The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 2 (2003)

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Poetry and Archaeology: Narration in Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales for Young Adults: Jane Yolen's Briar Rose

Evelyn Perry


Evelyn Perry teaches at Framington State College in Massachusetts.


"'Stories...we are made up of stories. And even the ones that seem the most like lies can be our deepest hidden truths.'"
Jane Yolen, Briar Rose

Conscientious, active, and self-aware, successful retellers must read as poets and archaeologists, locating and tracking image, sound, and pattern, deciphering metaphor and meaning for a contemporary audience. They must then translate their reading, subject to current socio-historical views, into the operative metaphors of their written work. In so doing, retellers describe the making of meaning as an ongoing process, transmitting and upholding the understanding that a tale has both shaped and been shaped by past voices and hands. As a result, it is the nature of retellings that their narration interacts with literary and social history, and that they are self-reflexive.

In Jane Yolen's 1992 Briar Rose, the narration describes the interaction of literary and social history in retellings by following the narrative construction and the self-construction of two narrative-shaping characters--one, a poet, the folk-storytelling grandmother Gemma, and the other, an archaeologist, Gemma's story-intuitive granddaughter, Becca (Harries). As Gemma lies dying, she repeats her own version of the Briar Rose story, "Sleeping Beauty;" she insists that is the princess in her tale, and that Becca find her castle. Becca promises her grandmother that she will, and this promise leads her to New York and on to Poland--all for a beloved matriarch and fairy tale.

As a novel that has two narrative voices, and that interacts with social and literary history, it is fitting that Jane Yolen's Briar Rose also charts two metaphors: one social, and one literary. Gemma's retelling details the first metaphor; her "Sleeping Beauty" describes her experience as a concentration camp victim during the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. The second metaphor is Becca's to describe; as she pieces together the stories of her grandmother's real life, she begins to understand the power of narration and narrative over time.

The Metaphor of Social History

Gemma's "Sleeping Beauty" is told incrementally, through Becca's memory of her grandmother's many tellings throughout her childhood. Italicized and separated into brief chapters that alternate with Becca's journey of discovery in "Home," Book One of Briar Rose, Gemma's "Sleeping Beauty" is like and unlike the tale with which we are familiar. Her retelling begins Once Upon a Time and with a castle. In her tale, a king and a queen want desperately to have a child, but "the years went by and they had none" (4). Eventually, to their great delight, the queen gave birth to a girl with red hair (here, Gemma touches her own whitening hair, which, Yolen tells us "curled around the red like barbed wire" [4]). The king and queen name the baby Briar Rose. At the celebration for Briar Rose, a bad fairy "with black boots and silver eagles on her hat...that angel of death" (19), curses Briar Rose, her parents, her family, her village, and all those who bear her name. Like the "Sleeping Beauty" with which we are familiar, in Gemma's tale the bad fairy decrees that, when Briar Rose comes of age (here 17), "a great mist will cover the castle and everyone will die...But one of the good fairies...had saved a wish. 'Not everyone will die. A few will just sleep'" (34).

So Gemma' s Briar Rose sleeps for a hundred years--which, she tells us, "is forever" (44). And during that hundred years, "a briary hedge began to grow" around the castle "with thorns as sharp as barbs" (58). It is at this point in her tale--the point at which the listener awaits the arrival of the prince and the awakening of those for whom no one cares, the point at which the wandering prince parts the hedge and the people rise up singing--that Gemma is most inclined to snap at bewildered listeners, her sensitivity about her retelling seemingly irrational. She frightens a little girl spending the night with Becca, and a schoolmate seated in front of them on the bus ride to a class field trip.

Becca minds the interruptions to her grandmother's tale more than she does Gemma's inexplicably belligerent behavior, partly because the interrupters insist that Gemma's "Sleeping Beauty" is not "right," that it is frightening and difficult to understand. But to Becca and her sisters, the true "Sleeping Beauty" is this one, their grandmother's and their own. From Becca, we learn that:

Gemma's story never ended happily ever after except for the princess Briar Rose and her own little girl. There had always been something decidedly odd about the whole telling...In Gemma's story everyone--other than the prince who wakes the princess with a kiss and Briar Rose and afterwards their child--everyone else sleeps on. (38)

In order to help her readers distinguish Gemma's and Becca's "Sleeping Beauty" from a more stable, modern version (Grimm's "Briar Rose" or Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," for example), and to help them chart the development of a retelling, Yolen does not tell us any more than this about the end of Gemma's "Sleeping Beauty" until Becca learns by what metaphors it has been constructed. Only in the last three chapters of Yolen's Briar Rose do we learn that "at last" the courageous prince pushed through the hedge and continued through the sleeping castle until he came to a "tower room [that] had a tin ceiling and a tin floor covered in latticework" (225). Importantly, by the time we do learn this, Becca has done enough successful research in Poland to decipher the metaphors and their meanings in her grandmother's retelling. We receive the conclusion to Gemma's retelling only when we are able to make sense of it, once Becca has discovered that her grandmother, a Polish Jew, was a prisoner at Chelmno, a Nazi death camp that processed its victims in a dilapidated castle.

