“Sleeping Beauty” and the Spinning Room

So, we all know the story: at the little princess’ christening, she is cursed to prick herself on a spindle and die. The good fairy mitigates the curse to a 100-year sleep. However, “The king, hoping to rescue his dear child, issued an order that all spindles in the entire kingdom should be destroyed.” (Grimms’ version)

I was looking up the German custom of “Spinnstuben“, Spinning Rooms: regular gatherings of village women in the evenings of the winter months for the purpose of getting their spinning done (sort of like the colonial custom of Quilting Bees, or today’s Stich-‘n-Bitch sessions). It was a place to get boring and repetitive work done in a social setting. A Spinnstube was also sometimes called Lichtstube, light room – it saved candles to only light up one room that everyone sat in. The women did spinning and other textile work, the men perhaps woodcarving; they’d sing folk songs and tell stories. A lot of fairy tales and folklore were disseminated at those gatherings.

However, one thing I learned was that this practice wasn’t always looked upon with a benevolent eye by the authorities. I had pictured a Spinnstube as a gathering of all the village women, a regular event for everyone, but according to what I found out, it was mostly a young person’s gathering. Sometimes it was co-ed, sometimes divided into guys and girls, with the guys coming along at the end of the evening to escort the girls home. One of its main purposes was for young people to have a chance to socialise and get to know one another; it was the chief place for the young folk to couple up.

This article & video (in German) describes the custom from Upper Franconia, where it was still practised up until the 1950s, and interviews some elderly couples who remembered participating (translation and emphasis mine):

“First the women came at 7:00 and did their needlework, and then the men came at 9:00, then the women had to quit knitting and the fun started.”

Bruno Gernert from Wülfersthausen

He also describes in the video that if a girl didn’t want to quit her needlework, the boys would take her yarn and tie it around the table leg so she couldn’t keep going – they wanted to get to the fun part, playing games or even dancing (they had an accordionist who would play for two hours straight for the payment of only one fresh egg per person). Another interviewee says, with a suggestive eyebrow waggle at his wife of 58 years sitting beside him, that sometimes the lights would be turned off, and “that’s when they got to know each other much better.”

So, spinning, sure, but not just spinning…

“The whole light room practice was a thorn in the eye of the authorities; they did not like it, because a lot of matches were made there, and there was a lot of fooling around. They kept trying to forbid the light- and spinning rooms, but they never succeeded in abolishing them.”

Reinhold Albert, Historian in the Rhön-Grabfeld area

In addition, it wasn’t just the “immorality” of the spinning rooms that was a thorn in the flesh of the Powers That Be, but also the fact that they were excellent places for passing on gossip and political information, if not breed insurrection.

The Wikipedia article quotes a piece from the late 1880s (emphasis mine):

Because of the transgressions in moral behaviour that occurred there, several counties implemented Spinning Room Regulations, i.e. police rules regarding the time and duration of the gathering; in the area of what used to be Kurhessen, from 1726 on they were forbidden entirely. (Meyers Konversationslexikon of 1888-1890)


The authorities didn’t like spinning rooms and tried to forbid them

Spinning rooms were a chief source of fairy tales and their retellings.

The “Sleeping Beauty” tale features a king who tries to ban spinning in his kingdom.

Coincidence? I wonder…

Fairy Tale Romance

So you want to have a fairy tale romance in your life? Wonderful, you’ve come to the right place. We have several models on special right now.

First, we have the Cindy. You meet your man at an elaborate party given by his parents, where you attend in borrowed clothing which makes you appear to be of a much higher social standing than you actually are. He is attracted to you purely based on your looks, dances with you all night but never asks you your name or personal details such as where you live, and when you leave, he is unable to remember your face well enough to pick you out from a crowd. You will, however, be recognised by your shoe size, and the wedding will follow immediately.

Our second option is the Sleepy. You spend a long time in a coma. Your first meeting with your man is him kissing you, for which he does not obtain your prior consent because you are unconscious at the time. You marry immediately upon waking.

Third, there is the Belle. You move in with your man without having met him first; your family’s safety is at stake if you don’t. His appearance is quite repulsive to you. You spend your days alone, keeping yourself occupied in his mansion without another human being in sight. Every evening he visits with you over supper, and keeps asking you to let him go to bed with you; even though you say “no” every time, he asks again the next day. When you ask to visit your family, he pressures you to stay by threatening to die. When you finally come to care about him and accept him for who he is, he changes so drastically you barely recognise him for the same man, but you marry him anyway.

Finally, we have the Croaker. Your man, who has a repulsive appearance, bribes you to promise him a relationship by offering to do a service for you. When you physically remove yourself from this situation, he stalks you to your home and enlists the support of your family, who in turn pressure you to perform the extorted promises. He insists on sharing your food, even though his appearance is so unattractive it makes you lose your appetite, after which you are forced by your parents to take him to your bedroom. You are so disgusted by him you violently throw him against the wall. When this has the unexpected effect of changing his looks, you immediately go to bed with him; the marriage takes place the next day.

