“She’s not what you assume she is,” Angelina Jolie said of the evil fairy she plays in Maleficent, a 2014 take on the 600-or-so-year-old story of “Sleeping Beauty.” We assume, of course, that she’s senselessly evil, for what else could explain a person — and a woman, no less — effectively sentencing a baby to a teenage death? The new film aims to tell the “truth” about the would-be princess-killer, to explain what precisely could make a character so cruel. This new Maleficent has been betrayed; she’s lost something, she’s done battle. But perhaps the explanation for Maleficent’s cruelty has been in the centuries of patriarchal history all along.
In Disney’s 1959 version and its source material, Maleficent curses a baby princess to seek revenge for a real or perceived insult. Despite being harsh, this villain is, remarkably, the only female character who is consistently pursuing her own agenda in every version of these stories. (The princess heroine, as the Disney title suggests, sleeps through the good parts.) Yes, the fairy is “bad,” but part of her “badness” is that she demands respect from a king; the only “good” female characters here are the obedient or unconscious ones. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar explain, within Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms’ “Snow White” (who similarly falls into a deathlike sleep), the good heroine is “the heroine of a life that has no story,” a completely compliant figure.
That the passive princess is as much of a snooze-fest as her fate is obvious in the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty: Where Maleficent speaks 541 words, the princess Aurora speaks 263 and sings one song, which adds an additional 141. (Perhaps unfairly, I did not count Aurora’s insensible vocalizations.) Five percent of the words she speaks are the word “oh.” She doesn’t speak at all after she learns she’s a princess. (Incidentally, this movie with an almost non-verbal heroine was the second highest-grossing movie of 1959, Susan Sackett writes). Aurora, the narrator says, is her parents’ “most precious possession.” The three good fairies in the film — Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather — psychologize their nemesis, Maleficent. Fauna says that Maleficent doesn’t understand “love or kindness or the joy of helping others,” concluding, “I don’t think she’s really very happy.” Three feminized things — love, kindness, and the joy of helping others — are what Maleficent can’t grasp. Her masculinity, coded as her refusal to help others, is what makes her so evil. And we shouldn’t assume anything about her, really, before we understand where she came from.
Maleficent is based on the 1959 Disney movie Sleeping Beauty (originator of the name “Maleficent”), which was based on the 1696 Charles Perrault story “Sleeping Beauty,” which was likely based on Giambattista Basile’s 1630s story “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” which was likely based on the first-known European sleeping beauty, “L’histoire de Troylus et de la belle Zellandine” from the 1300s romance Perceforest. The Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm version, “Dornröschen,” was first published in 1812 and drew on Perrault’s work. The offended fairy who curses the infant princess is crucial to all versions except Basile’s, which has an ogress antagonist and not a fairy.
Tying together the Grimms, Perrault, and Basile are their similar source material, their bourgeois backgrounds, and their desire to pin folktales down in writing. All four writers, in a way, felt they were serving as the voice of “the people,” despite the actual voices “the people” were already using to tell these stories, writes fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes. The Grimms went as far as to (falsely) claim that their sources were all German peasants (in fact, they were largely middle class, like the brothers themselves). The Grimms had an explicitly nationalist aim (“preserving ostensibly pure German culture”), as did Perrault to some extent, according to Zipes: Perrault’s work, along with the morals at the back ends of his tales, were part of a movement toward institutionalizing storytelling in the home for the French upper classes as well as celebrating “civility.” Basile’s efforts, on the other hand, predate the Italian state.
European fairy tales, as Zipes writes, are rooted in a pagan oral tradition (although there is no evidence for sleeping beauty oral stories predating Perceforest.) The tales’ pagan origins are both potentially transgressive with respect to Christianity and conservative with respect to the disciplining of the female characters in them (of all the morals in fairy tales, “male supremacy” is a particular favorite). However, per Zipes, Perrault and the Grimms all changed certain fairy tales in which female characters rescued themselves so that the heroines instead were rescued by male characters (e.g. the addition of a hunter-savior to “Little Red Riding Hood”); the Grimms in particular worked to make their tales more Christian. The sexist values of the literary fairy tales persist in the way we consume them today: In 2003, Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz published evidence that fairy tales in which “feminine beauty” is emphasized have had more enduring popularity, which is to say that in the six centuries that have elapsed since Sleeping Beauty was set to paper, consumers of fairy tales have clung to stories of pretty girls more than any other type of story (or, as Gilbert and Gubar put it, “the eternally beautiful, inanimate objet d’art patriarchal aesthetics want a girl to be”). In fairy tales, these pretty girls are often menaced by another woman, who is usually, if not ugly, much meaner. Enter Maleficent.
