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 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’ really engages with the hundred-years sleep and makes a magnificent and intriguing mystery out of it. (And I am reminded that there are two wonderful books, Jane Yolen's 'Briar Rose' and Adele Geras's 'Watching the Roses', which use the fairytale as the basis for realistic novels exploring, in Yolen's case, a Holocaust survival story and in Geras's, a rape.)
What matters to me about the fairytale though, isn’t the heroine, whether you call her Briar Rose or Aurora or Rosie, it’s the mythos - the idea of time coming to a standstill 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.”
© Katherine Langrish February 2012
Arthur Rackham, Sleeping Beauty. All the others are by Errol le Cain from 'Thorn Rose'