Awakened by Sun & Moon
Fairy tale origins sometimes lead directly to a single source and not disparate legends or oral traditions. Most of these tales, however, over time have been "de-fanged" – their racier and more violent elements have been removed or subverted into something else entirely.
The story of Cinderella is one such bowdlerized tale. She has her origins in a Greek-born Egyptian slave-girl prostitute named Rhodopis.
Children historically were never considered as anything other than smaller versions of adults. Thus, they were generally not spared the baser details of sex and violence in the world. Prior to the early 20th century, children's literature consisted of stories that adults could read and appreciate as well. They carried elements of criminal behavior and wanton sexuality. Not all of these early stories had a moral lesson to teach, either. Cinderella's most immediate antecedent, the Italian Renaissance girl Cinder-Cat, lived happily ever after even though she had committed a murder earlier in her story!
Today's world knows little of the baser elements from which these iconic and beloved characters sprung. Take a look now at the tale of rape, adultery, illegitimate children, cannibalism, and murder that is the original telling of Sleeping Beauty.Credit: Maxfield Parrish, 1912
German Doctors, German Tailors
It is not suggested that young children be exposed to mindless violence or sexual subjects needlessly. However, censoring and protecting children from life's harsh realities (such as death, etc.) is a recent phenomena. Painting the world in rainbow colors was almost unknown before the late Victorian Period.
The Brothers Grimm, two German folklorists, presented the world with its best known collection of morality tales and stories associated with children's literature, Grimm's Fairy Tales. These tales contain some vestiges of their original violence, misogyny, and criminal behavior. There is another, more disturbing and bizarre collection of morality tales, though, that proves children weren't always sheltered from harsh realities.
In 1844, a German doctor named Heinrich Hoffmann, disgusted at the quality of available children's literature, decided to create his own book of tales for his three-year-old son. Hoffmann kept a notebook and sketch pad, and over a period developed the "morality" stories that he named Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks. Later publications entitled the book Slovenly Peter (in English).
These stories are not cheerful. Almost all the children in them either get maimed or meet with some form of horrific accident (falling in canals, stumbling over dogs, dunked in supernatural inkwells). The illustrations, too, are not so much funny as sadistic and violently graphic (one girl's leg literally "broken" – the illustration Hoffmann drew shows the severed limb lying on the ground, cartoon blood spurting out of the stump). These stories basically admonish children to behave, to mind their parents, and in essence avoid the "seven deadly sins" (although "lust" is not specifically addressed, "gluttony" and "pride" are painfully represented).
A "mind your parents" tale called "Little Suck-A-Thumb" is a perfect representation of Hoffmann's work. The story opens with a mother telling her son (who, as drawn, looks about 14 and definitely too old to be sucking his thumb) that she must run errands and has to leave him alone (children are left unattended in many of these stories). She admonishes him to not suck his thumb while she's gone or a "bad tailor" will come and snip off his thumbs. Then, she leaves; the instant she's out the door, the kid jams his thumb in his mouth. Almost immediately, the door bursts in, and a demonic, maniacal tailor, wielding a gigantic pair of scissors, flies into the room and snips off the boy's thumbs (complete with spurting cartoon blood). The only "moral" to this story is to mind one's parents: when the mother comes home and sees her maimed child, she simply adopts an "I-told-you-so" attitude, and that is the end of the story. No sewing on of his thumbs for a second chance in Hoffmann's world, just the one warning, and...boom! Thus, fairy tales didn't always have clear lessons to learn (except "to behave").Credit: Heinrich Hoffmann, 1845
Friends, delighted with Hoffmann's original self-published book, convinced him to have it professionally published. The first version appeared in 1845, and it was a huge success in Europe. Children in the mid 19th century, even Hoffmann's three-year-old son who inspired him, probably thought little of the graphic violence or moralizing in this book. Today, such a book probably could not ever see the light of day for mass consumption.
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The original Sleeping Beauty tale was written in Renaissance Italy, and was first published in 1636.Credit: Zick, late 19th century The author, Giovan Battista Basile, created it from whole cloth (meaning it had no correlative precedent in oral tradition).
The heroine of the tale is named Talia. As in the modern version of the story, at her birth a prediction was made that evil would befall her, and she would be poisoned by a splinter of flax (a plant fiber used to make thread for clothing by spinning).
Her father was a king, and despite all his precautions, Talia (when a teenager) found herself with a splinter of flax driven under her fingernail. She immediately fell into a catatonic state, alive but unmoving and unseeing. Her father, in his grief, propped her up on a throne, locked up his castle, and took his Credit: wiki commonswhole court to another place, leaving the castle as a shrine to his comatose daughter.
Some time passed. Another king, hunting with a falcon in the area, lost his bird. The falcon flew into what the king believed was an abandoned and empty castle (it was overgrown with thorn bushes and other vegetation). He investigated the castle to find the beautiful nymphet Talia sitting peaceably, unmoving, on the throne where her father had left her.
