ENGL 289: Contemporary Fairy Tales

Dr. John Pennington

Spring 2018, Junior Year



One question I hear a lot is “Why study literature?  Why bother reading?”  I attempted to address a little bit of that in this critical essay on Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose.  The assignment was to write a critical essay that utilized outside sources while answering a question of “Why?” for general audiences.

Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose: Surviving Through Fairy Tales

Fairy tales exist in the imagination and reality.  Though the real world does not appear to have goblins and fairies running amok, they reside in the world metaphorically.  The dragon a hero must slay may really be a past mistake or a societal prejudice.  Fairy tales are important in ways to both come to terms with the horror that exists in life and to reflect on what is central to living.  Bruno Bettelheim studies how these tales are used to survive.  For example, Cinderella shows that with hard-work and patience, one can rise above oppressors and abuse to become a princess, or Hansel and Gretel can survive abandonment through teamwork and perseverance.  Though they cannot answer all problems, fairy tales offer an escape to understand what it means to live and be human or act as a new way to reflect.  One of the worst points of humanity is seen in the Holocaust.  Many stories, both fictional and memoir, have been written about what happened during the near annihilation of the Jewish community, a horrific event that cannot be forgotten.  However, people are becoming desensitized or forgetful of its history.  With Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty mixed with the Holocaust, she presents a new way to think of how the survivors of these awful experiences find ways to remember what happened while dealing with the heavy memories.  By turning an experience of the Holocaust into a fairy tale, Yolen creates a way to think of the history in a new light while taking a step back to see the carnage.  She exemplifies how fairy tales are a source of survival, not only for those who endured the horrors but for the overall memory of the Holocaust in society.

Fairy tales contain a window into the mind through psychology.  Bruno Bettelheim, one of the late fairy tale experts of the eighties, linked fairy tales like the Grimm’s and Perrault tales to important development tools in young minds.  As he studied abused children, he grew fascinated with how they reacted to fairy tales:

But my interest in fairy tales is not the result of such a technical analysis of their merits.  It is on the contrary, the consequence of asking myself why, in my experience, children…find folk fairy tales more satisfying than all other children’s stories.  The more I tried to understand why these stories are so successful at enriching the inner life of the child, the more I realized that these tales, in a much deeper sense than any other reading material, start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being.  They speak about his severe inner pressures in a way that the child unconsciously understands and…offer examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing difficulties. (Bettelheim 6)

Amongst the narratives of princes, princesses, and witches, something mills about that children and adults can connect with.  Society keeps resurrecting these stories because they teach some sort of lesson (usually) and inflate an idea of what is desirable among the community.  Though many fairy tales include problematic content once looked at with a closer eye, such as rape and cannibalism in Giambattista Basile’s “Talia, the Sun, and the Moon” rendition of Sleeping Beauty, the overall idea of good conquering evil provides a safe reassurance that the world will work out so long as a person entertains goodness and hard-work.  If a person gives into the temptation of greed or selfishness, then he or she will receive their just reward through consequences, like birds pecking out the eyes of Cinderella’s evil step-sisters in “Aschenputtel.”  Unfortunately, the world does not function in this way, but keeping such tales around promotes the idea that people should strive for being a good character versus a witch or ogre.

Not only do fairy tales provide a safety for goodness, but also reassurance that not everyone is always loved, and no matter what, with a fighting spirit, they will survive.  One such example of this is found in Hansel and Gretel stories.  Their parents, or stepmother, no longer want the children around, so they leave them to the mercy of the forest.  Though their parents fully expect them to perish, Hansel and Gretel endure their situation, save themselves from the clutches of a cannibalistic witch, and go on to return home or venture somewhere else, depending on the specific rendition of the story.  Children who come from a not-so-loving home find solace in the tale because they have the connection with Hansel and Gretel of unwantedness and survival.  Other worries of social acceptance, rising above one’s station, and finding purpose in life can be found somewhere in at least one fairy tale.  As Bettelheim said in The Uses of Enchantment: “The fairy tale…takes these inner existentialist anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death” (Bettelheim 10).  A connection to one’s life can be related back to a fairy tale of some kind, whether it be Grimm, Perrault, or even contemporary.

The connections to fairy tales become controversial when linked to the Holocaust, however.  Literary critics are torn between appreciating the tale and being offended by the outcome.  Menachem Kaiser from the Atlantic reflected on this:

Literature and the Holocaust have a complicated relationship. Still, literature qua art—innately concerned with representation and appropriation—seemingly stands opposed to the immutability of the Holocaust and our oversized obligations to its memory. Good literature makes artistic demands, flexes and contorts narratives, resists limpid morality, compromises reality’s details. Regarding the Holocaust, this seems unconscionable, even blasphemous. The horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald need no artistic amplification.  (Kaiser 1)

The most problematic attempt to write literary interpretations of the Holocaust revolve around the end.  Happy endings, after all, have no place for something that ended with millions dead and not enough done to prevent it slipping from memory.  Yolen aggravates a few critics by including a happy ending, but she remedies this with a reminder at the end of the author’s note: “This is a book of fiction.  All the characters are made up.  Happy-ever-after is a fairy tale notion, not history.  I know of no woman who escaped Chelmno alive” (Yolen 241).  By setting the ending with this grim reminder, she diminishes the fairy tale ending of Becca with her coworker Stan, making it transparent that this is fiction and not true to history.  The reader may want to bask in the happy glow of justice, but the reality is that many died and their stories left untold.  Yolen wanted to be true to the story while keeping the memory alive.

