The original story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a lot darker than the one you were told as a child

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From rape to fairy tale.

The king and queen try to save their beloved daughter by ordering that every spinning wheel be destroyed. But upon reaching the age of 15, Talia pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into such a deep sleep that her parents believe her to be dead.

Overcome with grief, the king and queen leave Talia sleeping upon a bed of gold embroidered fabric and they leave the castle.

The huge, empty rooms fill up with moss, while brambles and branches grow up around the castle walls. Silence reigns over the abandoned kingdom until a prince on a hunting expedition stumbles upon the castle and discovers the beautiful sleeping girl.

And that’s the story that most of us know. But if we dig a bit deeper, things take a turn for the gruesome.

Necrophilia, paedophilia, and cannibalism

One of the oldest versions of the Sleeping Beauty story was called ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’, and was published by Italian poet Giambattista Basile as part of his collection of tales, Pentamerone.

There’s no handsome prince in Basile’s tale, just a perverted king who, upon finding the comely, unconscious fifteen-year-old girl, takes advantage of the fact that she’s helpless (maybe even dead) and rapes her. Afterwards, he rides off home back to his wife.

Talia is unfortunate enough to get pregnant and, nine months later, while she’s still fast asleep, she gives birth to twins: a boy and a girl.

One day, the baby girl can’t find her mother’s breast and instead she sucks on Talia’s finger, drawing the splinter out. Talia awakens immediately. She names her children ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’.

When the wife of the paedophile king finds out, her response is not to confront her husband and tell him she’s leaving him forever. No, she decides to have the children abducted, cooked, and served to the king for dinner instead. Fortunately, the kind-hearted cook gives the children to his wife to hide, and prepares two newborn lambs in their place.

Not content with devouring Talia’s babies, the queen then has the princess brought to court to be burned alive in the courtyard. But the king soon learns of his wife’s vengeful antics and decides to have her thrown on the pyre instead.

Now, that’s what’s called putting the ‘grim’ in Brothers Grimm.

It’s hard to imagine a story being written today with as much nastiness, violence, and perversion – especially a tale meant for kids. But since the dark days of the Middle Ages, our vision of the world has changed radically.

These primitive tales grew from the darkest corners of our culture, where deep and ancient fears lurk. And they belong to a very specific period of our history.

We have to try and picture how these narratives were first transmitted: from the toothless mouths of mothers into the ears of malnourished children in gloomy villages throughout medieval Europe. And we have to imagine how these people thought about subjects such as infancy, death, sin, and womanhood.

With all these ingredients floating around in the cauldron, the stories continued to mutate and evolve. Later, they became fixed between the covers of a book, or on the silver screen, and the tales lost much of their darkness along the way.

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the stories that’s changed the most – becoming far less gruesome with the passing of the years.

The two most well-known versions are Charles Perrault’s ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ published in 1697, and the story collected by the Brothers Grimm and published under the name ‘Dornröschen’ (Little Briar Rose) in 1812.

It was from a mixture of both these versions that Walt Disney created its own take on the popular tale in a film released in 1959. The heroine of Disney’s animated version is a rosy-cheeked blonde named Aurora: a girl so delicate that it’s hard to imagine her surviving long in medieval Europe.

Luckily she was born in the Disney studios in Burbank, California, where the only wolves are the ones wearing suits.


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