With Becca, we learn that Gemma referenced the folk beliefs of Poland in her retelling. While researching there, Becca is told that "it was believed birch trees housed the souls of the dead" (132); in the following chapter, Gemma's "Sleeping Beauty" describes the prince's passage through the briar hedge, explaining that on "either side of the path white birch trees gleamed like the souls of the new dead" (135). With Becca, we find that Gemma and countless others were removed from the dilapidated castle at Chelmno and gassed in a van with a tin roof and latticework floor (210, 225), and that her body was dumped into a pit among thousands dead. And we learn that Gemma's "prince" is actually one Josef Potocki, a partisan who was nicknamed "the prince," who witnessed the disposal of the dead, and who brought Becca's grandmother back from her sleep with "the kiss of life" (mouth to mouth resuscitation). It was Josef Potocki who helped expedite the papers allowing Gemma, then pregnant by a (deceased) fellow partisan, to immigrate to America, and it is this same "prince" who tells Becca what he knows of her grandmother's story when her research brings her to Poland, to Chelmno, and to Josef Potocki's home nearby. Josef does Gemma's retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" a similar favor; in her critical text, Touch Magic: Fantasy Faerie &Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, Yolen notes: "The old stories had a habit of changing as they passed from one tongue to another, kept alive by a sort of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation" (21). In Briar Rose, Yolen's creative metaphors are critically informed, enriching her retelling, giving it a depth that repetition cannot achieve.

Gemma's translating listeners--Becca and the readers of Yolen's Briar Rose--come to understand that, in creating her metaphors and shaping her retelling, she has exercised her poet and exorcised her past. From the outset of the novel, Becca describes her interest in Gemma's story as an interest in metaphor. In her grandmother's depressing room at a nursing home, she tries to explain this to her sisters: "...it's not that I believe it. Or even that she does. It's like the story is...like a metaphor..." (13). Becca's narrative archaeology, fueled by the deathbed promise to her grandmother, allows her to discover the "true" story behind Gemma's metaphors. Through Becca's work with the metaphors of her grandmother's retelling, her grandmother's identity is revealed, meaning is made--and this meaning, liberating one precious human story from the silenced horrors of the Holocaust, is of significant social history. Becca, a discerning listener of fairy tale retelling, acknowledges Yolen's critical assertion that "creating a landscape of allusion, enabling us to understand our own and other cultures from the inside out, providing an adaptable tool of therapy, and stating in symbolic or metaphoric terms the abstract truths of our common existence" (Touch Magic 18). In Gemma's "Sleeping Beauty," Becca uncovers the story of her family (a story long considered lost and obscured). Both Yolen's protagonist and her readers become able to process the profound loss of life, the loss of invaluable human narratives, produced by Nazi Germany in tangible, identifiable (because human) terms, which, however fictional, are no less true.

To a very certain degree, Jane Yolen's Briar Rose is a novel about narration, narrative, and identity. It is Stan, Becca's editor and love interest, who most encourages her to travel to Poland and to uncover the truths in Gemma's retelling. As an adopted child who searched for his birth mother in order to clarify his own sense of identity, Stan is a strong supporter of Becca's insistent urges to find out about her family's past. Her sisters consider her trip frivolous and downright dangerous. Her parents respect it as a deathbed promise that she made, and so must keep. But Stan knows personally just how important social and literary history are to the construction of the self. Stan is the one who best understands Becca's need to transform metaphor into meaning:

When he saw her hunched over the paper that morning, he'd sat on her desk and leaned forward. "Stories," he'd said, his voice low and almost husky, 'we are made up of stories. And even the ones that seem the most like lies can be our deepest hidden truths. I don't think you're going to be happy until you find out who your grandmother was, Becca. Just as I couldn't be happy until I found my birth mother." (64)

As does the whole of Yolen's Briar Rose, Stan argues that who we are is a collection of stories, that we are constructed by tales and by our making meaning of those tales. Our social history is reflected in how we are shaped and how we shape literary history. This is as true for Stan as it is for Becca's mother, Eve Berlin, as it is for Becca, whose social character-shaping we watch through her memories of Gemma's story-telling, and whose growth and development we understand through her questions about the tale (as well as her grandmother's answers to those questions).

