Maleficent Through the Ages: Old Creature, Wise Woman, Evil Fairy


Walt Disney Pictures

In Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty, the evil Maleficent has less than 15 minutes of screen time, making the character’s decade-lasting infamy and the initial interest in a feature-length film of her re-imaging, Maleficent, notably impressive. Of course, the same could be said for the Evil Queen of Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, who’s gotten two recent chances to re-captivate audiences with Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Judging by Maleficent’s opening weekend domestic box office numbers, this serpentine queen is number one in fans’ cold dead hearts.

Anyone who remembers Maleficent’s fifteen minutes of fame in Sleeping Beauty already knows that Maleficent writer Linda Woolverton took enormous leaps in filling the expansive gaps in Maleficent’s history. However the same can be argued for the writers of Sleeping Beauty as well. The original Disney film was based on both the original fairy tale “La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood)” by Charles Perrault and the later “Little Briar Rose” by the Brothers Grimm – neither of which had much to say in the characterization of the once nameless and now legendary villain.

So how did Maleficent change over time? We did the reading, so you don’t have to.

One of the king's invited, non-aged fairies; illustration by Harry Clarke, courtesy of Project Gutenberg

One of the king’s invited, non-aged fairies; illustration by Harry Clarke, Project Gutenberg

The Old Creature

In the earliest edition of Maleficent’s story, her ostracization from the celebration of the newborn princess was basically an accident. This then nameless fairy was one of eight fairies in the king’s realm, and she had been hanging out in her castle without outside contact for 50 years. Can’t really blame the king for not inviting her, right? When she makes her way to the christening despite lack of an invite, she ain’t even mad, really.

What does set her off is the lack of an additional place setting for her, as the other seven fairies have place settings of pure gold, with diamonds and rubies. Her character is also given no physical description while being kind of rudely referred to as “an aged fairy” and “the old creature” by the author. Naturally, cursing an infant with an eventual death sleep seemed the only option for this bitter old crone. One hundred years later, the princess in this story wakes up from curse, but her new mother-in-law turns out to be an ogress who wants to eat the now-queen and her children. Eternal sleep might have seemed preferable.

The Thirteenth Wise Woman

Our still-nameless character isn’t even a fairy in the German version of the fairy tale. This time, the king invites “the wise women” of the kingdom, who have the same magical powers as our familiar fairies. Alas, another place setting dispute occurs, but at least this time, the king planned ahead, knowing there would only be enough golden forks and knives for all but one wise woman to get the invite.

Thus enters the thirteenth wise woman, who is given no description at all, not even a disparaging remark about her age. She storms into the christening, greets no one, avoids eye contact, and casts the spell. Very similar to “the aged fairy” of Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” but not so similar to Maleficent’s sarcastic, pre-spell comments in Sleeping Beauty. It’s specifically noted in the Grimm Brothers’ version that the wise woman casts the spell to avenge the injustice of not being invited to the party, but that aside, this fairy tale has even less description from the last.

Harmfully Malicious

The first named Maleficent has disparaging remarks to make; Walt Disney Pictures

The first named Maleficent has disparaging remarks to make; Walt Disney Pictures

So now it is 1959, and we have Technirama Technicolor animation to do some of the descriptive work. Maleficent is given her name, an adjective which means “harmfully malicious.” She arrives at the christening of Princess Aurora with a bang of green smoke – tall, slender, and beautiful with a sultry voice – hardly the “aged fairy” of “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.” This time, there’s no confusion about her invitation, as she was “unwanted” and clearly feared by the king and queen, for good reason. There seems to be no motivation behind her actions at all, smiling and unfazed before she casts the spell. More importantly, this Maleficent actually matters beyond the existence of the spell.

She appears periodically through the film, shrieking at her hideous troll slaves, hypnotizing Aurora to prick her finger, capturing Prince Phillip, and ultimately turning into an awesome dragon. In the fairy tales, the Maleficent character is only around as an antagonist in the very beginning of the princess’s story, and other challenges ultimately face the princess and/or her king-to-be husband. So really, outside of the most basic idea that some sort of magical female casts an everlasting sleep spell on a baby princess, the writers of Sleeping Beauty created most of Maleficent’s character from scratch and definitely established her plot-line.

Maleficent the 2014 film opens on the assumption on the narrator’s part that you the viewer have seen Sleeping Beauty, and it’s quite clear that the Angelina Jolie version of Maleficent is based on the 1959 version more than the others. Naturally. Woolverton takes the framework laid in 1959 and builds a story around it, with one hugely evident difference. Like the resentful aged fairies/wise women of fairy tales past, this Maleficent casts a spell out of bitterness, for vengeance.

However, the two Disney Maleficent’s – separated by more than a half-century – do share a very similar, sharp-tongued speech.