Thursday 21 September 2023

Enchanted Sleep and Sleepers #3


Probably the best-known enchanted sleeper after the Sleeping Beauty is Rip van Winkle. A lazybones living in the Catskill Mountains, he prefers hunting to hard work. Out with his dog one evening, he helps a strange little fellow to carry a keg up the mountain. They arrive at ‘a hollow, like a small amphitheatre, surrounded by perpendicular precipices, over the brinks of which impending trees shot their branches, so that you only caught glimpses of the azure sky and the bright evening cloud.’

Within this cave-like structure a number of ‘odd-looking personages’ dressed in old-fashioned clothes are playing at ninepins in complete silence except for the noise of the rolling balls which raise thunderous echoes. Stopping their play, they stare at Rip ‘with such fixed, statue-like gaze, and such strange, uncouth, lack-lustre countenances, that his heart turned within him and his knees knocked together.’ Rip nervously serves the little men drinks from the keg, after which they return to their game; he tries the beverage himself, and falls asleep for twenty years.

Rip is the invention of Washington Irving who published the tale in 1819, but he based it heavily on a German folktale ‘Peter Klaus’. Peter is a goatherd from Sittendorf who pastures his herd on the Kyffhäuser, a prominent hill south-east of the Harz mountains. Following a stray goat into a cave, Peter finds it eating oats mysteriously showering from the roof. He hears horses neigh and stamp overhead, and a young man beckons him up steps into a ‘deep dell, inclosed by steep craggy precipices’ where ‘on a well-levelled, cool grass plot’, twelve knights silently play skittles and sign for him to set up the fallen ones. Peter obeys: then growing bolder, drinks wine from a nearby pitcher and falls asleep only to wake stiff and old, with a beard a foot long. Descending the mountain to Sittendorf, he finds his house a ruin and recognises no one until a young woman tells him that Peter Klaus was her father – ‘It is now twenty years and more since we searched for him a whole day and night on the Kyffhäuser. ... I was then seven years old.’

Relevant to this tale is the legend that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190) sleeps in a cave under the Kyffhäuser with six of his knights. He sits at the head of a stone table and has been there so long that his great red beard has grown right through the stone. This legend haunts the story of poor Peter Klaus and explains his fate. Anyone local to the Kyffhäuser would know at once that the cave, knights and horses belonged to Barbarossa. It’s generally a risky business to enter the cave of a sleeping king and his army, especially if one of the sleepers stirs and asks ‘Is it time?’ (The best plan is to answer, ‘No, sleep on!’ and flee.) Hugh Miller, in his 1891 book Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, relates how a man entered the Dropping Cave of Cromarty and fuelled by alcohol, blew a blast on a bugle he found lying beside a vast sarcophagus, disturbing an unknown warrior:

The cover heaved upwards, disclosing a corner of the chasm beneath; and a hand covered with blood and of such fearful magnitude as to resemble only the conceptions of Egyptian sculpture, was slowly stretched from the darkness towards the handle of the mace. Willie’s resolution gave way, and flinging down the horn he rushed toward the passage. A yell of blended grief and anger burst from the tomb, as the immense cover again settled over it.

So far as I know, Washington Irving had no similar legend of the Catskills to apply to Rip van Winkle, but his odd little men are sufficiently fey to be disturbing. The fairies traditionally dressed in old-fashioned clothes, and in Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to Rip van Winkle the little men look very like goblins.

Characters like Rip fall asleep in consequence of having accidentally strayed into what might be termed a supernatural danger zone. In fact, the ‘supernatural lapse of time’ – the phrase coined by Edwin Sydney Hartland in The Science of Fairytales (1890) – experienced by Rip and the sleeping Peter Klaus is very similar to that of those who visit fairyland for what seems a few days or hours, but find on their return that years or centuries have passed.

