Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec. 2010 Rapunzel – Part One

 Kay Nielsen

Beneath the surface.

In many versions of Rapunzel our heroine is taken by the witch and locked up in a tower, a description that circumvents an important element. In the Grimm version Dame Gothel promises to care for the unborn Rapunzel as if she were her own. Rapunzel grows up to be the loveliest child on earth. At the age of twelve, let me repeat this, at the age of twelve, Dame Gothel locks her in a tower. In psychological terms, our story is about the often repeated struggle between an emerging youth and their protective guardian.

We can re-cast this story from Dame Gothel’s point of view, though, in story terms, it is not a satisfying tale. Dame Gothel discovers someone has stolen produce from her garden. The next night the brazen thief returns to do more damage. Upon capture he reveals he has a wife driven by cravings. Conjecturing that this man of questionable moral value, and his addiction driven wife may not make ideal parents, Dame Gothel shows a kind of mercy by proposing trade of produce in exchange for a child. The man agrees and it is not recorded that his wife protested. All goes apparent well for the first eleven years as Rapunzel grows to be a beautiful child.

Historically, the onset of puberty has affected parental blood pressure. Dame Gothel attempts to shelter Rapunzel from the world and all its ills, resulting in Rapunzel betraying the witch. Dame Gothel flies into a regrettable rage at her daughter’s guilt ridden Freudian slip. Rapunzel thoughtlessly compared Dame Gothel’s weight with the Prince’s.  As in many family conflicts it does not end well. Dame Gothel sends Rapunzel away and washes her hands of the affair.

Let me support my three-little-pigs-from-the-wolf’s-point-of-view approach with internal evidence. These Grimm stories were clear on one of their moral messages. Evil must be punished. In Hansel and Gretal the witch must be shoved into the oven and burnt alive for the story to work. Dame Gothel receives no such punishment, because she has done no evil. Her punishments are harsh, but harsh is no problem for the Grimms. They were German.

If this story ended here it would be a cautionary tale. What follows is a period of growth and maturity as both the prince and Rapunzel learn to take care of themselves through travail, she raising infants in poverty and he wandering in blindness. Not until then can they come together and have a successful relationship do we come to a satisfying ending. This ending carries a life lesson with it; stage directions for the acts pre-adolescents will soon play out.

What of Dame Gothel. I have called her a witch. The Grimms referred to her as an ‘enchantress’. The name Dame Gothel is generic in German for ‘godmother’. Rapunzel, the character and the story, come to a happy end. Not so Dame Gothel. For fourteen years she shepherd her daughter, to be overthrown by a youth. Might this not be a story of loss?


Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec 2010 Rapunzel – Part Two

 Walter Crane

Rapunzel the plant

Rampion, a salad green craved by Rapunzel’s mother that led to the inciting incident of our tale, is little known to modern audiences. It is a bitter green with edible roots popular at the time of the Grimms, but now fallen out of favor in an age dominated by high fructose corn syrup.

The Rampion is key toward understanding this tale. An alternate name for Rampion is Rapunzel. The 19th century listener would have gotten the pun. The Rampion plant puts out a stalk (tower), which, because the Rampion is self-fertilizing, may split, causing tendrils (hair) to curl down toward its base.

I am not going to take up space here to substantiate this next claim, but will leave it to your imagination how many times modern re-tellers of this tale have edited out the unfamiliar Rampion, and replaced it with a common head of lettuce, which begs the question, “How many times has this sort of thing happen?”, which I am also not going to delve into, largely because I really don’t want to speculate on what has been lost, and, besides, this sentence has gone on far too long.

Another, somewhat unsettling, comparison can be made between Rapunzel and the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary appears as a character in a number of the Grimm tales such as “the Virgin Mary’s Child” and “The Blessed Virgin’s Little Glass”. In the Rapunzel tale, given the Rampion connection, she appears again, indirectly.

