Columbine: So how many fairy godmothers did the Sleeping Beauty have exactly?

Robin: That is a good question, even though it cannot be positively answered, as the number varies in different accounts. There is also the question of whether the fairy who delivers the curse should be counted as a godmother – it certainly seems an odd title for her!

In “Dornröschen” or “Briar Rose”, the Sleeping Beauty story from the Grimm collection, the godmothers are usually called Wise Women (die weise Frauen), but some English translations call them fairies anyway. In that tale there are twelve:-

So twelve fairies came, each with a high red cap on her head, and red shoes with high heels on her feet, and a long white wand in her hand: and after the feast was over they gathered round in a ring and gave all their best gifts to the little princess. One gave her goodness, another beauty, another riches, and so on till she had all that was good in the world.

In Charles Perrault’s story “La Belle au Bois Dormant” or “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”, there are seven:-

There was a very fine christening; and the Princess had for her god-mothers all the fairies they could find in the whole kingdom (they found seven), that every one of them might give her a gift, as was the custom of fairies in those days. By this means the Princess had all the perfections imaginable… The youngest gave her for gift that she should be the most beautiful person in the world; the next, that she should have the wit of an angel; the third, that she should have a wonderful grace in everything she did; the fourth, that she should dance perfectly well; the fifth, that she should sing like a nightingale; and the sixth, that she should play all kinds of music to the utmost perfection.

In the Tchaikovsky ballet Sleeping Beauty there are also seven; their names vary but the chief of them is always the Lilac Fairy. In the Walt Disney film there are three, Flora, who gives Princess Aurora the gift of beauty, Fauna, who gives the gift of song, and Merryweather, whose gift alters the curse. In the splendid Sleeping Beauty novel Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley the princess is blessed with twenty-one fairy godmothers, one for each of her names.

Three and seven are well known to be magical numbers, and naturally so is their product twenty-one, while twelve with the bad fairy added makes the powerful but unlucky thirteen.

Carabosse by Leon Bakst Columbine: I must say the bad fairy intrigues me. Why was she so very bad?

Robin: We fairies do expect some courtesy from humans, and you know how easily offended some fairies are, though usually they confine themselves to some minor annoyance, like having snakes and toads drop out of their victim’s mouth when they talk. Cursing someone’s baby to die is overreacting to say the least. In the Grimm’s tale it is suggested that the neglected “wise woman” is in fact a witch, and they of course might do anything – they are practically human.

A great noise was heard in the courtyard, and word was brought that the thirteenth fairy was come, with a black cap on her head, and black shoes on her feet, and a broomstick in her hand: and presently up she came into the dining-hall. Now, as she had not been asked to the feast she was very angry, and scolded the king and queen very much, and set to work to take her revenge.

A curious thing in this story is the reason given for the king and queen’s failure to invite the last fairy: As the king and queen had only twelve golden dishes for them to eat out of, they were forced to leave one of the fairies without asking her. So she was not uninvited because she was known to be an evil fairy, as in some versions. You may conclude that it was just bad luck that they left out the nasty one, or that any of the godmothers might have reacted with equal fury.

Charles Perrault has it slightly differently:-

There was placed before every one of them a magnificent cover with a case of massive gold, wherein were a spoon, knife, and fork, all of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. But as they were all sitting down at table they saw come into the hall a very old fairy, whom they had not invited, because it was above fifty years since she had been out of a certain tower, and she was believed to be either dead or enchanted. The King ordered her a cover, but could not furnish her with a case of gold as the others, because they had only seven made for the seven fairies. The old Fairy fancied she was slighted, and muttered some threats between her teeth.

Columbine: I think myself they should have made a little more fuss of her, perhaps brought out some exquisite heirloom, given her the king’s own cover, or seated her in the highest place.

Disney's Maleficent Robin: You could be right, Columbine, though she may have had her heart set on mischief regardless. In later versions the bad fairy is known for her wickedness before the christening. She often also has a name: in the ballet Sleeping Beauty and some pantomimes she is Carabosse, in the Disney film Maleficent and in Spindle’s End Pernicia. Carabosse is the name of the evil fairy in a couple of Madame d’Aulnoy’s tales. Maleficent is also called “The Mistress of all Evil” and has a devil-like appearance, with red skin and a horned headdress. Pernicia has been nursing a spite against the royal family for hundreds of years.

