The Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-tale for Our Time
O awaken not the Beauty until
the time comes...
The greatest fairy tales and stories are borne like seeds across the generations, carrying us with them by enchantment, connecting us to the imagination that is too often banished from our lives. They suggest responses to the challenges of human existence that cannot be conveyed as simply or profoundly in any other form. Fairy tales are very old. They invite us into the mysterious landscape of the soul. They speak with the voice of the soul and carry many levels of meaning. Who can say where the story of the “Sleeping Beauty” originated and how it was transmitted from generation to generation? It may be descended from long-forgotten Bronze Age rituals which celebrated the marriage of the sun and moon, and others which mourned the annual death of the life of the earth and celebrated its regeneration in spring. It may carry residual memories of the Gnostic myth of Sophia entangled in the dense forest of our world and her rescue by Christ. It may anticipate the awakening of woman to awareness of her value and a different relationship with awakened man. It may also relate to our inner life and the marriage of our conscious mind with our instinctual soul, for the sacred marriage of king and queen, prince and princess is woven into the rich tapestry of mystical traditions relating to our inner life: Alchemy, Gnosticism and Kabbalah.
The fairy-tale tells the story of a princess who, on her fifteenth birthday, explored the unused rooms of a castle and came across a room in which an old woman was sitting, turning and turning her spinning wheel. Asking if she too could spin, she took the spindle from the old woman and pricked her finger on it. At once she fell into a deep sleep, so fulfilling the curse placed on her by the uninvited thirteenth fairy at her christening—a curse that was mitigated by another fairy who remitted that death sentence to a hundred years’ sleep. The whole court fell asleep with her. A great forest of rambler roses — an impenetrable hedge of thorns — grew up around her, hiding even the turrets of the castle. A hundred years passed by and legends were told about the sleeping princess who lay hidden at the heart of the forest until one day a prince, hearing of the legend, determined to set out to find her. Many suitors had perished in the attempt to penetrate the hedge of thorns but, so the story goes, for this prince the hedge of thorns turned to roses and a way through the hedge opened before him. So he came to where she lay sleeping and awakened her with a kiss. As she awoke, the whole court came to life and preparations began for their marriage—for all the best-loved fairy tales end in marriage.
The ancient lunar imagery of death and regeneration comes to life in the story. The dark phase of the moon is symbolized by the sleeping princess and the court and by the old crone spinning in the turret of the castle. The solar prince awakens the lunar princess — the crescent moon — to life as his bride and, as this happens, the moon reaches fullness and the whole court returns to life to celebrate anew the age-old marriage of the sun and the moon.
Could this be a fairy tale for our time? Might its deeper meaning open a way through the hedge of thorns created by centuries of entrenched beliefs and habits of behaviour? Might its lunar symbolism have the power to awaken our soul, nurture our poetic voice, our true intelligence and our visionary imagination, and arouse in us a deeper capacity for relationship with each other and love for our planetary home? Finally, could it stir to life the slumbering ‘court’ of humanity?
Myths and fairy tales awaken and nourish the imagination. The imagination reconnects us to instincts which may have atrophied for want of use and when this happens, the arid wasteland of our inner life may be regenerated by our immersion in the waters of the soul. When we are not in touch with the soul, it is as if a vital part of us is asleep: it cannot communicate with us, nor we with it. We cannot live to the fullest potential of which we are capable. A civilization may die because it has forgotten how to nourish the soul and the imagination.
I see this timeless, magical story as a metaphor for the need for a marriage between the solar and lunar dimensions of our being; a marriage between our head and our heart, between our too-literal, analytical mind which knows nothing of a deeper ground of consciousness, and our imaginative, instinctual, creative soul. This deep instinctual part of us is the matrix of our ability to create. It is the origin of our capacity to feel and to imagine, and to give expression to feeling and imagination through the vehicle of our thoughts, our voice, our hands, and our body, which sustains the connection to a hidden dimension of reality. Feeling, intuition and the imagination put us in touch with a ground which is beyond the reach of mind and intellect, acting like a plug connecting us to the socket of that deeper reality.
But the hedge of thorns shows what an impenetrable barrier lies between mind and soul and how difficult it is to get through it. The hedge of thorns symbolizes all the belief systems and defensive structures we have built up over hundreds, if not thousands of years: deeply rooted religious beliefs about the nature of God and our fallen and sinful human nature and scientific beliefs about a randomly created universe and ‘dead’ matter. These beliefs, deeply imprinted on us over generations, stand between us and our soul and make it almost impossible for us to reach below the surface of our everyday consciousness and listen to the voice of that lost dimension of ourselves.
It is difficult for us to speak to each other as people spoke to each other in the past, because of the fear of the non-rational. Because of the rejection of this aspect of life, an essential part of our being is rendered speechless, autistic. Today we live in our mind, in what we believe is the supremely conscious, most interesting and powerful part of ourselves. Soul has been left out of the picture. Yet, I believe that in the story of the Sleeping Beauty, the Prince and the Sleeping Beauty symbolize the two aspects of our consciousness which belong together as bridegroom and bride.
The Prince personifies the solar principle of consciousness, the questing human mind which seeks to explore, discover, understand, penetrate to the heart of reality and who, in this story, is seeking the lost feminine counterpart of himself that is asleep—unconscious. Yet, as long as he remains unconscious of her existence and does not set out in search of her, as long as he does not confront and penetrate the hedge of thorns, she is condemned to remain asleep.
