Monday, 8 December 2008

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat—EXALTAVIT HUMILES. There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfand, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.

This insight by that great Victorian prophet of wonder and fairyland, G.K. Chesterton, is full of tangents that could easily fill a weblog... and very well might! Those will come one-by-one, however, and we will begin with perhaps our favorite of all fairy tales: Sleeping Beauty.

What Chesterton points to in Sleeping Beauty is a powerful Christian metaphor, an allegory of the human condition and of human salvation buried amidst the dragons and fairies and noble daring. There is much more to recommend Sleeping Beauty as well, from the words of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm to the engravings of Gustave Dore to the music and choreography of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. All of these came together wonderfully in Disney's 16th animated feature, which while not their highest achievement in animation, is certainly notable for the Mediaeval tapestry-inspired design (as well as having perhaps the most excellently conceived and executed villain in the entire canon).

In terms of deeper meanings, what is latent in previous versions comes right to the fore in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Some of the indicators are painfully obvious, such as the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue gifted to Prince Philip, which is a muddled reference to Saint Paul's admonition to don the "whole armor of God" in Ephesians 6:13-17. Maleficent graduates from Carbosse's status as simply a vindictive fairy to being the Mistress of All Evil who proudly commands all the powers of Hell.

On the one hand, Aurora can be decried as more of a plot device than an actual character. On the other, she is a poetic metaphor for the whole human race. We are uniquely gifted in all of Creation, and there is no need to apologise for whatever anthropocentrism that exultation may imply. That we are even able to debate whether or not we are like every other lifeform indicates that we are, in fact, not. Aurora is given beauty and song, which we have, and more... We are sentient, aware of self and of God. Unfortunately, we are also aware of our own impending, inexorable descent into death.

That we begin dying the moment we're born is a depressing thought, but nonetheless true. Our period of blissful ignorance of that fact is all-too short, and once aware, we spend a good portion of our time, money and effort trying to hold off the spectre for as long as possible. Our efforts, however, are like so many burning spinning wheels. No matter what we do, our fingers have an inevitable date with a spindle.

But perhaps that is not the end... Perhaps there is hope yet that death can be softened to sleep. The wish of that last fairy was not enough to reverse the suffering and separation of death, but it could transform it into something else. In that something else was the chance of death's reversal.

There is a condition on this hope, though. It would not come of Aurora, since she was asleep and lost to a state of dreaming nothingness. Nor could it come so much from anybody else. In her wake, the whole kingdom and all its people - from kings to serfs - passed away into sleep. There is no power in and of the world that can reverse death's deadly sting. There is, in fact, only one power that can overcome it: Love.

Enter Prince Philip, the Son of the King, to whom is betrothed the Bride who neither recognized him nor knew him. Himself bound under the power of death by Maleficent and her spear-wielding demons, Philip was freed and the tomb... well, the dungeon... was empty. Upon slaying that rebellious Dragon who commands all the powers of Hell, the Son reaches the Bride and awakens her with the kiss of True Love. Are we speaking here of the Brothers Grimm or the Book of Revelation?

The extent to which any of this is intentional is pure speculation. It is known that Walt Disney was a deeply religious man in his own fashion, without adherence to any particular credo. Whether it was slipped in by a gifted scriptwriter or merely concepts floating around in the zeitgeist, Sleeping Beauty is nevertheless a beautifully artistic, melodic parable of humanity's tragedy and God's Love.


Biblioadonis aka George said...

Fantastic commentary, Cory!

I suppose that any modern re-telling of a "classic" story is going to be shaped by the times and the current religion. Imagine what Sleeping Beauty would look like if it had been made instead of Pocahontas.

Cory Gross said...

Actually, you just got me wondering more about what Pocahontas would have been like if it was made in Sleeping Beauty's place!

Russell said...

Thank you, that was a stunning bit of commentary!