About the Sleeping Beauty: P.L. Travers

Pamela Travers muses on six different versions of “Sleeping Beauty” (from The Nation)

By P. L. Travers. Illustrated by Charles Keeping
McGraw-Hill Book Co. 128 pp.

P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, has turned again to the figure of the wise woman in About the Sleeping Beauty. Like the myth of Persephone to which it can be linked, the story of the Sleeping Beauty is about spring and all that follows after the dormancy of winter, when the sun begins to ascend and all creatures and events are brought to fruition. Travers offers six versions of the tale (including her own) and each is a little different, each adjusts its particular message to what the Sufis call Zaman, Makhan, Ikhwan (the time, the place, and the people).

Travers’s own version is set in Gurdjieffan opulence and cast in terms of sultans, seneschals and suites. This tale of ascendancy begins with the long-wished-for birth of the Princess Rose, rises to the great day when the twelve fairies bless her and reaches a hiatus when the curse of the Thirteenth Fairy leads Rose to the spindle and the whole castle to The Deep Sleep: The tale rallies once more when the Prince joins it, finds his way to the Sufic center (qutub) of the castle, kisses the Princess and breaks the spell, and finally makes a husband for the Princess beyond her family’s highest hopes. The peripaties of the tale are so happy — and Travers’s treatment so fecund — that when spindles are condemned in the kingdom, the weavers become even more prosperous as merchants. What is perhaps most interesting in this expansive version is that Travers has not adopted the narrative style of the fairy tale ethnologists of the Nineteenth Century who reduced oral forms to their literary equivalents. Travers’s voice is that of the storyteller: she plays with the story, jokes and makes musing asides, introduces linguistic flourishes (“taradiddles”) and swells character portrayals.

What makes Travers’s version different from the Grimms’ “Dornroschen” [“Briar Rose”], which she includes here, is her emphasis on the Sleeping Beauty that men come to think of as “a secret within themselves.” In the Grimm version the emphasis falls equally, if not more, on the Prince whose spirit brings the Princes and the kingdom out from beneath the spell. He is the hero who steps in as the curse of the hundred years wanes and who is carried along with the momentum of the world waxing again, as it does in Goethe’s “Das Marchen.”

Perrault’s Seventeenth Century “La Belle au bois dormant” [“Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”], the third in Travers’s series, is still a story about the Prince but with an added character (an ogreish mother-in-law) and a coda: after waking the Princess, the Prince moonlights with her only to have his mother discover the cause of his absences. Here the hero who has ridden the momentum of rising good fortune grows slack and easygoing. His comeuppance occurs when his mother demands that the steward serve her the Sleeping Beauty and her children at supper. The steward hides them away and provides substitutes, and the Queen Mother’s designs are finally revealed. The Prince feels shame at the self-indulgence that has caused all this and mends his ways.

Illustration by Walter Crane.

In the fourth version in Travers’s book, “Sol, Luna, e Talia” [“The Sun, Moon, and Talia”] from the Italian Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile, it is the common man who rides the wheel of fortune to his ascendancy. Instead of Perrault’s steward, it is the cook who hides away the Sleeping Beauty and her children. The Prince rewards this man according to his merit and with a mind free of class prejudice makes him a Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

In the Irish version by Jeremiah Curtin, “The Queen of Tubber Tintye,” the Prince is assisted not by a lone cook but by a legion of helpers. In this tale the Prince attracts people of wisdom, gives the experts a free hand, and exercises self-restraint in the face of pretenders. The results is the almost everyone’s lottery ticket comes in and a druidic spell is lifted from the Prince’s mother and aunts, miscellaneous princes and all of Erin and the Lonesome Island.

The sixth Bengal version, “The Petrified Mansion” by F. B. Bradley-Birt, shows how everyone joins in the upward movement of the Sleeping Beauty’s tale. Here, surely, the Prince is an Arhat who comes out of his forest retreat and returns to the here and now to help others. In this tale he is called the “deliverer” because he awakens a petrified world. This means good fortune for all. Others are drawn to follow his example, retreating for meditation deep in the forest in the same way that the sun of spring and summer begins to retreat at solstice.

“What is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come a last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves?”

Following her own version of the story and preceding the others, Travers has inserted an Afterword. When she begins to explain the devices she has used in her story and to draw parallels with the Hindu goddess Kali or with Robert Graves’s White Goddess, she seems guilty of reviewing her own book. It is as if Travers had forgotten that the fairy tale is like a Zen koan and books that explain the meanings of koans are the importunities of those who refuse their oracular pointedness. When a gifted storyteller like Travers begins to wrestle with meanings, one suspects that the Thirteen Fairy has laid the curse of criticism upon her. But in the Sleeping Beauty the Twelfth Fairy delays giving her blessing in order to mitigate the original curses from death to sleep; in Travers’s case the Twelfth Fairy has turned the urge to explain into the urge for meditative musing: “What is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come a last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves?” Travers’s curse and blessing is her Sultana’s conviction “That fairy tales are not as simple as they appear.”

Originally appeared in The Nation (February 21, 1976).

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