Home » Telling and Retelling of Briar Rose, “Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen (Spoilers and Analysis Ahead)

Telling and Retelling of Briar Rose, “Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen (Spoilers and Analysis Ahead)

by Kimberly

How This Started 

Only a few short months ago, I submitted my senior thesis on Young Adult (YA) fairytale adaptations, or manipulations, and the importance and dangers of such adaptations. I spent roughly three months looking at the successes and failures of one series, and reading fairytale and feminist scholarship. I was certain the reason why fairytales and YA congress so well is because they share an audience, their message, and a fairytale’s ability to transform. However, after roughly thirty-one pages, I thought that even though these genres should be the perfect combination, the YA books were too caught up in being reflective of the  ever-changing world, and thus their characters always fall short of the fairytale form. Then, I picked up ‘Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen, and my mind was changed completely.



Why Fairytales?

First, why fairytales? Fairytales are universal. With the words “Once upon a time,” readers are transported to another world, another time and place, but a time and place that is often all too familiar. They are stories that have been told as a response to the world around—a response to youthful navigation in a scary and unforgiving world in which they are powerless, a response to the power structures that oppress these youths and how they must undermine and overcome them. While they tell stories of princes and princesses, fairy godmothers, and big bad wolves, they are stories about everyday lives and situations filled with morals and questions of how to survive in this scary world we live in. Fairytale scholar Jack Zipes states that “(Both) the oral and the literary forms of the fairy tale are grounded in history: they emanate from specific struggles to humanize bestial and barbaric forces, which have terrorized our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion, The fairy tale sets out to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors,” and it is this quote that opens Jane Yolen’s beautiful Sleeping Beauty adaptation Briar Rose (Spells of Enchantment).

Quick Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead)

This novel focuses on the mystery that a young woman, Becca, must uncover about her Grandmother: the secret of Briar Rose, who her grandmother, Gemma, claims to be. Since the birth of her granddaughters, and even longer, Gemma has told a peculiar version of the famous Briar Rose fairytale. A version that includes a red-headed Sleeping Beauty, bad fairies with “big black boots and silver eagles on [their] hats,” (Yolen 19) barbs for thorns, songs about kidnappers, and no spinning wheel. Before she passes away, Gemma makes Becca promise that she will uncover the story of Briar Rose, Becca’s legacy that Gemma leaves behind for her. The novel dissects the tale that Gemma told, the relationships between Becca and her family, most notably her sisters, and follows Becca as she chases the story of her grandmother—a story she wants to write and publish for a newspaper she writes for. Becca chases that story all the way to Poland where she finds the horrifying and yet awe-inspiring truth about her grandmother: she was taken to a Nazi extermination camp during World War II, and escaped with the help of partisans, and eventually fled to America with a new name and a baby on the way.

The Transformation and the Telling

First things first, Yolen recognizes throughout the novel that this tale of Briar Rose is not the traditional Disney-animated film, or less known Briar Rose by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. She transforms this story, and makes the characters, and reader, aware of this transformation. At a young age, Becca invites a friend over for a sleepover and asks her grandmother to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty, but the friend claims “That’s not how it goes. You got it wrong” (Yolen 34). Here, Yolen identifies the challenge that will be met by what is already in the media and held dear by audiences, but she frames it with the relationship between Gemma and Becca—it is Gemma’s favorite story to tell and Becca’s favorite story to hear. This strange story of Briar Rose means more to Becca than just a bedtime story, it is a story that her grandmother shared with her, and a piece of her grandmother’s history—even if she did not know it until later. For Gemma, this story of Briar Rose is her personal history. It is a story that she once knew, and turned into her own story—a story she would tell and retell with her dying breath, and one that Becca would rewrite for everyone to one day read in the newspaper. Let’s back track.

Jack Zipes, in his book Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre, states that one of the reasons why fairytales are so relevant and important even today is because they ask questions of how to survive when they are powerless, scared, in an unfamiliar situation, and these stories are ultimately “survival stories with hope” (Zipes 27). These fairytales, these stories of children lost in the woods, of princesses locked away or sold in marriage, of ugly ducklings, they are all stories of how to endure awful situations, and they all end with that familiar “Happily Ever After.” Gemma lives that scary fairytale of Briar Rose, and she survives. Little by little, Yolen gives her readers hints as to the terror that Gemma’s Briar Rose (Gemma) endured—silver eagles, black boots, barbed wire, and the fact that the family is Jewish—and little by little, Becca, and the readers learn of Gemma’s survival story.

