Since I’ve been teaching a class on fairy tales, I’ve been asked, by students and by people who are simply interested in the subject, what fairy tales “mean.” And I have to say that in my personal opinion, they don’t “mean” anything. Bruno Bettelheim thought they did: he thought he could use Freudian analysis to explain their psychological significance, which would be timeless and universal, since human beings were always the same everywhere. Except they’re not. They differ because of the times or cultures in which they live, because of race or gender or age. They differ even as individuals. Fairy tales have lasted so long precisely because different versions have meant different things to different people at different times.
So I think it makes as much sense for me to talk about what a fairy tale means to me personally as to try to find some sort of universal meaning. To me, fairy tales are about the journey of the soul, and the one I’ve been thinking about lately, because I’ve been teaching it, is “Sleeping Beauty.” So what does “Sleeping Beauty” mean to me?
The fairy tale falls into three parts: the gifts of the fairies, the hundred-year sleep, the awakening.
I. The Gifts of the Fairies
We are all given gifts by the fairies, and I think it’s useful to be honest about what they are. After all, they are gifts — we did nothing to deserve them, we can only be grateful for them. Seven good fairies came to my christening. (But be careful: it’s difficult to tell a good fairy from a bad fairy. Gifts come with a price, and what may seem like a curse can turn out to be a gift in disguise.)
The first fairy said, “I give her intelligence. She will always do well on standardized tests, and so she will be able to get into some of the best schools in the country. However, she will also be smart enough to see that the value systems she is is expected to live by are meaningless. This will make her try to live a different kind of life, which will cause her difficulty and heartache.” I told you, didn’t I? Gifts come with a price. Nevertheless, they are gifts, and we have to be grateful for them.
The second fairy said, “I give her strength. She will not always feel strong, but she will always be able to do what she needs to. She will always get through.” I’m grateful to that fairy.
The third fairy said, “I give her grace. She will be physically graceful, and will love to dance. But more than that, she will be able to accept defeat, and when it comes, she will be able to say, oh well, what next? She will have to do this more often than she would like.”
The fourth fairy said, “I give her empathy. She will feel what others are feeling, without wishing or trying to. She will not be able to stop doing so, and sometimes she will have to hide in a small room, or in a corner of her mind, simply to get away from other people.”
The fifth fairy said, “I give her beauty. However, she will never be able to see it herself, or believe in it, not when she looks into the mirror. She will, on the other hand, be able to see the beauty in the world, and in others.”
The sixth fairy said, “I give her poetry: the ability to hear the rhythms of language, and to write in language as though words were her natural element. This will be the most important gift she receives, and what will save her.”
That was, of course, when the bad fairy stepped in and said, “I curse the child. While she is still a child, she will lose her home: her country, her family. And she will never again find a place where she belongs.”
Of course, the seventh good fairy was hiding out (I think they’d been through this routine before). She stepped forward and said, “I can’t change the curse, but I can give her a gift that will help her bear it. She will always be a good traveler, able to pack efficiently and create temporary homes for herself wherever she goes.” I think that fairy was supposed to give me either humility or self-confidence, either of which would have been useful gifts. But she had to mitigate the bad fairy’s curse, you see.
We are all given gifts, we are all cursed in our own ways. That is the first way in which we are like the Sleeping Beauty.
II. The Hundred-Year Sleep
The sleep doesn’t always last for a hundred years, and it doesn’t necessarily happen once. It’s the state in which we fall asleep metaphorically, in which we forget who we are. I think I fell asleep for a while in my own life, during the years I was trying to finish the PhD. There’s one thing I can tell you about that experience. Awakening? Is so. Incredibly. Painful.
III. The Awakening
In different versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” the princess awakens in a variety of ways. Awakening to the prince’s kiss is actually a fairly modern development. In some of the earliest versions, the princess sleeps right through two pregnancies.
The thing about fairy tales is, we can always rewrite them. There are always new versions to be written. In my version, at some point the princess realizes she’s asleep, and she tries to wake up. She tries several times, each time thinking she is awake, but eventually she succeeds. She sits up in bed, and instead of a prince, sees a sign on the wall. I’m pretty sure it was left by the bad fairy. (I mentioned, didn’t I, that you can’t actually tell whether fairies are good or bad? They are both, and neither, and either at different times.) The sign says,
YOU MUST SAVE YOURSELF
Which, I’m pretty sure, is the beginning of a new fairy tale.