Why Neil Gaiman updated Sleeping Beauty

Neil Gaiman does not love Disney's version of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty.

When I ask Gaiman who his favourite fairy tale character is, he says he fell in love with Red Riding Hood when reading Carter. She was also Charles Dickens's favourite, but in order to interpret Gaiman's taste, you need to know that Carter's take on the tale was "The Company of Wolves", an ornately told story in which the heroine makes a relatively late appearance in a savage, sexual world, not a small child skipping along a path but a daring pubescent girl who strips naked, laughs in the face of danger and sleeps with the wolf – rendering him post–coitally "tender" – in her dead grandmother's bed. 

In fact, as Gaiman explains (becoming, in his own description, "fairy tale nerdy") the bombs inherent in such stories have been defused more often than they have been detonated. For instance, the reason why Disney's Sleeping Beauty doesn't work, he says, is because "it's not a story. It's the opening to a story. The first versions we have of it make more sense but are less kind to human nature. 

"The prince makes it in [to the castle] after a hundred years, tries to wake her up, fails, has sex with her, and leaves. And then, nine months later – still asleep – she gives birth to twins. And they climb up her. One clamps onto her breast and starts sucking. The other clamps onto her finger, and sucks out the poisoned thing in her finger that has put her to sleep. She and the prince and their children go back to the prince's house, and his mother is an evil, cannibalistic ogress who tries to eat the children. The story is really about the nightmare of your mother–in–law being a monster."

Something I hadn't realized (and that most readers probably did not know, as this article knows) is that most stepmothers in fairy tales were mothers in their original versions from the brothers Grimm. It's quite telling of the shifting views of family that the trope was updated across the years.

Their book began as a philological project at the birth of a unified Germany. The Grimms – who also, as part of the same mission, compiled a dictionary – began to collect folk stories. These were not, as has been supposed, the tales of the masses, but stories gathered from among the bourgeoisie. The project was a matter of cultural and national record – it was not intended for children. But it was soon clear that children had become its main readers, and Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the two brothers and – in Jack Zipes's phrase – "a moral sanitation man", cleaned them up. In what was now the motherland, it wouldn't do for children to see biological mothers as jealous of their own pubescent daughters. And although he wasn't very worried about violence, Grimm was concerned about sex: by 1819 – and certainly in the last edition of 1857 – those same stories had become prudish and pious. "So now," Gaiman says, "a pregnant Rapunzel doesn't say to the witch: 'this is really weird, my belly is swelling and I don't know why' – which is how the witch knows that a prince has been visiting her. Now, she says 'you are so much lighter than the prince when you climb up my hair'. And you go: Oh! I thought you were smart but no, you're a moron."

Fairy tales are among the first stories I remember reading again and again, and given they are among the first stories many children read, their moral influence is probably underrated. After I'd left childhood, I made it a point to seek out the original, darker versions of the fairy tales. Both in their current and original forms, and in their evolution, fairy tales speak to our shifting wish fulfillment as an audience.

Neil Gaiman's updated version of Sleeping Beauty is titled The Sleeper and the Spindle and is only available in physical, not ebook, form from the UK. Gaiman also published an update of the Snow White story in comic book form many years ago. That book was titled Snow, Glass, Apples, and the story (minus the beautiful artwork by Charles Vess) is reprinted online. I had a copy of the comic book, I hope it's one of the books I kept over the years.

If you're also a fan of the genre, it's well worth grabbing Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales