The Sleeping Maiden, famines, Black Death, and spindle trees . . . oh my!

Thanks, dear reader, for giving my Victorian industrial revolution, medieval dystopian faerie world, with a cyberpunk twist story a try! *giggles* What did you just read, you ask? Allow me to extrapolate. Mythpunk. Okay, so I’ll allow another to fully extrapolate (read the link). But the quickie answer is: a derivative of cyberpunk that deconstructs a familiar faerie tale, myth, or folklore, mixing the nuts and bolts with unexpected genres/settings, before reconstructing all the story pieces into something “familiar” but “new.” Mythpunk sometimes blends several myths and folktales together too. And, it employs postmodern writing styles. Basically, artsy often self-reflective writing styles through poetry, non-linear plotlines, and weirdness. If you’ve read my other series, The Biodome Chronicles, then you already know I revel in story weirdness.

And if you’ve read either The Biodome Chronicles or The Knights of Caerleon, then you also know I like to end my stories with historical notes.

*clears throat*

The Sleeping Maiden, famines, Black Death, and spindle trees . . . oh my!

The story of Sleeping Beauty has captivated me since I was a little girl. Not because of the princess and the prince. Well, okay. Yes. I do like them. But really because of the faeries. Evil faeries, no less! My first introduction to the idea that faeries aren’t all cute and whimsical but evil.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t confess that I adored Prince Phillip in the 1950’s Disney animated movie. I mean, he held conversations with his opinionated horse and way before Maximilian arrived on the scene in Tangled. And he stood up to his father and said no, this is who I want, forget stupid marriage contracts. Which, as a young girl, I found thrilling. You mean a prince might like a simple girl from a simple world? Before he knew of Aurora’s royal heritage, he knew he wanted to build dreams with her. So much so, he fought a faerie dragon and enchanted thorned brambles for the girl he danced with in the woods . . . once upon a dream.

And Aurora? Well, even from a young age I understood that she was denied a personal choice in everything. People often make fun of her for the crying scene, where she crumples at her vanity in tears. But think about it for a sec. She was raised in a secluded wood by faeries in a small cottage, no contact with anyone else, let alone another human like her. Never knew her parents or that she was even royalty. Then suddenly she’s whisked to the castle and offered no adjustment period to even digest her life changes. And after arriving, she’s told that she can’t love who she wants because even THAT has been chosen for her and by people she had never met until that very moment.

She was only an object in a war for power. And yet she held all the power of life and death and Fate’s ever spinning threads in the tip of her finger . . .

I was riveted.

And before anyone says she’s mindless and boring, or that Aurora has no agency . . . let me remind you: the Disney story was intended for children. And children often feel like they have no say in anything. They’re not wrong. Adults decide most things for children and then expect said children to accept all their decisions without any form of reaction. Unlike the adult. Because if someone did that to an adult, they’d have opinions. Cue the teenager! The young adult is discovering their agency, not only in the home but also in The Wilds of adult life. Which includes falling in love. And Aurora is a teenager. A young one too. Only fifteen in most stories.

This tale is probably one of the darkest in all the popular faerie tales too. Disney sanitized the origins CONSIDERABLY. Can’t emphasize that enough. The folktale goes back to the Dark Ages and is linked to Norse Icelandic myths. However, the Sleeping Beauty tale didn’t truly take off until Perceforesta collection of poetry connected to the Arthurian Legend that gained popularity in the 16th century (though comprised in the 1300’s) featuring a story about a Scottish knight (Troylus) who quests to wake an extraordinarily beautiful princess (Zellandine), a young woman who never woke up after mysteriously falling asleep while spinning linen. Long story short, bypassing Zellandine’s eventual rape, the princess wakes after she gives birth. But only when her child suckles the enchanted sliver of flax from her fingertip. And thus, women are saved through childbirth.

Oh, and Zelladine is Lancelot’s great-great-great grandmother.

Two hundred years after Perceforest, a 17th century man by the name Giambattista Basile, from Naples, Italy, wrote down what is attributed as the first national collection of faerie tales. Tale of Tales is so incredibly dark (inspiring the 2015 movie of the same name), I struggled to read through the Sleeping Beauty story, “Sun, Moon, and Talia.” It’s really rapey, including necrophilia, and just so patriarchy-vomitous that it was hard to stomach, even for research. But if you want a play-by-play commentary on this disturbing version, read this article.

Sixty years later, Charles Perrault published the Tales of Mother Goose for the French aristocracy. . . for adults, not children. Funny how trends cycle *side eyes adult faerie tale reader* And naturally he cleaned up the tale for the adults, because adults apparently can’t handle rape like children. *gags at previous two versions* Perrault was a staunch supporter of the Catholic church and lived for the favor of French nobles, especially those who also supported the church. And so he wove in Catholic themes for good Christian women (like the sacrament of baptism and godparents via faerie godmothers christening the infant princess), cleaning up the stories to be safe for female sensibilities, and ended each tale with a “moral of the story” poem . . . to educate women on how to be virtuous. *clears throat and cues the poem at the end of his SB story*

THE MORAL

To get as prize a husband rich and gay.

