Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Little Bit About Medieval Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales From Around the World

I realize that I have been discussing Snow White much more than Sleeping Beauty when talking about my new book, Sleeping Beauties. It’s easier to do since there are eleven Sleeping Beauty tales (ATU 410) compared to forty-one Snow White tales (ATU 709) in the collection. Sleeping Beauty as a tale type is less common although as a tale element it is very pervasive in folklore and literature.

My biggest challenge in searching for ATU 410 Sleeping Beauty tales was trying to discover versions of the medieval tales to include in the book. For years, I have had visitors to SurLaLune write and beg for a version of “Troylus and Zellandine,” for example. It has been the most requested because it is often mentioned as the first Sleeping Beauty in articles on the internet. However, the text is medieval French and really doesn’t exist in English, there’s not even much scholarship outside of France on it, and almost none within it. We all seem to know about it, but few of us have actually read any version of it.

Due to the nature of the texts, I wasn’t able to include full text versions of the four most prevalent medieval Sleeping Beauty stories. Instead, I have a short article discussing all four with summaries of the stories from various sources. (The fourth story is “Blandin de Cornoalha” which isn’t as closely related, but it is still interesting in its own right. More about it on another day.)

As I mentioned, “Troylus and Zellandine” isn’t the only medieval Sleeping Beauty either, although it gets the most “press” as such. Two other stories are closely related to it, “Pandragus et Libanor” by Baudouin Butor and “Frayre de Joy e Sor de Plaser.” All three of these stories are unique but very similar to each other. They are also closely related to Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia” as well as Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”

I have neither time nor space to discuss all of the tales here, but I will focus on the element that fascinated me the most in “Troylus and Zellandine” and “Sun, Moon, and Talia.” In both of these, the Sleeping Beauty character is found by the prince/king who has intercourse with her while she sleeps, never waking her up. She finally wakes up when she gives birth to a baby (or twins) who then suckles the sleep thorn from her finger, thus waking her up.

Why do I find this so fascinating? Well, as I read this element over and over again in these various tales, I realized it is in many ways hopefulness and grand wish fulfillment. What was the most common cause of death in young women in those times? Undoubtedly child birth was in the top three if not the top one. Yet in all of these stories that are inarguably about sexual awakening on many levels, child birth is what brings renewed life to the mother, quite literally bringing her back from the dead in almost every sense of the word.

So yes, our modern and preferred version of Sleeping Beauty uses the kiss to chastely awaken the heroine, foregoing the rape and childbirth altogether, but we also don’t have as high a mortality rate for new mothers either. Yes, this is oversimplifying things a lot—too much really—but it is a fascinating element of the tale to consider. Our values and perceptions have changed our demands of the tale over time, but I find the earlier versions much more interesting in their psychology and innate differences from the tales we tell so often today.

Yes, you can read more about all of these in my book.  But there are also lists of academic resources on the web, too.  Troylus and Zellandine is part of Perceforest, about which you can see a list of resources here. Also, Pandragus et Libanor is by Baudoin Butor and you can see a list of resources about him here. I learned more about Butor's work from Anne Berthelot, a French medievalist who generously answered my questions. She hopes to publish a translation of his work in the future, most likely in French.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a big plot hole to me. If the thorn was the only problem, then why couldn't ol' Prince Charming have just plucked it out?