The 12th century courtier Walter Map tells of King Herla of the Britons, who goes to the wedding of a pygmy fairy king (half goat, half man) in underground halls of great splendour. After the wedding, the pygmy king loads Herla and his retinue with gifts including a small hound for Herla to carry on his saddle, warning that neither he nor any of his men should dismount before the dog leaps down. Emerging into the open, Herla asks an old shepherd for news of his queen, but the shepherd can hardly understand him. ‘You are a Briton and I a Saxon... long ago, there was a queen of that name ... who was the wife of King Herla; and he, the story says, disappeared in company with a pygmy at this very cliff and was never seen on earth again.’ Forgetting the fairy king’s warning, some of Herla’s men jump from their horses and crumble instantly to dust: and Herla still rides the hills with the rest of his company, for the little dog has not yet leapt down.

The same prohibition was placed on Oisin, son of the Irish hero Finn, who married Niamh of the Golden Hair, daughter of the King of the Country of the Young and went away with her to that country, riding over the sea. After spending three years there he longed to see his father Finn again. Niamh gave him permission, and her horse, and warned him on no account to dismount or put foot to the ground. Of course he forgot.

Some say it was hundreds of years he was in that country, and some say it was thousands of years he was in it; but whatever time it was, it seemed short to him. And whatever happened to him through the time he was away, it is a withered old man he was found after coming back to Ireland, and his white horse going away from him, and he lying on the ground.

            Gods and Fighting Men, Book XI, Ch 1, tr. Lady Augusta Gregory 

Oisin leaves the land of everlasting youth and returns to mortal soil, where the weight of centuries falls and crushes him. In a dialogue with St Patrick he describes himself as ‘an old man, weak and spent, without sight, without shape, without comeliness, without strength or understanding, without respect.’ Patrick tries to convert him, but Oisin has the last word:

'Oisin and Patrick' by PL Lynch

‘It is a good claim I have on your God, to be among his clerks the way I am; without food, without clothing, without music, without giving rewards to peers. Without the cry of the hounds, without guarding coasts, without courting generous women; for all that I have suffered by the want of food, I forgive the King of Heaven in my will.

‘My story is sorrowful. The sound of your voice is not pleasant to me. I will cry my fill, but not for God, but because Finn and the Fianna are not living.’

Gods and Fighting Men, Book XI, Ch V, tr. Lady Augusta Gregory


Or are they? In most accounts Oisin dies; his grave, like Arthur’s, is located in various places – Antrim,  Armagh, even Scotland – but for Finn and the Fianna ‘there are some say he never died, but is alive in some place yet.’

And one time a smith made his way into a cave he saw, that had a door in it, and he made a key that opened it. And when he went in he saw a very wide place, and very big men lying on the floor. And one that was bigger than the rest was lying in the middle, and the Dord Fiann [Finn’s war-horn] beside him, and knew it was Finn and the Fianna were in it.

            And the smith took hold of the Dord Fian, and ... blew a very strong blast on it ... And at the sound, the big men lying on the ground shook from head to foot. He gave another blast then, and they all turned on their elbows. And great dread came on his when he saw that, and he threw down the Dord Fian and ran from the cave and locked the door after him, and threw the key into the lake. And he heard them crying after him, ‘You left us worse than you found us.’ And the cave was not found again since that time.

            But some say the day will come when the Dord Fian will be sounded three times, and that at the sound of it the Fianna will rise up as strong and well as ever they were...

            Gods and Fighting Men, Book X, Chapter III, tr. Lady Gregory

(If you want to hear what the Dord Fian might have sounded like, click this link.)

Versions of this tale-type known as ‘the king asleep in the mountain’ are found worldwide, and I can’t resist sharing my recent discovery – recent to me, though known to many – of perhaps the earliest European ‘sleeping king’ narrative. It’s recorded by the 1st/2nd century CE Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch, who attributes it to Demetrius the Grammarian ‘travelling home from Britain to Tarsus’. In one dialogue ‘On the Silence of the Oracles’, Demetrius tells how on one of the many islands lying around Britain, Cronus (Saturn) lies sleeping, guarded by the hundred-handed monster Briareus: ‘and round about him are many demigods as attendants and servants.’  Another dialogue ‘On the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon’ elaborates this account:

A run of five days off from Britain as you sail westward, three other islands equally distant from it and from one another lie out from it in the general direction of the summer sunset. In one of these, according to the tale told by the natives, Cronus is confined by Zeus, and the antique Briareus, holding watch and ward over those islands and the sea that they call the Cronian main, has been settled close beside him.


