On Sunday, January 22, I had the privilege of giving a talk on The Healing Power of The Briar Rose to a warm and receptive audience. Here’s a glimpse into that event for those of you who are curious about how it unfolded.
We gathered at Ann Kerr-Linden’s “Story Room,” an intimate setting that she has created in her home for the airing of “long stories.” The Briar Rose is certainly a long story for me. It has lived a long life in my heart.
Back in the 1990s, I repeatedly told the fairy tale to groups, and then invited listeners to step into the story and experience the perspectives of the characters to whom they were drawn. I met kings, queens, wise women, suitors, frogs, hedges, roses, spindles, and spinning wheels. I also met elements and invisible forces, such as the Air, the Curse, and even the Kiss.
It’s been quite astonishing to go back through all this material. There is so much of it.
Everyone who became a character shed light on the story’s mysteries. The suitors trapped in the thorns experienced the poignant failure of those brave and armored young men who believed that they could conquer the thorns and save the sleeping princess. They soon learned, as psychiatrist Rollo May wrote in The Cry for Myth, that it was futile to try and “storm the thorns, to force their way into Briar Rose before the time is fulfilled and she is ready to be awakened.” (204)
The roses, in their exquisite flowerings, felt their ephemeral beauty and the brevity of life. The frogs were strangely caring and compassionate, welling up out of the pond to respond to the weeping queen.
Those who became the Briar Rose found her at different times during her story. They experienced her bewildering childhood, her dreaming, the crisis of leaving her fantasy world, and her waking. Like the princess, they asked piercing questions. “Why am I not allowed to explore the castle? What are the maids whispering about when they think I’m not listening? Where were my parents on my fifteenth birthday? Why did they abandon me on the day when I was cursed?”
Ironically, the character with the most sympathizers was the least popular character in the fairy tale: the 13th wise woman. Why hadn’t she been invited to the christening feast? It was easy to identify with her outrage and bewilderment, but harder to wrestle with the way she turned her anger on the innocent child.
I have dozens of stories in my archive. Some are very long, and others are quite short. For the Sunday event, I put some of the shorter ones in envelopes, sealed them with a wax stamp in the shape of a rose, and invited listeners to choose a story.
We heard a few of those stories, and then I related my own story of becoming the flag on the castle roof. I talked about why it was a healing story for me, and finally, I spoke about Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings. Through his work with patients who had contracted the encephalitis lethargica virus, also known as “sleeping sickness,” he gained profound insights into what it means to wake in real life.
Here are a few of the stories that were sealed in the envelopes. Some of them are just excerpts from much longer stories, but even so, they give us much to consider.
12th Wise Woman (Before the Spell)
They lined us up to bring gifts, and I thought, my gift is so important to her, the gift of love. The gift of understanding of God. I really must give it to her first, but couldn’t.
I was 12th in line.
Each of the others took their gifts to the baby…. One was a beautiful Easter egg, made out of solid gold with rubies and pearls, emeralds and sapphire. That meant wealth and beauty for the baby, for her lifetime.
Another had a toy, a sort of jumping jack and that meant laughter and sweet innocence.
Another brought her a magnificent piece of embroidery. It was patience that she would have from that gift.
Another one brought her a little brown and white puppy with a long wavy tail and ears that were sort of droopy and floppy. He was to teach the princess that all creatures were one.
One of the women brought her a little orphan girl who was to play with the princess and serve her. She had found the child wandering around the village. She was not dirty, or ragged, but she was quite young, five or six years old. I think God must have sent her.
I was carrying a little rose tree in a piece of pottery embedded with precious stones and crystals. It represented health, happiness and love. It already had one blossom on it, one little pink rose.
– Nancie P., who told a very deep story from the 12th’s point of view
The 9th wise woman (Before the Spell)
I have brought a gift for the princess, a little box. Its contents are secret. I am wearing a simple white robe, and no jewels.
When I present my gift to the child, I speak softly. People strain to hear. I speak only to the child and it does not matter that she is too young to understand.
I say: “All that I have is in this box, and I have been rich. Now my wealth is yours.” I take the key from around my neck. “Only you may wear the key. Open the box only when you know what is inside. You will puzzle over the mystery, but one day, you will know. Your mind will grow very clear, and you will see.
“From that day on, you will be changed. You will have no want of worldly possessions, and yet you will love all things.”
– My aunt Ann, a former nurse who was caring for her husband
The Scullery Boy (During the Spell)
I am the scullery boy. I have been beaten by the cook since I was very young, and it was very difficult. But when the Castle went to sleep, I remained awake! I was the only one in the Castle who was able to move around!
I went everywhere, explored everything. I didn’t age, I lived in this great, timeless place. I could be as mischievous as I wanted and I didn’t get beaten. It was great to explore the Castle, and to move around this way.
– A young man, diagnosed with MS at the age of 16
The Frog (During the Spell)
I am the frog in the pond. I am just a little creature, and no matter where I find myself, in a river or a big lake I will still remain a small frog. I live in a place where the people from the Castle come to express their most private feelings and thoughts. Lovers come here, and those who cry come here. They all come to this place by the pond. I love to hear them speak to one another, or to the flowers and the trees.
