Surprisingly, in my search for the context behind the briar patch, Urban Dictionary of all sites summarizes a briar patch as a “place you secretly really want to be, even though the person sending you there thinks it’s a punishment.” Most likely referring to Joel Chandler Harris’ Tar-Baby story, this explanation is pretty accurate for its brevity. The class had just started The Stone Sky when we were encouraged to look into the background of the briar patch of Syl Anagist on the Interwebs. I admit that I was a little frustrated during that class because I could not figure out the connection between the Urban Dictionary/Harris and the Jemisin versions for the life of me since The Broken Earth’s briar patch is definitely not a place that anyone wants to be in. However, now that I’ve finished the trilogy, I realize that I was too narrow-minded in trying to look for a copy-and-paste orogene edition of the Tar-Baby story in Syl Anagist.
According to Wikipedia, the Tar-Baby story* is one of many in Harris’ Uncle Remus stories (a collection of seven books focused on African-American folktales) that features Br’er Rabbit, a central figure in such folklore. In the Tar-Baby story, Br’er Rabbit’s natural adversary Br’er Fox makes a “Tar-Baby” using a lump of tar and some clothes then jumps into hiding. In passing, Br’er Rabbit believes the Tar-Baby to be real, becomes offended by the Tar-Baby’s lack of a response, angrily attacks the Tar-Baby, and subsequently becomes stuck in the tar. When Br’er Fox reveals himself, Br’er Rabbit uses his cunning wit (plus some reverse psychology) and pleads “please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.” The oblivious Br’er Fox does not know that rabbits commonly use thickets for shelter and protection from predators, thus allowing Br’er Rabbit to escape among the briar patch’s thorns and briars.
Although the Br’er Rabbit is depicted as a much more lovable, funny character in its very own Disney film and as a folk hero representing “the enslaved Africans who used their wits to overcome adversity and to exact revenge on their adversaries, the white slave owners,” the trickster rabbit is an amoral, multidimensional character that is meant to represent “an extreme form of behavior that people may be forced to adopt in extreme circumstances in order to survive.” The Br’er Rabbit can be seen as both hero and villain as he uses his wit to aggravate authority figures and bend social norms as he pleases.
For those who have read any of my previous blog posts, I apologize because I have once again orbited (hehe) back to Hoa yet again. Even though the Br’er Rabbit’s witty humor and amoral nature from the Tar-Baby story immediately reminded me of Hoa, I was afraid my connection was too shallow because of my bias for Hoa, just like how Hoa wants Essun to look like Kelenli. It’s a little hard not to see Hoa as some kind of chaotic-neutral trickster with his random antics (“Hoa appears as you walk…but occasionally he’s doing something ridiculous, like the time you find him in a running pose” (The Stone Sky, 52)) and blatant declarations throughout the book that everything he does is solely for Essun. After some backtracking in The Stone Sky, I realize that Hoa is the one who introduces the briar patch to the reader and manages the tuners’ plan to “give back what [Syl Anagist has] taken” (320). By flooding the systems of Syl Anagist with all the stored magic in the fragments, Hoa and the other tuners can use the very life sources (briars?) that charged the fragments to “burn out the briar patches and their pitiful crop, letting the dead rest at last” (321).
Keeping in mind that “‘Necessity is the only law’” (The Stone Sky, 68) throughout The Broken Earth trilogy, Hoa’s dangerous and peronal decision to fling the moon away is made by his determination to prevent his friends as well as other exploited individuals from being owned and tortured in the near future while also allowing them (special emphasis on Kelenli) to “survive” as stone eaters. Just as the Br’er Rabbit is accustomed to using extreme measures in extreme circumstances, Hoa believes that “just because [something] is very, very hard” (The Stone Sky, 258) does not mean it is impossible. In order for “Syl Anagist [to] stop being Syl Anagist” (The Stone Sky, 258) and thus for Old Sanze to stop being Old Sanze, this exact role that Hoa fulfills as this “trickster rabbit” is what allows for “Revolution” (The Stone Sky, 50) to kickstart.
*This story in particalur was originally published by Robert Roosevelt but Harris included Roosevelt’s version into the Uncle Remus stories.