The first recorded version of the tale now commonly known as Sleeping Beauty was by the Neapolitan poet, Giambattista Basile. Entitled Sun, Moon, and Talia, the story is far more disturbing than its later editions – and it is this version which is here recounted. In later versions of the story, the more gruesome aspects of the tale are either changed or removed, with the Grimm’s record of Little Brier-Rose forming our modern narrative. Both Little Brier-Rose and Charles Perrault’s version The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood include the placement of a curse by an evil fairy, though the only dragons are those used to pull the flaming chariot of a benevolent fairy in Perrault’s edition. Aspects of infanticide and cannibalism were retained by Perrault, when the prince’s mother – an ogress – decides that she will eat her grandchildren, as well as the Sleeping Beauty herself.
Once upon a time there lived a great lord, who was blessed with the birth of a daughter, whom he named Talia. Shortly after her birth, he sent for the wise men and astrologers in his lands so that they may come and predict her future. They met and counselled together at length, and at last cast her horoscope, coming to the conclusion that she would incur great danger from a splinter of flax. To try and avoid this fate for his daughter, the lord forbade that any flax, hemp, or other material of that sort be brought into his house.
Years passed, and Talia grew into a young and beautiful lady. One day, when she was looking out a window, she saw an old woman passing that way who was working a spindle. Talia, having never seen a distaff or a spindle, was pleased to see the twirling tool, and she was so curious as to what the thing was that she bid the old woman to come to her. Taking the spindle from the old woman’s hand, she began to stretch the flax. Unfortunately, a splinter of flax ran under Talia’s nail, and she fell dead upon the ground. When the old woman saw this she became frightened and ran down the stairs, and is running still.
As soon as Talia’s lord father heard of the disaster which had taken place, he had them lay her out in one of his country mansions. There they seated her on a velvet throne under a canopy of brocade. Wanting to forget all and to drive from his memory his great misfortune, he closed the doors and abandoned forever the house where he had suffered this great loss.
After a time, it happened by chance that a king was out hunting and passed that way. One of his flacons escaped from his hand and flew into the house through one of the windows. The bird did not come when called, so the king had one of his hunting party knock at the door, believing the place to be inhabited. Although the man knocked for a length of time, nobody answered, so the king had them bring a vintner’s ladder, for he himself would climb up and search the house, to discover what was inside. Thus he climbed up and entered, and looked in all the rooms, and nooks, and corners, and was amazed to find no living person there. At last he came to the salon, and when the king beheld Talia, who seemed to be enchanted, he believed that she was asleep, and he called her, but she remained unconscious. Crying aloud, he beheld her charms and felt his blood course hotly through his veins. He lifted her in his arms from the chair, and carried her to a bed, where he gathered the first fruits of love. Leaving her on the bed, he returned to his own kingdom, where – in the pressing business of his realm – he for a time thought no more about this incident.
Now after nine months Talia delivered two beautiful children, one a boy and the other a girl. In them could be seen two rare jewels, and they were attended by two fairies, who came to that palace, and put them at their mother’s breasts. Once, however, they sought the nipple, and not finding it, began to suck on Talia’s fingers, and the sucked so much that the splinter of flax came out. Talia awoke as if from a long sleep, and seeing beside her two priceless gems, she held them to her breast, and them the nipple to suck, and the babies were dearer to her than her own life. Finding herself alone in that palace with two children by her side, she did not know what happened to her; but she did notice that the table was set, and food and drink were brought in to her, although she did not see any attendants.
In the meanwhile, the king remembered Talia, and saying that he wanted to go hunting, he returned to the palace, and found her awake, and with two cupids of beauty. He was overjoyed, and he told Talia who he was, and how he had seen her, and what had taken place. When she heard this, their friendship was knitted with tighter bonds, and he remained with her for a few days. After that time he bade her farewell, and promised to return soon, and take her with him to his kingdom. And he went to his realm, but he could not find any rest, and at all hours he had in his mouth the names of Talia, and Sun and Moon (those were the two children’s names), and when he took his rest, he called either or other of them.
Now the king’s wife began to suspect that something was wrong from the delay of her husband while hunting, and hearing him name continually Talia, Sun, and Moon, she became hot with another kind of heat than the sun’s. Sending for the secretary, she said to him, “Listen to me: you are living between two rocks, between the post and the door, between the poker and the grate. If you will tell me with whom the king your master, and my husband, is in love, I will give you treasures untold; and if you hide the truth from me, you will never be found again, dead or alive.”
The man was terribly frightened. Greed and fear blinded his eyes to all honour and to all sense of justice, and he related to her all things, calling bread bread, and wine wine.
