Skip to content

How Disney’s Maleficent stories transform love and take on Shakespeare

Magic beyond the Moors: Disney’s Maleficent stories transform love and take on Shakespeare

I spent my weekend in the Moors. Well, I spent Saturday and Sunday soaking up all the Maleficent series has to offer (so far!), thanks to the Disney films, Holly Black’s Heart of the Moors, and the Maleficent: Mistress of Evil novelization by Elizabeth Rudnick. 

There is a lot to unpack in the moving, magical Maleficent feast. But first, for those of you unfamiliar with the series, allow me to briefly outline the plot(s):

Maleficent is loosely based on Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty though portraying the story from the perspective of the antagonist, Maleficent. The tale provides an intriguing origin story exploring her conflicted relationship with King Stefan, Aurora and the kingdom of Perceforest. It also introduces us to the enchanting Moors; home to wallerbogs, tree sentinels, mushroom faeries, hedgehog faeries, pixies, hobs, foxkin and other magical creatures. Ultimately – so the plot goes – true love does conquer all, but not in the way you think.

Heart of the Moors is an original Disney novel, set between the events of Maleficent and Mistress, that is yet to be brought to life on screen (ehem, Disney, please bring it to life on screen). Perceforest and the Moors, both subject to Aurora’s rule after the death of her father, give us a taste of a queen’s power… and all the responsibilities that come with it. Heart deepens the relationships between the characters, including Aurora and Maleficent, Aurora and Philip, and even Maleficent and Phillip, and introduces new trials and tribulations beyond enchantments and curses. 

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the sequel film to Maleficent and novelized by author Elizabeth Rudnick. The story is set five years after Aurora is awoken by true love’s kiss at the end of Maleficent. She remains queen of the Moors and of Perceforest, though being queen is still no operatic walk in the forest. Her relationship with Prince Phillip has blossomed and along with it, the challenge of uniting their kingdoms – the Moors and Ulstead.

So, what can we draw from these plot-rich stories? A lot. Here are three overarching themes that struck me – one of them being Mistress’s likeness to a classic Shakespearean tragedy. Some might say I am off with the faeries…

*Please note that the following contains some spoilers.*

Relationships and true love. Certainly not new story concepts, but brilliantly crafted in new ways throughout the Maleficent series. Maleficent and Heart steer away from true love as between Aurora and Phillip –the authors expressly quash that notion – but instead explore true love as between mother and daughter; godmother and goddaughter. (A similar exploration is undertaken in Frozen between two sisters.)

Quick to recognize that true love does not happen automatically and that instead it takes time to develop, the Maleficent stories focus on the Dark Fey unwittingly going against her “wicked” nature to care for a human child. It may sound straightforward, but the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent is one of constant discovery and transformation. “Nature’s greatest power is the power of true transformation.” The wise Conall, Maleficent’s friend and fellow Fey, counsels her with these words in Mistress. They strike at the heart of the story plots and insist that anything real – relationships, emotions, life lessons – is fallible and takes time. 

Conall’s words also illustrate a powerful physical contrast between the human world and the world of the faeries. When I think of nature, I think of the Moors described by Prince Phillip in Heart as: “…an extraordinary place. There are plants growing there that I’ve never seen before, roses in colors I don’t have the words to name. And everything is alive. Even the rocks move. All the leaves in a tree might take flight and only then would you realize you were in the middle of a swarm of faeries.” Thus, it is a natural spectacle; colorful, wonderful and changing. The Moors is effectively contrasted with Perceforest – and later with Ulstead – with its built-up brick settings; stern and concrete. The human kingdoms are set in their ways and unwilling to transform. (Side note: I applaud that the human kingdoms take on the gothic, medieval flavor which appears to pay tribute to Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty.)

While Mistress does circle back to true love between Aurora and Phillip, the story ends recognizing that together, Aurora and Maleficent made dreams come true. They “created a world where there would be love – forever and always.” A love that is transformative and transcendent of traditional notions.

Romeo and Juliet? Two “households” – the Moors and Ulstead. Both alike in dignity and sought to be unified by Aurora. This is where Disney lays its scene in Mistress.

In 1996, Baz Luhrmann gave us a modern version of the iconic Shakespearean tale of Romeo and Juliet. Now, Disney gives us a magic one (thankfully without the tragic ending, though still with some seriously dark themes! SPOILER ALERT – Using a chapel organ as a weapon is intense, Disney). 

Star-crossed lovers Aurora and Phillip wish to wed but are hindered by their feuding families and their feuding kingdoms; Aurora raised in the Moors and Phillip in Ulstead. Like the House of Montague, the Moors may be less likely to provoke fights, but like good Mercutio, its inhabitants will rise to the occasion with the intent to deter any plague on both houses. 

Speaking of provoking fights, the House of Capulet – I mean, Ulstead – is under the reign of Prince Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith. (Poor King John is but a figurehead… Macbeth much? I won’t go there.) The Queen fosters fear and division between the kingdoms. Living lavishly and with every intent to flaunt her power, Queen Ingrith invites Maleficent and Aurora to a dinner party only to exacerbate the gap between the families. Hell-bent on eliminating the Moors’ inhabitants, Queen Ingrith will stop at nothing to start a war. She might as well speak Tybalt’s line: “What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word.”

Perspective. Many themes in the Maleficent stories extend beyond the kingdoms of Perceforest, the Moors and Ulstead, and are articulated in such a way that they should be shared and shared again. Here are two of my favorite quotes offering invaluable perspective:

  • “You might see the beauty in magic, while some people will only ever see the power in it.” Nanny Stoat to Aurora in Heart.
  • Many of the human folk believed that the exaggerated stories of the faeries were true; that “evil lay outside the human heart instead of within it.” Mistress, page 42.

As mentioned, I spent my weekend in the Moors… and there are so many reasons why you should spend some time there too.