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Postmodern Retellings 102: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose


Postmodern Retellings 101 focused on modern interpretations of fairy tales that dated from the 1960s or the 1970s. Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter were some of the first authors to tackle this task and ended up developing a great legacy for the new writers to come. As time passed, philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 'deconstruction' remained the main focal point and gender studies surrounding the role of women in society continued to influence greatly. Nevertheless, new retellings started focusing on other motifs or themes in addition to developing new narrative strategies. The boundaries between genders are blurred and the mythopoeic qualities of the original tales are challenged. The meta-folklore is necessary to raise awareness about previous readings of fairy tales and provide the original characters with a voice of their own. Thus, this series will focus on retellings from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

This series will be divided as follows:

Postmodern Retellings 102: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

American author Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (1992) explores the ability of fiction to mask repressed traumas or experiences. In the novel, Yolen presents an old lady named Gemma who weaves together the tale of Sleeping Beauty and her life as a holocaust survivor. Given that fairy tales have often analyzed the darkest areas of the human mind, their symbolic language becomes an essential tool to cover the underlying consequences of repressed suffering. In this way, Yolen adopts a literature of silence to address the limits of communicating tragic situations so that they can be passed on from generation to generation. This article will analyse how the fragmentation and conventions of fairy tales allow tragic stories to be told from older to younger generations and to be shared by all members of a society.

According to Rachel Dean-Ruzicka (2017, p. 14), “the Holocaust is an integral part of twenty-first-century children’s and young adult literature” and, therefore, the account of the notorious event is not only pertinent but necessary. As time passes, fewer survivors remain to pass down their first-hand experiences, which places literature in a significant position to educate younger generations. Nevertheless, the literary debate focuses on how situations of this magnitude can be approached in an ethical way (San José Rico & Mezquita Fernández). The authors must carefully narrate their stories and follow a series of moral principles since their novels “carry a significant responsibility” (Rachel Dean-Ruzicka, 2017, p. 14). For instance, Rosenfeld (1980) focuses on literature of fragmentation, which consists of leaving unsaid what cannot and must not be described or understood. In other words, a book that leaves some gaps in information can be more emotionally profound than one that tries to explain everything. This “dialogue with the silence” encourages readers to take part in the story since they have to actively decipher what lies beneath the narration and, thus, think like the characters (Kokkola, 2003, p. 23). Hence, this method promotes an empathetic response to the story, as readers embark on the same journey as their fictitious counterparts.

Figure 1. Cover of 1992 Edition of Briar Rose.

Storytellers have used the rich world of fairy tales to examine the nuances of human personality. Likewise, the victims of severe traumas often hide the devastating consequences of their experiences in two ways: the repression of the terrorizing memories can be unconscious or it can be a deliberate process. In the former case, the experience is unintentionally blocked by the person to evade the traumatic past. Therefore, it is not bizarre that some people have ended up creating fictional worlds in an attempt to hide reality and face the painful effects of their trauma (San José Rico & Mezquita Fernández, 2011). Indeed, literary scholar Donald Haase (2000, p. 366) also recognizes the ability of fairy tales to provide comfort and closure since the adults who had catastrophic experiences classify them by following the “fairy-tale landscape, attempting to transform trauma through desire for the reconstituted safety of home”. In this way, Jane Yolen presents the main character of her story, Becca, as a young adult who lives in the USA in the 1990s. Her earliest memories of her grandmother, Gemma, consist of listening to her telling the tale of Sleeping Beauty, also known as Briar Rose. After Gemma’s death, the granddaughter travels to Poland to investigate the unusual connection between her grandmother, the fairy tale and the holocaust (Crockett, 2020).

Therefore, Gemma represses her painful past by creating a fictitious world where she identifies with the princess of Sleeping Beauty. Not only does she believe that she is part of the fairy tale, but she continuously tells the story to her granddaughter to such an extent that they think that the story has a secret meaning (San José Rico & Mezquita Fernández, 2011). In literary terms, the reader is often aware that some information is missing and, therefore, they often must perform the role of a detective, in contrast to historical fiction, where the time and place of an event are clear. In Briar Rose, Becca’s plot unfolds in chronological order, whereas her grandmother’s story is fragmented. (Crockett, 2020). Both the reader and Becca discover new clues as the young girl recalls her grandmother’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

Figure 2. Ashes. Edvard Munch. 1894.

Nevertheless, Gemma appears to recognize some of her repressed memories in certain moments, which leads the reader to think that what seems repressed struggles to come out to the surface (San José Rico & Mezquita Fernández, 2011). Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1955, p. 152) stated that the repression process was often not finished and, thus, some memories remain “accessible to memory and occasionally reappear in consciousness, but even then they are isolated, a foreign body without any connection with the rest of the mind”. For example, when Gemma tells the tale of Sleeping Beauty, she always points out that it “isn't a silly story”, in addition to including new elements that do not belong to the original version (Yolen 2002, p. 151). She creates a claustrophobic atmosphere when describing the castle, which is a direct symbol of the concentration camp where she was trapped. Yolen emphasizes the woman’s sense of isolation by stressing the “invisibility of the people trapped inside” (Hennard Dutheil & Viret, 2011, p. 414). Also, in Gemma’s retelling, the evil witch does not surround the princess’s castle with thorns so that nobody could get to her, but rather she uses barbed wire (Yolen 2002, p. 59).