Of humour sweet, with many years to stay,

Is natural enough, ’tis true;

To wait for him a hundred years,

And all that while asleep, appears

A thing entirely new.

Now at this time of day,

Not one of all the sex we see

Doth sleep with such profound tranquillity:

But yet this Fable seems to let us know

That very often Hymen’s blisses sweet,

Altho’ some tedious obstacles they meet,

Are not less happy for approaching slow.

’Tis nature’s way that ladies fair

Should yearn conjugal joys to share;

And so I’ve not the heart to preach

A moral that’s beyond their reach.

Remember ladies: you’re only truly desirable to wealthy, happy men if you spend your entire existence perfecting your feminine graces and protecting your virtue.

PUKE.

Oh, did I mentioned the cannibalism? Yeah, a queen in both the Basile and Perrault stories want to eat children. In Basile’s version the queen is the rapey king’s jealous wife. In Perrault’s version, she’s the prince’s mother, who just happens to be an ogress. Yes. You read that correctly. The prince in “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” is half ogre. *looks at Shrek*

Here’s a fantastic article by Tor on cannibalism and other nightmarish things found in the three early versions of Sleeping Beauty just discussed.

The Brothers Grimm tale, “Little Briar Rose,” is FAR better and closer to the Disney version we know. And unlike previous written versions, the princess wakes with a magical kiss from her prince aaaaaaand she doesn’t have to later deal with cannibalistic women who hate children. But . . . thank the Mouse Ears for Disney’s version! Yes, still not the best representation of women. Still . . . the best well-known version yet.

As a side note: Prince Phillip in the Disney version is the first prince to be named in the Sleeping Beauty stories since Troylus in Perceforest. And he was based on the real Prince Phillip who denounced his title of Prince of Greece and Denmark and became a naturalized citizen of Britain before the official engagement announcement to Queen Elizabeth II, taking on the last name of Montbatten. The last name of his maternal grandparents. Before the wedding, he was given new titles, Duke of Edinburgh being chief among them. With Troylus being a Scottish knight and Phillip being the Duke of Edinburgh, I decided Félip would be Scottish-like, even have the Gaelic form of Phillip. And come from the royal House of Batten *winks at reader*

Circling back to 14th century northern Europe . . .

The 1300’s endured one major catastrophic event after another. Around 1290, the European Warm Period (EWP) came to a sudden end. The weathered cooled significantly, marked with heavy rains and winter-like conditions, earning the title Little Ice Age.  This resulted in “blighted” crops. Btw, “blight” is a fancy word for destroyed or rotting. A common example is “leaf curl” in certain fruit trees. *winks again* But I digress . . .

Thus began the Great Famine in 1315. Not only did crops rot, but a parasitic worm infested sheep resulting in a seventy percent loss of sheep livestock across a good portion of northern Europe. Seventy percent! Hunger is a horrible way to die and often leads to madness. And in medieval Europe, this is exactly what happened. The people went mad, and the rate of crime (including rape), cannibalism, infanticide, and mass deaths increased at alarming rates. Parents left their children on the side of the road or in forests to die or sold them into slave labor for immediate pay. Puts a lot of faerie tales into perspective, doesn’t it?

With population decline, there were fewer hands to work the farms, fewer soldiers for the church’s Crusades (which were still going strong), or the church’s cathedral raising. Don’t even get me started on classism issues during this period. Needless to say, the combination of many terrible social, economic, and political factors put pressure on women to rebuild populations—naturally. It was their “duty” to restore the land to its former glory.

The Great Famine ended around 1317 (though some speculate around 1322), but smaller famines happened in the 20’s, 30’s, creating perfect conditions for the Black Death (aka Black Plague), which swept across northern Europe in the late 1340’s—one of the most devastating pandemics of human history. The Black Death officially ended around 1360, but the damage was great. And the rate of crime, cannibalism, infanticide, and mass deaths increased to horrific rates once again.

Interestingly, scientists are not convinced the Black Death was caused by the bubonic plague after pathology studies, as most commonly believed. Many mass grave sites from the 14th century in the UK reveal high amounts of pulmonary anthrax, also known as Wool Sorter’s Sickness / Wool Sorter’s Disease. Grass-grazing animals, like sheep, are easily infected by the anthrax spores in the soil. But the bacteria (which can lie dormant for decades) is believed to have sprung to life with the weather changes. Millions of spores just floating in the air for people and livestock to breathe in. The common symptoms are extremely high fevers (aka the sweats), shortness of breath, coughing, bruising, and boils. Most people died within twenty-four hours. Sorting and preparing wool for spinning was a common job for children too.

