If the archetypal images and characters within mythology inform and populate the landscape of our deepest self, I am convinced that fairy tales are their progeny.
Every girl, at some point, hears a tale that resonates with her in a particularly intimate way, a private way that is understood only by her.
She hears a story about a sleeping princess, a heroine who morphs from persecuted stepsister to glamorous bride-to-be, or a mermaid that sacrifices it all for the love of a prince.
The story winds its way into her mind and the girl, no matter her age, identifies with the character, her struggle, and longs for transformation as the words of the fable knit themselves into her soul.
These stories beckoned the wildness within us little girls in those formative early years; they reminded us to stay awake, alert.
They warned us not to drink the potion, not to bite the apple, to stay away from the point of the spindle, especially when coaxed by a powerful sorceress in a creepy black headdress.
In so many tales the consequence for failing to heed this wisdom was a deep slumber that lasted…well, indefinitely.
I always found it fascinating that sleep became the prison.
When I was a little girl, Sleeping Beauty was my hero.
She was to me the epitome of what a lady should be.
I hadn’t a hope I could ever attain her exquisite grace or varied talents.
After all, while she sang with the birds as they landed cheerfully on her hand and gazed adoringly into her flawless face, I attempted to coerce friendship with a cornered and wild-eyed chipmunk in my backyard that then proceeded to take a chunk out of my grimy-little-girl finger and scurry away in mortal panic.
Rabid rodents notwithstanding, in moments of dreamy solitude I would compare myself to the luminous princess, reaching and grasping for the ways we were alike.
I longed to be the damsel in distress.
I longed to be rescued.
I longed to feel a kiss that was powerful enough to wake me from a hundred-year slumber.
But as reality barged rudely in and replaced my childhood fantasies with practicalities and obligation, I grew up and fairy tales began to lose their relevance- at least as I understood them then.
The stories that used to captivate my imagination began to irritate me.
The budding feminist in my psyche began, without my conscious permission, to rail against the images of the victimized female in need of saving.
I didn’t know why it bothered me so, but I found less and less understanding with these leading ladies forever trapped in towers and dungeons and certainly less patience for their plight, there seeming frailty, and their total dependence on the handsome prince and his mighty steed for real happiness, if not survival.
I put away those stories the way I packed away my teddy bears, relegating them all to the far corners of my memory to collect dust and perhaps a little nostalgia.
Many years later I came across an image of the Princess and the Pea.
Interestingly enough, I found myself drawn to that fairy tale with the same sort of single-mindedness that I felt for Sleeping Beauty as a girl.
But the two stories are different as night and day; the only common thematic thread being sleep.
I felt frantic to learn the whole tale, hungry to discover the story of this sleep-deprived princess.
I savored what I found.
This was no tale of a delicate princess swept away by love’s true kiss.
She blew into town on a turbulent wind, to the palace door as it happens, tumbled by a raging storm, wet and cold, battered but, miraculously, not defeated.
The court stood in awe while the prince hung back, watchful and curious.
But it was the Queen Mother who conceived of a test to ensure that this girl was the real thing, a true princess.
The infamous pea placed under numerous mattresses, the girl was escorted to bed, and the long night began.
The wise Queen knew that only a woman wide awake was capable of running the realm and being called daughter- one who wouldn’t be fooled by layers and silks, one who would sense that something lie far beneath her.
Wide awake the princess remained, all the night long.
Something not right, something that nagged at her, keeping her from rest, keeping her from slumber, from peace.
The following morning, our dear princess emerged from her room black and blue, bruised all over as if battling the night through until dawn.
Sue Monk Kidd writes,
A woman in Deep Sleep goes about in an unconscious state. She seems unaware or unfazed by the truth of her own female life, the truth about women in general, the way women and the feminine have been wounded, devalued, and limited within culture, churches and families. She cannot feel the wound or feel the pain.
Attending my own awakening, I identified strongly with the image of this young wild woman disguised as innocent princess, hampered by an inner knowing that something lay below her that shouldn’t be there.
I empathize with her bruises, understanding all too well the soreness and battle fatigue that come when you try to shove the knowing away.
Yet once a woman awakens, she is unable to sleep in the same way ever again.
It’s the howling gale that calls your name, or the storm that throws you at the palace door.
It’s the pebble in your shoe.
It’s the pea buried among layers in the night.
You greet the new day with bruises from your fight with the truth you’ve tried to ignore, but there is no going back.
You are weary, you are battle sore-
but you are a woman fully awake, and the better for it.