The Princess carries the lunar principle of soul, and also the neglected feeling values which are undeveloped or inarticulate in relation to the rational mind, and have, so to speak, lain under a spell for centuries because of the beliefs explored in previous chapters. She also, more obviously, carries the image of woman who, for all the reasons explored in these, has not been honoured for the feeling values she carries and has therefore been unable to honour her true feminine nature. From still another perspective, the story can be seen as a concealed metaphor of the reconciliation of spirit and nature or the marriage of the masculine and feminine aspects of spirit which have become separated over the last four thousand years.
The story of the Sleeping Beauty says that at the right moment, for the right person, the hedge of thorns turns to roses and a way opens through it. I think we are, in this new millennium, at the moment of breakthrough. A deep instinct is attempting to restore balance and wholeness in us by recovering the lost feminine dimension of soul personified by the Sleeping Beauty. Over the past fifty years a gradual restoration of a sense of the sacred has been taking place beneath the surface of our culture. Millions are awakening to awareness of our relationship with the greater organism of the planet and beyond this, with the deeper field of soul which unites all our lives—the great web of life that connects every aspect of life to every other aspect of it.
This fairy tale anticipates our time — this precious time of humanity’s awakening. Once before in the twelfth century, this was attempted in the great spiritual impulse of the Quest for the Holy Grail. The mystery of the Holy Grail infuses the Middle Ages with the image of the age-old quest which turns inwards, following the yearning of the seeker’s heart, seeking a path that cannot be taught but only found and is unique to each individual. The chalice, vessel, cup and stone that are the primary images of the Grail evoke the archetype of the Feminine which becomes the inspiration, guide and goal of the knight’s inner quest. What is the Grail then, but the inexhaustible vessel, the source of life continuously flowing into being, radiating into this world from the unseen realm of cosmic soul, the realm in which all our lives are embedded? Who are the knights who act as guardians of the Grail but those who faithfully kept alive through the darkened centuries the mysteries of the soul’s awakening?
Jessie Weston, who wrote From Ritual to Romance, one of the most authentic books on the Grail, said that “The Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and for centuries even, disappear...but it will rise to the surface again and become once more a theme of vital importance.” Now as then, the Grail Quest is open and can offer us a new image of ourselves, serving the world through love and following wherever the heart leads.
For nearly four thousand years the Soul has lain under a spell; her voice has been silenced, her wisdom rejected. Beauty, grace and harmony have faded from our world. But now, she is stirring to life within the soul of humanity. What does she want from us? What is her hope? I believe she wants relationship. I see this relationship as a sacred marriage; a marriage between ourselves and the deep invisible ground of life. The Soul and the Feminine archetype in their deepest sense have always carried the values of the heart: the values that honour wisdom, justice, compassion and the desire to help and to heal.
In many fairy tales, as in this one, there is the figure of an old crone. In ancient lunar cultures she would have been recognized as an aspect of the goddess, just as the sleeping princess would have been recognized as another aspect. In modern dreams, often appearing as a figure robed in black, she still personifies the power and wisdom of the life process which brings everything into being. She spins the web of fate; she is the womb of life, the process within nature which nurtures the seed and brings everything to fruition. In the story of the Sleeping Beauty she is the secret presence in the hidden room of the castle of the soul who brings about the events that lead ultimately to the awakening of the sleeping court and the marriage of prince and princess. She stands for the deepest stratum of our soul’s life. No one who sets out on the quest for relationship with the soul can ignore her. Sooner or later she may appear in our dreams, as she has done in mine, to awaken us to who she is and what she wants of us.
Our brilliant technological culture inflicts intolerable stress on us because it grants no value to feelings and allows no time for relationship with the soul, no time to awaken to the presence of the extraordinary treasure that lies hidden within us. The rescue of the treasure which has for so long been relegated low down on the list of our priorities requires a fundamental transformation of our understanding of life; the formulation of a new worldview or paradigm of reality that will precipitate us through the hedge of thorns that holds us impaled in bondage to the past. It invites a reorientation in our relationship with the planet and with each other, a reversal of what we have considered important, even vital to our survival—a putting first what we have put last. Knowledge of the holy unity of life, reverence for nature, trust in the powers of the creative imagination, in the atrophied faculty of intuition — all these are needed to help us recover that lost, instinctive relationship with life which was once grounded in our experience of soul.
The soul does not communicate primarily through words, through language, but through feelings, intuitions, emotions, and, because of our neglect of it, through disturbed, violent or addictive patterns of behaviour. It also communicates through dreams. If we do not pay attention to these, there will be no way in which the needs of the soul can reach our surface consciousness that is focused exclusively on the external world. They will remain shut away behind a hedge of thorns. The journey in search of the soul is difficult and even dangerous because it requires that we relinquish the certainty of what we think we know and what we have been taught for generations to believe. It means surrendering the desire to be in control and opening ourselves to a quest, a path of discovery. Many myths and fairy tales emphasize the need for surrender and trust in the strange non-rational guidance offered by animals or shamans on the quest. As the hero follows their guidance, so the hedge opens, the way unfolds. Following the guidance and wisdom of the instinct is the royal road into the realm of soul.
Somewhere in Chartres Cathedral, these words are inscribed: “O Awaken not the Beauty until the time comes.” This lost dimension of soul which lives deep within our being and within all life is awakening now. The quest to awaken the Sleeping Beauty is the quest for greater understanding of life’s mystery. Those who say there is no mystery to understand literally kill their instinctive life, their soul. The supreme value whose discovery could heal the anguish, terror and suffering endured throughout the odyssey of human evolution is to be found at the heart of our instinctual life. The fascination with the search for treasure lying hidden beneath the waters of the sea or buried deep in the earth reflects the magnetic power of the treasure that is hidden within the inner waters, the inner earth of the soul.