NOTE: This piece contains some spoilers…
I’ve always thought fairy-tales and erotica go together beautifully… like apples and poison. So when I heard about Anne Rice’s ‘The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty’, I was immediately intrigued. A sordid perversion of the traditional story, where the Prince carries the Princess off… to become a sex slave in his family’s BDSM castle. What a charming idea!
Unlike the many Princes who died failing to claim Beauty, our Prince knows to cut off the roots of the strangling red roses, before proceeding. Readers wondering whether this might be a symbolic warning not to expect too much in the way of romance soon have their suspicions confirmed… as our noble hero rapes Beauty out of her slumber.
The shocking sexual violence continues, mercilessly, throughout the novel. After a while, I found myself wanting a break – just a couple of consecutive paragraphs without anyone being sodomised or beaten, perhaps? But there was no respite from the intense brutality. Giving me some sympathy for how the characters must feel: undertaking their epic odysseys of relentless suffering.
The writer dreams up all manner of wicked and wonderful ideas for imaginative BDSM: parades of horse-riding slave-drivers, sadistic circus games, slaves impaled on phalluses, etc. The reader gets plenty of shocking erotic images, to do with as they please. And lots of ideas to inspire creative sadists (although some of the games require a castle and absolute power over a civilisation entirely devoted to BDSM).
Rice’s sensuous writing really conjures up the eroticism in vivid colour. Take this example from the Prince and Princess’ first encounter:
‘She was twisting from one side to the other, her hands gathering up the soft sheets at her sides into knots, and it seemed her whole body grew pink, and the nipples of her breasts looked as hard as if they were tiny stones. He could not resist them.’
Despite the graphic violence, and the stark lack of consent, the atmosphere of the story is not nearly as dark as the content, with the fantasy theme continuously underlining how fictional it all is. Fairy-tales remind me of a path, winding through a forest. Feels: young and old… refreshing and comforting. TCoSB captures this atmosphere perfectly… albeit, in a deeply perverse way.
The novel explores the weird and paradoxical psychology of domination and submission. Most new slaves, at the castle, need to be systematically broken down through torture, before they are willing to truly submit. The Pavlovian approach (making victims associate pain and pleasure) combines with Stockholm Syndrome to create ultra-obedient and genuinely-enthusiastic sex-slaves. The process is outlined, in detail, as Prince Alexi recounts and analyses his experiences to Beauty. It’s especially horrible… because it turns me on!
Beauty has no need for such training, because she takes to the sex-slave lifestyle like a puppy takes to a bone. Her talent for submission, as sublimely perfect as her looks. Or is it? In the end, she gives her dominators more than they bargained for: deliberately seeking out the worst punishment available and forcing them to give it to her. And the Prince is described as ‘defeated’ as his prized possession is taken off to the village in chains.
Why would Beauty do this? Perhaps her masochism simply outweighs her submissiveness? Or did she rebel because it was the only way of exerting control over her own destiny? (Given no possibility for decreasing her suffering, the only way she could control it was by increasing it.) Or maybe she specifically wanted to ‘win’? Does the masochist ‘win’ by going further than their sadist can handle?
Another interesting (and interrelated) question is raised when Beauty gifts a flower to Lady Juliana. Beauty feels this as some kind of profound act and Prince Alexi later explains that it’s probably because she chose to submit, rather than being forced. At the time, I thought this meant it was an act of ultra-submission, but perhaps Beauty’s later choices suggest it was more of a rebellion(?)
The nature of ‘yielding’ is explored throughout the story. Prince Alexi is especially eloquent: ‘I love it. I loathe it… I am humiliated by it, and recreated by it. And yielding means to feel all those things at once and yet to be of one mind and one spirit.’ He makes enforced slavery at BDSM Castle sound like spiritual awakening at a meditation retreat. This is kind-of amusing, but anyone who’s experienced sexual submission (and sub-space) will recognise that he’s making some kind of sense. There is something profound about yielding… and when you lose/find yourself in it, it feels like you’re tapping into something very deep… something fundamental. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, weak, strong, passive, active, love, hate, positive, negative, everything, nothing. There are many truths about yielding… and paradoxes emerge because many of these truths conflict with one another. TCoSB muses on these philosophical matters with perverted poetry.
The book also made me think about the nature of love. Beauty quickly falls in love with her evil saviour/captor. Is it love? Or is it whatever emotion that’s associated with Stockholm Syndrome? Or is that emotion love, anyway? Why do people fall in love with people who treat them badly? What sort of love is there in a D/s relationship? The normal kind? A twisted kind? An especially powerful kind? In another break with fairy-tale tradition, Beauty falls in love with others beside her Prince. She has profound feelings towards Lady Juliana… some kind of love perhaps? Her feelings towards the Queen are also intense, but maybe it’s more of a purely D/s kind of respect. And she falls in love with Prince Alexi: a love that’s strictly between equals. Beauty’s love is profound… but kind-of fickle. At the end, she casts off all her lovers to go to the village… triumphantly mounting her next lover as soon as the prison-cart pulls away. All very chaotic and confusing… in some ways, more realistic than the love described in most fairy-tales(?)