Different Interpretations of Briar Rose

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From Grimm Brothers’ Tale to Disney Animation: The Evolution of Briar Rose

Children’s Stories and Household Tales better known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales was originally published in 1812 as a compilation of stories collected by two German brothers. Included in these tales was the story of “Briar Rose” known more commonly as “Sleeping Beauty.” Initially these stories were not published for children and contained adult themes like sex and violence however they mellowed with the years, as they were adapted for children. With these republications came new illustrations. George Cruikshank drew the first fully illustrated book and a series of artists followed him including Marc Davis and Eyvind Earle, Walt Disney Pictures animators. Throughout the years artists have used many of the Grimm Brothers’ stories for inspiration however, a few in particular are widely popular. “Briar Rose” is one of them. As the plotline of “Briar Rose” evolved with the target audience and intentions of the publishers, the illustrations that were paired with the story mutated as well. Both the story of “Briar Rose” as well as the illustrations changed to relate to the desires of an expanding audience and to utilize new mediums of storytelling.

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The earliest version of “Briar Rose” can be traced back to the fourteenth century and similar stories were recorded in 1636 and 1697 (Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm 239). The Grimms’ collected tales from peasants, colleagues, acquaintances, and middle-class people with the mission to “preserve storytelling traditions threatened by industrialization and urbanization (Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm xxxviii).” Although their goal was allegedly to preserve German tradition, critics often question this. The brothers published seven editions of the book from 1812 to 1857 and with each edition came copious changes.

The Grimms’ final edition telling of “Briar Rose” is somewhat familiar to many. A king and queen dream of having a child and their wish is fulfilled within the year. The king invites twelve of the thirteen “Wise Women” of the kingdom to a feast for his future child. He cannot invite them all because he only has twelve golden plates in total. The “Wise Women” bestow magical presents upon the girl, however just before the last gift is given the women who had not been invited appears. She curses the king’s daughter to death on her fifteenth birthday when she pricks her finger on a spindle. One last “Wise Women” steps forward and although unable to undo the curse lightens it to one hundred years of sleep instead of death. The king has all the spindles in the kingdom burned, but on the princess’s fifteenth birthday she happens upon one in an isolated room and pricks her finger. The princess and the castle all fall into a deep sleep. Briars grow thick and tall around the castle. Princes valiantly tired to penetrate the hedge but no one could make it through without dying. Finally, one hundred years later, on the day Briar Rose was set to awaken, a prince marched through a hedge of beautiful flowers. He planted a kiss on her lips then she and the entire palace woke up. The two got married and lived happily ever after (Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm 240-245).

The brothers often took artistic liberty and elaborately added to and embellished stories as they saw appropriate. In the first draft of the story the scene when Briar Rose pricks her finger and falls asleep was only three lines. It expanded to three paragraphs by the time the final manuscript was published (Tatar, The Hard Facts 27). The first draft of “Briar Rose” did not include the morbid details of the deaths of the princes who attempted to save the princess. By publication the brothers added, “the briar bushes clung together as though they had hands so that the young princes were caught in them and died a pitiful death (Tatar, The Hard Facts 6).” This was only the beginning of the modification of these stories.

In 1823 the first English adaption of the Grimm brother’s book came out. Edgar Taylor translated it and George Cruikshank provided the illustrations. While the Grimms’ original audience was not children, the English version aimed to reach primarily this demographic. By translating, adding illustrations, and eliminating academic annotations the tales they became much more accessible to the public. Shortly after a German version of the book was also illustrated (Zipes, 34-35).

George Cruikshank was a famous caricaturist of the time and he drew the illustrations based on Edgar Taylor’s adaptation, which was significantly more lighthearted than the Grimms’ original. “Chuikshank’s illustrations provoke laughter, not reflection and moral education, two goals that the Grimms had sought to achieve, something that the sentimental illustrations of their brother Ludwig were to show later in the German editions (Zipes 35).”

In Cruikshank’s illustration for “Rose-Bud” (the English translation of “Briar Rose”) the piece is etched for the size of a book. The illustration appears right above the story’s title taking up about half the page. The fact that it is before the story means that it is foreshadowing the events to come. It is meant to ignite children’s interest and captivate them as they wait for the scene that is depicted in the etching to be told in the writing. The details are extremely clear despite the small size. The image consists of entirely lines, varying in closeness. The closer the lines the darker that portion of the image thus creating shadows and definition. The image is in black and white so this technique is critical in adding dimension to the piece. The sleeping princess appears as the main focal point and looks larger than life on a bed that seems to be too small for her. Many representations of Briar Rose show the princess sleeping on her back looking unnatural and lifeless. Cruikshank drew her comfortably as if she was just taking a short nap rather than sleeping for one hundred years. She faces the reader making the illustration pull the reader in and especially catch the eye of younger observers. Briar Rose does not even look like a princess at all, just a girl sleeping. The princess has the most white on her out of all the components in the etching. White is generally accepted as the color of innocence and in the picture it looks like light is shining down on the princess. Two ornamental angels appear at the top of the page. Their faces are pointed down towards Sleeping Beauty like they are watching over her as she sleeps. This again suggests her innocence. Several birds, a dog, and a cat are also asleep scatter among the scene. Behind the princess and the bed is a large window with a spider web in the corner and tall briars outside. These images are included to illustrate how much time has passed since the princess and animals fell asleep. Also behind the princess and the bed is a partially hidden spindle. Its importance is downplayed because out of context it is strange to have a spindle in a sparingly furnished bedroom. Off to the left of the illustration and through the doorway there appears to be a woman slightly hunched over but definitely standing not sleeping. She can be assumed to be the fairy that cast the curse on the princess (Cruikshank 25). The evil fairy is heavily shaded alluding to the understanding that darkness is often associated with the sinful.

