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The Sleeping Beauty: fairy tale re-creations in times of conflict

The Sleeping Beauty: fairy tale re-creations in times of conflict

In the fairy tale of the sleeping beauty, a castle re-awakens after a long curse. The dark forest of thorns is transformed into roses, true love, a happy ever after. An interesting metaphor, it seems, to celebrate the change from the darkness and endurance of war, to the hope of peace. It fascinates me, therefore, that it was a performance of The Sleeping Beauty that re-opened the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, after the Second World War, in February 1946.

I was drawn to this moment in ballet history when researching for my novel The Sleeping Beauties. Along with the parallels between the end of war and the end of a long curse, I was interested in the way we turn to fairy tales in time of conflict. The universality of these stories with their dichotomies of good winning over evil, love triumphing over hate, seem to give audiences hope for a simpler, better future.

The original stories of a sleeping beauty are, however, far from simple. The ballet of The Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by Petipa to music by Tchaikovsky, differs significantly from the source texts. While it is Charles Perrault’s ‘La belle au bois dormant’ (1697) that popularised the tale, there are older versions. In these, the hero rapes and impregnates the princess in her sleep. They are stories packed with drama and danger: we are given a cannibalistic ogress for a mother-in-law, jealous wives, snake pits, rape, the princess giving birth in her sleep, twin babies sucking the splinter of flax from her finger to wake her.

While we might argue that Perrault’s version of ‘true love’s kiss’, the prince kissing the princess in her sleep, is another example of non-consensual sexual contact, there has clearly been a shift in the dynamic of the story over the years. The fourteenth century courtly medieval romance Perceforest about Zellandine and Troylus, and Giambattista Basile’s Italian fairy tale ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ are dark and gruesome tales. Charles Perrault’s ‘La belle au bois dormant’, and the Brothers Grimm tale ‘Little Briar Rose’ soften the story considerably, with the nineteenth century version by the Brothers Grimm removing the conflict with the prince’s mother to provide a more straightforward happy-ever-after.

It is the simpler, less morally complex versions of fairy tales that have endured. In times of conflict, it is interesting that we seem to turn to these stories, sometimes as escapism, sometimes for hope, sometimes because they provide more palatable coming of age stories, with good ultimately triumphing, in contrast to the terrifying reality of growing up during a real war. We can see this in the award-winning film Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, ten-year-old Ofelia escapes into a fantasy world of fairies and magic. The fairy tale world acts like a dream, a fantasy adventure that helps the little girl to process the traumatic experiences of her reality.

While writing The Sleeping Beauties, I began to see that fairy tales can help us to cope with trauma, change, and conflict in other, more psychologically interesting ways. The heroes of fairy tales fight with challenges that, when stripped back, are commonplace to us all: age, sickness, death, jealousy, heartbreak, isolation, growing up, leaving behind the safety of childhood and venturing out into the world. Fairy tales are packed with metaphors that explore the transitional stages of life, in particular from childhood to adulthood with the thorny and dangerous rite of passage known as adolescence at the centre.

In the tale of the sleeping beauty, the princess falls asleep just as she is reaching adulthood. The spinning wheel, a metaphor for the unstoppable nature of time, is unwelcome, the needle that pricks her finger provoking the next stage of her life: adolescence, menstruation, maturity. A common interpretation is that the needle symbolises a dominant and destructive patriarchy, sending the princess into a passive, weakened state, waiting for a man to rescue her. But perhaps we could also see the needle, the sleep, the curse, as a commentary on life’s transitions, how each one is fraught with difficulty, leading to a desire to retreat, to sleep, to stay frozen in time. The fairy tale teaches us that change is inevitable and important, that without change we are sleeping through life.

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We are drawn to stories that make us feel safe, stories with narratives that fit into our sense of right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate. And yet beneath all these stories, both in their original form and in their re-creations, we can find a much more helpful truth, one that I kept close when I was writing The Sleeping Beauties. It is this: an acceptance that life cannot be organised into simple binaries, that love and hope are only possible when we acknowledge the messiness in ourselves and in others. If we let ourselves see the hurt in Carabosse and the pride in the Lilac Fairy, then we can find far more to guide us within the magic and wonder of fairy tales.

The Sleeping Beauties is published by Magpie on 15 February 2024

Read an extract from The Sleeping Beauties here.

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