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Fairy Tale Origins: Sleeping Beauty

By Edited May 1, 2016 8 13

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.

Sleeping Beauty (detail)

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").

Little Suck-A-Thumb (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.

Italian Talia
The original Sleeping Beauty tale was written in Renaissance Italy, and was first published in 1636.

Learning ot spin flax
  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

"Sleeping Beauty's Castle" (The Netherlands)
whole 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.

Sleeping Beauty (1697 engraving)

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 ownYou 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.

Sleepy Beauty
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.

Sleeping Beauty (pencil and watercolor, 1899)

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.


Unrated and not a fairy tale

Sleeping Beauty
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Unrated, but based on the classic story

The Sleeping Beauty
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Dec 20, 2011 6:44pm
As usual, a very entertaining read! Love the tale of Talia, never heard that one before. Where DO you get all of this interesting info??!

Thumbs up, yo!
Dec 20, 2011 7:13pm
Thanks. I'm just an avid fan of obscure things, so when I come across something, I tuck it away in my pea-brain and then research (FYI, there are three more in this series when I get to them -- I have some exorcisms, some murders, and other stuff to do first, plus I gotta finish off my First Ladies). Busy, busy. Thanks for reading.
Dec 21, 2011 12:44am
As a child, I owned the Grimm's fairy tale book. It didn't take long to figure out those versions of the stories were nothing like Disney's version of the fairy tales. Interesting original Sleeping Beauty story.
Dec 21, 2011 9:19am
The sad thing about the Grimm's material is they started out very close to the original sources as well. Despite how their tales look now (still carrying a lot of the mayhem not found in Disney) THEIR stuff came in for a heavy Victorian re-working in the late 19th century, too.

Thanks for reading.
Dec 21, 2011 5:19am
What an interesting read! Unsurprisingly, I had never heard of the tale of Talia before coming across your article, which, by the way, I found extremely entertaining.
It has piqued my interest in the original Italian version and I may have to do a little research of my own.

Great stuff here.
Dec 21, 2011 9:17am
Thanks -- I try to keep it fresh where I can, rather than re-hash the same old stuff.
Jan 14, 2012 12:48pm
Awesome article, the little evil person on me couldn't help but think that the original story is much more entertaining.
In my experience, children love it as gory as possible. Last time I had to entertain little ones they kept asking for the gory details of how the woodcutter killed the wolf on Little Red Ridding Hood. Because "And he goes and kills him" wasn't nearly as compelling as "He cut his head with an axe, peeled off his skin and made a comfortable cloak for LLRD, not red though".
Jan 14, 2012 10:40pm
You're so right -- and kids DO know the difference between the "cartoon" violence of fairy tales and real violence (I grew up with the Warner Bros. cartoons, and I never tried to drop an "Acme"-brand safe on anyone's head).

I realize the sexual elements ar probvably inappropriate in today's society, but I'd rather poeople lknow these stories weren't always what they are now -- they were wayyyyy more interesting.

Thanks for reading.
Jan 16, 2012 1:51pm
I've been playing video games all my life. The closest I come to violence is making really high pitched screaming noises and running away (some people claim said noises could be classified as a WMD but I think they are too sensitive).

Kids know perfectly well that killing an orc in a game doesn't mean they can go outside and hit another kid, or that bears aren't exactly huggable pets. They are not stupid :)
Nov 7, 2012 7:38am
It's the parents who are stupid, not the kids for sure. Thanks for reading.
Nov 7, 2012 7:56am
Great article Vic, I use to love Sleeping Beauty as a kid and watched the video a number of times. It's a favorite of mine along with Beauty & the Best. Thumbs up.
Nov 8, 2012 8:39am
These stories are still going strong and are being embraced by a more mature audience (as they were originally intended). If you haven't seen "Snow White & the Huntsman" for example, that's the direction these stories should be returned to. Thanks for reading.
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  1. Vic Dillinger My Brain. Chicago, IL: Evolution & The Cosmos, 1963.
  2. Richard Zacks An Underground Education. New York City, NY: Doubleday, 1997.
  3. "Household Tales by Brothers Grimm: The Glass Coffin." ebooks.adelaide.edu.au. 19/12/2011 <Web >
  4. "Sleeping Beauty." en.wikipedia.org. 19/12/2011 <Web >
  5. Dr. Henry Hoffmann Struwelpeter (Slovenly Peter)[reprint of 1845 edition]. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1920.

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