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 dreamt 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 how a handsome prince wakens the princess with a kiss and they lived happily ever after . . .
But there is another, older story you may not know. In this now forgotten tale, the prince has his way with the princess and when he is finished, 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.
And 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.
Dedicated to Greta Thunberg and all the children and youth who are awakening us to the realities of climate change and bravely leading us forward into a new world.
Sleeping Beauty, one of our oldest and most enduring fairy tales, seems to me especially relevant as we “sleep” through this ongoing pandemic.
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 Zellandine which 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). La Belle au Bois Dormant was written by Charles Perrault in 1697 and once again, almost 100 years later, the Brother’s Grimm retold it again in Little Briar Rose (1812).
Until the Grimm Brother’s version, the story was not the innocent Disney princess story we know today. In these earlier tellings, the prince (or a king) discovers the sleeping princess and, instead of waking her with a kiss, he rapes her in her sleep and leaves her pregnant. Eventually she gives birth to a child (or twins) who awaken her by sucking on her finger and pulling out the poisoned flax.
For more on the history and versions of this deep and everlasting tale, see the collection at Heidi Anne Heiner’s amazing website https://www.surlalunefairytales.com/
For a further exploration and discussion of this fairytale and its implications, see my article Sleeping Beauty: An ancient tale for these challenging times published on the Feminism and Religion Website Blog; April 24, 2021.
Image: Sleeping Beauty, by Henry Meynell Rheam, 1899