For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold – the sleep that Zeus has contrived like a bond for him – and birds flying in over the summit of the rock bring ambrosia to him, and all the island is suffused with fragrance scattered from the rock as from a fountain; and those spirits mentioned before tend and serve Cronus, having been his comrades what time he served as king over gods and men.

I wonder if Demetrius reached the island on which ‘Cronus’ sleeps by circumnavigating Britain anti-clockwise, and sailed down the west coast from the north?

[T]hose who survive the voyage first put in at the outlying islands [...], and see the sun pass out of sight for less than an hour over a period of thirty days, – and this is night, though it has a darkness that is slight and twilight glimmering from the west [...] and then winds carry them to their appointed goal.*

This description of the long northern summer days and short nights convinces me that Demetrius really did sail in northern waters and picked up information and stories ‘according to the tale told by the natives.’ It’s tantalising! What Celtic god or hero seemed to Demetrius’ Greco-Roman mind, the equivalent of Cronus/Saturn, father of Zeus?

Whoever that might be (incidentally, a friend has reminded me of CS Lewis's giant Father Time, who sleeps in a cave under Narnia until Time ends – Cronus is a personification of time, and you can bet Lewis knew his Plutarch) the roll-call of sleeping heroes includes figures named and unnamed, legendary and historical: Finn, Barbarossa, Charlemagne, Ogier the Dane, and of course there’s Arthur.

Some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of Our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say that it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life. But many men say there is written upon his tomb this verse: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS.

            Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI, chapter 7 

Malory’s Arthur is taken away in a barge to ‘the isle of Avilion, to heal me of my grievous wound’, but England, Wales and the Borders are full of tales of the king and his knights sleeping hidden under a hill. Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson summarize the stories in their comprehensive guide to England’s legends, The Lore of the Land.

In several places, including Sewingshields, Northumberland, and Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, it is said that a man finds a secret doorway in a hillside, leading to a cavern where Arthur and his knights sleep, surrounded by weapons and treasures, which may include some significant objects, such as a sword, a horn, or a bell. [...] The sleepers begin to stir, and the intruder panics and flees. He... can never find the hidden entrance again; meanwhile, Arthur and his knights return to their enchanted sleep, for the time for their return has not yet come. Other stories, collected in the late 19th century, say Arthur and his court dwell inside the hill-fort of Cadbury Castle, Somerset; on the nights of full moon they emerge on horses shod with silver.

            The Lore of the Land, p310 

It’s easy to see how the ‘king under the hill’ tales bleed into fairyland. The Cadbury legend makes Arthur and his silver-shod steeds sound very like the Seelie Court or Faerie Rade. Other than their regular full-moon wandering, the rest of the time do they sleep? The Irish Earl Gerald of Mullaghmast, a master of the black arts, sleeps with his warriors  in a cave under the Rath of Mullaghmast. Once every seven years he wakes and ‘rides around the Curragh of Kildare on a horse whose silver shoes were half an inch thick’ when he fell asleep. When they are worn ‘as thin as a cat’s ear, a miller’s son with six fingers on each hand will blow his trumpet’ and the Earl and his men will wake and ride out against the English.

Perhaps Tolkien remembered these stories when he sent Aragorn into the Dwimmerberg, the Haunted Mountain, to summon the King of the Dead and the shadow army which slept there. Once they have fought on his side against the hordes of Mordor, Aragorn holds the dead king's ancient oath fulfilled, and the shadow army dissolves like mist. 