Gemma’s story starts with her death, something that confessional poet Anne Sexton highlights in her poem “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty),” and something that is perhaps forgotten about this fairytale. Even though the curse that the wicked fairy casts of death is diluted and changed to a one-hundred-year sleep, Briar Rose sleeps for those hundred years and just escapes death. Gemma, too, just barely escapes death. In Chelmno, Poland, the Nazis built an extermination camp, and renamed the land Kulmhof. Extermination is the horrifying key word here, for it means no survivors. In the novel, Becca travels to this place some forty or fifty years later to decode the fairytale story of her grandmother. She learns, from a man named Josef, that he saw her grandmother move from the mass of dead bodies, roughly 2,000, along with the other partisans he traveled with. Once they saw this unbelievable sign of life, this half-alive red-haired woman walking among the dead, these men tried to bring her back to life. After hours of reviving, it is Josef who brings her back to life, not quite with a true love’s first kiss, but a life-giving kiss that awakens this sole sign of life. When this nameless girl awakens, she has no memory of anything else but a fairytale, one where “[she] is the princess in a castle and a great mist comes over [everyone]. Only [she] is kissed awake” (Yolen 211). This fairytale of Sleeping Beauty becomes this nameless woman’s, who Becca knows as Gemma, story. This story of a young princess surviving death resonates with and becomes Gemma’s story, a survival story with hope and with a “Happily Ever After”—after hardships there, a home in America and a baby.

What is so special and beautiful about this novel is that Jane Yolen takes a horrific event, the Holocaust, and weaves in these fairytale elements. It does not diminish the horror of this historical event, rather it highlights that horror and trauma, and the hope of a life after death—both literal and metaphorical. What perhaps is even more striking is the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel, for Yolen directly tells her readers that “Happily-ever-after is a fairy tale notion, not history,” and that though life can be filled with survival and hope like fairytales, they do not all end with a wedding and cake at the end (Yolen 241). Many end painfully and tragically, and that recognition alone reveals the respect this novel pays to a historical tragedy.

Yolen’s novel also reveals the very magic and power of storytelling, and the effect of fairytales. Fairytales are about (usually) adolescents navigating a world in which they are ultimately powerless and overcoming challenges presented by oppressive forces. In the case of Gemma, she must navigate an unfamiliar and unkind world with no memory but the one the Nazis have given her, memories of destruction, sorrow, and death. Yolen succeeds in her manipulation of the tale because it focuses on that survival feature that Zipes so beautifully pinpoints.

It is this survival aspect that is so prominent throughout the novel because Becca wants to uncover this story of her grandmother, she needs to break this “spell” of looking for who her grandmother truly is and what her story is (Yolen 109). Like all children, all humans, Becca yearns to uncover this story she has heard hundreds, thousands of times—like the stories of how grandma and grandpa met, the stories of boat all of the boys would take fishing, or the ring that has been passed down for generations. Her late grandmother has spun a tale that she must unravel and find the truth (and perhaps this resonates with me because I, too, search for my late mother in stories she had told me). What is even more beautiful is that this search is so that Becca can share this story with others, and rewrite the fairytale—the one Gemma told her, and the truth she uncovered—and it pays tribute to the transition from oral fairytales to literary fairytales. In Terri Windling’s introduction to the novel, it is stated that “It’s an important book, and a special one…For countless centuries, storytellers have used the richly symbolic language of fairytale to explore all the dark, and bright, and shades of gray of the human experience. Yolen knows this better than most. And does it better than most” (Windling “Introduction”).And all the while she is searching for her grandmother’s story, Yolen weaves beautiful details about grief and loss (with the death of Gemma in the very beginning of the novel), complicated families (with both the support and lack thereof from her parents and sisters as she uncovers Gemma’s story), love (oh yes, there is a love interest, and it is slow, steady, and not overdone), and suffering (from all those who share their stories with Becca, from Poles to other targeted groups during the Nazi regime such as homosexuals).

Briar Rose succeeds

in this marriage of fairytales and Young Adult Literature because at the very core of Yolen’s words is the desire to tell a story, and one that ends with hope. Retelling fairytales is so important, and Jane Yolen’s retelling is so needed for readers who grow up and navigate a scary world—one that has been and always will be scary—because they are stories that endure and reveal that the reader, too, can endure and live to tell the tale. At the very core is the human experience, and that is what makes it so beautiful, so raw, and so important.


Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2002.

Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2010.

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