Rhiannon Thomas is a recent graduate from Princeton University, where she studied English and Japanese, and smuggled bubble tea into the library on a regular basis. She now lives in York, England.
As well as reading and writing YA fiction, she runs the blog FeministFiction.com, where she discusses TV, books, and all kinds of fannish things from a feminist perspective.
Retelling Sleeping Beauty
Here’s my big problem with Sleeping Beauty — it’s never really about the princess at all. In different versions, the protagonists are the fairies, or the witch, or her family, or the prince, but her thoughts and desires never really come into it at all. She’s cursed. She pricks her finger. She falls asleep. She wakes up to true love’s kiss and lives happily ever after. She exists in the center of the story, but the story happens around her, without any of her input. It’s not really her story.
I wanted A Wicked Thing to be a retelling of Sleeping Beauty where the Princess Aurora comes into her own. But I also wanted to be able to play on the familiar story, and all the ways it takes Aurora’s agency away. She falls asleep because of a curse. She wakes because a stranger kisses her. She lives “happily ever after” because it’s been preordained, and that is the end of that. How would Aurora react to all of this, if she were a real person and not just a vessel for fairy tale magic? And what would happen to that person if she woke up and decided that wasn’t what she wanted at all?
Of course, in order to continue Sleeping Beauty, I first had to define what the Sleeping Beauty story was. Sleeping Beauty has endless versions, like any fairy tale, from the Viking story of Brunhild to Disney’s movie retellings. All of them have different takes on the story, and none contains all of the elements that people think of when they think of “Sleeping Beauty,” with the possible exception of the Disney version, which is 100% off limits. So I had to craft my own version, and weave it into the novel, before I could continue it.
First of all, I wanted to include all the elements that are quintessentially “Sleeping Beauty,” even if they don’t appear in every version of the story. The curse from the witch, the prick of the finger on the spinning wheel, the magical sleep, and the promise that the only thing that could awaken her was the “kiss of true love.” Without these elements, I’m not sure that a “Sleeping Beauty” story would really feel like “Sleeping Beauty” to any modern reader, and I really wanted that perfect, enchanting, “fairy tale” set up, with its magic and its simplicity, if only so that I could then tear it apart.
Because the first, and biggest, change I made was also about true love — the point when the prince kisses her, and things really veer off-script. In A Wicked Thing, everyone believes that the kiss of true love will wake her, giving me something to build off and play with, but when Aurora wakes up, she isn’t so sure, and that doubt really drives her to figure out her own path in the story.
I also did away with the fairies, and with any other element that could change or soften the curse. In some versions, the evil witch/fairy curses the princess to die, and another fairy alters the curse into sleep instead. But in my version, the witch who curses her is the one who decides she’ll be awoken by the “kiss of true love.” There’s probably an interesting story in there about how the princess would feel about the “true love’s kiss” being a supposed gift to make the curse better, but it’s not the one I wanted to tell here. If true love is the witch’s actual curse, it raises a whole bunch of interesting questions. Its promise is either very generous, or very cruel, depending on how the witch imagines it will work out, and the question of why true love, and what the witch thinks that means, was too rich to ignore.
In the most recent versions of Sleeping Beauty, the whole court also falls asleep along with the princess, but this doesn’t happen in the older versions, and I left it out of A Wicked Thing as well. I wanted Aurora to be isolated in this new world, and that meant she could be the only one to travel there.
She also doesn’t get a forest of thorns protecting the castle. In the Brothers Grimm version, the thorns make a barrier between the castle and the rest of the world, and everyone forgets about the princess until the time comes for her to wake up. But I wanted Aurora to wake up as a relic of the past, surrounded by a changed world that remembered her. There would be a certain kind of loneliness in waking up after so long and having no one know who you are, but there’s a very different kind of loneliness and pressure in waking up and having everyone know who you are, everyone thinking they know what you’re going to be like and what you’re going to do, and everyone expecting great things from you when you still have absolutely no idea what is going on.
Basically, I did everything I could to isolate Aurora while also putting her in the center of all of this bustle and change, and the center of everyone’s attention. How she reacted to all that isolation and all those expectations — that would be my story.