Kings or heroes, all male, lying asleep in caves or underground: like the tales I explored in my first post and unlike those of the second, these narratives focus on the lapse of time and its effect, but there is a difference. King Mucukunda, the Seven Sleepers, Honi the Circle-Drawer and their ilk were all put to sleep by some divinity  and for a purpose. And their experiences were ultimately positive: they received divine lessons or blessings and departed this life in peace. That is not the case in these tales. Nothing St Patrick says can comfort Oisin, whose lament expresses not only the personal, emotional cost of the lost years, but fierce grief for a vanished way of life and the age of heroes.

What causes this difference? While deities can be expected to look after you, it is dangerous to trespass into the Otherworld of the Sidhe, where humanity does not belong, and even more dangerous if you taste food or drink there. The fair folk don’t age like us. Even Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings will grow old long before his elven bride, Arwen.

The women in my second post do not sleep in caves. They sleep in the open air on hilltops, or in the more civilised environment of hall or castle. And they do not age. During her century of sleep the Sleeping Beauty does not age at all, neither does the valkyrie Sigrdrifa in the Poetic Edda, or Brynhild in Volsunga Saga: they wake from their enchantments as active, young and beautiful as when they fell asleep. But whether by gradual natural process or sudden dynamic change, Peter Klaus, Rip van Winkle and Oisin do age. They sleep for decades and wake already old, or discover they’ve skipped a huge span of years and instantly wither – some into dust.

A tale in The Celtic Magazine of November 1887 tells how a young bridegroom leaving the church after his wedding was stopped by ‘a tall dark man’ who asked him to come around the back of the building with him for a quick word, and asked him to stand still till a small piece of candle he held in his hand should burn out. The bridegroom complied; it burned for two minutes, then he ran after his friends. They were out of sight, so he asked a man cutting turf if he had seen the wedding party go by. The turf-cutter shook his head: ‘Not for a long time past. What did you suppose the date of the wedding to be?’ The bridegroom gave a date two hundred years in the past. And the turf-cutter told him, ‘My grandfather had a tale his grandfather told him, of a bridegroom who disappeared on the day of his wedding.’ ‘I am that bridegroom!’ the young man cried, and fell as he spoke into a small heap of earth.

Maybe that’s the best way to go? For those who survive for a while, the sense of loss is devastating. In Rip and Peter Klaus’s case, meeting a grown daughter and grandchild offers partial consolation, but there is no recovering lost youth.

As for the ones who grieve for the lost years but do not die, one thing is clear: they are divorced from the flow of time. They cannot grow or change. Some spend the endless years like King Herla who ‘holds on his mad course with his band in eternal wanderings, without step or stay’. This is not like sleep, which indeed doesn’t feature in Herla’s tale, but it speaks of an inability to rejoin or ever to take part again in natural life. Unable even to dismount from their steeds, Herla and his troop are forever homeless, ‘blown in restless violence round about the pendant world’, to quote Shakespeare. And the kings and their knights lie in their caves in suspended animation, neither dead nor truly alive, waiting for the day when they will be needed, will be relevant again. Alas, it is a day that may never come, for – Aragorn excepted  in no story has any intruder ever desired to wake them.


* Charles William King, whose 1908 translation this is, tells us that Demetrius was sent to the islands of Britain by Trajan (who was emperor from 98 – 117 CE) and suggests that one of the islands may be Anglesey – ‘the focus of Druidism’ – since only ‘holy men’ are said to inhabit it. Could there still have been druids on Anglesey at the end of the 1st century CE? I suppose it’s possible, even after the 60-61 CE invasion by Suetonius Paulinus (busily burning the sacred groves just before news of the Boudiccan rebellion reached him), and that of Agricola in 77 CE. Druidism might well have hung on for quite a while, as the account goes on to explain that the cave of Cronus is a centre for oracles and prophecies described as ‘the dreams of Cronus’.