Zipes puts the “blooming” of the literary fairy tale in France between 1690 to 1714 — French writers actually coined the term fairy tale (conte de fée) in the 17th century. Basile, the earliest of the writers I look at here, published his Pentamerone in the 1630s. To put this in some feminine context, the literary fairy tale came to prominence just as a church-sanctioned, Europe-wide witch-hunt spree was winding down (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” if you weren’t aware, is in the Bible). In 1484, the Pope commissioned a report on witchcraft. That report, Malleus maleficarum, gave rise to a new Catholic policy that held Christians responsible for destroying witches. In the early 1500s, mass executions began; later, Protestants would stay on board with this policy. From 1500 to 1660, as many as 80,000 people (mostly women) were executed for witchcraft. After peaking in the mid-1600s, the witch hunts began to subside; their peak coincided with peaking economic and population crises in the 1620s and 1630s, and scholar Silvia Federici has linked these phenomena, arguing that the economic crisis prompted the state to take action in its population crisis by aggressively punishing women for reproductive crimes like abortion, contraception, and sacrificing children to the devil, as witches are wont to do. With this in mind, receptivity to stories of princesses who just lie there seems to make sense. Zipes has also connected European witches to literary fairy tales, but he doesn’t see the tales as continuing the hunts’ discourse. The Sleeping Beauty story in particular, though, fits with this idea, particularly since the princess is always a long-awaited child: The king and queen have diligently labored to produce a child, which the female villain tries to destroy.
The one outlier version (no offended fairy, no long-awaited child) is by Giambattista Basile, a middle-class Neapolitan with an opera star for a sister, who collected fairy tales in Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille, usually called The Tale of Tales or Il Pentamerone. His collection, published posthumously in the 1630s, contains an early written reference to Sleeping Beauty (his version is quite similar to the yet earlier version set to parchment during the 1300s in Perceforest). For Basile, the princess is Talia, and no one puts a curse on her, she’s just unlucky with flax. As a baby, it is prophesied that the princess Talia will suffer a great flax-related misfortune, and her father, who is clearly a very caring parent, bans flax (a key fiber in the 17th-century European textile market!). Still, Talia eventually encounters an old woman with some flax who apparently hasn’t heard about the ban, and flax lodges under Talia’s fingernail and apparently kills her; the old woman flees. The closest corollary to the Maleficent figure is neither the fugitive old woman who lets the princess fondle her flax nor the prophets who predict the princess’ prostrate fate, but rather the wife of the king who rapes and impregnates Talia in her sleep. (Basile, predictably, doesn’t see it as a rape; the king “gathered the fruits of love and then left her asleep.”) After Talia gives birth (still in her sleep), one of her newborn children sucks the flax out of her finger and she wakes up, pleased to discover that she slept through the labor pains and lost all the baby weight. Eventually, the king remembers his catnap inamorata, pays her a visit, sees that she’s woken up and borne him twins; later, his wife finds out about it and is quite jealous and becomes the antagonist of the story, trying to murder Talia and feed the twins to their father, who luckily saves them.
Is the unnamed queen an evil enchantress? No. She’s just bent on destroying her husband’s mistress, although Talia puts up a valiant defense when the queen attempts to toss her into a fire, saying that she couldn’t help the sex because she was sleeping. The moral Basile appends to the story will strike the 21st-century ear as odd: “Even when asleep / a person can be struck by luck.” The actual lesson to be learned from this story is more convoluted, but boiled down, that lesson is “male supremacy” with undertones of “you can’t escape your fate.”
Like Basile’s Pentamerone, Perrault’s 1697 collection, Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralitez: contes de ma mère L’Oye (Histories or tales of long ago with morals: Tales of Mother Goose), also includes morals at the end of each story. The one following “Sleeping Beauty” is rather long, but its crux is:
So here our tale appears to show,
How a marriage deferred,
Brings joy unheard,
Nothing lost after a century or so.
Perrault undermines this, though, by adding that some people marry more quickly, and he won’t judge that, “Nor shall I preach a lesson.” So, it’s a vague moral. Try to marry well; it’ll be worth the wait, girls, although your mother-in-law might try to kill you.
Maleficent, called in Perrault’s story simply “an old fairy,” did not receive an invitation to the christening because she had not left her tower for more than 50 years and everyone thought she was dead or ensorcelled. When she arrives uninvited, the king quickly orders a place set for her, but he can’t give her the same gold box he gave the other fairies because he only had seven made up. This mistake seems quite reasonable — it is unclear why the shut-in thought she’d been snubbed, but fortunately for Perrault, plausibility is not the province of fairy tales. The old fairy, shaking “more from spite than age,” curses the infant to “prick her finger with a spindle, and die.” She does not mention any specific age when this will occur. Another fairy who’d been hiding softens the curse to the familiar 100 years of sleep, and adds the prince waking her at the end. The king outlaws spindles, gutting the national thread market. Either 15 or 16 years later, the princess finds a reclusive old woman in a castle garret who hadn’t heard about the ban and is spinning; the princess, of course, has to try this out, pricks her finger, and falls into a semi-permanent sleep. This old woman, it should be noted, cries out for help rather than running away. The good fairy surrounds the castle with impenetrable foliage and puts everyone in the castle to sleep so that the princess won’t be too alarmed when she wakes up, save the king and queen, who presumably are needed to remain awake to govern and hopefully resuscitate the textile industry. A century later, the princess is awakened when a prince walks into her bedroom, and they get married that evening and are quite happy. She eventually has two children while entirely conscious.