This argument regarding the social significance of stories is also made in more familiar literary and history terms in Briar Rose. When Becca presses Stan to explain why he was compelled to find his birth mother, he ultimately resorts to a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "what's past is prologue" (105). Thereupon, she promises to write Gemma's story "if there is one":

"Happy ending or no?" He was serious. She attempted a smile. "Fairy tales always have a happy ending." He leaned back in his chair. "That depends." "On what?" "On whether you are Rumplestiltskin or the Queen" (105-106).

Stan raises a significant point about narration and point of view--a point of crucial importance to the study of retellings. The reader is reminded that a happy ending is dependent upon the subject of the narrative--the hero, the protagonist, the main character, the princess--and that the subject is commonly defined by historical success. History is written by the victors, and narration, narrative point of view, reflects this process as well as the changing political agendas and shifting perspectives of narrative retellers over time. If, for example, the European settlers were less successful in their genocide of Native Americans, the myth(s) of America would include very different stories, the shape of the nation would have been created by different metaphors and encourage different modes of thinking. Likewise, if Hitler's anti-Semitic regime had been endorsed by the global community, our interpretation of the events of the Holocaust, its voices and stories, would have developed other narratives. In Briar Rose, the shaping effects that narrative has on narrative construction and self-construction, the making of meaning, becomes an especially thorny matter to consider.

Additionally, in Yolen's Briar Rose, we encounter the argument that the reason to study historical narrative is to learn from our own stories, to learn who we have been, who we are, as well as who we must endeavor never to be again. Gemma sums this up in her tellings of "Sleeping Beauty" and when answering the questions put to her and her tale by Becca and her sisters:

"The prince sang, too, and as he added his voice to theirs, it was as if he witnessed all their deaths in the thorns. It was as if he had knowledge of all their lives, past and present and future." "How can they have any future lives if they're dead?" Syl had asked, finally..."How?" Gemma looked over her half glasses and said, "The future is when people talk about the past. So if the prince knows all their past lives and tells all the people who are still to come, then the princes live again and into the future." (111)

What Gemma describes here is the truth about tales and their retellings. Tales are shaped by the experiences of the tellers, over and over throughout time; listeners are shaped by the tales, and those listeners who go on to be retellers shape the tales again. To watch a narrative over time is to do the literary work of socio-historical study; it shows us who we have been and who we are. In Touch Magic, Yolen notes:

we follow the changeling life of a fairy tale across centuries. It can only be done by a kind of faith in the integrity of the story and a few signposts. Just as one can check out the whorls of an adult's thumbprints against those infant-small prints that were pressed onto a page soon after birth, so one can find similar prints on the body of any tale. They are the thumbprints of history, but they are harder to read than any yellowing birth certificate or a well-loved photograph in a family album. (27)

Listeners and retellers, poets and archaeologists, participate in self-construction and the making of meaning as partly shaped by literary history and developing tales when they are cognizant of other, past retellers and aware of the self as actor and collaborator in the creation of social history as it is literarily informed.

Jane Yolen's Briar Rose interacts with social history by describing how "Sleeping Beauty" was reimagined according to the lived experience of the tale's reteller (Gemma) as well as how it has shaped the tale's listeners (Becca, primarily, but also her family). When Gemma creates the wonderful metaphors on which she hangs her retelling, either from the psychological trauma of Chelmno or the physical trauma of gas poisoning, she obscures her own identity. In turn, her daughter, Eve Berlin, has creatively interpreted her own identity and that of her mother. During the family conversation regarding Gemma's "real" name, we learn that her daughter, Becca's mother, did not know what her real name was and that she had created an (understandably childish but human, self-centered) story to explain it. So, too, has Becca's sister Sylvia, though her explanation is more literarily informed. Puzzling over Gemma's papers, they share their stories:

"No one I knew ever called her called her Gitl," Mrs. Berlin said. "But then I knew no one from the old country. I thought her name was Genevieve...I thought I was named Eve because of her being Genevieve...And then she took Dawna as a nickname so we'd be Dawn and Eve. She joked about it." "And I always thought she took Dawna from the story...Briar Rose...You know--the princess Aurora. Dawn." (29)

