The wicked fairy godmother, a figure rare in fairy tales, is nevertheless among best-known figures from such tales because of her appearance in one of the most widely known tales, Sleeping Beauty, and in the ballet derived from it. Anonymous in her first appearance, she was later named in some variants Carabosse, and in others Maleficent.
The oldest version of Sleeping Beauty that has been preserved is Sun, Moon, and Talia from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone. This version does not feature any fairy godmothers; Talia’s fate is prophesied, but is not caused by witchcraft.
Charles Perrault added the witch to his variant the story of Sleeping Beauty, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” (“La Belle au bois dormant”), dating from 1697; he did not give her a name. The Brothers Grimm included a version, “Briar Rose”, in their collected tales; their version included the witch and her namelessness; the only difference relating to the witches that in Perrault’s version, seven fairies were invited, and she is the eighth, and in the Grimms’, twelve were invited and so she is the thirteenth.
The figure of the witch appeared before Perrault’s tale. The first known appearance was in the chanson de geste Les Prouesses et faitz du noble Huon de Bordeaux: the elf-king Oberon appears only dwarfish in height, and explains to Huon that an angry fairy cursed him to that size at his christening. Madame d’Aulnoy had them appear in her fairy tales The Hind in the Wood and The Princess Mayblossom; although their roles in her tales had significant differences from Sleeping Beauty, in The Princess Mayblossom, she receives the name of “Carabosse”. At some point, this name was attached to the wicked fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty; she appears as such in Tchaikovsky’s ballet of Sleeping Beauty.
Role in the tale
In Sleeping Beauty, the witch comes uninvited to the princess and declares that “because you did not invite me, I tell you that in her fifteenth year, your daughter will prick herself with a spindle and fall over dead.” A good fairy mitigates the curse so that the princess will only fall into a deep sleep, and the king attempts to protect her by removing all spindles.
On the princess’s fifteenth birthday, the princess meets a spinning woman, pricks her finger on the bodkin and falls into a deep sleep. In the oldest variants, the old woman is merely ignorant and means no harm, but in some variants, such as Tchaikovsky’s, the spinning woman is Carabosse herself, ensuring her curse.
In Tchaikovsky’s ballet of Sleeping Beauty, Carabosse was portrayed as a frightening figure, entering each time to forbidding and dramatic music. Carabosse’s role in the story enjoyed a spectacular rendition with the ballet “The Sleeping Princess” in 1921, produced by Sergei Diaghilev, employing the original choreography by Marius Petipa as it was painstakingly recalled by several of its dancers, all now émigrés. Carabosse’s costumes were designed by Leon Bakst; her medieval-inspired costume gave her the silhouette of a rat.
In the Disney animated version of Sleeping Beauty the character of the witch is personified in Maleficent, a dark sinister being who is the “Mistress of all Evil”. She lays a curse on the princess (called Aurora here) and the fairies are forced to take the princess away to protect her. Maleficent’s monstrous minions hunt for Aurora in years to come, and on her sixteenth birthday Aurora returns to the palace and pricks her finger on the spinning wheel that is actually the witch in disguise. When Maleficent learns that Prince Phillip is in love with the princess, she captures him so that he will be too old and feeble to wield a sword when he can finally free Aurora. When the good fairies help him escape, Maleficent takes over the entire palace and later transforms into a giant black dragon to do battle with the hero. Prince Phillip defeats the villainess with his Sword of Truth, causing her to fall to her apparent death. All that is left of Maleficent is her robe.
In The Young Slave, Cilia, the baron’s sister, gives her daughter Lisa to the fairies to raise. All of the fairies give gifts to Lisa, but the witch twistes her ankle, and curses Lisa to die when she was seven, because her mother, combing her hair, forgot the comb in her hair. In another variant, The Glass Coffin, the role of the witch is taken by a male traveler who curses the daughter of a rich count to be imprisoned in a glass coffin after she refuses to marry him.
The common knowledge of the witch has made the figure an obvious target for revisionist fairy tales. The wicked fairy godmother is widely spoofed and parodied. In Andrew Lang’s Prince Prigio, the queen, who does not believe in fairies, does not invite them; the fairies come anyway and give good gifts, except for the last one, who says that he shall be “too clever” — and the problems with such a gift are only revealed later. In Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, a princess lamented that she was not cursed at her christening, because the witch danced with her uncle and enjoyed herself instead of getting angry.
In George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Light Princess, it is the king’s sister, Princess Makemnoit, who is not invited to his daughter’s christening. Makemnoit arrives without an invitation and curses the princess to have no gravity. It is discovered that water makes the princess regain her gravity, so Makemnoit drains the water from the lake, making even the rain cease and babies cry no tears. Makemnoit eventually meets her fate when her house is undermined by the waters and falls in, drowning her. In another George MacDonald’s tale, Little Daylight, the sea-witch, arriving uninvited, tries to continue her curse, claiming that the fairy who had mitigated hers had broken in when she was not done, but the fairies had wisely kept two fairies from giving their gifts until she had come, and the second one was able to mitigate the curse she added.
In Mercedes Lackey’s The Gates of Sleep, like in MacDonald’s The Light Princess, it is also the sister of the baby’s father, this time named Arachne, who lays a curse upon the girl to die on her 18th birthday, even when Arachne was not supposed to possess any magical ability at all. The girl, named Marina, remains hidden during 17 and a half years until Arachne murders her parents and takes Marina with her. At some point, the curse is broken but Arachne manages to re-instates the curse, resulting in a battle between Marina and Arachne. In Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s End, the wicked fairy is named Pernicia. Similar to the original fairy tale, Pernicia appears in the princess’ name-day and places a curse on the baby, claiming that the child will, on her 21st birthday, prick her finger on a spindle and fall into deathly sleep. A powerful fairy named Ikor switches the identities of the princess, named Rosie, and her best friend Peony, to break Pernicia’s spell when Rosie turns 21.
The witch also appears in Jetlag Productions’ Sleeping Beauty, named Odelia in this version. Everyone in the kingdom thought Odelia was dead by the time of the christening of the princess, named Felicity, but the witch appears to give her gift to the child, the gift of death; one week after Felicity’s sixteenth birthday, she is to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall dead,with the witch becoming fairest in the land, in a similar fashion to the Disney version. Odelia disguises as an old spinning woman (somewhat a hag) like in the original fairy tale, and hands Felicity the spindle and she accidentally pricks her index finger. Throughout the hundred years, many princes and noble men try to break Odelia’s spell, until Prince Richard and his faithful steed overcome the many obstacles to reach the sleeping Felicity and put an end to Odelia’s curse and her own life.
Some folklorists have analyzed Sleeping Beauty as indicating the replacement of the lunar year (with its thirteen months, symbolically depicted by the full thirteen fairies) by the solar year (which has twelve, symbolically the invited fairies). This, however, founders on the issue that only in the Grimms’ tale is the witch the thirteenth fairy; in Perrault’s, she is the eighth.