Picture credits

Sleeping King Arthur: illustration by Eric Fraser for 'English Legends' by Henry Bett

'They stared at him': illustration to Rip van Winkle by Arthur Rackham

Barbarossa in the Kyffhauser: artist unknown

Oisin and Niamh by Richard Hook: see

Oisin meets Patrick: illustration by P L Lynch for 'The Names Upon the Harp' with Marie Heaney

The Death of King Arthur: painting by John Garrick, 1862

To the Stone of Erech: by Inger Edelfeldt

Rip van Winkle: by Arthur Rackham 

Thursday 7 September 2023

Enchanted Sleep and Sleepers #2


My last post concerned a number of enchanted sleepers, all male, whose lengthy slumbers – however inconvenient – were almost entirely benign, awarded by the gods or God in order to save, enlighten or confer spiritual blessings upon them; and sometimes all three, for even when the sleeper awakes only to die shortly afterwards, he does so in a state of holiness or grace. This time I’m looking at enchanted sleep narratives involving women, in which the motivation of the instigator is consistently malign and the dénoument is often far from satisfactory. 

Sigurd kills Fafnir...


The poems known as the Poetic Edda are preserved in manuscripts dating back to the 13th century CE but derive from much older oral tradition. One of them, the ‘Lay of Fafnir’, tells how the hero Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir, cuts out and cooks the heart for the dragon’s treacherous human brother Regin, and tests it with his finger to see if it’s done. 

...and licks the blood from his thumb

After licking the blood he understands the speech of birds – nuthatches – which warn him to kill Regin, and direct him to the sleeping valkyrie Sigrdrifa. In the wonderful translation by Carolyne Larrington:   

            There is a hall on high Hindarfell

            outside it is all surrounded with flame;

            wise men have made it


            I know on the mountain the battle-wise one sleeps

            and the terror of the linden [fire] plays above her;

            Odin stabbed her with a thorn


            Young man, you shall see the girl under the helmet,

            who rode away from battle on Vingskornir.

            Sigdrifa’s sleep may not be broken,

            by a princely youth, except by the norns’ decree.

                        The Poetic Edda, tr. Carolyne Larrington, OUP 


Sigurd kills Regin, loads his horse Grani with Fafnir’s treasure and rides off. The story continues in ‘The Lay of Sigrdrifa:’ Sigurd climbs ‘high Hindarfell’ and finds the valkyrie lying asleep surrounded by flames and a rampart of shields. Crossing this barrier, Sigurd lifts off her helmet and with his sword Gram cuts away the mail corselet which is biting into her flesh. Waking, she explains that in revenge for the killing of a king to whom he had promised victory, Odin ‘pricked her with a sleep-thorn’ and told her that she would never again be victorious in battle, but should marry instead. At Sigurd’s request, Sigrdrifa confers wisdom on him by teaching him many runes. The manuscript then breaks off, but the exact same story is told in Volsunga Saga about the valkyrie Brynhild, who explains on waking: 

In the battle I struck down Hjalmgunnar, and in retaliation Odin pricked me with the sleep thorn, said I should never again win a victory, and that I was to marry. And in return I made a solemn vow to marry no one who knew the meaning of fear.

            The Saga of the Volsungs, tr. Jesse L. Byock, Penguin Classics 

She and Sigurd exchange vows. ‘Sigrdrifa’ appears in no other context, and Carolyne Larrington suggests the two valkyries are identical. The tale goes on to utter catastrophe. Unwittingly drinking a potion that makes him forget Brynhild, Sigurd marries Gudrun and tricks Brynhild into marrying Gudrun’s brother Gunnar – impersonating him in the test Brynhild sets her suitors, and leaping his horse through the ring of flames surrounding her hall. When she finds out, a bloodbath ensues and doubtless Odin is satisfied. 

Sigurd and Gunnar at the ring of flames


But what is a ‘sleep-thorn’? Though ‘stabbed’ and ‘pricked’ by it, Sigrdrifa also refers to ‘sleep-runes’. 

            Long I slept, long was I sleeping,

            long are the woes of men;

            Odin brought it about that I could not break

            the sleep-runes.

