Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors.
“Briar Rose” by The Brothers Grimm
Who doesn’t know the story of “Briar Rose”? In the Grimm’s version of the story, a king and a queen hold a great feast to celebrate the birth of their one and only child, a baby girl. In hopes that they will bestow blessings upon her daughter, the queen insists the thirteen fairies be invited to the event. The king, however, finds himself ill-prepared. In his set of gold plates there are only twelve, and so one of the fairies is cut from the guest list. But the overlooked fairy makes an appearance at the party regardless, and for the parents’ slight she curses the daughter, that on her fifteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. It is only by the grace of the twelfth of the good fairies that the curse is altered, so that Briar Rose falls into a deep slumber for a hundred years, only to be awakened by the kiss of (who else?) a prince. It is a familiar tale.
“Briar Rose” by Anne Sexton
In her collection Transformations, published in 1971, Anne Sexton re-imagined (or, as the title suggests, “transformed”) seventeen of the Grimm Brothers’ stories. The closing poem, “Briar Rose,” commences in the office of a therapist, a hypnotist to be exact, and what follows is a blending of the original narrative, spruced up a bit with Sexton’s trademark cheekiness (“The king looked like Munch’s Scream / Fairies’ prophecies, / in times like those, / held water.”), and the morose unfolding of a trauma narrative of familial abuse, concluding with a modern day, grown Briar Rose, scared to death of sleep (“It’s not the prince at all, / but my father / drunkeningly bends over my bed, / circling the abyss like a shark, / my father thick upon me / like some sleeping jellyfish.”). This obviously is not the story we have come to know.
“Briar Rose” by Aoife O’Donovan
In 2013, folk singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan offered up her own transformation of the classic tale on her debut solo release, Fossils. What makes this most recent incarnation so striking is that O’Donovan introduces a second speaker into the Sexton narrative, a second “I” as it may be (“Aurora, / can you hear me? / I know you’re weary. / If you open up your eyes, you’ll be all right.”). The song prompts us to ask ourselves why the story of Briar Rose fascinates us so, when at its core it is nothing new, just the subjection of the individual to forces beyond her control, and us, bystanders and witnesses, immobilized, unable (or unwilling) to intervene, unable (or unwilling) to look away, as participants in that violence. An unfamiliar tale rendered familiar once again.
This edition of Fairy-Tale Files is brought to you by Fairy Tale Review Associate Editor Benjamin Schaefer.