Fairy or Wise Woman? A look at the antagonist of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
One thing I’ve found common in a couple of reviews for last year’s Maleficent was how some people were surprised that Maleficent was a fairy, as opposed to a witch. In fact, it would appear that it wasn’t just viewers/fans who were surprised by this idea— Linda Woolverton, the film’s screenwriter, also expressed surprise at the thought of Maleficent being a fairy. As she is quoted as saying in an interview for the Hollywood Reporter: “… I had done some research, and the biggest surprise is that she’s a
fairy, not a witch. I’ve always wanted to do a dark fairy story.“
The original animated film by Disney never specifically said what Maleficent was— save for one scene where Merryweather called her a “witch” early on. Presumably it was this line— as well as the lack of emphasis on Maleficent’s origins— that allowed Woolverton and others to believe Maleficent was just a witch. (I’d argue this also has something to do with how modern audiences perceive fairies as generally nice and pretty, but that’s another discussion for another time).
But, like most fairy tales, there are different versions of the same story, and the nature of the “Sleeping Beauty’s” antagonist varies depending on the tale. In Charles Perrault’s version of the story, the antagonist is indeed a fairy, as are the other women who bless the child.
After Perrault, the Brothers Grimm wrote two versions of the story.In their 1812 version, the antagonist and the women who bless the princess are still fairies, like in Perrault’s version. However, in their 1857 version of the story, the women aren’t fairies, but rather, wise women.
So taking into account the later version by the Grimms, there is a precedent for the antagonist of “Sleeping Beauty” not being a fairy. But at the same time, there’s also this to dwell on: In all three versions, the woman who curses the princess is always of the same species as the women who bless her. And since Disney decided to make Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather fairies, it stands to reason, based on this line of thinking, that Maleficent herself was meant to be a fairy just like them. (Of course, it doesn’t help that even Disney— or rather, whoever is in charge of their tie-in media/spin-offs— can’t decide what she is— You’re just as likely to see her called a witch as you are to see her called a fairy instead.)