Take your pick, fairy tale romances for the choosing! Oh, what’s that you say? You want the kind of romance where you freely choose your man, spend time getting to know each other, and deeply fall in love before you head to the altar? True love, and true love’s kiss? I’m sorry, we don’t carry that model. Maybe try next door, the company with the round-eared mouse might have something along that line. But be warned, most of their romances involve excessive amounts of singing. Are you sure you don’t want to try one of our models? Guaranteed fairy-tale style, time-tested and proven, with lifetime warranty of happiness? No? Ah well, suit yourself. It’s your own love life, after all.


And One More Thing…

…about Sleeping Beauty, even though it won’t make it into my paper any more (well, maybe it’ll make it into the edited version, in a little side comment). In the name of research, I had to go watch the Maleficent movie on the weekend. I wasn’t really that interested at first, as from what I had heard of the movie it sounded really dark – I was thinking Snow White and the Huntsman kind of dark, which I hate. Plus, I had got the impression that it was a prequel to the Disney cartoon, telling the story of “How Maleficent Turned Evil” (like Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel [I hate that word] to The Wizard of Oz).

However, both those impressions were wrong. I’m not going to throw around spoilers, as the movie is still too fresh and many of you won’t have seen it yet. But I’ll just say this: it’s not a prequel to the Disney movie, but a retelling – it turns the whole story on its head and tells it differently. You can tell that already from the trailer (so that’s not a spoiler): Maleficent actually meets Aurora while she is growing up, while in the cartoon, Maleficent spends all of the princess’ growing years searching for the girl so she can put her under her spell; not only do they not meet until Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, Maleficent has no clue where she is. Well, not so in this movie. And that, as Forrest Gump says, is all I’m going to say about that.

The graphics are astounding, of course, and the actors are pretty cool, too. Pay attention to how Angelina Jolie’s prosthetic cheek bones are exactly echoed by the outline of her black hood; it must have cost them some shooting effort to get the camera angle just right so that’s noticeable as often as it is.

Doing a comparison study of this movie with the old one and speculating on why they told the story this way now would make a whole other paper. The old Disney movie is already a very loose adaptation of the written fairy tale – they made up characters and situations out of whole cloth. The character of Maleficent is an invention of Disney’s; in the written story, the evil fairy shows up, chucks her curse around (unplanned, just because she’s offended at not having been invited), and disappears, never to be heard from again. Disney makes her into this big, evil-villain antagonist who hunts the princess her whole life and has a personal vendetta against her. And then they needed someone to fight her, so enter Prince Philip (who is apparently named after the Duke of Edinburgh, the only prince Americans knew of at that time). The screen time of the Disney movie is almost entirely taken up with two characters who barely exist in the fairy tale. So Disney takes the bare-bones written fairy tale, and makes up a whole story around it; and now they’ve taken that story, dismantled it, and made up another story out of the pieces. Talk about an adaptation of an adaptation, hypertext becoming hypotext. And next time I’ll watch the old movie again, I’ll be seeing it through the lens of the new one; it’ll be hard to look at Maleficent and not think of her character as she is portrayed in the new film – so now the new movie is becoming a hypotext for the old one. Very head-spinning.

And speaking of spinning, I’m still sceptical about the way the movies show the spindle the princess pokes herself on, and this film is no exception. I’ve never actually closely examined a spinning wheel – do spindles on them really stick up straight in the air? I thought they were sideways, pointing at the spinner. And the princesses all carefully and deliberately stick their finger on the end of that sharp pointy thing. From the Grimms story, I’m pretty sure we’re not dealing with a spinning wheel, but a drop spindle, where it would be much easier to accidentally jab yourself in the hand, especially if you’ve never handled one of those things before. Ah well, if I ever write my own adaptation of the story, I might have to learn to spin so I can get it right.

So that, I think, is enough of snoozing princesses and ash girls for the time being. On to Beauty and the Beast.

Magnum Opus Part I

And there it is, I just hit “send” on my first paper. Magnum Opus Part I has been submitted. It’s called “Once Upon a Movie Screen: ‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and Their Disney Film Adaptations”. It’s the first part of a longer paper; once I’ve written and been marked on both parts, they’ll be combined into one big piece which is going to be my thesis.

Onwards to Beasts and Frogs…

Adapting Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty lived in the Ukraine, in 980 AD. You didn’t know that? Then you apparently haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment (New York: Del Rey, 1999). I picked it up because I heard it was an adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty”, and kept reading to the end (rather than skimming it like I do usually) because it’s a darn good book.

