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The Sleeping Beauty.

This is the tale of a quest. It is a tale for men. There is also a tale for women, but I am not the one to tell that tale. Women who come across this tale may ignore it or observe it, help or hinder the hero as they please.

 
It is a tale that may happen to you, as it has happened in its various ways to many men before you and will happen to many after you. It begins when you have a dream — or rather, a vision, for it is more real than any dream. You see a maiden in a castle surrounded by a barrier of thorns, a maiden who has been asleep for centuries. You learn that the spell, which has imprisoned her, was cast many generations ago by one of your forefathers. You resolve to find that castle and awaken the maiden, for you realise that she will not be freed unless you attempt that task, and that you must start at once or else you will be too late.

And so you set out. Many are the perils that men have encountered on such a journey, and many are the miracles, too. Perhaps you have to cross a trackless desert, or climb a mountain of glass. How have you treated those you met, whether stronger or weaker than you? Have you shared your food, have you treated the animals you met as beings with knowledge as valuable as yours? Perhaps you have helped others because it is in your nature — perhaps it is not in your nature, but you have nonetheless done so because you know it is right. Which of these two is more pleasing I do not know. Some say only the first will do, the other being no more than what one has learned is useful; others claim there is no credit in what comes naturally, and that choosing to do what is difficult must be what counts.

You have faced many perils, perils that have destroyed some and led others to retreat home. You have passed through them with the aid of those you have helped, perhaps not even being aware that the perils were there. You have come by grace, or by luck which some say is just another word for grace, to the edge of the lands surrounding the castle.

Here you find the way to the castle is barred by an immense growth of brambles and thorn bushes. Perhaps you expect that a way will open up before you, as you are the destined saviour of the maiden. If so, you are disappointed. If you push forward boldly, hacking at all the thorns with your sword or axe, it soon becomes blunted. If, being a modern man, you chose instead a flame-thrower to destroy the thorns, you find its power has died before you have got far. Tools do not help you, and you must find another way.

If you search closely, you will see the remains of a path, and notice that the bushes are less thick near it. As you follow the path it twists and turns, perhaps going backwards for a while. At times you have to stoop or even crawl, and sometimes you have to clear away some of the bushes where they are too thick to make progress, though usually you accept those scratches you receive. And at last, tired and scratched, you arrive at the clear ground in front of the castle.

You enter the castle, and make your way to the room where the maiden lies sleeping. Remembering old stories, you kiss her in the hope that the kiss will bring her back to life. Great is your joy as she wakes up and stands to greet you But your joy turns to terror, for she has been asleep for centuries and now she is awake those centuries show on her: with each second she seems a year older until you are facing a woman older than you thought was possible.

What do you do now? This is your tale, and I cannot answer that for you. But I can tell you what happened to others. Many, in their terror, rushed away from the castle, pushed their way through the thorns heedless of the deep scratches, and returned to the ordinary world. There some shut out their terror by denying that they ever made such a journey, while others bitterly regretted their faint-heartedness and spent much of their lives searching for a way back. I do not know if any of those ever found their way back; many of them spent so much time searching that the rest of life made no impression on them.

If you are one of those who remained, you will see that the woman is not only older than you thought possible, but also wiser than you thought possible and more fearsome than you thought possible. As she looks at you it seems to you that she is weighing up every action you have ever taken, every thought you have ever had, and will deliver her judgement. It may be that now is the time you choose to run away.

Or perhaps you realise that, though it was a maiden you came in search of, this woman, frightening as she seems, is still the one you sought. If you see this and remain, she changes yet again. Neither a maiden nor an aged woman, she becomes now a woman of your own age, full of strength and majesty and love. Many have reached the maiden, and few of those remained to face the old woman. Few even of those can face her now, and it may be now that you run away. For what she demands of you is nothing less than strength, majesty and love to equal her own, a thing you find harder even than facing the judgement of the old woman.

If you remain and reach out your hand to her, she takes it. Together you leave the castle of vision to live together in the world outside. “And the story ends,” I hear you say thankfully, “as all good stories should, with the words ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ ” Of course not! This is not a story told to pass the time when the TV is broken — it is a tale of reality. But I can promise you that if you have succeeded in coming this far then you will live more fully until your death, experiencing the joyousness of your joys, the sadness of your sorrows, the wrath of your angers, the pain of your hurts, and that you will never lose (though you may need to forget for a while) the knowledge of the world’s waking beauty.

Wood and Water
18, Summer 1986
© Daniel Cohen

Notes 

The transformations when the maiden awakes are based on the traditional story of The Marriage of Sir Gawain (best known as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale), which is another story I have retold.

I think this story could be used for guided meditations. I have much experience of taking part in such meditations, but I have not led any. So I leave the details of how this can be done to readers who have led meditations. I would be glad to hear from anyone who does use the story in that way.

 

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First three illustrations for Sleeping Beauty by Walter Crane.
Sleeping Beauty landscape by Wen Fyfe
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