Yet, despite the concern that turning such an event into a fairy tale diminishes what happened, it adds an additional layer to the memory.  It is realistic to believe that Gemma, Becca’s grandmother who survived unimaginable horrors, condensed her experiences to a fairy tale.  Survivors have different ways to live with what they experienced.  Some talk about what they endured; others clam up and refuse to breathe a word for fear the images will consume them.  For a woman to distance herself from the experience and relate it to a fairy tale would make sense for her to survive.  Gemma buries what really happened to her deep within her private mind and only hints at her experiences through the sphere of the fairy tale.  But it is not a happy tale, either.  At a sleepover, Gemma tells Becca and a friend her version of Sleeping Beauty, but it is not familiar to the friend who argues about the details:

            “But one of the good fairies,” Gemma said, “had saved a wish. ‘Not everyone will die.  A few will sleep.  You, princess, will be one.’”

            Shirley [the friend] sat up in bed, furious.  “That’s not how it goes.  You’ve got it wrong.”

            Gemma smiled.

            “That’s how it goes in this house,” Becca said. (Yolen 34)

In this passage, unbeknownst to Becca, Gemma refers to how she was a lone survivor while other Jewish people died.  In another section, Gemma is describing how the prince of her Sleeping Beauty “marveled at how many lay asleep: the good people, the not-so-good, the young people and the not-so-young, and not one of them stirring” (Yolen 150).  Though surreal and tame at the idea, it turns out that Gemma is actually describing a pile of corpses fresh from the gas chambers, but in a way that her buried emotions at the ordeal would not be triggered nor scare the children.  By telling her story from this depiction, it allows her to work through the haunting images and relate it to something that she could understand: a curse.  When her grandchildren call it silly, Gemma remarks, “Not a silly story at all,” because it is her personal story (Yolen 151).  She preserves her memory of being rescued and deals with the survivor’s guilt not only for her long last family but for the partisans who saved her.  Also by channeling her history into a fairy tale, she can better connect it with her young daughter and later her grandchildren.  They may not understand until later on the importance of it, but it provides a background of how they came to survive, too.  Without her, they would never exist.

Becca shows the second generation concerns of the Holocaust and wanting to search for answers of what her grandmother went through.  Adriane Kertzer, a critic of Yolen, states in her book My Mother’s Voices: “We are further protected because the novel’s over-all focalization is Becca’s and we will learn and understand only as much as she is able to comprehend…the granddaughter’s naive American perspective keeps us safe and keeps the narrative safely within the patterns of rescue celebrated by children’s literature (Kertzer 70).”  The story itself never takes a stance through Becca on the history.  It is not until Josef Potocki, the man who rescued Gemma, enters the story where the true Holocaust narrative takes a deeper role.  Potocki provides details of the awfulness he survives and paints a bleak narrative without heroes.  As he states when mentioning his time with the first band of partisans, “These were not brave men and women brilliantly plotting moves against the sluggish enemy…All of them are liars because they were afraid or because they were brave or because they could not care or because they cared too much” (Yolen 180).  With Potocki’s honest observations, the good guys are more complex than in fairy tales, but the bad guys still remain on the outskirts, a looming force that remains faceless or without name.  Though Potocki states, “Forget every romantic notion,” the story still holds some to a degree while intermingling the real fear.

Because it appears people are beginning to forget the details of what happened, it is even more important for writers to attempt to re-install interest in the history and life experiences of the survivors.  In a survey conducted by the Claims Conference, or the Conference on Jewish Claims Against Germany, young people no longer know the details of concentration camps, how Hitler rose to power, and the general population’s role in the destruction of countless Jewish people and other seemingly “undesirables.”  The New York times picked up on the survey and wrote an article about how the Holocaust is “fading from memory.”  In an interview conducted by the New York Times, Matthew Bronfman, board member of the Claims Conference, said,

“As we get farther away from the actual events, 70-plus years now, it becomes less forefront of what people are talking about or thinking about or discussing or learning…If we wait another generation before you start trying to take remedial action, I think we’re really going to be behind the eight ball.” (Astor 4).

