Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty”

The phenomenology of historical thinking

Charles Perrault was fascinated by the twin topics of time and story. He was a French writer who lived in the Seventeenth Century. He was also member of the French Academy who played a central role in “The Debate Between the Ancients and the Moderns”; while some members of the Academy argued that the ancient Greek and Roman classics were better than anything written by later writers, Perrault took the side of the Moderns and said recent literature was just as good as the classics. Out of this controversy came Perrault’s four-volume work Parallels Between the Ancients and Moderns.

Perrault’s fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” (“La Belle au Bois Dormant”) first appeared in Perrault’s Histories, or Stories of Times Past, with Morals and published in 1697. The title is significant. Perrault not only offers “Stories of Times Past,” but “Histories with Morals.” The implication is that we look backward into the past in order to see how we should act when we march forward into the future.

Let’s consider the story in Perrault’s chosen manner —in terms of concepts of time and the phenomenology of historical consciousness . . .

“Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who grieved because they had no children.” The beginning of the tale expresses an apparent wish for perpetuity, for succession, for a child. Of course, it starts with the ancient storytelling formula. The word “once” — as in once, twice, thrice — reminds us of the ancient link between counting and tale telling. In fact, in some cultures stories are called contes (French), cuentos (Spanish), or accounts (English). The word “upon” signals an intersection between moment and context, a relationship which is the very foundation of historical thinking.

“In order to have a child, they tried the waters of every country, made vows and pilgrimages, and did everything that could be done . . . .” Note that Perrault does not itemize all the countries, nor does he list all the vows and all the pilgrimages. Instead, he concludes in a summary fashion: they “did everything.” Elsewhere, he begins a sentence with the phrase “To be brief.” In our own conversations, we use expressions like “et cetera,” “and so forth.” In writing, we use ellipses [“. . .”]. So, we should observe something about our idea of history. If the present unfolds at a constant speed, history is accelerated. History is compressed time.

Finally, a child was born to them and “a grand christening was held.” Seven fairies were invited to bestow gifts upon the child, “in accordance with the custom of those days.” Christenings, the Catholic mass, Passover, quinceaneras, funerary rites, weddings, other customs — these are rituals and rituals are the conscious reenactment of history. Rituals are postfigurative: the deliberate repetition of events seen (retrospectively) as “historical” or precedent-setting.

The seven fairies came to the christening but another also came, “an aged fairy whom no one had remembered to invite.” Remembering and forgetting . . . these are another way the experience of history is raised in “Sleeping Beauty.” Of course, historical thinking requires remembrance: memory is a prerequisite to the recognition of recurrence, even in a task as simple as counting. We remember histories. We remember stories.

“The fairies began to bestow their gifts upon the princess. An old fairy declared that she should be the most beautiful in the world; the next that she should have . . . .” Prophecy is the history of the future. While ritual is postfigurative, prophecy is prefigurative. Historical consciousness can be forward looking — for example: in our notion of the seasons, we look backwards in order to determine when (in the future) would be the best time to plant. When, in the title of his book, Perrault mentions “histories with morals,” he is also suggesting that we can look backwards into the past in order to come up with prudent suggestions about how we should behave in the future.

“It was now the aged fairy’s turn. Angry that she had not received an invitation, the aged fairy declared that the princess should prick her hand with a spindle and die.” It remains for the uninvited guest to introduce seriousness into the festivities, to offer a memento mori — a “remembrance of death.” The idea of “remembering” death may seem paradoxical; after all, death is in our future so how can we remember it? But if we understand prophecy as the history of the future, then we must say that (even for the princess) history teaches that death is in everyone’s future.

Suspecting trouble, a young fairy hid behind a curtain. After the aged fairy had spoken, she stepped forth to modify the curse: “The princess shall indeed prick her hand with a spindle. But instead of dying, she will fall into a slumber that will last a hundred years.” The curse is a Fall — a falling asleep, a loss of consciousness; a falling out of time, a loss of historical consciousness. It is as if the princess will be trapped in some sort of time machine while events will continue to go on all around her. Suspended between past and future, she will be frozen in an ahistorical now.

