In this series looking at how characters in stories are portrayed, in the context of Christopher Booker’s analysis of literary narratives into The Seven Basic Plots, I have reached the seventh and last of his plots: Rebirth.
Booker’s plot analysis is based on five stages (p 204):
- A young actor falls under the shadow of a dark influence.
- Initially, they cope and the threat might even appear to recede.
- When the threat returns at full force, the hero becomes imprisoned in a state of living death.
- That suspended animation is prolonged, and it appears that the dark influence has succeeded.
- A hero, usually of the opposite sex, brings a miraculous redemption.
One of Booker’s examples is the folk tale of the Sleeping Beauty, which became a popular theme for paintings in the early twentieth century.
The central story tells of a princess, who has seven good fairies as her godmothers. An eighth and evil fairy was overlooked, and seeks a way to get revenge. She puts a curse on the princess that she will prick her hand on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. One good fairy tries to reverse this, changing the spell so that it will put her into a deep sleep for a century, and can only be awakened by a kiss from a prince.
Royal edict then forbids all spinning throughout the kingdom, but when the princess is a young woman, she discovers an old woman spinning, and pricks her finger on the spindle. She then falls to sleep. The king summons the good fairy to try to address the problem. Her solution is to put everyone in the castle to sleep, and to summon a forest with brambles and thorns around the castle, to prevent anyone from entering.
A prince later hears the story of the Sleeping Beauty, and rises to the challenge to penetrate the trees and bramble thickets around the castle. He discovers the sleeping princess, kisses her, and she and the rest of the castle wake up. The prince and princess marry, and they all live happily ever after.
John Collier had been a pupil of the Pre-Raphaelites, and continued to paint well into the twentieth century. His Sleeping Beauty from 1921 shows an easily recognised scene from this popular story, in the fourth of Booker’s stages, the most static.
Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov painted the same scene from the Eastern European variant, the Sleeping Princess (1900-1926). This must be one of the most elaborate and detailed pictorial accounts of this story, which incorporates an extensive symbolic lexicon drawn from Russian and Slavic folk tales.
It was Léon Bakst who painted the fifth stage in The Sleeping Beauty: The Prince Discovers the Princess and Wakes Her with a Kiss (1913). This can now be seen in Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, alongside the other six paintings in this series.
Another of Booker’s examples is the popular children’s story of the Frog Prince, which also appears in many variants, and is the first in the major collection published by the Brothers Grimm. Its origins are much older, though, and it’s now thought to date back to a folk story or legend first cited in classical Roman times.
The version recorded by the Grimms has a spoiled princess drop a golden ball into a pond. This elicits the appearance of a frog, who holds the ball in his mouth. The princess reluctantly makes friends with the frog, who is eventually transformed into a handsome prince when the spell binding him in the form of a frog is broken. Recent retelling of this story often makes the princess’s kiss the event which breaks the spell, although in the Grimms’ version the princess throws the frog against a wall in disgust, which seems a bit harsh.
All the paintings that I am aware of show the opening of the fifth stage, before the princess kisses the frog.
Marianne Stokes’ delightful painting of The Frog Prince from about 1890 shows an incredulous young princess listening to the talking frog, whose real identity – and the outcome of the story – is made obvious by his crown.
In Kolo Moser’s very dark Frog Prince from about 1895, the frog wears a small crown, and presents the princess with the golden ball which she had lost in the pond.
Mary Sheppard Greene’s account of The Princess and the Frog from 1909 is firmly rooted in the Grimms’ version, with the frog still holding her golden ball in its mouth, and no clue of the resolution.
Vasnetsov’s Frog Princess from 1918 shows an elaborate Russian version of the Brothers Grimm folk tale. In this, a king’s three sons are challenged to shoot an arrow to find themselves a bride. The youngest, Prince Ivan, lands his arrow in the mouth of a frog in a nearby swamp. This frog turns out to be Princess Vasilisa the Wise, who is being punished by being turned into a frog for three years. When Ivan burns the frog’s skin, he thinks that he has lost her, but eventually, with the involvement of Baba Yaga, she is turned back into a princess and becomes his bride.
Many well-known painters also illustrated these stories, and I’ll make a single exception for Arthur Rackham, one of the great illustrators, who produced a superb series of pen and watercolour images used for an illustrated edition of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, another of Booker’s examples of this plot type.
This shows Scrooge as a changed man, calling on his nephew Fred to join him and his family for Christmas Dinner, in Booker’s stage five.
Folk tales have only recently become popular narratives for paintings, and the choice of stories and paintings is limited. As with Booker’s literary analysis, these few appear fully consistent with the stages he proposes. Unsurprisingly, the most popular stage for depiction is the fifth, which represents the climax and resolution.
Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2