                        The Poetic Edda, tr. Carolyne Larrington, OUP

I don’t know whether it’s coincidental that ‘thorn’ is the name of the rune Þ (pronounced as a soft ‘th’), or that Odin, in Hávamal, seizes the runes or runelore after hanging nine nights on a mystical tree. 

I know that I hung on a windswept tree

nine long nights,

wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which no man knows

from where its roots run.


With no bread did they refresh me, nor a drink from a horn,

downward I peered;

I took up the runes, screaming I took them,

Then I fell back from there.

                        The Poetic Edda, tr. Carolyne Larrington, OUP 

Whatever the runic implications, a ‘sleep-thorn’ clearly also had physical form and appears in two of the legendary sagas dated at least to the 15th century. In Hrólfs Saga Kraka, Danish king Helgi arrogantly imposes himself upon the warrior-queen Olof, announcing his intention to marry her at once. ‘That evening there was hard drinking’, and when the king collapses into bed with her, ‘The queen took advantage of this and pierced him with a sleep-thorn; and the minute they [his retinue] were all gone, up she got, shaved off all his hair, and daubed him with tar.’ I’m cheering the queen on through this, and feel she was completely justified, but sad to say the saga takes a different view: later on Helgi gets his revenge, and the queen retaliates... In Gongu-Hrolf’s Saga, treacherous Vilhjálm pierces the sleeping Hrólf with a sleep-thorn, cuts off his legs and kidnaps his bride-to-be. But the sleep-thorn falls out when Hrólf’s faithful horse Dulcifal rolls him over, the dwarf Mondul heals Hrólf’s legs, and the hero pursues his enemy, who confesses and is hanged. 

Whatever a sleep-thorn meant to medieval Icelanders, the Sigrdrifa/Brynhild story is remarkably close to that of the best-known sleeper of all time, The Sleeping Beauty: after having incurred the anger of a powerful supernatural figure, a young woman is pricked by something sharp and falls into a lengthy enchanted sleep, protected or imprisoned by a barrier no one can cross except the hero appointed finally to wake her. Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology notes that the German version of the tale, Dorn-röschen, means literally Thorn Rose, and adds: The thorn-rose has a meaning here, for we still call a moss-like excrescence on the wild rosebush schlaf-apfel [sleep-apple]; so that the very name of our sleeping beauty contains a reference to the myth. [...] When placed under the sleeper's pillow, he cannot wake till it be removed.’ Maybe this throws some light on the mystery?

The Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on a spindle, and when I was a child I assumed spindles must be sharp. They aren’t, but the princess’s century-long sleep is guarded by an impenetrable hedge of brambles or briars – which of course possess thorns. 


In earlier versions a splinter of flax causes the enchanted sleep. In the 14th century French prose romance Perceforest (set in a pagan, pre-Arthurian world) a feast is given for the goddesses Venus, Lucina and Thetis to celebrate the birth of the lady Zellandine. Offended because she has not been presented with a knife to cut her food, Thetis ordains that ‘from the first thread of linen that Zellandine spins from her distaff’, a piece of flax will pierce the girl’s finger and she will fall into a long sleep. How is flax sharp? Well, making linen thread involved soaking and drying the flax stalks; the dried strands were then pulled through a toothed comb which snapped the stiff outer sheaths into small shards which might easily become embedded under a fingernail. This happens to Zellandine, and also to Talia, the sleeping heroine of Giambattista Basile’s ‘The Sun, the Moon and Talia’ published in the Pentamerone (1636). Yet another instance of a flax-caused sleep comes in ‘The Ninth Captain’s Tale’ which has been attributed to the One Thousand and One Nights but does not belong there. Heidi Anne Heiner of the wonderful website Sur La Lune researched it, and found it was a Egyptian folktale collected by the translator J.C. Marcius from an Egyptian cook ‘sometime prior’ to 1883. It tells of a girl whose mother begged Allah for a child, even if she were to be so delicate that the scent of flax would choke her. The girl is born ‘fair as the rising moon’, eventually learns to spin (to show off her lovely fingers): a piece of flax gets stuck under her fingernail and she falls swooning to the ground. (Midori Snyder’s excellent take on the story can be read here.) 

