Conner Shaw

The Beauty in the Sleeping Woods… Take that, Translators

The fairy tale, “Sleeping Beauty,” which leads off Perrault’s 1697 volume, provides a great example of the predicament mentioned in my introduction to the website. For instance, the original in French actually reads “The Beauty in the Sleeping Woods” (Belle au bois dormant). Although one might claim this as semantically irrelevant, this slightly altered translation is evidence of a larger problem: reading things into the story, such as obvious sexism against women that is not necessarily present in Perrault’s version. While it is true that the female protagonist of the tale does spend 100 years sleeping, the original title of Perrault’s version gives a stronger suggestion that it is the woods that have an exterior effect on her. Interestingly, and not by accident, a “sleeping beauty” is now used to describe “a potential takeover target that has not yet been put in play; a company that has been chosen as attractive for takeover by a potential acquirer.” From this image it is clear that the Sleeping Beauty that we have come to know and associate with the protagonist of the tale of the same name is nothing more than a comatose target to be acted upon.

This is not so in Perrault’s tale. This essay will present a close reading and interpretation of various scenes in Perrault’s “Beauty in the Sleeping Woods. The circumstances surrounding the scene of the heroine’s birth will be examined to determine the personality and capacity of the princess as an energetic protagonist. As proof of this energy, the scenes of the spindle and also the princess’s awakening will be used to furnish a response to the princess as an inactive, powerless woman. As has been stated, Perrault’s tales were written in a specific geographical and temporal context. It will be shown that certain facets of the tale serve as anchors to these two contextual aspects. Attention will also be given to the morality, the character of the ogress, and also statements made about love as a way of interrogating what seems prescriptive and what seems descriptive in Perrault’s writing.

The Surprisingly Active (Sleeping) Princess

When the reader of Perrault’s “Beauty in the Sleeping Woods” (henceforth BSW) is introduced to the princess, she is anything but timid and inactive. The beginning of the tale features an extravagant celebration thrown on behalf of the birth of the princess. The celebration is attended by seven fairies who endow her with various gifts; unsurpassed beauty, the spirit of an angel (synonymous with intelligence and wit, according to the 1694 edition of the dictionary of the French Academy), grace, the ability to dance, sing, and play all instruments perfectly. These gifts clearly reflect someone who does more than sit around day after day. She is groomed from childhood to become an empowered woman capable of great things which are otherwise unattainable for a passive, powerless woman.

Directly after this scene the reader is introduced to the same princess 15 or 16 years later. This scene, too, presents a young woman who is, again, not dormant. The princess runs from room to room in the castle until she discovers an older woman who is working on the infamous spinning wheel with her spindle. We are presented with a surprisingly energetic young woman who is intrigued by her surroundings and is somewhat of an explorer. Because of the historical attachment to themes and plots discussed above, we think we know what happens next. However, a close study of the dialogue and words of Perrault reveal more about the story than just the pricking of a finger.

When the princess, who is energetically exploring the castle, finds the old women, it is the former who engages the conversation. She asks what the old woman is doing and asks if she can give it a try. Perrault mentions that it is due to her spirited personality (borderline careless as the description “étourdie” would suggest) that she is pricked by the spindle and falls into her slumber. From this scene, the princess is seen as an energetic woman who dominates a social interaction between herself and another. This is not an isolated incident. The climax of the tale is, of course, the awakening of the princess by the prince. However, a close examination of this interaction reveals that the prince’s role in her awakening is perhaps not as powerful as subsequent retellings (and interestingly self-proclaimed “faithful” translations of Perrault’s version) would suggest. When the princess awakens, Perrault’s tale uses the reflexive verb “s’éveiller” – to wake oneself. It is most likely due to the prince’s presence that the enchantment comes to an end but it is as though of her own accord the princess awakens from her sleep. Similar to the interaction with the old woman at the spindle, the princess takes the leading role in the ensuing dialogue. “Are you my prince? You certainly took your time” (C. Jones translation). Not only is it the princess who opens the conversation, she does so in a surprisingly accusatory tone with the verb faire attendre in French. Nevertheless, her brazen conduct in these interactions is not surprising to the reader who remembers that she was endowed from birth with angelic intelligence and grace.

Cultural Context

Fairy tales are universal, aren’t they? The cultural allusions often employed by Perrault suggest a more local reading of his tales, both temporally and geographically. In BSW, the princess marries into a family that features an ogress stepmother as its matriarch. Upon discovering that her son has fathered two kids with a beautiful wife, her base instincts take over. When the prince, now king, leaves for war, the queen calls for her butler to prepare her granddaughter to be eaten. She adds, “…and I want to eat her with Sauce-robert”. Sauce-robert is a one of the mother sauces in French cooking and appears in Francois-Pierre de la Varenne’s Le Cuisinier François (1651), the founding text of modern French cuisine. A similarly specific reference is made after the princess passes out from pricking her finger. In an attempt to revive her, “…they rub her temples with the Queen of Hungary’s water”. Hungary water, as it is commonly known, was the first alcohol-based perfume in Europe and was often used as a remedy, similar to how it is depicted in the tale. These two allusions serve as localizing references that place the tale in a specific place and time; that of seventeenth-century Europe and, more specifically, France.

Another allusion serves to temporally confine the tale. “…[the fairy] touched her wand to all those who were in the castle (except for the king and queen), governesses, maids of honor, ladies-in-waiting, gentlemen, officers, stewards, cooks, scullions, errand boys, guards, porters, pages, footmen.” This entourage is temporally specific to what would be seen in a courtly setting in seventeenth-century France. Together with the two aforementioned references, these cultural allusions make BSW less a universal story and more a story that was written for a specific culture, thus transforming and enriching its message.