The Virgin Mary is engaged to Joseph, but before the marriage can be concluded she is with child through the agency of the Holy Spirit. In our tale, the prince vowed to marry Rapunzel, but before they are wed she bares two children, a boy and a girl, through, by implication, self-fertilization—without sin. Both women bore their children in poor and dire circumstances. What this parallel achieves is harder to define, other than to put Rapunzel in favorable company.

What is easier to see is that this story is about procreation/propagation and seasonal repetition. Rapunzel’s mother is looking from a high small window into a walled garden. Rapunzel’s father has to climb up the high garden wall to get the Rampion (Rapunzel). Rapunzel finds herself standing at a small window looking out. The Prince has to climb a high wall to get his Rapunzel. Near the start of the story is the birth of Rapunzel. Near the end of the story is the birth of Rapunzel’s children. When I tell this tale I stress the passing cycles of the year.

The Grimm Brothers ultimately missed these points, or were willing to abandon them for modesty’s sake. The Grimms issued numerous editions of their fairy tale collection, and with each one they dropped questionable elements. After the first edition they changed Rapunzel complaining that her clothing were getting tight with remarking how Dame Gothel was harder to pull up than the prince. By the last edition the birth of Rapunzel’s children is gone. Rampion would have been next.

Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec 2010 Rapunzel – Part Three

 Arthur Rackham

A tangled Story.

Rapunzel is on our minds this month, given Disney’s release of “Tangled”. Let me push beyond the mandatory cry of “They changed it!” and answer, “Of course they did.”

Here is one of the surprising features of fairy tales; they change. They always have. As they move through time and space they fit themselves into the surroundings they occupy.

Example: In the Grimm version of “Queen of the Tinkers” the princess, who refuses to marry the suitors her father suggests, is obliged to marry the King of the Tinkers, and does not get to be married to a real king until she relents in her haughty ways. To bend to social norms was the proper role for early 19th century women in the Austrian Empire.

In the contemporary Irish version, the princess doesn’t get to be married to a real king until she refuses to give up her Tinker King. In both cases the Tinker King is a real king, the reveal not coming until the end after the princess’s rightful nature is established. The story fits itself into its surroundings by adapting to that culture’s norms.

Let’s review Rapunzel as she travels through time and space from the 19th century Austrian Empire to the 21st century United States. In Grimm’s version, Rapunzel acts at the behest of Dame Gothel, and then of the prince. For her deceit, secretly preferring the prince over Dame Gothel and planning an escape, she is banished to a desert land where she conceives two children, and raises them in hardship and poverty.  She is not released until the blinded prince discovers her. His blindness cured by her tears, he then brings her out of her travail. This Rapunzel can not act directly for her own benefit.

Disney’s Rapunzel is trapped, but seizes an opportunity when it presents itself, and exercises much more control than her historic counterpart. Try to imagine Grimm’s Rapunzel clunking her uninvited guest on the head with a frying pan (the ‘frying pan’ motif also a modern add-on to the story). In short, she is a plucky female.  Our Disney’s Rapunzel is a more acceptable role model for current audiences than Grimm’s, despite her bent toward violence.

“Hold on.” You should say. “Disney is a big strong corporation, but does that give them the right to screw up a story?” The simple answer is “Yep.” In Grimm’s time it was the Roman Catholic Church that got to put a Christian gloss on this story (the earlier French version was much bawdier). In our time it’s a corporation that gets to tweak it.

Here’s my theory. The entity that gets to call the shots is the entity than can come to a consensus within itself.

In Grimm’s time that was the Roman Catholic Church. They had the coherent message. In our time there are many churches, with many messages, and despite the National Council of Churches (have you heard of them?) they do not have one voice. Our national government—well, the word coherent does not apply.  However, a corporation, or more correctly the corporate mind set, has the capacity to come to a consensus, assemble a message, and the wherewithal to get it out. I believe they call it branding. 

My personal turmoil with the above theory is that my right brain wants to rip out my tongue for having said it.

Your thought?