There is no way to demonstrate lines of descent, but the Sigurd/Brynhild story was much recycled in northern Europe, with additions and deletions according to taste. An example is a Faroese ballad, Brynhild’s Ballad, collected in 1851 but tentatively dated to the 14th century (read it at this link), and it cleaves closely to Volsunga Saga. Informed by ‘wild birds’ that ‘fair is Brynhild Buđledaughter,/She yearns for your encounter,’ Sigurd rides to find her: 

No one but brave Sigurd

entered Hildar-hill,

he jumped through smoke and fiery-fire,

he and his horse Grani.


            There he saw that pretty maid

            sleeping in her mail,

            raised his good and sharpened sword,

and cut the mail wide open. 

Brynhild welcomes Sigurd, but suggests he should first ask her father’s permission to sleep with her. Sigurd replies that he doesn’t want to meet her father, and why should he in any case, since, ‘You are not exactly known/to take your father’s advice.’ The ballad ends with Sigurd and the ‘mighty maid’ making love and conceiving their daughter Ásla. 

A later version is a 16th century Danish ballad Sivard og Brynild in which Sivard rescues Brynild from a glass mountain (reminiscent of the fairytale ‘The Princess on the Glass Mountain’ widespread across Norway, Sweden, Poland and northern Germany). The ballad was translated by George Borrow and it was printed in 1913 for private circulation as The Tale of Brynild, and King Valdemar and His Sister: Two Ballads (read it here). It begins: 

            Sivard he a colt has got,

            The swiftest ’neath the sun;

            Proud Brynild from the Hill of Glass

            In open day he won.


            Unto her did of knights and swains

            The very flower ride;

            Not one of them the maid to win

            Could climb the mountain’s side.           

From the fairytale opening things go downhill fast: Sivard succeeds, but instead of marrying Brynild, ‘To bold Sir Nielus her he gave/To show him his regard’. Discovering that Sivard has given a gold betrothal ring to the maiden Signelil, the angry Brynild demands that Sir Nielus bring her Sivard’s head: naturally it all ends in another blood bath. 

The lapse of time is implicit in these tales but not made much of. Sigrdrifa says, ‘Long I slept, long was I sleeping’ but we’re not told for how long. The ‘valkyrie’ narratives focus on the tangled relationships, treachery and bloody tragedies that develop after the enchanted sleep has ended. There is not that sense of confusion, loneliness, loss, and the discovery of a changed world experienced by many of the sleepers in my first post. Neither do any of the various Sleeping Beauties experience such emotions. In both Perceforest and the Pentamerone, the unconscious princess is raped by the prince and nine months later gives birth, still sleeping – Zellandine to a baby boy, Talia to twins. Sucking at their mother’s finger or breast, the babies suck out the splinter of flax, thus waking her. 



These busy, crowded stories pay little or no attention to the lapse of time. Perrault’s ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ (1697) sanitised and gentrified the tale to suit his sophisticated saloniste audience: his prince kneels ‘with trembling admiration’ at the bedside of the princess and dares not even kiss her. And the princess feels no shock at missing a century: her entire household shares her sleep, from her ladies-in-waiting down to the kitchen boy, dogs, horses and even the flies on the wall: her society wakes with her. She doesn’t even miss her parents (not included in the slumber spell and now long dead), and Perrault’s single gesture towards the length of time she’s slept is an arch reference to the out-moded fashion of her dress. In the 1729 English translation by Robert Samber:  

She was intirely dress’d, and very magnificently, but they took care not to tell her, that she was drest like my great-grandmother, and had a point band peeping over a high collar; she looked not a bit the less beautiful and charming for all that.

                        The Classic Fairy Tales, Iona & Peter Opie.  

