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Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty ("La Belle aux bois dormant") is a fairy tale classic, the first in the set published in 1697 by Charles Perrault, Contes de ma Mère l'Oye ("Mother Goose Tales"). Giambattista Basile had earlier published the tale in the Pentamerone in 1634. Professor J. R. R. Tolkien noted that Perrault's cultural presence is so pervasive that, when asked to name a fairy tale, most people will cite one of the eight stories in Perrault's collection. Since Tolkien's generation, however, the most familiar Sleeping Beauty has become the Walt Disney animated film (1959), which draws as much from the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet (Saint Petersburg, 1890) as from Perrault. More than many fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty partakes of many deep European myths, both pagan and Christian.


Perrault's narrative

The basic elements of Perrault's narrative are in two parts.

Part one

At the christening of a long-wished-for princess, fairies invited as godmothers offered gifts of beauty, wit, grace, and musical talents. However, a wicked fairy who had been overlooked placed the princess under an enchantment as her gift, saying that, on reaching adulthood, she would prick her finger on a spindle and die.

A good fairy, though unable to reverse the spell, altered its effect so that the princess, instead of dying, would fall asleep for a hundred years, until awakened by the kiss of a prince's son.

The king forbade spinning on distaff or spindle, or the possession of one, upon pain of death, throughout the kingdom, but all in vain. When the princess was fifteen or sixteen she chanced to come upon an old woman in a tower of the castle, who was spinning. The Princess asked to try the unfamiliar task and the inevitable happened. The witch's curse was fulfilled. The goodfairy returned and put everyone in the castle to sleep:

Eventually, a prince arrived, and, hearing the story of the enchantment, braved the wood, which parted at his approach, and entered the castle. He kissed the princess, everyone in the castle woke to continue where they had left off... and, in modern versions, they all lived happily ever after.

Part two

Secretly wed by the reawakened Royal almoner, the Prince continued to visit the Princess, who bore him two children, L'Aurore and Le Jour, which he kept secret from the Queen his mother, who was of an Ogre lineage. Once he had acceded to the throne, he brought the Princess and the children to his capital, which he then left in the regency of the Queen Mother, while he went to make war on his neighbor the Emperor Contalabutte, ("Count of The Mount").

The Ogre Queen sent the Princess Queen and the children to a house secluded in the woods, and directed her cook there to prepare the boy for her dinner, with a sauce Robert. The humane cook substituted a lamb, which satisfied the Ogre Queen, who demanded the girl, but was satisfied with a kid prepared in the same excellent sauce. When the Ogre Queen demanded that he serve up the Princess Queen, she offered her throat to be slit, so that she might join the children she imagined were dead. There was a tearful secret reunion in the cook's little house, while the Ogre Queen was satisfied with a hind prepared with sauce Robert. Soon she discovered the trick and prepared a tub in the courtyard filled with vipers and other noxious creatures. The King returned in the nick of time and the Ogress, being discovered, threw herself into the pit she had prepared and was consumed, and everyone else lived happily ever after.

Sleeping Beauty opera

Composer Michele Carafa 's Belle au Bois Dormant, with the famous tenor Adolphe Nourrit —more famous for his late Rossini and early Meyerbeer roles—creating the role of the Prince Lindor, opened March 2, 1825, at the Théâtre de l'Opéra , Paris. ("Lindoro" was the name assumed by the amorous Count Almaviva in Rossini's Barber of Seville.)

Sleeping Beauty ballets

Before Tchaikovsky's version, several ballet productions were based on the "sleeping beauty" theme, amongst which one from Eugène Scribe: in the winter of 18281829, the French playwright furnished a four-act mimed scenario as a basis for Aumer's choreography of a four-act ballet-pantomime La Belle au bois dormant . Scribe wisely omitted the violence of the second part of Perrault's tale for the ballet, which was set by Hérold and first staged at the Académie Royale , Paris, April 27, 1829. Though Hérold popularized his piece with a piano Rondo brilliant based on themes from the music, he was not successful in getting the ballet staged again.

When Ivan Vsevolozhsky , the Director of the Imperial Theatres in Saint Petersburg, wrote to Tchaikovsky on May 25, 1888, suggesting a ballet based on Perrault's tale, he also cut the violent second half, climaxed the action with the Awakening Kiss, and followed with a conventional festive last act, a series of bravura variations.

Although Tchaikovsky was maybe not all that eager to compose a new ballet (remembering that the reception of his Swan Lake ballet music, staged eleven seasons earlier, had only been lukewarm), he set to work with Vsevolovsky's scenario. The ballet, with Tchaikovsky's music (his Opus 66) and choreography by Marius Petipa, was premiered in the Saint Petersburg Maryinsky Theatre on January 24, 1890.

