Sleeping Beauty and the Spindle

Irish_spinning_wheelI found out all about spinning on the weekend. There was a Christmas crafts event in town, and a couple of ladies from the Spinners and Weavers Guild were doing a spinning demo. Actually, that demo was the main reason I went to the event – spinning is one of the old crafts I haven’t actually tried my hand at, not properly, anyway, and I’ve wanted to know for a while how it works.

And sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed: every last “Sleeping Beauty” movie has got it wrong.

You know how the story goes: the wicked fairy curses the princess to prick her finger on a spindle on her 16th birthday. To try to prevent it, the king bans/burns all spinning tools. But of course, as he ought to have known, that does nothing; she finger-pricks anyway, falls asleep, a century later prince shows up, etc.

So how does that look in the movies? Huge conflagration of spinning wheels, for the most part. Then the dimwitted (ahem – sorry) princess, in a trance, walks up to a wheel, which has a sharp thing sticking out of the top, goes and purposely jabs her finger on that sharp pointy thing, and on we go with the snoozing etc. etc.

Complete baloney. It’s pretty obvious the movie-makers have never seen a real spinning wheel in their lives. It’s mildly forgiveable in the film makers of the 1959 Disney movie, when research was a little more difficult to do; but in 2014, you’d think that the set designers of Maleficent could have done about ten seconds of googling, which would have told them that there are no sharp pointy things sticking out of spinning wheels. Spinners of the past would have been severely puzzled by those movie spinning wheels.

I can just picture it now. The scene: a Great 21st-Century Folklorist has been time-transported back to a 17th-century German Spinnstube (shpinn-shtoo-ba, spinning room), where the women of the village are gathered around the fire on a dark winter’s night with their spinning wheels. Folklorist rubs his hands – here’s his opportunity to tell the “Sleeping Beauty” story as he knows it, and really get it entrenched in the minds of these peasants. So there are Gretl, Liesl, Anna, Maria, Maria, and Anna Maria, all sitting in a circle, their spinning wheels humming. [No! Turn off those lights! The only illumination we have are the fire and a couple of rush lights. It’s dark, folks. Got that image in your mind now? Okay, good. Carry on.]

Folklorist: “…and on her 16th birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel!”
Maria 1: “On what?”
Maria 2: “Maybe she had a poor-quality wheel; the wood might have been splintered.”
Gretl: “Oh, you mean she pricked her finger on a splinter?”
Folklorist: “No! She pricked it on a spindle! You know, that pointy thing!”
Liesl: “What pointy thing?”
Folklorist: “Well, that – um…”
Anna: “This makes no sense at all. If the bad fairy wanted the  princess to kill herself with a spinning wheel, she’d have to find a better curse than that.”
Maria 2: “Yes; if she hasn’t got a splintered wheel. What about…”
Anna Maria: “That makes more sense. I mean, who would believe anything so silly as someone pricking her finger on a spindle on a wheel? All right, Mr Storyteller, carry on, please!”
Folklorist, extremely reluctantly: “…so the wicked witch cast her curse. ‘On her 16th birthday,’ she said, ‘the princess shall club herself to death with the drive wheel of a spinning wheel…'”
The women: “Yes!” “That’s better!” “Now it makes sense.” “That’s so exciting!” “What happened next?”

Anyway, that’s a more likely scenario than this poke-yourself-on-a-spinning-wheel one. Sorry, Mr. Disney.

The device that Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on is, in fact, a hand spindle – and not a drop spindle, either, which might serve to poke out your eye or be used to inflict classic blunt-force head injuries, but isn’t really  pointy. It seems that the most likely device for inducing century-long royal hypersomnia was what spinners call a Russian spindle, which is very pointy indeed. I’d love to learn how to use one sometime (for making yarn, not putting teen girls to sleep), but I wouldn’t sneeze at getting the hang of a spinning wheel, either.

Life, the Universe, and Tales of a Spindle. Or should that be Spinster?

11 thoughts on “Sleeping Beauty and the Spindle”

  1. Now that’s a retelling that I’d want to hear/read. What a fun post! I’m just wondering how it even made it in the fairy tale. Bad translations?

    1. Primarily the Disney “translation”, is my guess. They heard “spindle”, so they thought “must be a part of a spinning wheel”.The Grimms’ version (i.e. actual folktale) is really clear that it’s a small thing that is “jumping around so merrily”, and the princess is curious and wants to try it out – and ping! – she’s zonked out. Can’t think of the wording in the Perrault version at the moment.

  2. Awesome. Trust you to get to the bottom of this spindle thing for us. Really interesting post. I was on the ferry to Vancouver once and saw a woman spinning her own wool from her own sheep on to her own spindle. Very small contraption that folded. Yes. Folded. And no sharp pointy thing anywhere. 🙂

    1. Foldable spindle, eh? One of the spinners at that demo had a foldable spinning wheel; it even came with a carry bag. Sort of like a large-ish backpack.

      1. Yes. In fact that may be exactly what she had. It sat directly in front of her and she was sitting forward on her seat sort of hunched over it. It’s a lost art, like so many of them. I love that stuff though. I would like to know if the power went out that I could manage to make a cup of tea without it. Lol.

        1. Yes! The second video with the woman and the green wool was pretty much what I saw. Except the one I saw was black. And no pointy sharp bits anywhere. 🙂

  3. As someone who spins wool myself, I heartily endorse your translation. Spinning draft has done nothing more terrible than make my hands dry after a few hours. But actually pricking my fingers? Never once😊

  4. I thought it would make much more sense for her to prick her finger on a carder or hackle used to prepare the wool for spinning, get lockjaw and die. Because that’s something that could actually happen, though a splinter on a spindle could also do the trick. I was carding raw wool and pricked myself and panicked a bit when I realized I didn’t know when my last tetanus shot was.

    1. Well, the problem with the lockjaw is that it takes a bit longer to develop, so we’re missing that immediate element of “prick, keel over”.
      One of the older version of the fairy tale, I believe it’s the Italian one (“Sun, Moon and Talia”), has her actually poisoned by a piece of flax stuck in her finger. She wakes up when one of her twins (whom she gave birth to in her sleep – yeah, the prince did a bit more than just kiss her) tries to suckle and gets hold of her finger by mistake, sucking out the flax. Looks like the Italians might have been better up on spinning lore.

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