In May 1999, I agreed to take part in a panel discussion on the role OF fairy tales in modern literature at Wiscon 23, a convention for feminism in speculative fiction held in Madison, Wisconsin. My fellow panelists were Terri Windling, an editor and author whose own work with fairy tales had strongly influenced many modern retellings; Heinz Insu Fenkl, novelist and scholar, with a strong background in both the Eastern and Western folk tale traditions; and Elizabeth Matson, who approached fairy tales with the perspective of a storyteller and dramatist. (Our moderator was Beth Plutchak.)
With some impatience we waited for the program to arrive that would announce the specific topic of our discussion. We were prepared for anything: the heroine's journey, the ambiguous power of female villains from Baba Yaga to evil stepmothers, and the sheer imaginative magnitude of women who for centuries have expressed the conditions of their lives in a wealth of fantastic stories. We were not prepared for what, or rather I should say, "who" we got. The title, itself a gentle irony, arrived by e–mail: "What Does Sleeping Beauty Mean to Me?" A brief description indicated we would explore the relevance of fairy tales and their modern day interpretations using Sleeping Beauty as our primary model. "Oh no," we groaned. "How can this be?" Out of a stock of brave heroines, of determined and clever girls, we found ourselves waiting at the bedside of a heroine whose talent rested on her ability to . . .well. . .rest. What indeed did this mute slip of a girl who became the epitome of passivity mean to young, contemporary women eager to claim their own destinies? What did she mean to us, as writers and folklorists who as children had felt emotionally stranded by a heroine whose awakening from death–feigned–as–sleep depended on a Prince's perseverance?
We grumbled. We made excuses about the poverty of versions worth discussing, made snide remarks about Disney, and made one rebellious attempt to change the direction of the panel. Give us Donkeyskin, who donned wild furs and escaped into the forest. Give us Beauty, whose dauntless courage saved her father, her sisters, and a hideous Beast. Even the mutilated girl of the Armless Maiden narratives had more chutzpah when she faced her tormentors. Snow White, that sister in sleep, managed to leave home and learn a thing or two before she fell into her trance. But Sleeping Beauty, how she betrayed us by her sleep! Among the pantheon of heroines, even those who married easily in happily–ever–after tales, Sleeping Beauty's inertia was almost an admission of failure, of shame at my gender's lack of spirit. And yet, Sleeping Beauty has a strength about her that is undeniable. Though she sleeps, she has stubbornly retained her place in our fairy tale traditions, despite our attempts as feminists to chastise her for being so passive. Over the centuries the perimeters of her tale have been redrawn, her dilemma reshaped, her salvation changed — but she has endured each reincarnation with something of her original story intact. In the end, it was Sleeping Beauty's own power to sustain her existence, even from her bed, that won us over. We may not have liked her passivity, but we had to yield to her enduring presence and salute her tenacious survival.
In the weeks before the convention began, Terri, Heinz and I began a flurry of e–mails, throwing out ideas and arguments about why this narrative continues to be popular to this day. Heinz dug into the archives and plucked out old versions of the tale that proved to be shocking in their bawdiness and frank in their lechery. The Prince, it seemed, had a past. Sleeping Beauty had a few tricks up her sleeve. We read through the narratives and tried to untangle the threads of the tale's structure. What was really happening? Who was the story really about? Terri gathered contemporary versions in poetry, mainstream and genre novels. Sleeping Beauty, it appeared, had much to offer our panel discussion on the transformation of fairy tales — from its early variants around the world to contemporary English–language renditions by Jane Yolen, Robert Coover, Anne Sexton and numerous others.
WisCon is a unique convention. Attended by an even mix of academics, writers, and readers, it boasts of a very loyal and attentive following. We were fairly certain the panel would be well attended and we were not disappointed. We began the discussion by recounting some of the oldest and certainly most provocative versions of Sleeping Beauty. The first was called "The 9th Captain's Tale," found in The Book of the 1001 Nights (translated by Pows Mathers). Despite an exotic Eastern setting, it begins with familiar conflicts. A woman longs for a child and declares, "Give me a daughter, even if she can't endure the odor of flax." Her wish is granted and a daughter is born. As she grows, the Sultan's son is taken with her beauty and begins to court her. Then, in a mishap, the girl's hand touches flax and she falls into a death–like sleep. Her distraught parents transport her incorruptible body to an elaborate shrine on an island. The Sultan's son, still very much in love with her, comes to visit her shrine. A kiss awakens the sleeping maiden and they have sexual relations for forty days.
But the Sultan's son cannot remain on the island indefinitely, and eventually he abandons her. Angry, the young woman uses the magic ring of Solomon and wishes for a palace to be built next door to the Sultan's. She also wishes to be transformed into an even greater beauty, unrecognizable and irresistible to her former lover. The Sultan's son is quick to discover his exquisite neighbor and falls in love. He sends her gifts, which she discards — feeding the gold to her chickens and using the bolts of fine fabrics as rags. Desperate, the Sultan's son begs to know how he can prove that he is worthy enough to be her husband. She tells him that he must wrap himself in a shroud and allow himself to be buried on the palace grounds and mourned as dead. The young man agrees and permits his parents to dress him in funeral clothing and bury him. His mother sits by the grave and mourns his death. Satisfied, the young woman comes to the palace, retrieves the Sultan's son from his grave, and reveals her true identity. "Now I know," she says, "that you will go to any length for the woman you love."
What is startling about this old version of Sleeping Beauty is that the tale is about both of the lovers and both of their journeys of transformation. Each one experiences a death, an end to their lives as children. Two sets of parents prepare their children for funerals; two sets of parents mourn the loss of a beloved child. The Sultan's son is responsible for awakening Sleeping Beauty, but their subsequent relationship is not an adult one — it is not sanctioned by the social bonds of the community. When she comes to him again, she is changed — transformed by the fantastic. The Sultan's son, in accepting her condition of marriage, has also accepted that his privileged life as a child must end. When she revives him from the dead, they are now equal and their marriage is one between adults. Who could not admire this Sleeping Beauty? She is a divine bride sprung from the fantastic, incorruptible in death, able to call upon magic to perform at her will a clever trick to test her future husband. He dies and is buried in the earth and her final act of reviving him only emphasizes her creative powers and her fertility. He is a Sultan's son but she, confident in her own power, is equal to him.