Besides being Tchaikovsky's first major success in ballet composition, it set a new standard for what is now called "Classical Ballet", and remained one of the all time favourites in the whole of the ballet repertoire. Sleeping Beauty was the first ballet that impresario Sergei Diaghilev ever saw, he later recorded in his memoirs, and also the first that ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Galina Ulanova ever saw, and the ballet that introduced the Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev to European audiences. Diaghilev staged the ballet himself in 1921 in London with the Ballets Russes. Choreographer George Balanchine made his stage debut as a gilded Cupid sitting on a gilded cage, in the last act divertissements.

Mimed and danced versions of the ballet survived in the distinctly British genre of pantomime, with Carabosse, the evil fairy, a famous travesti role.

Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

The Walt Disney Productions animated feature Sleeping Beauty was released on January 29, 1959 by Buena Vista Distribution, after spending nearly the entire decade of the 1950s in production. It was the last animated feature produced by Walt Disney to be based upon a fairy tale, and the first one to be shot in Super Technirama 70 one of many large-format 70mm film processes (only one more animated film, The Black Cauldron, has been shot in Super Technirama 70).

The film was directed by Les Clark , Eric Larson, and Wolfgang Reitherman, under the supervision of Clyde Geronimi . The script was adapted from the story of Charles Perrault by Erdman Penner, with additional story work by Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears , Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta.

Sleeping Beauty was "Princess Aurora" as in the Tchaikovsky ballet; the prince was given the only princely name familiar to Americans in the 1950s: "Prince Philip", named after Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The witch was aptly named Maleficent ("Evil-doer").

When it was first released, Sleeping Beauty returned only half the invested sum of six million US dollars, nearly bankrupting the Disney studio. Since then, the film has gained a following, and is today hailed as one of the best animated features ever made, thanks to its stylized designs by painter Eyvind Earle, its lush music score (adapted from Tchaikovsky's ballet), and its large-format widescreen and stereophonic sound presentation.

Three of Disney's theme parks feature castles named after Sleeping Beauty.


Perrault so transformed the tale of a sleeping beauty, "Sole, Luna, e Talia" in Giambattista Basile's collection of tales, Il Pentamerone, that she is scarcely recognizable in the first part of the tale, the only part that is still current. Shared themes of violence, rape, rivalry and cannibalism appear in the second parts. Basile's was an adult tale told by an aristocrat for aristocrats, emphasizing concerns such as marital fidelity and inheritance. Perrault's is an aristocratic tale told for a high-bourgeois audience, inculcating female patience and passivity. There are earlier elements that contributed to the tale, in the medieval courtly romance Perceforest (published in 1528), in which a princess named Zellandine falls into an enchanted sleep and is raped by a wandering prince, resulting in the birth of their child. Earlier influences come from the story of the sleeping Brynhild in the Volsunga saga and the tribulations of saintly female martyrs in early Christian hagiography conventions.

Myth themes

Among familiar themes and elements in Perrault's tale: the Wished-for Child (see Saint Anne, and Rapunzel); the Accursed Gift (see Nessus with Deianira); the Inevitable Fate; the Spinner (see Moirae, Norns); the Heroic Quest; the Ogre Stepmother; the Substituted Victim (see Isaac, Zeus with Cronos, Iphigeneia).

See also Weaving (mythology).

Uses of Sleeping Beauty

An early contributor to this entry misremembered as a fairy gift, Intelligence. Tellingly, no such gift was offered: not appropriate in 1697, though a good ear for playing the lute was quite essential. Fairy gifts for the 21st century might include Courage and Independence as well as Intelligence. Just a quarter of a century after Sleeping Beauty, the reading world first met Moll Flanders (1722).

Freudian psychologists, encouraged by Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, have found rich materials to analyze in Sleeping Beauty as a case history of incest and latent sexuality and a prescription for the passive socializaion of those young women who were not destined for work.

The Princess's sleeping attendants, waiting to accompany her when she wakes in the other world, even to the spit-boys in the kitchens and her pet dog, expresses one of the most ancient themes in ritual burial practices, though Perrault was probably unaware of the Egyptian burials, and certainly unaware of the royal tombs of Queen Puabi of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the courtiers that accompanied early emperors of China in the tomb, the horses that accompanied the noble riders in the kurgans of Scythian Pasyryk. (See grave goods). It is noteworthy that the King and Queen are not included in this analogue of a burial, but retire, while the protective spectral thorn forest immediately grows up to protect the castle and its occupants, as effective as a tumulus.

The story of the sleeping beauty was loosely the basis for the erotic novel The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice.

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Last updated: 08-11-2005 15:21:02
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