The king yelled at her and patted her face to try to awaken her to no avail. Finally, as her beauty enchanted him (and he was alone with the helpless girl in this remote castle), he carried her to a nearby bed. There, without much preliminary, he raped her (as Talia could not consent, it was rape). Considering women in that period wore no underwear as known today, this really meant nothing more to this king than simply rucking up her gown. After he was finished, he straightened out her clothing, and with a smile on his face and a song in his heart he returned to his own castle and his wife.Credit: Gustave DorÃ©, 1697
This rapist king, over many months, had occasion to think about the compliant sex partner he had found in the abandoned castle. Wanting to have another go at Talia, he arranged another hunting trip to the area of the abandoned castle. Upon entering the room where he'd left Talia, he was met with a surprise.
The king's rape had left Talia pregnant. Nine months after his assault she gave birth (still in her bewitched state) to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. The twins nursed on the Sleeping Beauty; one, however, could not get to her nipple correctly, and ended up sucking her finger carrying the poisoned flax splinter. The suction was great enough to draw the splinter from under her nail, and she roused to the shock and surprise of finding two babies crawling all over her. Not knowing what else to do, she remained in the castle with her twins, whom she named "Sun" and "Moon". Fairies brought food to keep her fed.
The king, seeing Talia with these children, tells her what he did. He was delighted at these offspring, and the tale states he "tarried with her" for several days this time. As he prepared to leave, he told Talia he would send for her at a later time. So, she stayed behind with the king's bastard children to fend for herself.
Back in his castle, the king was in a fix. He obviously had not told his wife, the queen, of his liaison with Talia. In his sleep, he began dreaming of the children and Talia, and muttering the names "Sun and Moon" repeatedly. The queen heard this and was suspicious. She finally managed to find a member of the last hunting party the king mounted. She bribed the man into telling her what transpired, and the queen vowed revenge. She sent a letter to Talia, pretending to be the king, advising her to bring the children and come to her new home straight away.
Talia was delighted to receive this news and found her way to the new kingdom. Upon arrival the queen seized her and the children. She took the twins to the castle kitchen and demanded the children be prepared in a meal. The king did not know Talia and the twins were in his domain. At suppertime, he and the queen sat down to dine. Meat pies were brought out, and the king ate of them heartily, proclaiming how delicious they were. The queen, during his repast, muttered, "You're eating your own", repeatedly. As this constant repetition annoyed the king, he scowled at her, "Of course, I'm eating my own. You didn't bring anything to this marriage!"
The queen took her leave to mete out punishment to Talia. In translation, she said to the captive girl, "So, you're the devilish bitch who's giving me such a headache!" Talia, in her defense, told the queen none of this was her fault as the king had raped her when she was drugged (the phrase she used was "conquered my regions"). The circumstances meant little to the evil queen, and she told Talia she would have her roasted alive.
Talia, trying to stall for time, did not know what to do. The outer garment she wore was of fine cloth and had pearls sewn into it with gold thread. Talia asked she be allowed to remove her clothes before being thrown into the bonfire. The queen coveted the dress, so she agreed. Talia began undressing, and with each garment she removed, she screamed, louder and louder each time. At the last underskirt she removed, she screamed her loudest. The queen's henchmen grabbed the girl, dragging her to the fire as the king burst in. Finding Talia naked in front of his wife, he demanded an explanation. The queen told him he ate his two illegitimate children for dinner. Distraught, the king started wailing, and ordered the queen thrown in the raging bonfire she'd built for Talia. He then called for the servant who had told the queen about Talia, and had him thrown into the fire as well. He then ordered the cook brought to him – before he could have him tossed on the flames, the cook told the king he had not roasted the children as ordered. Instead, he had substituted lamb in the meat pies, and the king's children were safely hidden. The cook's wife brought the children in to the king. He was overjoyed at seeing them alive. He rewarded the cook with great wealth. He married Talia, and she and the twins and the king lived happily ever after.
Basile left this story with the ending, "Good things happen to lucky people, even when they're sleeping"; presumably rape is okay if it leads to a nice home as a new queen.
The current version of this story is not nearly as raw or violent. It draws heavily from a story called "The Glass Coffin" [collected by the Brothers Grimm, very different from the Basile story, but retelling the Sleeping Princess motif]. Today's Sleeping Beauty is awakened with a chaste kiss and marries her prince charming.
Children certainly do not need tales of rape and cannibalism thrust upon them as entertainment as in the past. However, adults certainly could avail themselves of these tales closer to their original sources. The surprises are myriad, and worth the research time. The stories are rich in ways they no longer are.
Talia's adventure is infinitely more colorful and engaging than the Disney-fied Sleeping Beauty. But Talia's story is definitely not for children – at least, not today's children.