In her personal making of meaning and construction of the self, Eve Berlin believes that her name has come from her mother, and that her mother's nickname came from her. In truth, it did, but not in the linear way to which we are used. Yolen asserts the interaction between literary and social history in her narrative by referring to Eve Berlin only as Mrs. Berlin--a stable identity achieved through marriage to Dr. Berlin. But later we learn that Gemma gave her daughter her married name. Josef describes the marriage between "The Princess" and her beloved member of the resistance that took place deep in the woods by Chelmno:

The bride was given the marriage name of Eve. "Because," the rabbi said, "you are the first woman to be married here in the woods and because Ksiezniczka [princess] is not a Jewish name." The groom offered his own real name: Aron Mandlestein. (218)

With no memory of her real name, Becca's Gemma was married as Eve, the first woman. This is the legacy passed down from mother to daughter. Eve Berlin is almost right: her mother named her after her own metaphorical narrative history, and then took a nickname from her constructed self.

Thus Sylvia is almost right, too. "Sleeping Beauty" has had significant influence on Gemma's self-construction; her reference to the literary fairy tale reminds us that, in Briar Rose as in everything, self-construction is partly a result of the interaction between social history and literary history. In describing Gemma's narrative as a retelling of the literary fairy tale, "Sleeping Beauty," Sylvia acknowledges this interaction and reminds us that the second metaphor in Yolen's Briar Rose parallels literary history.

The Metaphor of Literary History:

Jane Yolen's Briar Rose interacts with literary history by referring to the historical, textual development of the "Sole, Luna, E Talia/Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty" tale. Sylvia's reference to the princess Aurora reminds us that "The true Belle au Bois Dormant...The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood" (13) finds its oldest roots in Giambattista Basile's 17 th century "Sole, Luna, E Talia" (Hallet/Karasek). "Sole, Luna, E Talia" is the story of a princess cursed at birth to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an enchanted sleep.

In Basile's tale, only the princess sleeps; her parents, overwhelmed with grief, lock up the castle and leave the princess Talia alone there; the servants follow. One hundred years later, a prince is out hunting and is reminded of the legendary tale when his prize falcon flies into a high window of princess Talia's castle and does not come out. Seized with curiosity, and determined to retrieve his bird, the prince makes his way into the castle and discovers Talia asleep on her bed in her tower room. He rapes her ("exhausted the fruits of his passion") and leaves the castle. Though asleep, Talia conceives and gives birth to twins--one girl, one boy--who the fairies take care of by holding up to Talia's breast to feed. One day, when the fairies are late in feeding the twins, the boy-child, hungry for his mother's breast, sucks the splinter out of Talia's finger. Thereupon, Talia awakes and is delighted with her children--both fair-haired and bright--whom she names Sole (sun) and Luna (moon). Presumably, the princess Aurora comes from these auspicious literary beginnings.

Roughly two hundred years later, the Brothers Grimm reshaped Basile's tale for a Victorian audience (Zipes), cleansing it of rape as well as the second half of Basile's tale (in which the prince returns, brings his new "wife" and children back to his palace, and promptly goes off to war--allowing his family to fall victim to his first, legitimate, wife, a cannibalistic ogre-wench). It is the Brothers Grimm's retelling, entitled "Briar Rose," that has given shape to our "Sleeping Beauty."

In her literary reference to the tale, Becca's sister reminds us how stories shape us (Basile's "original" tale reflecting the beliefs and attitudes of his time and his audience), as well as how we shape stories (Johann and Wilhelm Grimm's version tailoring Basile's tale so that it would fit the beliefs and attitudes of their time and audience). Yolen's references to the literary history of her retelling functions self-reflexively. Indeed, she carries it through to a consideration of our own beliefs and attitudes and the poetically and archaeologically translative act of retelling when she cites Robin McKinley's 1978 retelling of Madame Le Prince de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast," Beauty--Becca's choice of reading material for her trip to Poland.

Yolen's reference to the literary history of the fairy tale is not misplaced in the context of her own metaphors. Modern appreciation for the fairy tale--either "original" or as a retelling--has suffered from the popular notion that fairy tales are for children. Rarely, if ever, does "Sleeping Beauty" appear on lists of literary greats. Fairy tales are not meant to be taken seriously, their fantasy is a threat to the realism that contemporary readers are told to value above improbably, fantastic works; current trends suggest that a text should be evaluated on how "real" it is--even when the text is a cinematic retelling of J. R. R. Tolkien's literary fantasy classics. Yolen states: "Every few decades, with a regularity that suggests a natural cycle, the fairy tale haters arrive. Under the banner of reason, they blast away with their howitzers at the little singing bird of faerie." Specifically citing the guns of St. Jerome, Mrs. Trimmer, the 1960's London Times Literary Supplement, and offering an elegant counter-argument, Yolen reminds us that, historically, fairy tales have been described as dangerous to the imagination, denigrated as a low art form, considered below the consideration of academics, scholars, and the truly discerning reader. Fairy tale narrations, the voices of our social and literary history, are heard as whispered afterthoughts though the truths of their metaphors remain decidedly profound.

