Saturday, February 23, 2013


 Rapunzel had magnificent long hair, fine as spun gold, and when she heard the voice of the enchantress, she unfastened her braided tresses, wound them round one of the hooks of the window above, and then the hair fell twenty ells down, and the enchantress climbed up by it....
After a year or two, it came to pass that the king's son rode through the forest and passed by the tower. Then he heard a song, which was so charming that he stood still and listened. It was Rapunzel, who in her solitude passed her time in letting her sweet voice resound. The king's son wanted to climb up to her, and looked for the door of the tower, but none was to be found. He rode home, but the singing had so deeply touched his heart, that every day he went out into the forest and listened to it.  ~from "Rapunzel" by the Brothers Grimm

After seeing Tangled, Disney's rendition of "Rapunzel", I began googling away to discover what are the generally accepted meanings of the symbolism in the fairy tale. Over and over again I came upon the idea that the story illustrates the dangers of overprotective parenting. I heartily disagree. Mother Gothel the witch is not Rapunzel's parent but her kidnapper and abuser. Locking Rapunzel away from the world in a tower has nothing to do with protection or even over-protection but with having absolute power over the body and mind of the teenager. There is a big difference between genuine discipline, where the person acquires healthy self-control, and manipulation, in which one person is controlled by another. In the older versions of the tale, Rapunzel becomes pregnant by the young prince who visits her. How typical it is of an abused girl to give herself to the first man who comes along!

The fact that the story of Rapunzel has echoes of the legend of Saint Barbara, popular in the Middle Ages, show that the basis of the story is not loving protection but cruelty and abuse. St. Barbara was a Christian virgin whose pagan father locked her away in a tower. When he discovered that she was a Christian, he mistreated her before handing her over to the magistrate to be tortured to death. What we have here is not so much the teen trying to rebel against a sheltered upbringing, but a horror story such as we occasionally hear in the news even today, about a young person locked away by a psychopath for some twisted purpose.

The Disney version is greatly sanitized compared to the traditional versions and even other contemporary ones. The early renditions of Rapunzel were not children's stories at all. According to Terri Windling:
Maiden–in–a–Tower stories can be found in folk traditions around the world — but "Rapunzel," the best known of these stories, comes from literary sources. The version of "Rapunzel" we know today was published as a German folk tale by the Brothers Grimm in 1857 — but it's now believed that their "Rapunzel" was neither German nor a proper folk tale. Scholars have shown that a number of the storytellers from whom the Brothers Grimm obtained their material were recounting "authored" tales from German, French, and Italian literary sources rather than anonymous folk stories passed orally from teller to teller. The Grimms' "Rapunzel," for example, was derived from a story of the same name published by Friedrich Schultz in 1790 — which was a loose translation of an earlier French story, "Persinette" by Charlotte–Rose de La Force, published in 1698 at the height of the "adult fairy tale" literary movement in Paris. La Force's tale was influenced by an even earlier Italian story, "Petrosinella" by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634 in his story collection Lo cunto de li cunti (also known as the Pentamerone).

Each writer in this chain used folk motifs drawn from oral tales (associated with peasants and the countryside), reworking them into literary tales (for adult readers who were educated, urban, and upper–class). It is difficult, however, to draw a sharp line between folk tales and literary fairy tales, placing "Rapunzel" in one category or another — for after the Basile, La Force, and Schultz publications, "Rapunzel" slipped into the oral tradition of storytellers throughout the West, where it's now part of our folk culture even though it didn't start there.
In the Disney movie, the story is altered quite a bit so that Rapunzel is made into a lost princess and the prince is not a prince but a thief. There is no mention of the herb which Rapunzel's pregnant mother craved but rather there is a magic flower which brings healing. The film lacks the poignancy of the older tale by omitting the tragic interlude. Rapunzel's hair is shorn by the angry witch and she is sent to wander in the wilderness, alone and vulnerable and pregnant with twins. The prince is blinded by falling into a thorn bush after being pushed out of the tower by the witch. He too is doomed to wander for years, a blind beggar. Their mutual exiles and sufferings resemble in no small way the practices of medieval penitents. The beauty of the story is that when the prince and Rapunzel finally stumble into each other, they share a joy which has nothing to do with beauty or wealth or possessions. The prince's blindness is healed by the tears of his bride. It is fitting, and has often been the case, that a man who truly loves is moved to transformation by the tears of his spouse. It is then that they are able at last to enter into the kingdom, and the tale ends thus:
He led her to his kingdom where he was joyfully received, and they lived for a long time afterwards, happy and contented. 

More about Rapunzel at Sur la Lune.

More about the Disney film, HERE.

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Nancy Reyes said...

In one of her lovely books, Barbara Mertz tells that a similar story is found on an ancient Egyptian scroll, so the story goes back a bit.
And, of course, Tolkien incorporated the tower idea into his tale of Beren and Luthien...

elena maria vidal said...

Interesting. I have heard that there is also an Egyptian version of Cinderella.