Also in the later versions the old woman in the attic who has the spindle on which the princess pricks her finger is definitely the evil fairy in disguise. It does make sense – no fairy worth her salt would allow a mere king’s proclamation to frustrate her purpose. It would be very curious indeed that an old woman could continue to spin in the very palace where the princess lived for fifteen or sixteen years without anyone noticing. Yet that is the way of it in the older tales, it is an innocent accident which turns the young princess into the Sleeping Beauty, one which comes about precisely because she had never seen a spindle before.

Columbine: It is very powerful magic of the last fairy godmother which puts a whole palace to sleep – and not only to sleep, but frozen in time – for a hundred years.

Robin: Not as powerful as the fairy godmother who in some versions gives the gift of goodness. That really makes me shiver!

The Princess Pricks her Finger by John Dickson Batten

Columbine: As with Cinderella, there are a number of novels based on the story of the Sleeping Beauty, but few offer much of interest from a fairy point of view. Enchantment is a time-travel novel by Orson Scott Card in which a modern scholar discovers a sleeping beauty cursed by the Russian witch Baba Yaga; Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose links the story with a grim concentration camp in Poland; Robert Coover’s Briar Rose is strange and convoluted description of the princess’s dreams and nightmares intercut with the prince’s struggle through the thorns.

Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep by Gail Carson Levine Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep by Gail Carson Levine has all the familiar ingredients of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. But just a minute! Aren’t there too many princes? And which fairy gave that rather odd gift? And who is responsible for the balding of the King’s sheep? This is a sparkling and very funny story.

Wilma’s Wicked Spell by Kate Umansky is another comic take on the story, with the “Thirteenth Faerie” Angria sending her great-niece Wilma to stop the prince from waking the Sleeping Beauty. Wilma goes to spy on the Twelve Good Fairies, now retired and living in the Pink House in Fairyland, but though she is the youngest of a family of wicked queens, Wilma’s own brand of naughtiness comes with a conscience. Quite silly, but a lot of fun!

This is Wilma’s father on the subject of Angria: “..that’s her stock-in-trade, isn’t it? Pretending she doesn’t get invited to things. It’s just an excuse to allow her to – to slam into places and shoot off a lot of indiscriminate cursing.”

Beauty Sleep by Cameron Dokey has a certain amount of magic and a beautifully described enchanted forest, though no fairies. It is a light, witty and unexpected romance which bends the conventional structure of the tale to the limits. It particularly has some interesting thoughts on the effects of living under a curse, and is unusually narrated by the Sleeping Beauty herself.

Spindle's End by Robin McKinley Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley is the most outstanding of the Sleeping Beauty novels. It is set in a country where magic is everywhere, to the delight and dismay of its inhabitants. Anyone’s family might produce a fairy who will grow into her powers, except the royal family which provides stability to the realm. Sovereign queens are especially valued, so there is a great celebration when a girl is the queen’s first-born. Twenty-one fairy godmothers prepare magical gifts for the child. This is the first time fairies have ever been asked to be godmothers, and it could have been the start of a better relationship between the fairies and the priests of the country – if it hadn’t all gone so wrong.

Just as the fairies are giving their deliberately minor gifts (sample – “a laugh like a silver bell”), Pernicia, a wicked fairy who was defeated by the last sovereign queen long ago and has vowed revenge, makes a dramatic appearance in a storm cloud. She pronounces a curse on the child, predicting that she will someday prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a poisoned sleep – perhaps even that very night.

Young Katriona, distressed by the threat, picks up the baby and distractedly gives her her own gift, the ability to communicate with animals. The princess’s fairy nurse seizes the opportunity to ask Katriona to take the baby away secretly and raise her as her own, to protect her from Pernicia. So Rosie, as she is called from her last name of Briar-Rose, is raised by fairies far away from the court – as also happened in the Disney film. She has no idea she is a princess, and grows up happily ordinary (though something of a holy terror), until the day grows near when she must break the curse – or sleep forever.

The anticipated doom hangs rather heavily over the second half of the novel, with no possible happy ending foreseeable. The animals play a big part in the outcome; it is a splendid book for animal lovers, as the animals are given a voice while retaining their particular natures.

When so many authors try to play down the magic in the tale, it is wonderful to have so much flying around, and the disadvantages are amusingly described: a loaf of bread might suddenly change into a flock of starlings, your toddler might turn herself into an elephant, any fish might be – and probably is – a creature under an enchantment, the neighbours of fairies are plagued with unusual weather – and so on. It is, in short, perfectly delicious.


Also see:

Fairy Tales

A companion to the Sleeping Beauty page: Cinderella and Ella Enchanted

More Fairy Godmothers

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