You know the story.
The king was planning to hold a christening for his daughter Briar Rose. He invited many important people, including 12 fairies whose magical powers were well known throughout the kingdom. However, he neglected to send the 13th fairy an invitation because he did not have enough gold plates. (A poor excuse if you ask me. I suspect foul play. But then again, to have 13 of anything is an invitation for trouble.) Feeling slighted, the 13th fairy crashed the party and placed a curse on Briar Rose: On her 15th birthday, the princess would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall down dead. Trouble, indeed.
You may not know Anne Sexton’s version of the story.
In Sexton’s poem, the 13th fairy doesn’t curse Briar Rose. She comes to the party with “an evil gift” — a “prophecy” of death — just at the moment that all the other fairies are gift-giving. It’s not called a curse until 12 lines later when “the twelfth fairy / … mitigated the curse / changing that death / into a hundred-year sleep.”
Can we entertain the notion that perhaps the 13th fairy has good intentions? A prophecy implies that Briar Rose’s death is in the hands of the gods; the prophet is just relaying the message. It could act as a warning… or reassurance. Perhaps death, in this case, is a blessing.
After Briar Rose wakes up from her 100-year nap, she suffers from insomnia. She’s absolutely traumatized. Not by nightmares, as you might think, but by rape:
There was a theft. That much I am told. I was abandoned. That much I know. I was forced backward. I was forced forward. I was passed hand to hand like a bowl of fruit. Each night I am nailed into place and I forget who I am. Daddy? That's another kind of prison. It's not the prince at all, but my father drunkenly bent over my bed, circling the abyss like a shark, my father thick upon me like some sleeping jellyfish.
This part of the poem always kicks me in the gut. Her father, the king, is the villain. We’re conditioned by fairy tales to think that the old crone is at fault — the evil stepmother, Maleficent, or the sea witch. The 13th fairy looks scary, with “her fingers as long and thin as straws, / her eyes burnt by cigarettes, / her uterus an empty teacup,” so of course the court cries “curse.” But I suspect that she was the only one who saw the king clearly. Perhaps her “evil gift” was a sincere attempt to protect Briar Rose from future pain.
* * *
How do we deal with the troubles and fortunes that come our way? Do we drink a sleeping draught or seek revenge? If I am a bystander to someone else’s misfortune, do I intervene or let the scene play out? In my reading of Sexton’s poem, the 13th fairy prophesied death as the quick-and-easy intervention/prevention. Briar Rose would have been spared a lifetime of rape and post-traumatic stress. But the other fairy intervened to “mitigate the curse.” Because it looked like a curse to her.
Fortune, fate, free will — these are sticky, sticky concepts. When I pull the Wheel of Fortune card, I don’t think about good luck or bad luck as much as I think about the ramifications of our actions in the face of that luck. The ripples in the pond, so to speak. Unlike the 13th fairy, we (usually) don’t have a clear line of sight on the future. I suppose what matters is that when we act on our limited information, our intentions are good. And, of course, that we throw the king in jail where he belongs.