It’s true, it’s an adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty”, but only in its very bare bones. There is a princess in an enchanted sleep, and the hero kisses her awake. I think the poke with the spindle is mentioned in passing as the reason for the sleep, but that’s pretty much it for the “Sleeping Beauty” plotline. However, for a wannabe folklorist the story is still very enchanting, starting with its hero. His name is Ivan, and he is a Russian boy whose family manages to emigrate from the Soviet Union when he is a child. But on the day before they leave, he sees a mysterious sleeping woman in a clearing in the woods, and her image haunts him throughout his growing years. Fast-forward fifteen years: Ivan is now a graduate student in America, the Iron Curtain has fallen, and he goes back to Kiev to do research for his dissertation:

It was a mad project, he soon realized – trying to reconstruct the earliest versions of the fairy tales described in the Afanasyev collection in order to determine whether Propp’s theory that all fairy tales in Russian were, structurally, a single fairy tale was (1) true or false and, if true, (2) rooted in some inborn psychologically true ur-tale or in some exceptionally powerful story inherent in Russian culture. (p.24)

I mean, how can you not like a hero like that? Of course, Ivan is irresistibly drawn back to the clearing in the woods, kisses the princess (not without some preceding difficulties on his part), and – well, no, they don’t live happily ever after, not yet. In fact, that’s really what the story is about, how this twentieth-century grad student and the tenth-century princess (who thinks he is a wimp because he can’t wield a sword) find their way to each other, truly fall in love, and defend her kingdom against the ultimate in nasty, Baba Yaga herself.

Don’t worry – the passage I quoted is pretty much the last time you hear about Propp and Afanasyev; this is not some high-falutin’ dusty-dry treatise on academics, but a rip-roaring good STORY. Love, adventure, magic, Molotov cocktails… And you do find out where Baba Yaga gets her house on chicken feet from. It’s all around one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read in a while.

More Gripes About Zipes

I’m getting to the point where I’m quite seriously annoyed with Professor Jack Zipes, he of the erudite fairy tale scholarship whom I’ve considered, recently, my academic guru. I was reading his 2011 book The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (New York: Routledge). And what I was almost afraid to call “intellectual snobbery” in my last griping post (because, after all, who am I to disagree with Zipes?) is just constantly tripping me up in this book, and it’s no longer deserving of the gingerly approach I gave it then. It’s got to be called what it is: SNOBBERY. Okay, I’m skipping over quite a lot of what he says because it’s not relevant to my current study, and I only have so much time to read right now, so I’m zeroing in on what matters. But over and over he is scathingly dismissive of some works of adaptation, while highly praising others. And what is it that draws down Dr. Zipes’ ire the most? The name “Disney”.

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, is castigated as “a banal adolescent love story” in a “rendition [that] is so stale, stiff and stupid [alliteration much?] that one must wonder why the film was such a success when it premiered in 1959.” Well, one must wonder that he still wonders, as in the preceding paragraph he is dismissing the film’s hypotext, the Grimm’s version, so much tamer than the Basile and Perrault tales of which it was an abridgement, as “a boring fairy tale” (88). Excuse me? Why does Zipes think this story has endured as one of the perennially favourite fairy tales, as part of the Western Canon? Why is it that it’s the boring Grimm’s version that’s stuck with us, not the (presumably) exciting French/Italian one with rape and hidden children and baby-eating ogresses? Well, maybe it’s because the common people like boredom. Or is it that there’s something in these stories that Zipes just fails to see?

My bet is on the latter. Here he is on “Cinderella”: “[T]he musical adaptation of Perrault’s tale that truly ignited filmgoers’ hearts [well, at least he admits that much] was Disney’s animated Cinderella (1950) … It is difficult to understand why this film … had so much success. The music is mediocre; the plot is boring; and the themes are trite” (181). I’m afraid it’s not at all difficult for me to understand why Zipes finds it difficult to understand. He’s just answered his own question. He fails to comprehend the film’s success because he finds the story boring. Condemned from your own mouth, Dr Zipes.

Now, I don’t mean to put Disney on a pedestal – far from it (far from it!). I have my own complaints about those insipid airheaded princesses and cardboard princes (“Someday my Prince will come”, indeed! Get a life, girl!), and the commercialism of the Disney enterprise just gives me the willies. But that does not lead me to write off the films that they made and their enormous success as just a case of the masses falling under the spell of the culture industry. People ain’t all that stupid, you know! And I think it’s a piece of bloomin’ arrogance to talk as if they were. Not just arrogance, ignorance. It’s missing something vital about those stories – the main, core reason that they have been popular for centuries, and keep getting told over, and over, and over, and over.

The reason we love “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” and all those other stories, and one of the biggest reasons the Disney films were the blockbusters they were on their first release and are still being watched by little girls today with unabated fanaticism – in the case of Cinderella sixty-four years later, sixty-four! – is that there is something in the story, in the “boring” plot, that speaks deeply to us. And to dismiss the films because they happen to be made by Disney is, and I’m going to stick out my neck and just say it, folly.

As I said before, folktales are tales of the folk, of the people. The common people. And today’s commoners love the Disney versions. There is no way around that. And if Dr Zipes has nothing but scorn for those films, I’m afraid I must think that he is, somehow, missing a point.