Waking Up Aurora, by Rhiannon Thomas

Sleeping. Louis Sussman-Hellborn (1828–1908)

Sleeping. Louis Sussman-Hellborn (1828–1908)

I’ve had quite a tumultuous relationship with fairy tales.

The Little Mermaid was always my favorite as a child. Not just the Disney version, where everyone lives happily-ever-after, but the original, where the mermaid feels like she’s walking on a thousand knives and almost stabs the prince to save her own life when he falls in love with another.

I still love the imagery of The Little Mermaid, but there’s something very uncomfortable about Hans Christian Andersen’s themes of sacrifice and goodness. When I was younger, I saw this fairy tale as a tragedy about a girl willing to do anything to achieve her impossible dreams, a story that resonated with a Northern English girl who longed to see anything, everything else that the world had to offer. Now I look at it and see the Ophelian undertones, the tragedy of the girl who gracefully endures. The mermaid fights for her dreams, but she never achieves them, and the most important element of her story is how much she suffers to please the prince.

And yet, the little mermaid has far more agency than many fairy tale characters. I treasured all these stories as a child, in part because they were some of the few fantasy stories I found about female characters, and I still love them, but it’s hard to argue that fairy tale princesses have much choice in how they get their “happily ever after.”

La Belle au Bois Dormant, Gustav Doré, illustration for Les Contes de Perrault, 1867

La Belle au Bois Dormant, Gustav Doré, illustration for Les Contes de Perrault, 1867

Many of the more popular fairy tales use “destiny” as a comforting promise, this idea that people will get what they deserve, and everything will be All Right in the End. Young Adult author Melissa Grey has made a compelling argument online about how “Cinderella” isn’t a story about waiting around until a prince rescues you, but a promise to those in unhappy or abusive situations that things will get better, and I admit to still being enchanted by the promises of magic and beauty and happiness that fairy tales often provide. But the concept of “destiny” also demands a certain passivity from many fairy tale heroines, and any personality or emotion is often swept aside in the face of overpowering “true love.”

No fairy tale embodies this idea more than “Sleeping Beauty.” Although the story is named for its female protagonist, she never has a chance to act for herself—not in the Brothers Grimm version, not in the Perrault version, not in the Basile version that predates them both. It’s no wonder that the Disney version of the story gives Aurora only eighteen lines, and doesn’t have her speak at all for the entire second half of the film. She is cursed for something she did not do, sleeps for a hundred years while others act, and is awoken by the kiss of a stranger with whom she lives happily ever after.

She’s little more than a vessel for the rest of the story, and when I revisited the tale in college, I was left with a million questions about how she would actually react to all that happened to her, if her feelings weren’t dictated by destiny. Wouldn’t she be terrified if she woke up to the kiss of a stranger whom everyone told her was her true love? What would it actually be like to wake up after a hundred years, with the world all changed? How would Aurora respond to that?

I was so obsessed with these questions that I ultimately wrote a novel to try and answer them. A Wicked Thing begins at the moment when “Sleeping Beauty” usually ends, when Aurora wakes up to a stranger’s kiss. She’s disoriented, overwhelmed, grieving for the world she knew before … and expected to fall immediately in love with this strange prince and live happily ever after.

Her response, at least at first, is to go along with it. This perhaps goes against the assumed path of a “feminist retelling,” especially in the context of young adult literature. The passive princess is supposed to Stand Up For Herself, or so the modern “girl power” message goes. She should immediately know what she wants, refuse to be controlled by anyone, and Fight the Patriarchy, possibly with some literal fight scenes along the way.

But that, to me, is neither relatable nor believable. Sure, it’s fun to read the wish-fulfillment fighting story, but in this context, it feels as unrealistic as the “kiss of true love, happily ever after” trope of the original fairy tales. Some people might be able to immediately stand up for themselves, whatever the cost, and to always know their minds, even in impossible situations, but that’s not true for everyone, and a person doesn’t need to do that in order to be “strong.” In an attempt to fight against the sexist trope of the weak, indecisive princess who always needs to be rescued, many stories go too far the other way, conveying the message that a girl has to always be strong and decisive, to be able to fight with a sword and throw down a witty quip and never be afraid, or she’s “weak.” You see this idea in criticism of any female character who is less than flawless, and it’s trickled down to the mindset of young readers as well, so that uncertain female protagonists are “sniveling weaklings” and anyone who doesn’t respond to every challenge with sass and rebellion is a “pushover.”

But if that’s the case, then throw me in with the weaklings, because I can be indecisive with the best of them. I wrote A Wicked Thing during a very uncertain part of my life, in the year after I graduated university and had no idea what I wanted to happen next. Without the framework of the once-endless academic ladder, I was lost, unsure who I was or what I wanted to do. As I wrote the novel, I fed a lot of that uncertainty into Aurora, creating a character who finds her strength over time, from an initial place of complete confusion.

Sleeping Beauty. Henry Meynell Rheam, pencil and watercolor, 1899

Sleeping Beauty. Henry Meynell Rheam, pencil and watercolor, 1899

“Sleeping Beauty” was the perfect framework for this kind of protagonist. Free will does not come easily for her, because she starts the story as a lost and overwhelmed figure, lacking knowledge or confidence because she has spent her whole life locked away. It would be unrealistic to take a character like that and make her immediately in control of her life. Instead, I wanted to see how a character that starts with so little space for self-discovery might progress to a point where she knows what she wants and what she must do.

Ultimately, I wanted a novel about Sleeping Beauty reclaiming her own story, rather than one where the author reclaims it for the reader. If Aurora is confident and in control of things from the beginning, then it’s a story about strength and free will, yes, but it’s one where the entire story and characterization has been altered to fit that more empowering narrative. If Aurora is to reclaim her own story, she has to grow from passivity to power within the pages of the story itself, and be impeded by the idea that free will isn’t always easy. Because of this, I did whatever I could to isolate Aurora in the plot, to make any action difficult, both physically and psychologically. In a sense, I doubled down on the passivity of Aurora, turning narrative negligence into a narrative point, so that her inaction was not because she did not matter, but because the very fact that she mattered made acting so difficult.

A Wicked Thing also has three potential love interests. In this context of fated true love, I wanted to offer Aurora a variety of options, and to see all the ways that they can fall apart—because a protagonist does not automatically get her pick in love just because she’s the protagonist. Although Aurora does not believe in destiny with her prince, she is so surrounded by the concept of fate and destiny that she cannot resist weaving her own stories, imagining that other people she meets by chance may play roles in her life that those originally cast cannot.

A Wicked ThingAnd that is another way that the “destiny” in fairy tales can feel so appealing. Everyone fits into neat boxes—the evil witch, the princess, the true love—and they will never do anything to challenge those assessments. It’s incredibly easy to imagine stories about our lives, as Aurora does, where a coincidence was always meant to happen, and a new acquaintance might be “the one.” But when real people are involved, they often act to shatter our perceptions, and I wanted Aurora to be forced to face that as she tries to puzzle out how she wants her story to proceed.

A Wicked Thing is the story of a girl learning how to become a heroine in a world where she seems to have no options or chances to make decisions for herself. It’s a question of how a protagonist can enjoy free will when all her choices are bad ones, where destiny is broken but still can’t be easily dismissed. And it’s a resolution to my own complicated relationship with fairy tales, where I am enchanted by their magic and possibility, but wonder why the young protagonists never seem to be able to experience that possibility for themselves.