I’ve been teaching Jane Yolen’s novel Briar Rose to my students. It’s about a young woman named Rebecca whose grandmother, called Gemma, has always told her own distinctive version of the “Sleeping Beauty” story. Before she dies, she tells Rebecca that she was the princess in the fairy tale, and asks her to find the castle. She also leaves Rebecca a box of photographs, newspaper clippings, and official documents. Rebecca goes on a quest to figure out her grandmother’s past, and ends up traveling to Poland. The story goes all the way back to World War II and the Holocaust.
There’s a specific line in the novel that we discussed today: in Poland, Rebecca meets a gay man named Josef Potocki who tells her about what it was like in the days before the war, when Jews were already being singled out and forbidden certain activities. But he and his Jewish lover ignored all that, for a while. Josef says that they were “living in the belly of the wolf” without realizing it. Of course that’s a reference to another fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood.” The wolf is a metaphor: for the Nazi regime, for the coming war itself.
In class, we talked about why certain stories, fairy tales in particular, have lasted as long as they have. Why do we keep retelling them, over and over? I think the answer is fairly simple: because they’re metaphors. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim treated them as metaphors for internal psychological processes, but I think they can mean more than that. They can certainly function as metaphors for historical situations, like World War II. In Briar Rose, for example, Sleeping Beauty’s sleep represents our own tendency to sleep, to be unaware of what is happening around us. The book itself is an awakening, to what happened in the Holocaust. To the horrors we can perpetrate, the unpredictability of human life — but also to its sweetness. The book is a Prince’s kiss.
That wolf is important to me, and it’s what I want to write about tonight. It’s a metaphor, of course, and it can mean so many things. The wolf can mean cruelty, poverty, injustice. All of those negative things. But it can also mean our own wildness, which is necessary for our survival, because we can’t be all good, obedient Little Reds listening to our mothers. We need to wander off into the woods sometimes. The power of a metaphor is not only that it can mean different things, but that it can mean opposite things at the same time. The wolf is both something to flee from and something to embrace.
In my own life, there are wolves I need to avoid. And by avoid, I mean that when I meet them in the woods, I need to not listen, to not let them get me off track. They are the wolves of fear, of depression, of loneliness. All the wolves that stop you from going where you need to go. And there are the wolves I need to listen to: my anger, my ambition, my passion. All those things are wild, and sometimes not entirely under my control. But I need to hear what they have to say.
We are all Little Red Riding Hood. We are all walking through the forest, with rules and duties to guide us. Sometimes we need to keep to the path, sometimes we need to go off it. Sometimes we are devoured, and we need a Huntsman to save us. Sometimes, as in older versions of the fairy tale, we learn to escape from the wolf ourselves. And sometimes, as in Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” we learn to accept the wolf, to sleep between its paws.
Carter’s version is a nice variation on a theme. When I read “Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked,” by Catherine Ornstein, I was surprised by the fair number of interpretations and versions of this fairy tale over the years. In “Touch Magic,” Jane says all the versions are true. I think she’s right. Teaching these tales in class must be especially interesting.