The queen, hearing how matters stood, sent the secretary to Talia, in the name of the king, asking her to send the children, for he wished to see them. With great joy, Talia did as she was commanded. Then the queen, with a heart of Medea, told the cook to kill the children, and to make them into several tasteful dishes for her wretched husband. But the cook was tender hearted and, seeing these two beautiful children, felt pity and compassion for them, and he carried them home to his wife, and had her hide them. In their place he prepared two lambs into a hundred different dishes. When the king came, the queen, with great pleasure, and the food served.
The king ate with delight, saying, “By the life of Lanfusa, how tasteful this is”; or, “By the soul of my ancestors, this is good.”
Each time the queen replied, “Eat, eat, you are eating your own.”
For two or three times the king paid no attention to this repetition, but at last seeing that the music continued, he answered, “I know perfectly well that I am eating of my own, because you have brought nothing into this house,” and growing angry, he got up and went to a villa at some distance from his palace, to solace his soul and alleviate his anger.
In the meanwhile, the queen, not being satisfied with the evil already done, sent for the secretary and told him to go to the palace and to bring Talia back, saying that the king longed for her presence and was expecting her. Talia departed as soon as she heard these words, believing that she was following the commands of her lord, for he greatly longed to see her light and joy, knowing not what was preparing for her. She was met by the queen, whose face glowed from the fierce fire burning inside her, and looked like the face of Nero.
She addressed her thus, “Welcome, Madam Busybody!” You are a fine piece of goods, you ill weed, who are enjoying my husband. So you are the lump of filth, the cruel bitch, which has caused my head to spin. Change your ways, for you are welcome in purgatory, where I will compensate you for all the damage you have done to me.”
Talia, hearing these words, began to excuse herself, saying that it was not her fault because the king her husband had taken possession of her territory when she was drowned in sleep; but the queen would not listen to her excuses, and had a large fire lit in the courtyard of the palace, and commanded that Talia should be cast into it.
The lady, perceiving that matters had taken a bad turn, knelt before the queen, and begged her to allow her at least to take off the garments she wore. The queen, not for pity of the unhappy lady, but to gain also those robes – which were embroidered with gold and pearls – told her to undress, saying, “You can take off your clothes, I agree.”
Talia began to take them off, and with every item that she removed she uttered a loud scream. Having taken off her robe, her skirt, the bodice, and her shift, she was on the point of removing her last garment, when she uttered a last scream louder than the rest. They dragged her towards the pile, to reduce her to lye ashes which would be used to wash Charon’s breeches.
The king suddenly appeared, and finding this spectacle, demanded to know what was happening. He asked for his children, and his – reproaching him for his treachery – told him that she had had them slaughtered and served to him as meat. When the wretched king heard this, he gave himself up to despair, saying, “Alas! Then I, myself, am the wolf of my own sweet lambs. Alas! And why did these my veins not know the fountains of their own blood? You renegade bitch, what evil deed is this which you have done?! Be gone, you shall get your desert as the stumps, and I will not send such a tyrant-faced one to the Colosseum to do her penance!”
So saying, he commanded that the queen should be cast into the fire which she had prepared for Talia, and the secretary with her, because he had been the handle for this bitter play, and weaver of this wicked plot. He was going to do the same with the cook, whom he believed to be the slaughterer of his children, when the man cast himself at his feet, saying, “In truth, my lord, for such a deed, there should be nothing else than a pile of living fire, and no other help than a spear from behind, and no other entertainment than twisting and turning within the blazing fire, and I should seek no other honour than to have my ashes, the ashes of a cook, mixed up with the queen’s. But this is not the reward that I expect for having saved the children, in spite of the gall of that bitch, who wanted to kill them and to return to your body that which was of your own body.”
Hearing these words, the king was beside himself. He thought he was dreaming, and he could not believe what his own ears had heard. Therefore, turning to the cook, he said, “if it is true that you have saved my children, be sure that I will take you away from turning the spit, and I will put you in the kitchen of this breast, to turn and twist as you like all my desires, giving you such a reward as shall enable you to call yourself a happy man in this world.”
While the king spoke these words, the cook’s wife, seeing her husband’s need, brought forth the two children, Sun and Moon, before their father. And he never tired at playing the game of three with his wife and children, making a mill wheel of kisses, now with and then with the other. He gave a generous reward to the cook, he made him a chamberlain. He married Talia to wife, and she enjoyed a long life with her husband and her children, thus experiencing the truth of the proverb:
Those whom fortune favours
Find good luck even in their sleep.
To learn more about the origins of fairy tales, visit the From Rags to Witches: the grim tale of children's stories exhibition in the Weston Gallery, D H Lawrence Pavilion, Lakeside Arts.
Written by Harriet Clark.