Prescription or Description?

If Perrault was writing for a specific audience, what does that then bring to the tale? A debate surrounds the work of Perrault in regards to his intent in writing his tales. Was he advocating that women act a certain way, sometimes (but not always as is evidenced in a close reading of BSW) submissive and helpless like certain feminine figures of his tales? Or was he describing what he saw around him, a complicated, rough situation that is difficult to navigate and that poses many obstacles and snares for women?  Or was it both? In that case, it could be argued that Perrault was warning them by describing the situation and then offering “prescriptive” advice for successful social navigation. After looking at Perrault’s work in defense of women before ever writing fairy tales (see L’Apologie des femmes, 1694) and, more importantly, reexamining his fairy tales via close textual readings, this author believes that they are prescriptive warnings, although not as universal as one might expect. In this light, the moral of BSW offers a simple, yet lifesaving lesson to French women of the seventeenth century.

Prescription or Description? – Ambiguous Morality

As has been stated, what has survived from Perrault’s fairy tales are universal themes and plots. Accompanying these resilient elements are the morals, or lessons, that the tales are said to put forth. These lessons have been viewed as simplistic and, for the most part, directed towards children. The moral of BSW is neither. The moral of the tale teaches that to wait for some time before getting married is natural and that one is no less happy, nor does he/she miss out on anything by doing so. Perrault writes in his moral, “Waiting some time to have a spouse, rich, handsome, gallant, and gentle, is a natural thing”. Perrault continues by writing that his tale “…wants to make us understand… that nothing is lost by waiting” (my translation). On a careful read, this detail should throw the reader for a loop. After all, although the princess waits 100 years until her marriage, she does so while agelessly sleeping; that is to say, without waiting. Moreover, just after her awakening, “…without wasting time”, she gets married to the prince. These short moments have not permitted her to meet the family of her new husband, notably her new stepmother. Thus, she can reasonably expect the opposite of Perrault’s promise in his moral. And that is what she gets. Because her new stepmother is an ogress who delights in human flesh, her lack of familial knowledge puts not only her life in danger, but her kids’ as well. This is a beautiful example where the supposed simplicity of Perrault is misleading. Thanks to a close examination, we can that this moral does not illustrate the story, it illustrates the opposite. If the reader lightly skims over the moral of this tale, he/she risks completely missing the irony that this counterexample brings to light. In essence, we see here a mélange of description and prescription that serve together as a warning about jumping into marriage as soon as you wake up and before you have time to ask if your prince’s mother is, by chance, flesh-eating.

Prescription or Description? – Burning Love

It is important to note that the above warning is not, for all its concern, a caution against love and marriage. At the time of the princess’s awakening, the other inhabitants of the castle who were under the same spell awake as well. Describing their physical state, Perrault subtly writes, “…because all of them were not in love, they were dying of hunger”. The prince and the princess couldn’t help but fall in love with one another, and it caused them to ignore other important physical needs such as hunger. is the story portrays love as something that happened naturally and, as we say these days, something that we don’t choose to do but that happens to us. This same spontaneity characterizes the prince’s response when he learns of a castle holding a beautiful sleeping princess who awaits the arrival of a prince to break the spell. Upon hearing this, he becomes “hot and bothered” by this idea and feels an inner flame that inspires [?] him to adventure. Moreover, it is almost as if he was meant (another form of being forced) to play this exact role in this adventure and to fall in love with the princess. These two scenes of inevitability and inclination toward love serve to show that it is natural and shouldn’t be fought against, more or less because it can’t be. The warning and judgment that Perrault puts forth may instead be about what should happen after falling uncontrollably in love, such as meeting the family one will inherit when one gets married.

Prescription or Description? – Ogress Stepmother

Coming back to the intriguing character of the ogress, and again focusing on the question of prescription and description, what is described and warned against in terms of what her character represents? In the tale, the ogress queen is the mother of the prince who marries the princess. The prince’s father, a king, “…only married her due to her vast wealth”. As mentioned above, she also has an insatiable craving to feast on humans, specifically children. In short, she can be read as a member of the royal class bent on oppressing and devouring those who are under her. This theme of cannibalistic figures in power is seen in other tales by Perrault, such as in “Le Petit Poucet” (Hop-o’-My-Thumb). It is improbable that since Perrault is not prescribing this sort of behavior for the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy, it is likely and typical of Perrault’s style, that he is describing this sort of behavior to warn against it. The character of the ogress plays an important role in not only warning against oppressive behaviors, but also presenting and interrogating a class system whose critique was very problematic at the time Perrault was writing. This sort of brave accounting of social concerns of his day suggests that other so-called prescriptive models of behavior (the princess, for one) might be descriptive and cautionary, as well.


“The Beauty in the Sleeping Woods,” like all Perrault’s fairy tales, is a complex text that offers something more concrete than universal lessons and culturally indiscriminate themes. The tale’s vocabulary sheds a new light of complexity, intricacy, and cultural richness on Perrault that is easily overlooked by the modern, simplistic view of fairy tales. As Charles Perrault himself wrote in the dedication accompanying the 1697 volume, “[these fairy tales] all contain very wise morals which are discovered, more or less, according to the degree to which readers penetrate them”. In a sense, “The Beauty in the Sleeping Woods” can be as falsely simple or as truthfully complex as we want it to be.