When the queen came here, she was crying from such a deep place that she brought tears from the sky. I came out of the pond in the rain, and gave her the prophecy. I wanted to comfort her. I didn’t know if the prophecy would come to true.
Now that the princess has fallen asleep, it is very quiet here. Life goes on, but I am very sad. My joy is gone.
Nobody comes to the pond.
– Woman, caregiver, had recently arrived from Africa
The Briar Rose (During the Spell)
I am asleep but very near to waking. I was sleeping very deeply. Then I became aware that I was sleeping, but I didn’t want to wake up. I couldn’t face waking up. Sleep was so comforting, but I knew I had to leave my dream world.
I am not awake yet but I will be soon. I’m remembering.
It took me a long time to recover from the pain, the shock and the betrayal of the curse. I didn’t know I had been cursed until the moment I held the spindle. I felt someone really hated me. For what reason? What had I done?
No one could tell me as I tumbled backward into sleep. The prick was so painful. The nightmares were unrepeatable. I don’t know what will happen when I open my eyes.
I have decided to believe in love.
– A woman who suffered from depression and fibromyalgia
Queen (During the Spell)
I had a dark foreboding, a terrible feeling the moment before the 13th wise woman swept into the hall. And after she had cursed my daughter, I had had to carry the secret all through those years. I couldn’t tell my daughter her fate. I tried to pretend it didn’t happen.
I told myself that the curse wouldn’t be fulfilled.
But then the sleep came upon us. When I went to sleep, I found myself in a place beneath the castle. There was a forest down below, and I went looking for my daughter.
I would to tell her to keep the faith, not die. I would tell her that all will be well. This is just sleep, you will wake again.
My daughter’s face kept appearing and disappearing between the openings of the branches.
I kept seeking her, talking to her all the while.
– A woman whose daughter died
The Kiss (During the Spell)
Before the spell, people didn’t think much of kisses. They blew us off, you might say. We went flying off cheeks and into the air, unused. We hung in the air like bubbles with no content. Lost in space.
At the christening, the faces of the people were hard and unyielding. They didn’t melt. They were living in a twelve-plate world! Guests arrived to give the obligatory gift, not giving any real part of themselves, nothing that would invoke a real kiss.
During the spell, the thorns kissed flesh. Pierced and jabbed. Gave men the kiss of death. I didn’t want any part of it. I dissolved in the bleak atmosphere.
I don’t know if kisses will make it. We might die with the suitors.
No. Let’s not go there. I’m going to hold myself together. Wait. Think of letter O.
O for Opening. O for ovum. O for hope.
– Michelle T.
The Fire (After the Spell)
I am the fire in the hearth of the Great Hall. I have a very long history. I was alive during the time when men lived in caves. I was there when the first story was told. That is when I came to life, to be present for the story. I have been present ever since, listening to the stories of the world.
Every story I heard unfolded before me. When I heard my first story about the hunt, and saw the hunter nearly killed by a mastodon, I thought it was happening right there and then. I was so scared I went out!
I had never heard a story so terrifying, and I didn’t want to hear it any more after that.
As people developed the power of language, they told story after story, and I woke every time to be present. By the time of the Briar Rose, I had been among humans for a long time, and I had become very intelligent. But I had not been able to feel since that first, terrifying incident of the mastodon.
When the princess woke and felt his kiss on her lips, I burst into life. The heart of the world had woken, and I could feel again.
I could feel!
– Mark J., storyteller
The Thirteenth Wise Woman (After the Spell)
I am the 13th. I am outside the circle of twelve: twelve hours, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve months in the year. I am living on the edge: the outsider, the extra, the unexplained, the power of chaos, endings and new beginnings.
My power as a fairy, as a wise woman, lies in destruction, disruption, breaking old patterns to create new ones; in seeing through the sham and the masks, the lies of our lives.
I can go into darkness and try to bring light. I embody nightmares and help you ride them out.
I was abandoned and hurt earlier in my life, and that is both my strength and my weakness: that helped develop my powers, my knowledge, but I have lived without tenderness, without trust, for so long that now it is hard to believe these things exist at all.
I have lived ALONE, without asking for help, or love….
– Ellen J., poet
The Rose (After the Spell)
I am a rose, pastel pink, coral. I am welcoming the new day. The air carries the scent of spring. I can hear the clip clop of horses’ hooves. The grass is green and verdant. I can see down the road leading into the forest. The prince is coming through on a white steed. He is passes like a breeze, full of peace.
I know my life is short, very short. I exist only for this moment of greeting. But I am in my fullness, here and now.
I am aware of the long winter, the long sleep, aware of my fellow rosebuds, who are waking, each in their own way and in their own fullness. I am so happy to be alive to see this moment, and to have such a place in it.
The prince passes through, a blessing, trailing peace. The atmosphere is full of his grace. I will soon dry and shrivel, and my petals will drop with the others to show his path.
– Fran, an energy healer
Illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, 1833-1898
With thanks to Helene Murray for the photographs!