06/27/2014 04:43 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

The Secret History of Maleficent


Carl Jung famously said that to study fairy tales is to study the anatomy of human beings. Fairy tales deserve our attention. They are our first, most powerful socializing narratives. They provide guideposts for appropriate behavior and success in life. Blockbusters reinventing or riffing off the fairy tale genre send pervasive messages to youth. Creators and reviewers of the most recent attempt to mine source material -- Disney's Maleficent -- have overlooked the most surprising and encouraging lessons that the prototypical fairy tale possesses. Dwelling in the darkness of the original "Sleeping Beauty," are more humanistic, constructive and complex messages than Maleficent's producers or commentators would lead us to believe.

Critics of the shadowy Sleeping Beauty adaptation eschew its modernization as tepid. Vixenish Maleficent gets a "justifiable" reason for her scorn. Aurora's imbued with pluck enough to make her palatable to today's audiences. Pundits argue the script circumscribes itself into the same old trope. As Rolling Stone's Peter Travers glibly put it: "Men--those rat bastards!" Critics summarily dismissed Maleficent's "eye-roll worthy" attempt at adapting fairy tale source material. This is ironic, since being dismissed was precisely what pissed Maleficent off so much.

This compels our attention.

Maleficent's screenwriter did the tale a disservice by planting the cause of her ire as a broken heart. The original Maleficent was more veracious, ambiguous, and interesting than a scorned-in-love woman out for revenge. The earliest written Franco-Italian versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale appeared in the fourteenth century, though its oral roots were thousands of years old. The number of godmothers varies in early iterations of the tale, but the salient point is that the Maleficent character has been forgotten -- either due to being left off a guest list, or because she's been shut up in a tower, or because when she arrives there are not enough plates or goblets for her to join. The unifying theme is that there is no place of honor for her.

Scholars believe this Maleficent prototype represents an aspect of the lost goddess of antiquity. Though forgotten in Western culture, she was a crucial part of primitive civilizations. The Great Earth Mother, the feminine principle as represented in pagan cults, was forcefully repressed out of existence with Christian hegemony. The mother goddesses, sacred feminine figures with names like Isis, Kali, Ishtar, Atargatis, Coatlicue, Gaia, and Artemis, were associated with benevolent, creative, fecund, nurturing, life-giving faculties. But they also possessed the destructive faculties of nature. They could be fickle -- they could annihilate, murder, and devastate. Nature's coexisting light and dark aspects were revered as a harmonious whole in these goddesses.

Early Christian clerics systematically excised the feminine from church doctrine. They committed genocide on populations worshipping the feminine principle. Centuries later, Catholic leaders disinfected the feminine principle by retrieving and reinventing the Virgin Mary. They permitted only the light aspects of the earth mother to characterize saintly Mary, qualities that human women should aspire to: benevolence, mercifulness, compassion, purity, fecundity, and at the same time its opposite -- virginity. The goddess' dark aspects were sublimated and denigrated.

These repressed aspects thrived in the only place they could -- oral tales of the common folk, where they were beneath the notice of authorities. The dark aspects of the goddess were codified in the rich fairy tale crop of witches, wise-women, demonesses and evil stepmothers. When fairy tales were recorded in writing much later, their content was augmented and sanitized to entertain courtesans.

In the context of Maleficent feeling underappreciated, her rage positions her not as the enemy of Aurora, but indeed Aurora's other half. Maleficent has everything that sweet, somnolent Aurora does not have -- namely, agency. The two are inextricably linked, two facets of one whole being.

There is a deeper message in the original fairy tale, too, about suppression of unpalatable emotions. Abnegated darkness inevitably finds expression. The fairy tales known to us today advocate fighting evil, while the originals just as often advocate refusing to fight, running away, or doing nothing. Fealty to one's basic inner being is paramount. Responding to a difficult situation is never black and white. In making choices we must harmonize conflicting emotions and contradictory skills, such as assertiveness and compromise; caution and risk; patience and action; reason and emotion. "Without light" Mary Sarton says, "nothing flowers," but "without darkness, nothing comes to birth." Like light, darkness too is a part of our nature.

However narratively clumsy, adaptations like Maleficent are inherently constructive. They teach us to humanize others in a society stalled not by men themselves, but by a patriarchal legacy that's dismissed qualities of the ancient goddess. The Black Plague killed two-thirds of Europe's population. It was also the harbinger of the Enlightenment. Light and darkness coexist like a coiling helix, inextricable. For too long good and evil, right and wrong, success and failure, beauty and ugliness have been discretely categorized, one deified, the other reviled. This simplification is convenient for maintaining a status quo, but defies the complexity and messy beauty of the human condition. Integrating diverse, more holistic perspectives will help us make better individual and social choices.