’s Liberation, the feminine ideal was that motionless sleeping princess waiting until the prince comes along to stimulate and arouse her. Snow White in her glass coffin and Sleeping Beauty in her chamber, are powerless and inert.The prince, dressed in red cloak and feather, armed with the sword of Truth and his shield of Virtue, fights Maleficent turned dragon and of course wins the victor’s princess-prize. (The three ridiculous mother/fairies who were unable to protect their foster-daughter, were easily able to free their ‘son” and arm him with Truth and Virtue – (good mothers always know how to empower their sons).
Thank goodness we may think, for a makeover - even if it’s taken until 2014.