Now’s the perfect time to reawaken Sleeping Beauty

Perhaps because we are loath to see the things we love decline and fall, we have imagined places of frozen beauty, such as Venice, from which time seems to be excluded, places in which sans souci becomes status quo. From the palace of Kapilavastu that Buddha’s father fortified to prevent his son from seeing the suffering of this world, to Prince Prospero’s cloister where the Red Death was not supposed to enter, from the monastery of Shangri-La high in the mountains of Tibet, to the room of Kaiser Barbarossa’s castle in which the Emperor still sleeps his ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep, places that attempt to stop the grinding wheels of time appear in all our literatures.

Over many centuries, visitors have entered Venice as they enter someone else’s dream, as witnesses to something that does not seem to have a material existence, an emblem of frozen time. Perhaps it was this image of the city that inspired the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile, during his stay in Venice sometime in the last years of the 16th century, to write a version of the old folk tale of Sleeping Beauty he called “Sun, Moon and Talia.” 

In Basile’s story, the princess Talia is cursed by an evil fairy to die when she pricks her finger on a splinter of flax but, thanks to the counter-spell of a good fairy, the sleep of death is transformed into a long peaceful sleep; in later versions, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle and is woken by true love’s kiss. Rufus Norris’s production of Hex at the National Theatre places the stress on the supposedly bad fairy’s good intentions: her blessing has unfortunately turned into a curse, and she has to strive to make things right again. After all, this is supposed to be a fairy tale and everyone must live happily ever after.

In English, the story as we know it today (largely thanks to Disney) is named after the sleeping princess hidden in a thicket of brambles; in French, in Perrault’s version, it is the forest that carries the epithet; in German, the Brothers Grimm used the thicket of briar rose to give both the princess and the story their names. 

The first-known version of the tale, however, would not have appealed to Disney. Composed in France in the 14th century but not printed until 1528, the Arthurian Roman de Perceforest that inspired Basile tells of a wandering knight who discovers the princess asleep, is smitten by her loveliness, and promptly rapes her. There is something necrophilic in the love of dormant beauty.