Sleeping Beauties: Tales of Rape, Immortality and Space Travel

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1899 watercolour painting captures the moment just before the famous kiss

For centuries the tale of a beautiful young woman who falls into a enchanted sleep and is awoken one hundred years later has captured the imagination of story tellers, artists and illustrators.  Readers familiar with Grimm’s fairytales and the Walt Disney 1959 movie may be surprised to learn of the violent details of rape and cannibalism that feature in medieval versions of the tale, and of an eerie version from China featuring ghosts. The questions of time travel, immortality, powerlessness and consent that the tale raises are timeless.

Sleeping Beauty in the Woods

The young woman awoken by a kiss has become an icon of fairy tales, but it is a relatively recent addition to the tale. The brothers Grimm included it in “Dornröschen” (Briar Rose), one of the stories in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales, 1812-15). In the original French story, “La Belle au Bois Dormant” (Sleeping Beauty in the Woods), the prince kneels by the bedside and the princess awakes. This was first published in Charles Perrault’s 1697 Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories and Tales of Times Past), probably better known as the Mother Goose tales.

The Grimm brothers made other changes to the Perrault’s tale, deleting the entire second half. The tale as told in most children’s picture books ends, as the German version does, with the marriage of Beauty and the Prince. The French tale carries on with a gruesome story of how the Prince’s mother, an ogress, plans to eat her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, but is foiled by the cook who deceives her with dishes of young lamb, goat and hind.  Perrault delightedly describes the sauces prepared for the supposedly cannibalistic meal.

Read the Grimms’ version of the tale (“Briar Rose”).

Read Perrault’s version of the tale (“Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”).

Illustrating the kiss

Many illustrators have captured the moment the prince stoops to kiss the sleeping girl. The most famous is Walt Disney’s version, used on much of the publicity for the 1959 film. Arthur Rackham’s silhouette illustrations dramatically show both the kiss and the awkening.

She looked so beautiful that he could not take his eyes off her, so he stooped down and gave her a kiss

“Briar Rose”, Grimms’ Household Tales

Gustave Doré’s engraving for Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, which does not include the kiss, depicts the prince kneeling. Edmund Dulac’s illustrations for the 1910 English edition of fairy tales based on Perrault’s version shows the moment the prince first sees the princess.

Medieval Sleeping Beauty

Two earlier versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale, one French and one Italian, contain distinctly adult themes that are not in Perrault’s version.

Troylus and Zellandine (France, c. 1300s)

The French romance Le Roman de Perceforest, first published around 1500, contains the story of Troylus and Zellandine.  This is thought to be a thirteenth-century tale.  In this version Troylus and Zellandine are already in love before the curse takes effect.  Troylus searches everywhere for Zellandine before finding her sleeping in a tower.  When he can’t wake her up he sleeps with her, exchanges rings and leaves.  Zellandine wakes up to discover that she is a mother when the baby she has given birth to sucks the piece of flax from her finger that has caused the deep sleep.

Although Zellandine eventually returns to live with Troylus in his kingdom, the tale is more morally complex than the fairy-tale romance.  Troylus does not impregnate Zellandine without an internal struggle.  He knows that it is wrong to sleep with her without her knowledge or consent, and their happily-ever-after is darkened by Zellandine’s sense of violation.

Sun, Moon and Talia (Italy, 1630s)

The Italian tale “Sole, Luna e Talia” (Sun, Moon and Talia), which appears in The Pentamerone (1634-6) by Giambattista Basile follows a similar plot line with Talia falling asleep after pricking her finger on some flax.

Believing her to be dead, Talia’s father places her in a velvet seat under a canopy and abandons the palace.  A king passing by on a hunting trip discovers her while looking for his falcon that has flown in at a window of the palace.  When he cannot wake her, Giambattista tells us, “after admiring her beauty awhile” he returns to his kingdom.  It is unclear, then, how Talia ends up pregnant with twins (Sun and Moon).  The twins are cared for by fairies until one of them suckles on her finger, removing the flax, and she awakes.

While the storyteller may be coy, the king’s wife, when she discovers that that King is visiting Talia, Sun and Moon in the palace, has no doubts about what has happened. You can read this story of adultery and revenge online here.

Sleeping Beauty in Space

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers (2016)

In the 2016 film Passengers, a malfunction in a hibernation pod causes a passenger on a spaceship travelling to a far-away colony to wake up 90 years before reaching his destination.  Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) then battles with the dilemma of whether to wake up Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful young woman he notices when walking among the pods, or to live out the rest of his life alone on the spaceship.

The issues of consent and trust in the film echo those of the original medieval tale of Troylus and Zellandine.

A Ghost tale from ninth-century China

A Chinese tale similar to sleeping beauty dates from the ninth century.  A young woman Zhang Yunrong is destined to die young.  She is helped by a Daoist master Shen (a Daoist is the Chinese equivalent of an alchemist), who reveals to her the secret of immortality.  He gives her a magic pill called ‘scarlet snow’, which, when ingested, prevents the body from corrupting after death.  He also instructs her to place a piece of jade in her mouth to prevent her soul from flying to heaven.  In one hundred years, if she meets a living man and exchanges seminal energy with him, she will achieve immortality.  She follows his instructions and dies soon after.

Zhao Chun, Sleeping Beauty

A hundred years later a banished official named Xue Zhao discovers Yunrong’s soul in an abandoned palace deep in a forest.  The two marry and after a few nights spent together Yunrong tells Xue Zhao that her body is alive again.  Upon opening the coffin he discovers that this is the case.  Both achieve immortality, and continue to live together, their bodies showing no sign of age.

The tale of Zhang Yunrong is thought to have been influenced by a now lost version of the European tale of Sleeping Beauty, brought to China through trading networks.


Heidi Anne Heiner, Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales from Around the World. Surlalune Fairy Tale series (2010)

Heidi Heiner’s anthology includes “Sun, Moon and Talia”, “Troylus and Zellandine”. With an introduction to the history and interpretation of the tales.