“At the end of fifteen or sixteen years,” the princess went exploring in the castle. In a tower, she came upon an old woman. In the version of the fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers, the date is more precise: “On the very day when she was fifteen years old.” Birthdays are one way we indirectly introduce children to periodization and our notions of history. History also appears in the story in another tacit way: in the constant contrasts between the “aged” fairy and the “youngest” fairy, the “old” woman in the tower and the princess at “the end of fifteen or sixteen years.” In other words, different characters are assigned histories of different lengths.

The princess did not know what the other was doing. “I am spinning,” the old woman explained. And because it was ordained, no sooner had the princess seized the spindle than she pricked her hand and fell into a deep sleep. We might wonder why the fairy tale gives such prominence to spinning rather than some other activity — singing, for example, or painting. The critic Marina Warner offers a suggestion when she points out that the word “fairy” — fata (Italian), hada (Spanish) — seems to be derived from “fata” or the Latin word for fate. In this feminine form, Warner suggests, the word “fairy” may refer to the goddess(es) of fate or destiny. This would seem to link the gift-bestowing and prophetic fairies in “Sleeping Beauty” with the Fates, those three old women in classical mythology who “spin” an individual’s destiny (their past, their present, and their future). In its use of fairies, then, and in the crucial importance given to spinning, Perrault’s tale may employ the ancient figures of the three Fates and even more ancient conceptions of the tripartite divisions of time that they embody.

Everyone in the castle fell asleep, and around the place grew trees and bushes so thick that no one could enter. Only the tops of the castle towers could be seen, and these only from a distance. Ruins are visible reminders of history. Consider ruins in children’s literature. What lessons do they teach? Rudyard Kipling is certainly making a point when he has Mowgli visit the ruins called the Cold Lairs in The Jungle Books: there Mowgli sees how a once mighty civilization fell. In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Badger talks with Mole about some ancient Roman ruins; and he observes that while people come and go, badgers remain. In children’s literature, then, ruins are historical reminders; they serve as mementos mori.

One day a prince saw the ruins. His servants told him the place was haunted by ghosts or the home of an ogre. An old peasant said, “More than fifty years ago I heard my father say that in this castle lies a princess. It is her doom to sleep for a hundred years.” Haunted houses, we should note, are always historical houses. It’s difficult to imagine a brand new house that is haunted. There must be an aroma of the past around a haunted place. But we should also note something else about this part of the Perrault’s tale. Regarding these ruins, some tell fanciful stories and others tell histories. What is the difference between them? How can we separate fiction from fact? The fairy tale suggests an answer when it indicates that histories are faithfully repeated. They are passed down. They are progeny. And the historian is a faithful son, a ra-conteur, a re-teller of stories. Finally, we might consider this important question: What tale does the old peasant tell the prince? There can only be one answer. It must be story of “The Sleeping Beauty” — this very one we are now reading.

The prince entered the castle and came to a golden chamber where he saw a beautiful princess. The hour of disenchantment had come and the princess awoke. “Is it you, dear prince?” she said. “You have taken a long time.” The comments the princess makes to the prince are absolutely remarkable. We know she has been asleep for a hundred years and dreaming. But her remarks tell us she has been awake inside of her dreams. She has been alert and looking forward, waiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled since she asks expectantly, “Is it you, dear prince?” And she has been aware of passing time and looking backward and measuring it since she observes, “You have taken a long time.” This mental state is sometimes called “lucid dreaming”: that unusual moment in our dream life when we wake up, as it were, in the middle of our dream and watch ourselves dreaming while we continue to dream. And this image of “being awake inside a dream” is a wonderful way to describe historical thinking.

The silhouettes that accompany the story appear in Arthur Rackham’s The Sleeping Beauty ed. Charles S. Evans (1920). For a related essay, see my comments on P.L. Travers’ “About the Sleeping Beauty.”

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