Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite fairy tales, and I’ve always felt kind of bad about that. It’s become a kind of poster child for female passivity in fairy tales: girl falls asleep for a hundred years, girl is woken only when her prince saves her, girl gets married. The Disney movie has the same stigma on it, with its princess having the least amount of screen time of any other princess. And even recognizing this, even knowing how much more disturbing earlier versions of the story are (the princess only wakes when the two children she bore while still asleep suckle from her), there’s something about this fairy tale that has always captivated me. The sinister spinning wheel, the wicked fairy’s curse, the sleeping castle surrounded by thorns–with such striking images, it’s no wonder Sleeping Beauty is one of the most visually beautiful Disney movies.
Something changed for me, though, when I read Kate Bernheimer’s Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. One of the essays collected in the book, “The Wilderness Within” by Ursula K. Le Guin, contained an excerpt that made me rethink the agency of the titular heroine and helped me understand my own connection to the tale. It’s a long quote, but it’s beautifully written. Describing the castle, frozen with enchanted slumber:
“It is the secret garden; it is Eden; it is the dream of utter, sunlit safety; it is the changeless kingdom.
Childhood, yes. Celibacy, virginity, yes. A glimpse of adolescence; a place hidden in the heart and mind of a girl of twelve or fifteen. There she is alone, all by herself, content, and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don’t wake me. Don’t know me. Let me be….
At the same time she is probably shouting out of the windows of other corners of her being, Here I am, do come, oh do hurry up and come! And she lets down her hair, and the prince comes thundering up, and they get married, and the world goes on. Which it wouldn’t do if she stayed in the hidden corner and renounced love marriage childbearing motherhood and all that.
But at least she had a little while by herself, in the house that was hers, the garden of silence. Too many Beauties never even know there is such a place.“
It’s not new to look at Sleeping Beauty’s (or Briar Rose’s or Aurora’s, depending on the version) lengthy sleep as a stand-in for the onset of adolescence. She finds the spinning wheel, an instrument of work, with an older woman, but she isn’t ready to take on that woman’s work, yet (or the phallic implications of it, if you want to go there), and so she must wait until a masculine figure awakens her with a kiss. This gives us the passive princess without any agency.
But the question in the back of my mind is, what does she want? Does she want to sleep or to wake? I’ve always loved the scene in the Disney film when Aurora, hypnotized by the wicked Maleficent, pricks her finger on the spindle. The movie goes even further in giving us a girl who isn’t ready for adulthood, yet. Aurora isn’t happy to hear that she’s a princess, or that her entire life has been a lie, or that she has to marry a prince she thinks she doesn’t know. Before she pricks her finger, she hesitates, her hand outstretched, but then at Maleficent’s urging, she finally touches the spindle. I’ve always preferred to think that she did it on purpose, not just because she was under a spell. I like to see it as an act of rebellion, a refusal to go from Briar Rose to Aurora quite yet.
The original tale doesn’t have the same Aurora/Briar Rose divide, but I still want to cling to this idea that Briar Rose is taking control of her own adolescence. She isn’t ready to become a woman, yet, and so she postpones it for a hundred years, wrapping herself in thorns to protect her. As if that weren’t enough, she forces everyone else to wait with her. She doesn’t wake to find her immediate surroundings progressing without her; instead, her enchantment spreads to the whole castle, insisting that her world wait for her. She doesn’t get left behind. Time stops for her, something it wouldn’t do if she hadn’t touched the spindle. She is given the opportunity to cling a little bit longer to innocence and youth, to make the world wait until she is ready, and she takes it.
I’m still a child at heart, so there is something very appealing to me about defining the terms of one’s own adolescence. Time rushes on regardless of whether or not I’m ready, and I can’t deny some envy at the thought of being able to make time stop for me, to make the whole world wait until I’m ready to wake up. I’ve always been drawn to stories about the conflict between wanting to grow up and wanting to stay a child. The push and pull of wanting to be ready for more and yet wanting to stay somewhere safe for just a little bit longer. I surround myself with thorns, but I’m always hoping to tear through them. It’s a contradiction that demands a pause, a guilt-free break from the relentlessness of time and the bustle of the world, a neutral space where movement in either direction is not required. Perhaps that’s the explanation for why I’ve loved this story for so long. Maybe it’s not about passivity, but about finding a place of momentary peace, without the pressure of growing up on someone else’s time.
Life doesn’t work that way, of course. There are no time-outs, and the world keeps moving even while we sleep. Sometimes we’re left behind, and sometimes we have to wake sooner than we’d like. But that’s what fairy tales and fantasies are for, I suppose: to offer us a glimpse of something impossible, something we may not even have known we wanted. They help us confront hidden fears and desires, and sometimes they even try to assure us that in the end, everything will turn out all right. By revisiting “Sleeping Beauty” and what it means to me, I have a better understanding of myself and of what I want, of what spells I’m still under. The first step to breaking a spell, after all, is knowing what it is.