Saturday, October 8, 2022

The Maiden in the Tower: Five Revelatory Retellings of 'Rapunzel'

 I have posted about Rapunzel before, HERE. From

Rapunzel is a fascinating story, full of bizarre little oddities that invite writers and storytellers to reinvent, tweak, and question all aspects and motivations. Such a strange set of circumstances: a mother’s longing, a witch’s garden, that odd name… (Might as well have called her Iceberg or Kale, though Rapunzel is better known as a girl in a tower than a leafy green at this point.)

If you aren’t familiar with the tale (or are only familiar with the popular animated version by a certain giant media company), please allow me to summarize…

A pregnant woman looks into a witch’s garden and becomes obsessed with eating some rapunzel (basically a salad green). She tells her husband she will die if she doesn’t get to eat it. He sneaks into the garden and gets her some, either once or twice, and is caught by the witch. The witch agrees to let him live, and take the greens, as long as the expectant parents turn over their child to her. They agree (with varying degrees of misery), and when the baby is born the witch comes to claim the child and names her Rapunzel. She takes the baby girl to a tower deep in the woods where she raises her—in some versions with affection and in some versions treating her as more of a possession or a prize. (It’s not exactly clear why the witch wanted the baby, in most early tellings of the tale.)

Rapunzel grows up in the tower, which has no door or only a locked door, depending on who you ask. The witch visits her, bidding her to throw down her long hair out of the tower’s window, which she then climbs. One day a prince hears Rapunzel singing, witnesses the interaction with the witch, and then when the witch leaves, tries it himself. He and Rapunzel fall in love and (chastely or not, depending on who you ask) develop a relationship. The witch either catches them at it, or catches on when Rapunzel asks why her gowns don’t fit at the stomach anymore. The witch cuts Rapunzel’s hair and banishes her to the desert, then waits for the prince to return. When he does, she lures him in with the now-detached locks, has a few choice words to say to him, and throws him out of the tower. He usually falls into some thorn bushes which pierce his eyes and blind him—yes, this is the good, old fashioned kind of fairy tale lore, this is what we come back for. He wanders blindly until he again hears Rapunzel singing and finds her in the desert, where she’s given birth to twins. Her tears of grief and/or joy fall into his wounded eyes and he’s cured. He takes her home to his kingdom aaaand they…yup, you guessed it, live happily ever after.

I’ve always liked this story, as strange as it is, because it’s the type of fairy tale with plenty of space in the narrative for characters to grow and get to know each other, and for us to wonder about their motivations and feelings. The mother, or the parents, make a decision to steal food, not to keep from starving but to satisfying an extreme craving. The witch, who wants a child, for some purpose or other. Rapunzel herself, growing up in isolation. The prince, who falls in love with a beautiful voice even before seeing a beautiful face. The two lovers, who manage to find each other against all odds and create their own little family. All of this room and time to delve into motivations and feelings and hopes and fears means that Rapunzel retellings can be wildly varied and yet easily recognizable by their most basic components: Greens, tower, hair. Cravings, isolation, rescue. Maiden, witch, prince, babies…

All these versions nod to these familiar and iconic elements but use them in vastly different ways, and I do believe that tells us as much about storytelling as it tells us about this one story, capable of striking so many different chords depending on its different tellers. (Read more.)

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