Cruikshank’s illustration for “Rose-Bud” is not as satirical as many of the other pieces he did for the fairy tales. Nonetheless the English adaptation did still diverge extremely from the Grimm Brothers’ intentions that had little to do with pure entertainment. The brothers set out promote their “cultural heritage” and “national unity” while Germany was facing foreign influence from France (Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm xliv). German pride surrounding these tales continued into the twentieth century when the Third Reich endorsed it as a domestic manual citing Children’s Stories and Household Tales as supporting racial pride, patriotism, and other Nazi ideals (Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm xlv).

Despite the disapproval of the Allies Grimms’ Fairy Tales remained a staple reading after World War II (Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm xlv). By this time in the twentieth century the fairy tales had been printed in dozens of different publications (Zipes 86-87). In the early 1950s the American production company, Walt Disney Pictures adapted the story of “Briar Rose” for its own animated film, “Sleeping Beauty.” Disney is criticized by many academics and fairytale-lovers for completely missing the point and lessons instilled in older versions of the stories (Zipes 68-70). In the case of “Sleeping Beauty” there were countless changes made to the plotline. The number of “Wise Women”/fairies was reduced from thirteen to four (Maleficent is the evil fairy), Sleeping Beauty is sent into the woods to live until her sixteenth birthday, and the prince is captured by Maleficent to name a few (Ness). In summary the story was adapted and modified to allow for a full length animated film to entertain American children.

Eyvind Earle and Marc Davis were the chief animators on the decade long project. Davis was tasked with developing the Princess Aurora herself, a daunting task because “Sleeping Beauty” was the first Disney picture on 70mm film. This film allowed for considerably more detail than animators were used to at the time. Princess Aurora was drawn to be more defined and angular than many of the leading ladies before her as to fit in with Earle’s exceptionally detailed backgrounds (Seastrom). Earle completed the backgrounds of the scenes almost entirely on her own, a very laborious process in the 1950s. This meant the animated characters had to be altered to fit into the scenes. Davis had to work very hard to adapt the characters to look natural with the backgrounds (Ness).

This blending of artwork can be seen in the same scene Cruikshank drew in 1823 to go with the story of “Briar Rose.” In the Disney version when the princess pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep the fairies bring her into a tower to rest her on her bed. In this screen capture from the movie Aurora is on her back sleeping with the three good fairies mourning over her bed. The fairies’ faces are not their usual peach color but instead shaded with a gray tinge. This reflects their sadness that the princess they watched after so closely for sixteen years still managed to fall victim to Maleficent’s curse. All three of them are tilted towards the princess’s head, their heads bowed in deep concern. The repetition of the fairies and their gesture amplifies the emotion in the scene. Aurora has her arms crossing her body with a single rose bud resting between her hands and her chest. This rose can be linked to the princess’s name, Briar Rose. The rose bud is a symbol of innocence and life. Aurora was cursed although she did nothing wrong and knew no evil until the day her finger was pricked by the spindle. The pose the princess is in is reminiscent of how a corpse would be presented in a casket. Surprisingly though she does not look dead. Her peaceful face, hair, and body are illuminated as in Cruikshank’s piece. The young girl is glowing while the rest of the room remains dismal. The characters in the scene stand out because their components are not textured and blocks of color. Each segment of each fairy’s clothing is a single color as is Aurora’s. The background of the image is extremely textured and intricate. Each wall stone is different, detailed with cracks and imperfections. The drapes surrounding the bed are shades of purple and red with interlocking vines smattering them. The blanket covering the bed is blue mottled with green dotted with golden bunches of branches with leafs on them. There is a fair amount of dead space on the sides of the scene; this can be attributed to the advent of the widescreen in film. The contrast of the characters with the background is quite noticeable and eye-catching which makes the dead space irrelevant. The fairies and other characters had to be draw simply in order to replicate them frame after frame. Meanwhile the background could stagnant for an entire scene sometimes. This scene is dramatic and filled with emotion. The fairies do not know what they are going to do and their precious princess is in a deep and possibly permanent sleep. It is a turning point in the movie so Earle and Davis wanted to make sure they captured the emotions of their audience by providing a gripping visual (Sleeping Beauty).

Although the origins of “Briar Rose” are centuries old the salience of the tale has not depreciated. Instead the story has maintained its relevance by developing through multiple mediums and evolving to reach a wide range of demographics. Artwork opened the floodgates for fairy tales. George Cruikshank spearheaded what would become hoards of artists that let their imaginations run free illustrating the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales. Disney solidified some of these stories as quintessential childhood movies that are viewed by millions of people a year by animating them. Art touches people because it transcends language and time. The appeal of fairytales is that as an image-text form an enormous audience can enjoy them: children and adults alike. The tales span generations because they continue to be adapted.

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