Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Briar Rose | Summary

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Summary

Having waited a long time to bear a child, a king and queen are despondent over their inability to have children. A frog visits the queen during her bath and tells her that she will have a daughter within the year. When the prediction comes true, the rulers are overjoyed. The king arranges a feast, inviting many people, including the magical Wise Women of the kingdom. There were 13 Wise Women, but the king only invited 12 because he had only 12 golden plates to serve them with and he did not want to insult one of them.

At the feast the Wise Women each bestow a magical gift upon the girl. She is given great beauty, virtue, and more. Before the final gift is given, the uninvited Wise Woman appears and curses the girl: "When the daughter of the king turns fifteen, she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall dead."

The final Wise Woman, unable to break the curse, moderates the spell: "The princess will not die, but she will fall into a deep sleep that will last for a hundred years." The king reacts by having every spindle in the realm destroyed.

The girl grows to be beautiful and virtuous, as the Wise Women had promised. On her 15th birthday, she wanders the castle and finds an old woman spinning flax up in a room in the tower. Having never seen a spindle, the girl curiously touches it and instantly falls into a deep sleep. In fact, the sleep spreads to the whole castle, putting the king and queen, the court, the servants, the animals, and even the cooking fires to sleep. A thick hedge of briars grows over the castle, completely blocking the path and hiding the castle.

In the following years the legend of the hidden castle and the princess known as Briar Rose spreads, and many young princes try to find the beautiful sleeping princess. But the briar catches and kills each suitor who approaches.

Finally, 100 years have passed, and new a prince hears the story. He goes to the castle, heedless of the warnings. To his surprise, the hedge parts and allows him entry. The prince passes the sleeping servants and courtiers, eventually finding Briar Rose. Taken by her beauty, the prince kisses the princess, and she awakens. The whole castle awakens too. Soon the two are married in a magnificent ceremony and they live happily together.

Analysis

Many Grimm tales deal with the challenges faced by young girls. "Briar Rose" is beautifully told, perfectly structured, and filled with wonderful details. Although it's misogynistic, it's less overtly so than some tales.

"Briar Rose" is a fantasy about a girl's reaching maturity. It's also a fantasy about fate. The Wise Women invited to the christening are fates, not fairy godmothers. The king invites them because he wants them to be kindly inclined toward his daughter. Unfortunately, the lone uninvited Wise Woman arrives in time to devise a dreadful end for Briar Rose. But, fortunately, there's one Wise Woman left who—although she can't change the child's fate entirely—can at least soften it somewhat.

The king, who would like his daughter's destiny to turn out differently, tries to influence fate by burning every spindle in the kingdom. It's a useless gesture; mortals cannot change their fates. Moreover, spinning is what Fates traditionally do. In Greek mythology, they're specifically portrayed as three women who ceaselessly spin the destiny of each human. Roman mythology also makes them responsible for women in childbirth. The Fates' jobs are weighty, and mortals get nowhere if they try to interfere.

Thus, on what just happens to be Briar Rose's 15th birthday, she just happens to explore the castle and opens the door into a little room where a woman just happens to be spinning. In this version of the story, it's not clear whether the old woman at the spinning wheel is the vengeful Wise Woman in disguise, as she is in some accounts, or just a nice old lady who's never heard about the king's ban on spindles. In any case, it doesn't matter. Briar Rose touches the spindle, pricks her finger, and falls asleep.

At this point the story begins to examine female sexuality. The little room is rife with sexual symbols, and Briar Rose is just the right age for exploring what it means to be a woman. There's even a hint of "teenage girl breaking the rules" when Briar Rose searches the castle while her parents are away from home.

Scholars suggest the long sleep is a metaphor for Briar Rose's resistance to growing up. She's entered the mysterious little room but won't go further until she's ready. In this interpretation, her touching the spindle—and perhaps drawing blood—symbolizes her first period. From another viewpoint, the scene could speak to a parent's wish to postpone a child's maturation. Parents in this situation would rationalize, "She may have become fertile, but let's keep her from meeting any boys for a good long time." Note that spindles and distaffs, traditional symbols of female domesticity, were carried in front of the bride in long-ago wedding processions.

Whatever the interpretation, one thing is clear: Briar Rose's exploration ends very differently from that of her prince. She's not exactly punished for her curiosity, but her power is switched off. A century later, when the right prince arrives, the hedge in front of him parts immediately and bursts into bloom besides. He's welcomed right in! There's a hint here that girls should be protected from sexual exploration while boys should be rewarded for it. But the beauty of this tale makes the message go down more easily.

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