Tuesday, May 28, 2019

"Briar Rose" by The Brothers Grimm



Illustration by Maxfield Parrish

The literal translation of the Brothers Grimm's "Dornröschen" is "Brian Rose" or "Little Briar Rose," but some collections just call it "Sleeping Beauty" since it's Perrault's title that most people know the story by. The Brothers have whittled down Perrault's tale though into what we recognize today. It's got a true Happily Ever After ending with no post-wedding adventures involving a monstrous mother-in-law. But it also removes a lot of the detail even from the familiar parts of the story.

Before I get into that, there are a couple of other changes that I found interesting. The fairies are changed to Wise Women and the King and Queen are much more accountable for not inviting one. They don't omit her for any good faith reason, but simply because they don't have enough gold place settings for all the Wise Women in the area. It seems like maybe there's a better way out of that dilemma than just blowing one off, but I'm no king, so what do I know. The rest of the banquet plays out mostly like it does in Perrault until it comes time for one of the Wise Women to modify the curse of the offended one.

She still changes the death curse into a hundred-year sleep, but there's no prophecy about a prince being involved in waking her up. And there's still certainly no mention of a kiss. It's just that the sleep has a hundred-year expiration date on it. And when the forest of brambles grows up around the castle, there's no explanation for why. It could be the kind Wise Woman protecting the princess like she does in Perrault. Or it could just be nature reasserting itself and taking over.

There's also no reason given for why the brambles turn to flowers at the end of the hundred years, letting in the first prince to come along, but that does seem to suggest that the bramble forest is more than a natural occurrence. Most likely it's part of the good Wise Woman's blessing. Readers are just left to figure that out for themselves.

Readers also have to figure out the point of the story for themselves, too. The prince finds the princess, immediately falls in love with her and kisses her and that's when she opens her eyes. The kiss doesn't break the spell; I imagine the princess lying in bed half-awake, but with her eyes closed like you sometimes do after a long, peaceful sleep. She may even have heard the prince enter the room, but ignored it, confusing it with a dream. She can't ignore the kiss though and that's what gets her back to full consciousness. The Grimms' just write that she "looked at him kindly" and the next thing we know they're getting married. The End.

So what does it mean? In absence of any specified meaning in the story itself, I'm going to modify the one given by Perrault. There does seem to be this theme around the princess' arrested development in the areas of romance and sex, but the Grimms don't moralize about it. They don't specifically warn readers against rushing into romance. In fact, rushing into romance is exactly what the princess and prince do once she wakes up.

So that turns "Briar Rose" into something of a fantasy about a young woman blossoming into maturity. Just as she reaches the threshold of sexual awakening, she's thrown into suspended animation and made to wait. And any potential mates will have to hold off as well. The title of the story supports this. The princess is nicknamed Briar Rose after the bramble forest that springs up around the castle during her sleep. She's cut off sexually; unattainable. But as she nears awakening, the forest that she's named after literally blossoms. The Grimms write that the flowers "open a path" for the prince. I don't suspect that all of this blossoming and opening language is accidental.

Like with "Snow White," the Grimms' point with "Briar Rose" isn't to teach a lesson. It's simply to highlight a reality. "Snow White" is a tragic example of the devaluing of women as they age. "Briar Rose" pauses the moment of a young woman's sexual awakening as something to be savored and celebrated. No wonder Disney made some changes.

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