About the Sleeping Beauty (Part II)

Sleeping Beauty 2

This week we’ll continue the analysis of Pamela L. Travers’s book “About the Sleeping Beauty”. Pamela’s retelling of the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale takes place somewhere in Arabia, in the palace of the Sultan and the Sultana. (The curious choice for the setting of the story was discussed in last week’s post.)

Before we continue with the analysis here is an outline of Pamela’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

Outline of Pamela’s retelling

Just as the King and the Queen in the Grimm’s fairy tale, the Sultan and the Sultana desperately want a child. One day the Sultana, grieving by a lake, encounters a frog who tells her that she will soon have a child. As prophesised by the frog, a daughter is soon born; The baby must be christened and the Wise Women of the kingdom must be invited to the christening. Unfortunately, the Sultan has only twelve golden plates to offer to each of the Wise Women and, there are thirteen of them living in the kingdom. A decision is made, one of the Wise Women must stay at home. But which one is to be excluded from the gathering is left to chance. The Sultan orders his servant to give the golden plates to the first twelve Wise Women he crosses on his path. On the day of the christening the Thirteenth Wise Woman arrives at the gathering and avenges the injustice she has suffered by casting a fatal spell on the princess.  On the day of her fifteenth birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The Twelfth Wise Woman, who still has a gift to bestow, modifies the curse. Instead of death, the fate of the princess is changed for one hundred years long sleep. At the end of this period a prince is to arrive and kiss the princess back to consciousness.  

After this unfortunate incident, the Sultan, a man of action, forbids the use of spindles in the kingdom and all such devices are destroyed. Obviously, the Sultan’s wit is not sufficient to counter the magic spell and the fateful day arrives. The princess, alone in the palace, begins to explore the surroundings. Her investigations lead her into a courtyard which she has never seen before. In the courtyard, there is a tall tower. Curious, she climbs the stairs to the top of the tower where she finds a door with an old key in the keyhole. She unlocks the door and walks into a room where a mysterious figure in a cloak is spinning a thread upon a spindle. The princess fascinated by the strange tool wants to try to spin it. But as soon as she touches the spindle she pricks her finger, and falls asleep. Then, the entire Kingdom follows her in her sleep and a thick hedge of thorns grows out of nowhere and surrounds the palace.

Pamela L. Travers goes on to tell the reader the story of a family of woodcutters living at the edge of the hedge of thorns. They become the guardians of the fairy-tale and witness the trials of many princes who find gruesome deaths trying to cross the hedge of thorns.

When the hundred years are finally over the right prince arrives. The woodcutter warns him of the danger but the prince, set on his life quest, cannot be dissuaded. As soon as the prince approaches the hedge the thorns untangle and make way for him to pass. And this is how the prince, effortlessly, enters the castle and finds Sleeping Beauty.

As you can see Pamela L. Travers did not change much to the plot of the story. Her variation on its theme is a sort of elaboration of details around the different characters. These details are what I want to explore here.

We’ll begin with the analysis of the female characters in the story mainly because they seem to be the most revealing of Pamela L. Travers’s emotional states.

The Sultana

We meet the Sultana at the very beginning of the story, a woman desperate to have a child.

Each morning she grieves by a lake until one day a frog comes out of the water and asks her for the cause of her grieving. The Sultana’s response caught my attention: I ache for what I lack.

Didn’t Pamela herself ache for what she lacked? Wasn’t she always trying to fill an inner void? Wasn’t she always searching for that mysterious “something else”? Didn’t she cross the ocean to come out on the other side of the world hoping to find comfort?  

Pamela L. Travers never had a child of her own and adopting one did not change her inner discomfort. In fact, the adoption of her son Camillus only further complicated matters but that is a subject for another post.

Back to the retelling of Sleeping Beauty. When the frog announces to the Sultana that she is to have a child in less than a year, the Sultana exclaims:

“ ‘How can you know that?’ she protested, with a shade of irritation. For the truth was that all unknown to herself she had become so fond of her sorrow that now the mere thought of loosing it made her feel naked and bereft.

This passage stopped me in my reading tracks. The phenomenon of identifying oneself with one’s suffering is not easily grasped unless one has experienced it first hand or has witnessed someone close grapple with such a problem. Since Pamela was quite self absorbed I can only conclude that this insight comes from her own experience. It is possible that she held on to her anxieties and her depression for fear of being left naked and vulnerable and without any clear identity.  That might have contributed to her failure to heal her emotional wounds. Maybe some part of her refused to get better. Maybe it felt safer to play the role of the sleeper awaiting the awakening.

It is rather remarkable that all her writings, especially the Mary Poppins stories, are infused with a dreamlike state quality. Could it also be that Pamela L. Travers feared losing her writing if she was to lose her sorrow?

And there is the question of the timing of the awakening. In Sleeping Beauty, time has no effect on the princess while she sleeps, but in our so called “ordinary” world time does have an impact. The stages of life through which we all must progress cannot be stretched infinitely without dire consequences. It is then important to notice that Pamela wrote “About the Sleeping Beauty” in her seventies. Isn’t that a little late to be still waiting for a prince, or some other outside intervention to awaken? Which makes me wonder, is there such a time as too late of a time to awaken to one’s life? Wouldn’t the realization of all the wasted time and all the wasted opportunities be too painful to endure? Ironically Pamela lived almost for one hundred years, she died at the age of 96:

 At the end of her life when we did talk together a great deal she did not feel that she had come to a point of completion. I think she still felt that there were many many things that she wished to do, much more to understand.”

(Patricia Feltham, Documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins”)

Now that is extremely sad…

At the end of the story it is the Sultana that ponders on all that has happened to her daughter.

And the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that her daughter had stepped, as it were, into another dimension – into, in fact, a fairy-tale. And if this were so, she told herself, she would have to look for the meaning. For she knew very well that fairy tales are not as simple as they appear; that the more innocent and candid they seem, the wilier one has to be in one’s efforts to find out  what they are up to.

So, pondering, she would sit under the cypress tree, secretly telling herself the story and hoping that the story at last would tell its secret to her. Who was the maiden, who the Prince, and what the thorny hedge.

No one can say that Pamela lacked in willingness to interpret the meaning of Sleeping Beauty. However, what can be said is that she failed to interpret it in the context of her own life. Because that is what she needed fairy tales for, to find a map for her own life experiences.

Four inevitably if the fairy tales are our prototypes – which is what they are designed to be – we come to the point where we are forced to relate the stories and their meanings to ourselves…what is it in us that at a certain moment falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us, what aspect of ourselves.

(P. L. Travers, Afterword, “About the Sleeping Beauty”)

I believe that what was hiding deep within her was little Helen Lyndon Goff, all scared and lonely and feeling unworthy of love.

In conclusion to this post, the character of the Sultana can be viewed as an expression of Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of lack and her desire to understand the meaning of her own life story.

In next week’s post, we’ll examine the two other female characters in the story: Sleeping Beauty and the Thirteenth Wise Woman, and their meaning related to Pamela L. Travers’s own life. I hope you stay tuned.