The fairy-tale context is the mediator between traumatic experiences and reality, as it combines fantasy, imagination, past and present. As stated earlier, Yolen’s interplay between fiction and consciousness stimulates both Becca’s and the reader’s interpretative skills to decode Gemma’s true experience. In this way, fairy tales are presented as a means that “can touch readers old and young in a way that blank facts often fail to do, and even keep some form of collective memory alive.” (Hennard Dutheil & Viret, 2011, p. 402). Thus, they create a common ground for older and younger generations to explore difficult or distressing topics. Although fairy tales carry the reader to an imaginary world, their symbolism allows the author to explore a reality that cannot be explicitly depicted. Indirect narrative strategies are often more compelling because of their emotional meaning, as opposed to expressing mere factual statements. This results in a paradox that focuses on naming the “unnamable” and encourages readers to “respond to the ethical imperative of becoming cowitnesses to individual trauma” (Hennard Dutheil & Viret, 2011, p. 420). According to San José Rico & Mezquita Fernández (2011), this kind of narrative promotes a common awareness and homage to the victims of atrocities. Even Gemma, who has forgotten her terrible past, warns her granddaughters to preserve her story: “the future is when people talk about the past. So if the prince knows all their past lives and tells all the people who are still to come, then the princes live again and into the future” (Yolen 2002, p. 111).

Figure 3. Cover of Briar Rose. Tristan Elwell. (n.d.).

Nevertheless, Jane Yolen is aware of Briar Rose as a fiction story and, therefore, Gemma’s escape from Chelmno was required as part of Sleeping Beauty’s retelling. Not only does Gemma believe that she is the princess of the tale, but she also thinks that she was put to sleep by a wicked witch and saved by a prince (Dean-Ruzicka, 2017). In this way, Becca, the heroine of the book, decides to dismantle the narrative of the fairy tale and look for her grandmother’s true past. By emphasizing Gemma and Becca’s solid relationship, the author draws attention to the notion of cowitnessing: empathy for the victims and awareness of the tragedy that they have endured (Hennard Dutheil & Viret, 2011). In this way, the interplay between fairy tales and historical accuracy “reveals to the reader the complexity of his or her own relationship to knowledge of the Holocaust”, that is, one cannot be aware of its real magnitude (Hunter, 2013, p. 62).

In conclusion, Jane Yolen addresses the task of portraying trauma and ponders on the limitations of its communication. The author's task is to reflect and explore the psychological aspect of the victims of a tragedy as well as to address how these experiences must be passed on from generation to generation. In the novel, Gemma covers her tragic past beneath the well-fixed conventions of the fairy tale, excluding those who can manage to decode her story, such as Becca (Hennard Dutheil & Viret, 2011). By doing so, Yolen employs narrative devices that immerse the reader in the story, while also rendering homage to the victims of the dramatic episodes.

Bibliographical References

Crockett, T. E. (2020). The Silence of Fragmentation: Ethical Representations of Trauma in Young Adult Holocaust Literature. Barnboken, 43, 1-18.

Dean-Ruzicka, R. (2017). Tolerance Discourse and Young Adult Holocaust Literature: Engaging Difference and Identity. New York and London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Freud, S. (1955). Moses and monotheism. New York: Vintage Books.

Haase, D. (2000). Children, War, and the Imaginative Space of Fairy Tales. The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature, 24(3), 360–377.

Hunter, A. (2013). Tales from over there: The uses and meanings of fairy-tales in contemporary holocaust narrative. Modernism/Modernity, 20(1), 59-75. Retrieved from

Kokkola, L. (2003). Representing the Holocaust in children’s literature. New York: Routledge.

Mara, R. (2007). Briar rose: Jane yolen's magic touch revealed. ALAN Review, 35(1), 67-72. Retrieved from

Martine, H.D. & Géraldine, V. (2014). “Sleeping Beauty” in Chelmno : Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose or Breaking the Spell of Silence. Études de lettres 3-4, 399-424.

San José Rico, P. & Mezquita Fernández, M.A. (2011). Escaping trauma through a dreamworld: Fantasy and the evasion of pain in Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa, 32, 301– 316.

Yolen, J. (2002). Briar Rose. New York: Tor.

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1 Comment

Well written and thoroughly researched article. Especially appreciate how you show the importance of fairy tales and fables role in preserving history and culture through your analysis of Briar Rose.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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