Historically and popularly, the Holocaust has also suffered from a similarly hostile disbelief as fairy tales, the same furious attempts at erasure--both have considered impossible, and therefore dangerously untrue. This is the secondary metaphor of Yolen's Briar Rose, and she creates it by calling attention to the way in which stories change and develop, the way in which contemporary attitudes and mores shift and shape narrative and literary fairy tale history. When Becca asks Gemma: "Why is it always a prince who rescues [Briar Rose]?" Gemma answers: "'You watch too much television...Too much Geraldo and Donahue. Too much women's rights. In the old days it was a prince'" (86). Let us remember that the prince in Gemma's tale is so named for his association with her story.

Josef Potocki's voice is acknowledged by the repeated "(he said)" in the last chapters of "Castle," Book Two of Briar Rose. That Josef acted like a prince, like Briar Rose's prince, is certain. But the literary reference is not without irony: Josef is a homosexual; before becoming a partisan and participating in Gemma's rescue, he escaped from Sachenhausen, where he was imprisoned for his sexual preference. Gemma is suddenly understood to be reacting with disappointment at the loss of a viable literary metaphor. She is not complaining that feminisms might alter our tales, but that the poetry of retellings will be lost in the confrontational politics of contemporary humanism. This, too, is ironic, considering Josef's homosexuality.

Yolen also calls attention to her secondary metaphor of fairy tale history by describing the ways in which the stories of Holocaust atrocities lose their potency, become disabled as humanizing agents, by repetition, disbelief and dismissal. This is not unlike the disbelief with which the horrors of the Holocaust were met in the early stages of the war. Josef explains: "'The music still played in the cafes and nightclubs'" (167), and describes his disbelief even while imprisoned at Sachenhausen, muttering: "'Five thousand corpses?'...still not believing. By the first week's end he could name a good many of them" (175). Josef describes his encounter with a woodcutter-cum-partisan "on their way to the outskirts of Lublin." The woodcutter tells his story, including finding "[his family] slaughtered, [his home] looted and burned." Josef remarks: "he did not say it sadly or angrily or with any emotion at all. It was as if he were reciting an old story told to him so long ago, it had lost its power to shock or wound" (192). Here, a tale of personal horror visited upon a cultural community becomes a narrative that, for its age and familiarity, has become powerless. Like fairy tales, the poignant truths of these personal narratives, whether lyrically beautiful or violent and ugly, lose their meaning, their potential, when they are not updated.

When the metaphors of tales, the narrations of our social and literary history, are not reshaped according to contemporary needs, the tales are lost, their ability to instruct, provoke, and pacify is leached out, darkness prevails. Therefore, as Yolen points out both literally and figuratively in Briar Rose, the tales must be respected and honored, but not through exacting repetition, clanging like a death knell through literary history. Tales must be reshaped in order to be kept alive; they must be respected and honored by conscientious, active and self-aware retellings.

Ultimately, Yolen's Briar Rose makes a most compelling and elegant argument. As narrative historians have asserted, it is important to keep the stories alive for all those who have gone before and who will follow. Both the Holocaust and our fairy tales must be upheld and believed--for those stories, with all their truths and untruths, all their fiction and non-fiction, their history and timelessness, all their layered metaphors, those stories are Who We Are. And retellers, the poets and archaeologists reshaping stories in order to keep them alive and preserve their profound truths, must own the narration of their retellings. For these reasons, and because the voices of retellings are our voices, the voices of our ancestors and of our future, listening and attending to narration in contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales is of utmost importance.

 

Works Cited

Hallet and Karasek, eds. Folk &Fairy Tales. Ontario: Broadview Press. 1993.

Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. Twice Told Tales: Women Writers and the History of the

Fairy Tale. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2001.

Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. New York: Starscape, Tom Doherty Associates. 1992.

--------------. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie &Folklore in the Literature of Childhood.

Little Rock: August House Publishers, Inc. 1981.

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.

Austin: University of Texas Press. 1979.

 

Evelyn Perry


Volume 7, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, April, 2003

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"Poetry and Archaeology: Narration in Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales for Young Adults: Jane Yolen's Briar Rose" © Evelyn Perry, 2003.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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