Many schools include memoirs or novels heavily based on historical facts from the Holocaust, yet society is growing numb to the facts after including the chant, We Must Remember, within their basic studies.  Young adult writers have taken on the challenge of revamping interest into the topic by rewriting events from a child’s perspective so that they can relate and empathize with the characters surviving the event.  As Kenneth Kidd said in “A” is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the “Children’s Literature of Atrocity”: “These titles represent not a simple banalization of the personal…but rather the expectation that young readers must find history personally traumatic in order to know it.  It’s as if Santayana’s famous remark has been amended to ‘Those who want to remember the past are condemned to repeat it”’ (Kidd 133).  Society wants to observe the facts from an arm’s length safety while attempting to remember enough of the Holocaust.  By doing this, however, an important aspect is lost and many facts are being lost.  Though it is a heart-wrenching study, people must continue learning and continuing the conversation onto future generations so that the chances of it repeating are lessened.  Human history in general can be bleak, but that does not mean it should be overlooked.  A hard study is an important one.

Because of this desire to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, dismal as it is, it spurred Yolen to write the book.  In an interview, Yolen said on writing Briar Rose and another novel called The Devil’s Arithmetic, “I am glad I have written both the books, glad and proud.  Yet I would not want to write either one of them again.  Still, as I write in the books I autograph, We Must Remember.  And of course, story is one way we humans have of remembering.”  The story in Briar Rose’s case is the fairy tale that becomes so integral to Becca that when her grandmother passes and leaves her with the claim of being Briar Rose, Becca has no other option but to go on a quest to learn about her grandmother’s history and investigate the source.  While searching for answers, Becca witnesses the denial of what happened or the apparent loss of history’s presence.  When she arrives at Chelmno, there are no signs reminding people of the gas vans that dumped countless bodies: only a town and the surrounding landscape.  Becca’s translator, Magda, notes, “Where would you put 300,000 people, even dead?…it is so ordinary.  So quiet.  So Undistinguished” (Yolen 140).  It is unsettling to see how nothing appears to distinguish itself as a place of unspeakable inhumane acts.  The world moves on like nothing happened here.  Further discomforting, when Becca attempts to ask the villagers questions about what happened there, they refused to speak with them or remarked, “‘nothing happened here and that [they] should take [their] Jew questions away or that the nothing would happen again’” (Yolen 142).  While seeking answers, Becca meets an ignorant landscape and a crass welcoming.  Some people would wish to overlook the past and deny its existence, avoiding all the gloom and loss that revolves around the Holocaust, but that cannot happen.  Becca remains convinced to find her story, in a way her ancestral identity, and understand what the fairy tale meant to her family.  If Gemma had never passed on the fairy tale to Becca, her history would have been lost.

By passing along testimonials and even fairy tales of the Holocaust, the story and its memory continues.  James Edward Young wrote in “Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences,” “The actions we take in the current world in light of the Holocaust are necessarily predicated on our understanding of the Holocaust as it has been passed down to us in the victims’ and survivors’ literary testimony” (Young 11).  Gemma’s fairy tale Briar Rose not only serves as a way for Gemma to grapple with her past but as a way for her family and the audience to seek out answers and remember what happened.  Survivors tell their stories to shape how history is viewed.  A textbook will provide the bare minimum facts, but testimonials and how they are given by real people of the event create emotional, human realities.  It is difficult to ignore a living library.  By passing on stories of the Holocaust, fictional or not, it stays within the immediate mind of society.  The need for such tales increases as more time passes where more survivors succumb to old age.  Briar Rose helps keep the story around in the present and provides a new way to think of the story.


Works Cited

Astor, Maggie. “Holocaust Is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Apr. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/04/12/us/holocaust-education.html.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books, 1989.

Claims Conference. “New Survey by Claims Conference Finds Significant Lack of Holocaust Knowledge in the United States.” Claims Conference, Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 2018, www.claimscon.org/study.

Kaiser, Menachem. “The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship With Literature.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 28 Dec. 2010,         www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/12/the-holocausts-uneasy-relationship-with-literature/67998/.

Kertzer, Adrienne. My Mother’s Voice: Children, Literature and the Holocaust. Broadview Press, 2002.

Kidd, Kenneth B. “”A” is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the “Children’s Literature of Atrocity”.” Children’s Literature, vol. 33, 2005, pp. 120-149. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/chl.2005.0014

Stone, RoseEtta. “A Book Review and a Discussion with Jane Yolen, Author.” Writing, Illustrating, and Publishing Children’s Books: The Purple Crayon, 2001.www.underdown.org/yolen.htm

Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. Tor, a Tom Doherty Associates Book, 2002.

Young, James Edward. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences  of Interpretation. Indiana University Press, 1990.


Further Reading

Haase, Donald. “Children, War, and the Imaginative Space of Fairy Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 24 no. 3, 2000, pp. 360-377. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/uni.2000.0030

Ness, Mari. “Memory, Fairy Tale, and the Holocaust: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose.” Tor.com, Tor, 31 May 2017, www.tor.com/2017/06/01/memory-fairy-tale-and-the-holocaust-jane-yolens-briar-rose/.

Zipes, Jack. “The Meaning of Fairy Tale within the Evolution of Culture.” Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tales, vol. 25, no. 2, 2011, pp. 221–243.