Fairy tales are intwined in our imagination and our spirituality. As Jane Yolan writes, one of the subtlest and yet most important functions of myth and fantasy is to “provide a framework or model for an individual’s belief system.” (1)
In the Reclaiming spiritual tradition, we often use fairy tales in healing and self development work. These stories act as warp and weft as we weave and spin complex ritual arcs and other events that take place at extended Witch Camp sessions. In Twelve Wild Swans, Starhawk points out that fairy stories are “more than just encouraging and inspiring. They are also templates for soul healing from Europe’s ancestral wise women and healers. When the ancient Earth-based cultures of Europe were destroyed, these stories remained.” (2)
Unlike myths, fairy tales are expected to change over time. “A fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep one version or translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage.” (Philip Pullman) (3) Even though change is welcomed however, we should not lose sight of the older versions of fairy tales because they can offer us clues about how our ancestors related to their world in many ways including spiritually. And, by taking a closer look at the ways these stories have changed over time we can better understand how our own world view has evolved (and not always for the better).
I would like to propose that a fairy tale’s evolution does not have to be always marching forward like the hero’s journey. Perhaps it is also valuable for us to think of this evolution more cyclically, like the heroine’s journey (see Mary Sharratt’s post on February 13). During this challenging time of pandemics, economic upheaval and rapid climate change, there is a lot to be learned by spiraling back to earlier versions of fairy tales and appreciating the messages they once offered that are no longer found in the sanitized versions our children and grandchildren are shown on the Disney channel.
Sleeping Beauty, one of our oldest and most enduring fairy tales, seems to me especially relevant as we “sleep” through this ongoing pandemic.
* * * *
What are you spinning old woman? the princess asked.
I am spinning the future of the world, my pretty child. Come nearer and watch the way I gently pull and twist the yarn. See the spindle spin – always clockwise, always steady, flowing round and round . . .
Curious, the princess moved toward the spinning wheel. Pulled like the wool roving, closer and closer to the spindle, until she too was spun into the filament of time . . .
And she dreamed that the forests grew stronger,
the rivers ran cleaner,
the winds blew fresher
and the meadow herbs and flowers
turned their faces to the loving sun.
Perhaps she dreamed the world we all wished it could be.
Perhaps her dreams were our dreams.
You may know this story. Perhaps it was told to you when you were young. A reassuring story about a handsome prince who wakened the princess with a gentle kiss and they lived happily ever after . . .
But there is another, older story you may not know. In this mostly forgotten tale, the prince rapes the princess and then he leaves her, still sleeping.
her skin and limbs are dissolving into
earth’s shadowy places.
The molecules of her cells are disintegrating
and the strands of her DNA weave like a weft
among the warp of a broken landscape
while her neurons tangle
and travel mycelial trails.
And she dreams that the forests are ravaged
and the rivers are polluted.
The winds carry toxic chemicals,
and the meadow herbs and flowers are churned
under the wheels of tractors
while the helpless sun looks on.
Perhaps she is dreaming the world as we have allowed it to become.
Perhaps her dreams are our dreams.
But wait, the story is not over yet. As she sleeps, her body will change. Her belly will grow,
and soon enough, twin babies will be born.
Such pretty little jewels. . .
Who knows how they will survive?
But they will. And one day a sweet mouth will mistake her finger for a breast and suck out the poison.
And then the kingdom will waken.
The princess will no longer be dreaming.
Her children will have opened her eyes.
Perhaps her children will be our children.
* * *
For at least 800 years, this primeval story has been told and retold. The earliest known record can be found in the Tale of Troylus and Zellandinewhich was included in the anonymous prose romance, Perceforest written in the late middle ages between 1330 and 1344. Three hundred years later in 1634, the tale was told as Sun, Moon and Talia by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile in his collection of fairy tales titled The Pentamerone (published posthumously). The rape of the sleeping princess was replaced with a non consensual kiss by Charles Perrault in 1697 when La Belle au Bois Dormant was published and almost 100 years later the Brother’s Grimm told it as Little Briar Rose (1812). (4)
I believe that the earlier (pre-Perrault) versions contain lessons that are very relevant to the climate challenges we are facing in our world today. Not only do they provide an analogy of how humans have raped and pillaged our mother earth, they also leave us with a powerful message about how our children and young people such as Greta Thunberg are waking us up to the realities of climate change and leading us into the future.
(1) Jane Yolan, Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood: 2000.
(2) Starhawk: The Twelve Wild Swans: A Journey to the Realm of Magic, Healing and Action, 2001.
(3) Philip Pullman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. A New English Version: 2012.
(4) For more on the history and versions of Sleeping Beauty, see the collection at Heidi Anne Heiner’s amazing website https://www.surlalunefairytales.com/
Many thanks to my friend Judith Wouk who suggested I submit this piece to FAR and also to the amazing storyteller, writer, fairy tale explorer and teacher Dr. Joanna Gilar for her ongoing encouragement and support.
Diane Perazzo is a writer, editor, poet and Reclaiming “eco witch” who lives in Ottawa Canada — unceded original territory of the Algonquin, St Lawrence Iroquoian and Anishinabewaki, (ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᒃ) people. For many years Diane has written and edited resources to enhance wellness and improve health equity for those at risk of physical and mental health challenges. As she eases into her crone years, her writing has become more focused on crafting words that strive to echo the magical and mythic voices of the living land, especially plant beings. Her poetry and stories can be found at www.dianeperazzo.com.