Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sleeping Beauty Awakes

My talk for the fairy tale symposium at CU is going to be this Thursday from 5-6:30 at Norlin Library. So far the lineup of events has included a screening of the 1946 film The Stone Flower, a pair of talks on eroticism in early modern French and Italian fairy tales, and a screening of the 1966 film Father Frost. My talk will look at retellings of Sleeping Beauty in relatively recent children's literature, borrowing from scholar Tina Hanlon's fabulous article on Jane Yolen's retellings of Sleeping Beauty that appeared in the journal Children's Literature some years ago.

I'm framing the talk as a look at the problem posed by Sleeping Beauty - her slumbering passivity and need for a prince's kiss to rescue her - and various approaches to solving it. One approach, of course, is simply to walk away from fairy tales altogether, a "solution" that has had its moments of popularity in every century, from Mrs. Trimmer's attacks on "the impropriety of putting such books in the hands of little children" in the 18th century, to Samuel Goodrich's horror of fairy tales in the 19th century - "Why do they tell such falsehoods?" - to Lucy Sprague Mitchell's attempt to replace fairy tales with realistic fare for children at the Bank Street College of Education in the early 20th century.

A second solution, popular since the 1980s, is feminist-inspired parodies of fairy tales, such as Prince Cinders and Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole, in which a hapless drudge of a wimpy prince is in need of rescue and a confident princess sends away all suitors so that she can happily remain a "Ms." rather than becoming a "Mrs." Or, in a less heavy-handed inversion of gender roles and expectations, we see variants of Sleeping Beauty either where she doesn't sleep (Jane Yolen's Gwinellen, Frances Minters's Sleepless Beauty) or isn't beautiful (Yolen's Sleeping Ugly).

But the problem with parody is that it works only if readers are still familiar with the original tales - and it always lacks the depth and beauty of the original. So then the problem for authors becomes: how can we reclaim the original story in a way that doesn't reinforce and foster sexism? Jane Yolen is the master here, and my talk looks at her retelling of Sleeping Beauty, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, as well as her original tale The Girl in the Golden Bower that resonates with Sleeping Beauty, and her brilliant use of Sleeping Beauty in her novel Briar Rose, set against the background of the Holocaust.

I'm going to close the talk with this quote from the poet Schiller, quoted by Bruno Bettelheim in his The Uses of Enchantment: "Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life."


  1. Am enlarging into a novel my novella "Thirteenth Fey" even as we speak!

    Jane Yolen

  2. Thanks so much for posting, Jane!! After doing this talk, I am more impressed with you than ever. BRIAR ROSE took my breath away.