Friday 3 February 2012

Briar Rose - or 'Time Be Stopped'

Schooldays. I’m about eight years old, I have my brown school reader in my hand, and I’m about to knock on the headmistress’s door. Everyone in the school has to go and read to her once a week - a solemn ceremony and not a bad one either: there’s something special about leaving the classroom while lessons are happening and making this solo pilgrimage across the quiet school hall. The door swings open and I see her room drenched in sunlight, her window opening on to a bright rose garden beyond, a garden perhaps for the teachers only, as I don’t remember ever setting foot there - a secret garden. I stand beside her desk and read aloud, and the story is Briar Rose. And somehow the feeling of her office - this sunlit, secluded, shut-away space - weaves into the story I’m reading, so that while the tall hedge of briars springs up around the castle, and everyone, even the doves on the roof and the flies on the wall, drop into their century of sleep, I feel as though it’s all happening right now, and the sleepy afternoon enfolds the school for a perfect enchanted moment, now and forever.

No one in the last Fairytale Reflections series chose Briar Rose - the Sleeping Beauty - as one of their favourites. It’s a tale which has become almost notorious as presenting an image of female passivity, the worst possible role model for a child to grow up with: a heroine who does nothing, initiates nothing, whose claim to fame is to sleep for a hundred years and be woken by the kiss of a prince she hasn’t even chosen (and that’s the mildest version): an object rather than a subject. It’s one of the most difficult fairystories to retell and still stick to the original. Disney fudged the issue of the hundred years sleep by simply doing away with it altogether and introducing a fire-breathing dragon instead. Robin McKinley’s wonderful ‘Spindle’s End’ also does away with the passive heroine, and achieves its success by departing from the fairytale in many ways. Her themes are friendship and self-discovery, and her heroine Rosie escapes the enspelled sleep which envelops the castle, and rides to defeat the sorceress who has caused it. Only Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ (lent to me by Katherine Roberts - thankyou Kath!) really engages with the hundred-years sleep and makes a magnificent and intriguing mystery out of it.

But for me, the point of the story isn’t the heroine, whether you call her Briar Rose or Aurora or Rosie, it’s about the mythos - the idea of time stopping in its tracks for a hundred years. Not all stories are about people, even if they include people; not all stories are hero/heroine-centered. They can be about ideas, feelings, wonders - the white blink of lightning as the sky cracks and the eye of God looks through. For me this story is about the shiver you feel - which any child feels - when the storyteller says:

“The horses in the stable, the doves on the roof, the dogs in the kennel and the flies on the wall, all fell fast asleep. Even the fire ceased to burn. And a hedge of thorns sprang up around the palace and grew higher and higher, so that it was lost to sight.”

When you’re a child, time seems endless anyway. So long to wait till your birthday! So long to wait till Christmas! The holidays stretch for ever, and even a single day at school, six short hours or so, can be an eternity of happiness or unhappiness or boredom. And a hundred of anything is an enormous number. “What would you do if you had a hundred pounds?” we used to ask each other as children. To sleep for a hundred years! The story is a meditation on Time.

“Footfalls echo in the memory,” (says T S Eliot)

“Down the passage which we did not take,

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose garden.”

Four Quartets is a poem full of the imagery of houses which rise and fall and vanish, of rose gardens and fallen petals and lost children. As it, too, is a profound meditation upon Time, am I wrong to suspect that the story of Briar Rose, the Sleeping Beauty, was somewhere in the poet’s mind as he wrote?

“Ash on an old man’s sleeve

Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

Dust in the air suspended

Marks the place where a story ended.

Dust inbreathed was a house-

The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.”

What is Time? the poem asks.  A cycle of recurring seasons? A river which sweeps us away? A train on a set of linear tracks, the present moment drumming ever onwards, leaving everything we have known unreachably behind? Or can Time somehow curl around us like an enclosed secret garden in which the essence of everything we’ve loved is still real, compressed like a bowl of rose leaves, immanent, half glimpsed?

In T.F. Powys’s little-known masterpiece ‘Mr Weston’s Good Wine’, God - in the shape of wine-salesman Mr Weston, accompanied by his assistant Michael, arrives at the village of Folly Down one bleak November day in a small Ford van. Mr Weston is here to offer the villagers his choice of wines, from the light wine of love to the dark wine of death. It’s a marvellous, tender story, both comic and sad: but the bit that remains in my memory is this passage near the middle of the book, when something very odd happens in Angel Inn, the village pub:

…Mr Thomas Bunce happened to look at the grandfather clock. He did so because the unnatural silence that came over the company - an angel is said to be walking near when such a silence occurs - had disclosed the astonishing fact that the clock was not ticking.

Mr Bunce was sure that the clock was wound. He knew that the heavy pendulum was in proper order, though no one nodded to it now; and yet the clock had stopped.

…No policeman, supposing that one of them had happened to call to see that the right and lawful hours were kept at Folly Down inn, could ever have found fault with that timepiece. The clock was truthful; it was even more honourable than that; it was always two minutes in advance of its prouder relation, that was set high above mankind, in the Shelton church tower.

Mr Bunce stared hard at the clock. He wished to be sure.
All was silent again.

“Time be stopped,” exclaimed Mr Bunce excitedly.
“And eternity have begun,” said Mr Grunter.

Of course the story of Briar Rose continues, with the prince’s arrival and the blossoming of the thorns into roses, and the kiss and the awakening, because time does move and so must narratives. But I don’t think that’s what the story is about. I’m sure the reason the story (otherwise so slight) has remained in existence for so long, is all to do with that hiatus in the middle, in which nothing happens except one long moment. Perhaps it celebrates the way life happens in the gaps between the lines, the space between the words, the silence in the imaginary rose garden. Perhaps it moves us in an almost Taoist sense to look, really look at the flies on the wall, the doves on the roof, the arrested gesture of the cook’s hand as she slaps the serving boy - and say to ourselves,

“This - this is life.”

