When I wrote the post About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I) I did not expect to have material for more than a couple of posts. Yet, here we are, Part V with the subject still not exhausted… There are simply so many things to be said…about the book and about Pamela L. Travers.
It is of course impossible to get a completely undistorted image of another person, especially when one does not have the opportunity of a direct experience. Fortunately, in the case of writers we have their work to dissect and investigate. Willingly or not, they always leave something of themselves in their works and Pamela L. Travers was no exception to that rule.
Sleeping Beauty’s inability to cross the threshold in to maidenhood
Pamela L. Travers was not the only one interested in the meaning of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, Joseph Campbell, the renowned American mythologist and writer, was also amongst those who commented on its meaning. Although, his vision, in opposition to Pamela’s, was quite clear and affirmative. He saw in this fairy tale the pattern of a little girl refusing to grow up. (I wonder, did Pamela know of Campbell’s work? What did she think of it? Wish I had the answers…) Anyhow, in my opinion, Campbell’s interpretation is probably closer to the truth of the fairy tale than Pamela’s fabrications, original as they may be.
Yet, can we really talk about a refusal to grow up? Doesn’t the word refusal imply a conscious decision not to do something? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Sleeping Beauty was unable to move on to the next stage in her life? The question then is why? What caused her inability?
Sleeping Beauty is locked into her childhood by the power of the Thirteenth Wise Woman’s spell, but the spell is the consequence of something else. And that something else is directly related to Sleeping Beauty’s inability to grow.
Why didn’t Pamela L. Travers consider these questions in her Afterword? Maybe because she failed to properly identify, both, the nature of the threshold which the princess had to cross, and the identity of the guardians of that threshold. Pamela, in my opinion mistakenly, saw the Thirteen Wise Woman as the guardian of the threshold in Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale:
The Thirteenth Wise Woman stands as a guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold may be passed. …. Without the Wicked Fairy, there would have been no story. She, not the heroine, is the goddess in the machine.”
But isn’t the purpose of thresholds and their guardians to test the heroine’s ability to move on to the next stage of her journey. Aren’t they the psychic growing pains of the heroine? Thresholds and their guardians are intimately linked to the heroine and not to the story. Without the heroine, there is no story. And, if it was for the Thirteenth Wise Woman, there would have been no story, her spell was one of death. It was the Twelfth Wise Woman who modified the spell to a hundred-year sleep.
Who are then the guardians of the threshold in the story? Well, since the princess is arrested in her childhood it is only logical to turn our attention towards her parents and to examine their roles in the story.
The Sultan and the Sultana as the threshold guardians in the story
The true cause of Sleeping Beauty’s stunted growth is caused by her parents’ inadequate nurturing skills. After all, it was her father’s error of judgment, his lack of consideration for the Thirteenth Wise Woman that aroused her vengefulness to which the unfortunate Sleeping Beauty happened to be the recipient?
And in Pamela L. Travers’s retelling, the Sultan was not quite happy with the birth of the child:
The Sultan received the news with satisfaction tempered with disappointment. “I could have asked for nothing better, except, of course, a son. … we need a successor to the throne and a son would have been very useful.” At that, as though she felt herself to be unwelcomed, the baby set up a doleful weeping…
Now after this, how can one expect the Sultan to be fully involved and interested in his daughter’s growth?
Why did Pamela add this detail to the story? Was that her experience too? It is possible. She was the eldest of three daughters. Maybe her father longed for a son too…Maybe this is why Pamela felt inadequate…
Still, the responsibility of Sleeping Beauty’s fate does not all fall on the Sultan’s shoulders. The Sultana does have a role to play even though Pamela L. Travers does not dwell much on it in her Afterword. But curiously enough, in her retelling, she elaborates on the Sultana’s longing for a child:
“Here,” she (the Sultana) said touching her belly. “And here,” she said, touching her breast. “And here” she said, touching the inner crease of her elbow, “I ache for what I lack”.
And then after the baby is born:
“…the Sultana holding her baby in her arms, was utterly content. She had no ache anywhere and she felt that she lacked nothing.”
Now, if Sleeping Beauty was filling the hole in her mother’s heart how can one expect the Sultana to be willing to let go of Sleeping Beauty and set her free when the time comes? Isn’t the passivity of the Sultana and her unwillingness to contradict her husband in the story just that, the unwillingness to lead her daughter into maidenhood.
Could it be that the story is telling us that Sleeping Beauty’s fate is the consequence of her parents’ mistakes; that no matter how many virtues a child may posses if those virtues are not recognized by the parents, chances are the child will remain unconscious of its intrinsic value, unless brought to its attention by some loving presence, in this case the prince.
The Sultan’s and Sultana’s absence from the palace on the fatidic day of Sleeping Beauty’s fifteenth birthday is another representation of their inadequate parenting, their inability to lead their child to the next stage of her life.
And by choosing to turn the key on the door leading to the unknown, Sleeping Beauty begins her adventure into the underworld of her unconscious mind. The adventure to which Gurdjieff, Pamela’s guru, called his followers:
The real adventure to which he (Gurdjieff) calls any man courageous enough to attempt it is that of daring to look down into the abyss of his own unconscious. Can we, like Theseus, enter our inner labyrinth, at the risk of never meeting the Minotaur, of never seeing daylight again, deceived by an infernal game of echoes and false exits as in a never-ending course of psychoanalysis.
René Zuber, “Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?
What goes on in Sleeping Beauty’s unconscious mind? The story doesn’t tell, but the fact that the princess needs the prince’s help suggests that she was lost into her inner labyrinth. Why didn’t Pamela explore that aspect? I wish someone asked her that question?
Another thought comes to mind. I read an excerpt somewhere from one of Gurdjieff’s talks (which unfortunately I cannot trace back now and quote) and which is relevant here because it deals with family history and karmic bonds. The basic idea was that we all, in our lives, pay for our ancestors’ actions. It would have been interesting to ask Pamela about that too…
Now, why was it that Pamela L. Travers did not see the most simple and obvious interpretation of the story? Why was she looking for some other mystical explanation? Could it be that she was Sleeping Beauty in her own life?