Other mini famines continued through the end of the 1300’s until the weather became slightly more favorable (though, not by much). But after a 100 years of misery, where Europe died (aka slept), the 1400’s saw the end of the medieval era and ushered in the renaissance.

Perceforest was composed in the French countryside sometime between 1330-1345 . . . which puts some of the rapey, women are saved through childbirth themes into light. But it wasn’t until the The Tales of Mother Goose that a maiden who slept for 100 years was introduced. The maiden, in my opinion, being metaphoric for northern Europe who saw all kinds of horrors and reigned triumphant in the end after bearing children (growing her population).

So, that’s my . . . ahem, spin on Sleeping Beauty’s deeper metaphors. I haven’t read this elsewhere. If you do, PLEASE share with me!

The Victorian Industrial Revolution and more blight

The medieval era introduced the spinning machine and the Victorian Industrial Revolution saw the end to homespun cloth as the norm. There are stories (even fictional stories of that era) of women who were thrust into deeper poverty when tailors no longer purchased their spun yarns, woven cloth, and tatted lace. Industrial machines were able to produce more and faster. And, thus, more cheaply. Similar to the famines and lung diseases of the 14th century, the Dickens era of industry carried many of the same problems. Except, this time from coal furnaces in factories and income loss when assembly line production shadowed the small business owner.

Also during this time was the Great Potato Famine in Ireland because of . . . blight. Potato Blight to be exact. This is partially why I made Rothlín an Irish-Scottish-like region. But also because Celtic faerie lore held that if a heavy frost came right after Samhain (Halloween) and destroyed unharvested crops, it was because faeries had “blighted” their crops. The Kingdom of Ealdspell is on a leaf and Rothlín is in eternal autumn . . .

The parallels between 14th century northern Europe, Celtic faerie lore, and the Victorian Industrial Revolution were too rich for me to ignore.  And I thought they created a strange and beautiful dystopian backdrop for my textile realm, Rothlín.

Cyberpunk and, yet again, more blight

Just like the Victorian Industrial Revolution, the age of high-tech machines has taken over production. Robots are replacing human hands, and quickly. Small business is shadowed by mega corps, run by AI algorithms. Modern production takes assembly lines out of the factories and oozes the idea into white collar offices. Cubicle lands are essentially new factories. The Age of Machines is sometimes referred to as a “blight” to humanity’s socio-economic future as well. It’s a common enough reference in spec fiction.

I liked the idea of high technology linked to my medieval, Victorian Industrial Revolution inspired, dystopian world. Not only as a system of magic, but also to highlight the familiar. This is a world we know. A world we interact with on the daily. To me, it makes the faerie aesthetics of years past more poignant.

Spindle Trees

They are real! This is not a faerie tale tree. Euonymus, is a small shrub or tree (depending on region) named after Euonyme, the mother of the Greek Furies (aka Erinyes). And who were they? Three goddesses who were appointed to punish humankind for their crimes.

“The wrath of the Erinyes manifested itself in a number of ways. The most severe of these was the tormenting madness inflicted upon a patricide or matricide. Murderers might suffer illness or disease; and a nation harbouring such a criminal, could suffer death, and with it hunger and disease. The wrath of the Erinyes could only be placated with the rite ritual purification and the completion of some task assigned for atonement.” You can read more about the Furies here. But . . . notice what I italicized? A rather Rothlín-esque problem, no?

Spindle trees are poisonous, hence the connection to Euronyme. And because the blossoms, leaves, and berries are poisonous (and well known to be so, even in the Medieval era), they were tied to “sleeping maiden” tales through the spinning tool of the same namesake. The fiery leaves and blossoms? Gorgeous. Truly beautiful. Google images so you can see for yourself.

But the real question: were medieval spindles actually made from spindle trees? Yes! Though this tree is slight in appearance, the wood is remarkably strong. So much so, the Norse carved spindles from a tree they named spindlebaum. The Irish Celts called the tree Oir, which is one of their ogham runes and a sacred druidic tree. I highly recommend reading this article on the druidic lore surrounding spindle trees.

Later, spindle trees were used to make the first skewers and toothpicks, which were known as prickwood. Sometimes skewerwood too. Oxen yokes as well as the first matches were also made from this hardy deciduous tree. Spindle trees were even used in Medieval herbal medicine to treat cows and horses with mange.

Aaaaaand, that’s it. Now onto writing book two of The Ealdspell Cycle, “Eirwen” . . . aka, Snow White. And yes, I’ll have a weird world and genre mash-up there too!

To be continued . . .

Jesikah Sundin

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