Picture credits:  Arthur Rackham, Sleeping Beauty.  All the others are by Errol le Cain from 'Thorn Rose'


  1. Hi, Really interesting pieces on fairytale, thank you! Have you read Jane |Yolen's Briar Rose novel which uses the retelling to look at the Holocaust?

  2. a really interesting post - particularly as, like me, you love Sheri S Tepper's Beauty. I also recently read a new more sci-fi twist, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan with teenager Rosalind locked in stasis for 62 years. It has an interesting twist about WHY she has slept away the years. ( )
    Off to see if the library can drum up a copy of Robin McKinley's Spindle's End.....

  3. Very interesting post. I am a huge fan of (& collect) Errol Le Cain fairytale books, so I loved your inclusion of some of his illustrations! I wonder what a Jungian analysis of Briar Rose would look like - I mean, if every character in the story is taken to be an aspect of a single person's psyche... because then the passivity of the heroine is not such a political issue, as it were... And I loved your meditations on the importance of Time to the story. It reminds me of James Thurber's 'The 13 Clocks' - one of my favourite modern fairytales - in which the wicked duke believes he has slain Time.

  4. Oh, really enjoyed this post - got me thinking about this particular fairytale and ways of playing with it.

    (Have you read Adele Geras's Watching The Roses? Another great adaptation of the Sleeping Beauty myth, made realistic and modern. And seconding the rec for the Jane Yolen book, if you haven't already encountered it.) :)

  5. I think this is a wonderful way of looking at this fairy tale. When I was little, I also used to find Sleeping Beauty to be the least interesting to read or watch.

    Time stopping in Sleeping Beauty actually reminds of a scene in Isobelle Carmody's fourth book in the Obernewtyn chronicles, Ashling. A key character falls into a coma where she is trapped in a recurring/suppressed memory - unable to move forward in time.

  6. Oh yes, Barbara - and Claire - Jane Yolen's 'Briar Rose' is extraordinarily powerful - and I love Adele Geras's too, Claire - both modern treatments, both very strong. Thanks for reminding me! I must have been thinking about more traditional fantasy retellings, which do seem to struggle with the 100 years sleep, perhaps becasue they feel they need to take it literally. I haven't read Ashling, Glaiza - I must look out for it. Oh an Harriet, thanks for reminding me of Thurber's '13 Clocks' - I adore that story (along with The Wonderful O'!

    I've been wondering this morning, too, if we have trouble with the Sleeping Beauty partly becasue we're all so used to reading novels these days, with their emphasis on characters - and emphasis usually irrelevant in fairytales, which do something quite different.

  7. Wonderful post, thank you! I don't have anything to add on the story itself, but given the serendipitous coincidence of Eliot and Le Cain appearing in the same post, I wonder if you have seen the two wonderful picture books Le Cain produced of selected poems from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats?

  8. I do enjoy these fairy tale posts... lovely artwork as well...

  9. Beautiful blog! I loved reading it.
    'When you can't sit still,' says the Tao te Ching, 'you lose the Source.' I agree, it's that amazing stillness - but maybe also it's got in it something of the story of winter, when everything, in Central Europe, is still, frozen, and maybe the Princess is the spring, waiting for the sun to kiss her into life again?

  10. Beautiful post. It's so interesting that a lot of people have felt that the heroine lacks agency, because as Bettelheim and Marina Warner have so eloquently written on, the tale is a truncated version of a much older one. I agree the sleep, the forest of thorns and the princess in the tower are such potent images that the tale became popular-genius of Perrault and the Grimm's retellings.

  11. I've always loved the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, its one of my favourites. And I love all the retellings of it mentioned too. Somehow the images of roses and thorns, the spinning wheel, the whole castle bespelled in sleep have always enchanted me with that kind of terror that the best fairytales seem to hold. A really beautiful post and I loved the inclusion of T.S. Eliot's peotry in particular.

  12. A beautiful and thought-provoking post.

  13. Leslie, I like that idea! The world dormant in winter awaiting the touch of spring...

    And Jongleuse, it's funny, I know the tale is actually longer - in fact, one of the first versions I ever read of it continued with the story of Briar Rose's jealous mother-in-law who spirits her children away from her as they are born, and accuses her of their murder. But to me it's always felt as though that version of the tale is structurally wrong - I can't help feeling it's a combination of two stories awkwardly welded together and you can see the join. The first half, the 'classic' Sleeping Beauty tale is sufficient unto itself and needs nothing more.

    'The kind of terror that the best fairytales seem to hold'! Thankyou for that comment, Kate - perfect. And thankyou Juliet for visiting!

  14. What a very wonderful post. That first paragraph is a whole fairytale in itself. I've never though of Sleeping Beauty like this, but now I'll never be able to forget your interpretation.

    Another book recommendation: have you read The King of Elfland's Daughter, by Lord Dunsany? His description of Elfland, where time stands still, is strange and remarkable

  15. Thankyou, Lily - I'd forgotten that time stood still in elfland. Hmmm! Dunsany is a big favourite of mine!

  16. I've never thought this story was ever about the girl. Our family discucussions have always been on the faux pas of her parents not inviting the 13th fairy to the party because they only had 12 gold plates and besides "everyone knew she wouldn't come anyway and there was some question as to whether she still lived". Sleeping Beauty was just the mitigated punishment of her parents lack of etiquette.

  17. The sins of the parents! yes - they surely should have known better!