- "To Sleep, Perchance to Dream":Sleeping Beauties and Wide-Awake Plain Janes in the Stories of Jane Yolen
The power of the tales is that they are . . . as evocative, as sensual, as many-faceted, as disturbing, as slippery as dreams. They offer a moral, they speak to the human condition, but it is not always the condition or the moral one immediately sees.—Yolen, Touch Magic
After at least twenty-five years of intense debate, there is still much disagreement about how to interpret gender roles in fairy tales. Folklorists and fairy-tale historians have provided overwhelming evidence that the tales reflect the cultural biases of the societies in which they are retold and that they affect children and adults in complex ways. Marina Warner and Maria Tatar have revealed how easily misogynist tellers of the past exploited "the way in which a few quick strokes can reorient a story" to serve the moralist's purpose (Tatar 101). Throughout this century fairy tales have been neglected, condemned as escapist or satanic or useless, and trivialized through shallow caricatures and modernizations by new breeds of moralists and realists. In the 1970s, critics such as Marcia Lieberman and Madonna Kolbenschlag drew attention to the preponderance of passive and victimized female characters in the best-known fairy tales, warned us about their pervasive effects on the acculturation of women, and advised us to kiss these detrimental influences good-bye. Yet their hold on our psyches is so powerful that allusions to fairy tales permeate popular culture, as well as many studies in the fields of folklore, the arts, and the social sciences. While a storytelling revival has grown in recent decades, psychoanalytical critics such as Bruno Bettelheim and, more recently, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Rollo May have emphasized the therapeutic value of folk tales and myths, which, like dreams, reflect symbolically our subconscious fears and desires. Thus, although the motif of the sleeping beauty appears to be one of the most blatantly sexist images in fairy-tale traditions—the innocent, passive victim [End Page 140] waiting for just the right prince to rescue her—a multitude of diverse voices invites us to reconsider the significance of the old tales. Present writers such as Jane Yolen continue to portray images of sleeping beauties in a variety of ways: retelling the classic tales as well as satirizing them and reviving more obscure and unfamiliar old tales, creating new tales that preserve the familiar motifs and magical atmosphere of the old "wonder tales," and writing startling new stories using a variety of experimental techniques to combine fairytale motifs with realistic contemporary and historical themes. Yolen's work is remarkable because, since the early 1960s, she has employed all these approaches in many books for children and adults that feature the adventures of strong women without severing their ties to the ancient fairy-tale realm of magic and dreams. She weaves traditional motifs into the fabric of her tales so persistently and intricately that we recognize familiar patterns even as we are startled and delighted by amazing original ones. As she has written, "There is an eclecticism to modern telling. Stories lean on stories, art on art. I can only trace my own sources so far before I realize that, in the end, it is the story that matters, not the parts: the tapestry of the tale and not the individual threads" (Tales of Wonder xi-xii). In a number of her stories, interwoven images of shadow and light, sleep and dreams, briars and roses, spinning wheels and golden threads, forests and castle towers, hair and fur, fairies and mortals create so many subtle connections that we never lose sight of the tapestry—although it is wondrously complex—while we trace the individual threads.
Although Yolen's picture book The Sleeping Beauty has an unusual history in her career, its appearance in 1986 allows us to compare her retelling of the Grimm Brothers' "Briar Rose" with the sleeping beauties and wide-awake Plain Janes she created before and afterwards in her parodies of classic tales, her more original fairy tales, and her very innovative contemporary stories for older readers, including the novel Briar...