What I Learned from Disney Princes: Prince Phillip


By Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)

Walt Disney is a genius.  As I was watching Sleeping Beauty in preparation for this article, I was struck by the overt symbolism in this animated classic.  It proves, once again, that those who criticize the supposed simplicity of classic Disney films do so without regards to the content.  This is especially the case as we are approaching the darkness of mid-winter and the brightness of Christmas.

The Dawning of the Light of Wisdom

In the classical literary tradition, names of characters bear specific meanings.  Sleeping Beauty follows this tradition particularly when it comes to Aurora, the main character.  Her name literally means “dawn” in Latin.  Now, in addition to the obvious beauty of the name, the fact that she, as dawn, is the one sleeping and has to be awoken by Phillip is incredibly significant.  But why is it significant?  Throughout various mythical, philosophical, and religious traditions, the sun has been viewed as the source of life, and the destroyer of the darkness and all the creepy things that dwell therein.

This reverence of the physical sun evolved, however, into a philosophical, and even religious, reverence.  Two specific examples are that of the Roman Sol Invictus and the Christian Sun of Righteousness that replaced it.  Sol Invictus means “invincible sun,” and was made an official Roman cult by the emperor Aurelian in 274AD, which had its highest festal period during midwinter, the longest night of the year, which also the celebration of the “birth” of this invincible sun.  Some years later the Christian faith, as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christianized this feast, and proclaimed that Christ, as the Sun of Righteousness, was the fulfillment of the notion of an unconquerable light.

I’ve gone through this little lesson in world religions to emphasize that the sun was seen as a type of not only the “source” of light, life, and wisdom, but light itself, life itself, and wisdom itself.  Indeed, not only for the Romans and Christians but also for other religious and philosophical traditions, the sun became synonymous with salvation and ultimate truth.  And the dawning sun that we see here in Sleeping Beauty is the symbol of this.  This dawn is sent into a deep sleep, but not destroyed, and must be discovered by Phillip to save not only Sleeping Beauty herself, but the whole of the kingdom.

Phillip discovers the light of wisdom quite by accident in the forest, as she is singing with the woodland creatures.  He is instantly smitten with her and refuses the future bride he has been betrothed to for the previous sixteen years–unbeknownst to him she is one and the same.  He turns his back on the customs, and social conventions of the 14th century when he discovers this wisdom, this source of light and life.  In philosophical and religious terms, he desires illumination above anything else.  He desires wisdom instead of pomp and pageantry, true life even as a peasant instead of false life in the halls of kings.  But he cannot simply unite himself to her.  She is stolen from him, taken away and hidden by Maleficent (whose name means doing or intending evil or harm).

The sword and board of righteousness vs. all the powers of hell

“Sword and board” is a term pen-and-paper and gamers use when referring to their character’s use of sword and shield, and Phillip has some pretty snazzy versions of these.  After Phillip is rescued by the three good fairies, he is given “Weapons of Righteousness.”  These items include the Shield of Virtue and the Sword of Truth.  So, Phillip is to use Virtue and Truth to defeat all the powers of hell which are summed up in the person of Maleficent.  Given that Aurora is the symbol of illumination, life, wisdom, and salvation, and Phillip is to save her as a “true love,” he must employ truth and virtue to overcome the enemy of the light, Maleficent.

Interestingly we learn from Phillip that to pursue, and unite ourselves to, life and wisdom requires our being righteous.  But what does this look like?  In terms of classical philosophy, mythology, and religion, righteousness is not what we consider it today.  Today we have notions of relative truth and relative virtue.  But in almost all classical thought, however, truth has an objective standard.  Virtue is the same for everyone, and righteousness is our correct behavior achieved through truth and virtue, and the end result of this righteous life, its ultimate fulfillment is wisdom and life.

Phillip never runs from the hardship that adherence to this righteous life requires.  At every opportunity, he runs headlong into danger, into darkness and confronts the Mistress of All Evil, heedless of the consequences of his actions should he fail.  His true love, wisdom and salvation, are worth facing the embodiment of evil itself, and he comes out on the other side and awakens the Sun.  In the end, they are united and live happily ever after.  This is the power of myth.  This is what Walt Disney was so good at: in the times of the coming darkness of winter, telling the story of the unconquerable light.

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