Ah, the classic fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. We all know the story: a beautiful princess is born, after many years of longing, to the delighted King Stefan and Queen Leah. A joyous celebration ensues, where all the good fairies of the land come to bequeath gifts of talent, beauty, and song…until the unwelcome Maleficent appears and spoils all the fun by proclaiming that before sundown on her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. The good fairies cannot undo Maleficent’s evil curse, but dial down the danger a bit by stating that Aurora will not die but rather fall into a deep sleep, from which she can only be awakened by true love’s first kiss. Years pass, Aurora pricks her finger, she falls asleep, and eventually Prince Phillip finds her, kisses her, wakes her, and they all live happily ever after. Oh, after he disposes of Maleficent in a rather frightening and unpleasant death scene that is probably too graphic for preschoolers.
Or, at least, that’s what you’ve been told in school and seen in the movies and read on Wikipedia. Well, has anyone ever told you that you can’t believe everything you read? Or that not everything on the internet is true? Or to challenge what you’re taught in school?
In While Beauty Slept, we learn the backstory to one of our most-loved, most well-known fairy tales.
We meet the strong and regal King Ranolf and his beautiful, loving wife Queen Lenore. We learn of the relationship between them and Millicent (the “evil witch” Maleficent), as well as the enigmatic Flora (a conglomeration of Flora, Fauna and Merriweather…but without the round bellies and tiny wings). We are introduced to a wide array of castle characters – knights and ladies-in-waiting and royal stableboys and groomsmen and housekeepers and chambermaids – all through the eyes of Elise Dalriss.
Elise comes to castle life out of great personal loss and suffering. In a world where class is everything and women have nothing, Elise makes a bold decision, holds her ground, and keeps her wits about her to integrate herself into the world of nobility and royalty. As she does, she gains the personal confidence of Queen Lenore and becomes privy to all the castle’s goings-on. She comes under the spell of Millicent, befriends the aging Flora, and mentors the young Princess Rose. We see, through her eyes, the prevalent dysfunction of royal families, the political and social constraints of “true love”, and the very real dangers inherent in “once upon a time” life.
I found myself immersed in this story-behind-the-story. With characters so real they were alternately adorable and infuriating, and a setting so well described I felt a part of the landscape, it was easy to lose myself in Elise’s world. In the end, after the magic was debunked in favor of a more plausible scenario, I felt neither cheated out of my childhood fantasy nor disappointed by the alternative.
With a healthy and unexpected twist at the end, what might have been just another medieval tragic love story became the “happily ever after” that produces the satisfying sigh as the final page is turned.