Perrault adapts Basile’s continuation of the story as follows: princess and prince marry.  They have two children named Morning and Day. The prince becomes king and goes away to war; his mother, an ogress, orders the two children and their mother to be killed, and cooked for her to eat. The ‘clerk of the kitchen’ hides the victims, substituting a lamb, a kid and a hind: the ogress discovers the trick and orders the three to be flung into a tub full of poisonous snakes. At this moment the king returns, and the ogress jumps into the tub herself, saving him the trouble of executing her. When I was a child I rather enjoyed this gruesome ending; nowadays I’m amused by the complacent civility of the tale’s last sentence – ‘[The King] could not but be sorry, for she was his mother, but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife, and his pretty children.’ God forbid that any character of Perrault’s should suffer violent emotion. 

From Sigrdrifa in the Poetic Edda to Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, these tales are far less interested in the enchanted sleep itself, or how that lost time might affect the sleeper, than they are in the various dramatic events that take place once she wakes into a world which to all intents and purposes is no different from the one she fell asleep in.

With one exception: ‘Dorn-röschen’ the Grimms’ version of the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. It's usually translated into English as ‘Little Briar Rose’: Iona and Peter Opie have unflatteringly compared this very short tale with that of Perrault's lengthy one, stating that it ‘possesses little of the quality of the French tale’. Well, I beg to differ. Perrault’s good Fairy engages in a relentless bustle of activity: she touches her wand individually to every inhabitant of the castle to send them to sleep, she conjures up the hedge of briars ‘in a quarter of an hour’ – and the reader has barely time to draw breath before the hundred years are done: in the very next paragraph ‘At the expiration of a hundred years, the son of a King’ arrives, spots the towers from a distance and comes to investigate. 

In contrast,  this is how the Grimms’ tale introduces the century of sleep: 

But round about the castle there began to grow a hedge of thorns, which every year became higher, and at last grew up close around the castle and all over it, so that there was nothing of it to be seen, not even the flag upon the roof. But the story of the beautiful sleeping ‘Briar-rose’, for so the princess was named, went about the country, so that from time to time Kings’ sons came and tried to get through the thorny hedge into the castle.

            But they found it impossible, for the thorns held fast together, as if they had hands, and the youths were caught in them, could not get loose again, and died a miserable death.

            After long, long years a King’s son came again into that country, and heard an old man talking about the thorn-hedge, and that a castle was said to stand behind it in which a wonderfully beautiful princess, names Briar-rose, had been asleep for a hundred years, and that the king and queen and the whole court were asleep likewise. 

There is room to breathe. I love the slow, natural pace by which the hedge of thorns grows up and around the castle until it’s completely hidden; I love the way the story, now almost a legend, spreads around the countryside so that ‘from time to time’ young princes come to try their luck, only to perish and be in turn forgotten; how at last ‘after long, long years’ the century of sleep is over and the time comes for the spell to be broken. To compare ‘Little Briar Rose’ with ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ is pointless: all the two stories have in common is the bare bones of the plot. The Grimms’ tale is not witty or fashionable, it does not strive either to amuse or to horrify, it’s not interested in characterisation. Rather, it places the hundred years’ sleep at the heart and centre of the tale and in its deceptive simplicity it is a meditation upon time. 

In my next post I’ll be looking at folktales of kings sleeping under hills, sleeping armies, and, because the experience of lost time is so similar to that of enchanted sleepers, at some of the many tales in which a seemingly short visit to fairyland or the otherworld turns out to have lasted years or centuries.


Picture credits:

The Sleeping Beauty by Edward Burne Jones - Manchester Art Gallery

Brunnhilde Asleep by Margaret Fernie Eaton, 1902

Sigurd Kills Fafnir and Sigurd Roasts Fafnir's Heart - from the Sigurd Portal 

Sigurd and Gunnar at the ring of flames by J.C. Dolman, 1909 

The Hedge of Thorns by Errol le Cain, 'Thorn Rose' 1975

The Princess on the Glass Mountain by Theodor Kittelsen, 1857 - 1914

The Sleeping Beauty by Daniel Maclise - Hartlepool Museums & Heritage Service

The Prince and the Old Man by Errol le Cain, 'Thorn Rose', 1975