The real villain in Perrault’s story is not the old fairy who curses the princess, but the princess’ ogress mother-in-law. As in Basile, the ogress attempts to eat her son’s wife and children herself, and a commendable cook tricks her. When she realizes they’re still alive, she attempts to throw them into a barrel of vipers and other poisonous creatures, but she is foiled by the early arrival of her son, and in frustration, throws herself into the barrel and dies. The spelled-out moral is, of course, “marry well,” but really the moral is “male supremacy” with a dash of “don’t mess with ogresses.”
In the Grimms’ version (of which there are actually several — the brothers revised the editions that followed the initial 1812 release), the Maleficent character is not invited to the christening party, as in Perrault’s, because the king and queen have only 12 golden dishes to serve on and therefore do not invite all 13 local fairies. The slighted sprite curses the princess to die at 15 when she pricks her finger on a spindle; a kinder fairy “softens” the curse from death to 100 years of somnolence. The king bans spindles, but — again because of a renegade old woman — Dornröschen (“Brier Rose”) pricks her finger on a spindle on her 15th birthday and falls asleep, spurring everyone in the castle into a centurial snooze. Maleficent is not heard from again, and the prince doesn’t give her a liberating lip-lock; his kiss comes coincidentally on the day the princess’ sentence is up. The Grimms opt for subtlety and don’t add a moral at the end, but Dornröschen and the prince who kissed her in her sleep “lived happily to the end of their days,” so it’s safe to say the moral is not the most empowering to women.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet, first performed in 1890 and based on Perrault’s version of the story, has a more active antagonist in Carabosse, the bad fairy of Marius Petipa’s libretto. Perhaps as a nod to the bad female character’s transgression of her gender, the fairy is sometimes portrayed by a male dancer in drag; the good fairies are invariably played by women. She is not a delegator of violence: The first thing she does in the ballet is rip out the hair of the servant who failed to invite her. Later, she herself hides a needle in a bouquet she hands to the princess and attempts to stop the prince from breaking through the briers to get to Aurora. Despite her industrious antagonism, she is not particularly present in the ballet from which Walt Disney took some inspiration.
Aside from the ballet, the bad fairy doesn’t play all that large a role in these stories (although ogress mothers-in-law do). So why would the 1959 movie give such a large and active role to this fairy villain? In Disney, she is the self-titled mistress of all evil; based on frequency, her indirectly self-congratulatory catchphrase is “fools!” (“You are dumber than I am.”) She is the smartest and scariest woman in the room. When she catches Aurora’s true love, Prince Philip, her plan is not to kill him, but to imprison him for 100 years — “a hundred years to a steadfast heart are but a day,” she says to him sarcastically. After a century of Aurora’s “ageless sleep,” Maleficent plans to release him “to wake his love with love’s first kiss, and prove that true love conquers all.” In a way, it is more twisted than cursing a baby to die before the sun sets on her 16th birthday; Maleficent intends to torture not by killing them, but by letting them outlive their illusions. It is no accident that Maleficent lays her trap for the princess in a hearth, effectively making Aurora walk into her domesticity to die. The film’s lead animator, Marc Davis, has said that “it’s very difficult to do a character” that for the most part only speaks aloud to herself or her non-conversant crow: Maleficent verges on the solipsistic, so self-centered as to lash out after a snub. Maleficent, after watching her spells to stop Prince Philip fail, transforms herself into a dragon; before she does, she says, “Now shall you deal with me, o prince, and all the powers of hell.” Earlier, she entrapped Aurora in the hearth, and now Maleficent turns again to fire, guarding the castle from the incoming true love’s first kiss. She knocks Prince Philip’s “shield of virtue” from his grasp, but he and the good fairies kill her by launching a “sword of truth” into her dragon heart. The cynical fairy who doesn’t understand “love or kindness or the joy of helping others” is killed by the truth — presumably, the overwhelming truth is that of a stab wound in her heart. The prince goes to the princess (his princess now), and they live happily ever after, completely in love, having had a 123-word conversation (including the singing).
Maleficent, at least, saw through this charade. She’s not what you assume she is; she is (in the ’50s) a powerful woman whose life isn’t defined by helping others. Hence the sword through her defiant heart. When Walt Disney gave Maleficent a turn to speak, he did so to compromise her position, to show that she, in her agency, was bad, that a female who wasn’t feminine was bad. Maybe Maleficent will let the fairy speak her for herself.