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?

10 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec. 2010 Rapunzel – Part One

  1. ah! Analysis of fairy tales, this is going to be fun
    Hi Charles, I am a fan of storytelling in general, and am totally fascinated by the notion that it runs deep in human experience. (a la Joseph Campbell and the even more analytical book I am reading now by Brian Boyd about how storytelling was a crucial component of human evolution.) So I am looking forward to learning more of your extensive knowledge of the fairy tales we learned as children, and by extension are teaching our children. As for what the content of the story is and whether or not Disney has the right to fiddle with the story, let me get this straight. Are you actually asking me to think about political and economic theory this morning, and then have a clear enough thought to publicly comment? Whew!
    Let’s see… Well, a movie maker is a culture maker. So as all those leftists used to say, the corporations have lots of power over minds… Oh here’s one. The whole world is fascinated by American culture, so it’s not just power over us, but cultural power through the world… Maybe the most important bit to dialog about is your final point. Another thing we might have said in the 60’s is, “Hey, don’t freak yourself out man.” If your blog led you to personal turmoil and ripping out your tongue, it might be a good time to step back and breathe deep. 🙂
    Memory Writers Network

    • Re: ah! Analysis of fairy tales, this is going to be fun
      Hey! My very first comment. I think I’ll frame it and hang it on the wall. Good point about our culture’s influence over others. As angry as the world might be with our government, our culture still has some sway. My greatest annoyance is that many (in and outside our culture) will come to think the Disney version IS the Rapunzel story.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What you say makes sense, but I can never help being thrown by movie versions (especially Disney versions) of children’s books and fairy tales. Although I enjoyed all the LOTR movies, I growled my way through all three at all of the seemingly arbitrary changes, and the changes to the plots and characters in the Narnia movies (also Disney) actually made me angry. I admit to being a purist about books, and the changes distress me because I have trouble getting my mind around the fact that a film is meant to be different from a book.
    With all due respect to the filmmaker’s vision (after all they are not obligated to do anything but say their film is “based” on a book or story), I suspect these changes are not driven by the filmmaker, but by marketing consultants. The plucky female has become a staple of movies and programs for kids, but are girls and women actually encouraged to be plucky in real life? Looking at our schools and workplaces, I gotta say no.
    I’ve also noticed that while these modern film adaptations of books will remove one troublesome idea (the helpless female) they’ll usually just replace it with another. For example in the movie Prince Caspian, Susan Pevensie participates in the battle of Aslan’s How, which is a much more “progressive” (if historically accurate for a book written in the 1940s) role than she had in the original version. On the other hand, the Disney version cast the wicked enemy Telmarines to look like Middle Easterners, which C.S. Lewis never seemed to indicate in that book. The Calormenes are a different story, but that comes into a different book.
    Don’t get me started on what Usrula LeGuin had to say about the changes made in SciFi Channel’s version of her legendary Earthsea Trilogy.

  3. Welcome to LJ, Charles 🙂
    As for Tangled, or any other fairy tale, I’m firmly in the ‘So long as it turns out good, I don’t care what they change’ camp 😉

  4. My first live theater
    A trip down memory lane: Rapunzel was the first live theater I ever saw. Adding to the magic: It was in a theater I’d only ever known as a movie theater, so when the screen was raised I was shocked at the hidden space I hadn’t known existed! It’s where Rapunzel and her amazing long braid were kept locked up!
    I guess you won’t be covering Pocahontas here, since it’s not a fairy tale. I usually defend Disney because the company has entertained me so through the years but please: show me one American Indian whose measurements are 36 (DD no less)-18-34! My six-year-old son asked me for the Disney Pocahontas doll that Christmas, and being the equal opportunity kind of mom I am, I got it for him. He ripped off her buckskin dress to check her out, then tossed her to the bottom of the toy chest.
    I look forward to following your blog, Chaz.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Real” versions of fairy tales
    Congratulations on a compelling blog post and, especially, on your commitment to do it again next month. I take that very personally, and I love it!
    I haven’t yet seen TANGLED, but someone has said that the shame is not that Disney changes the story, but that Disney is America’s ONLY storyteller. If all of us were telling the stories to our children and to each other, we’d be intrigued by the variations instead of complaining about them. We’d have more to think about than just whether or not the tale is “accurate.” We each have the power to change a story, to enrich it for our particular listeners, to make it more meaningful in our time and place. An oral story cannot do otherwise but evolve in our hearts and hands.
    Even the Grimm’s version evolved. In its first incarnation of 1812, Rapunzel notices that her dress fits tighter, and Mother Gothel realizes that Rapunzzel is pregnant, whereby someone besides herself must have been entering the tower. In true Victorian style, the 1850s Grimm’s version does not mention pregnancy; instead, Rapunzel foolishly asks why it is that the prince is so much lighter to pull up than the enchantress!
    I am curious to see how TANGLED addresses the “girl in the tower” issue common to teenage girls in Grimm’s day as in ours: that their parents won’t let them go out into the world, won’t let them see boys, don’t trust them to run their own lives.

  6. Fairy tales?
    They have always, since day one, been morality plays. As the common sense of what equates to “moral behavior” changes, so does the behavior of those operating within those moral confines.
    I refuse to jump on the “I hate Disney” bandwagon. Period tales would terrify people. It was “You will do this, or you will die/burn/suffer/whatever”. Disney managed to take that and slightly skew it to “If you do the right thing, you will prosper”. Leading with the carrot, rather than the switch.
    He made moral plays more attainable to people in a more modern age, in a way that totally removed the “actor” (and the roles he/she had previously played) from the story.
    That said, the original movies were NOT for a “G rated” audience. Go watch Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. There are some dreadful, terrifying moments in those films. In Bambi you didn’t see the fatal shot. In Lion King you did. These movies have both coarsened, from a viewer standpoint, as well as becoming more accessible to younger audiences (see, also, the change in animation styles to less realistic, more children’s cartoon appearance.)
    That said, these tales must evolve. I suspect most of the “viewing public” does not make the connection to the Church, as you mentioned, in your initial post. So it has to be moved forward to something people can now identify with. Wall-E is a perfect example. It’s “the corporations/people” rather than “the evil Queen” who is the bad guy, because few people who are buying/seeing Disney Movies today, have any metric against which to gauge an “evil queen”.
    Thanks for the article. I really enjoyed it.

  7. Charles, I’m certain the Roman Catholic Church had a coherent message and a broad cultural influence on many stories, including this one, but I have to disagree with you on when that happened.
    Though earlier versions of Rapunzel may have been bawdier, the addition of Rapunzel’s pregnancy and the prince’s punishment showed up a century before the Grimm’s collected the tale, in the “Persinette” version set down by Madamoiselle La Force in France (a Catholic country).
    By the time the Brothers Grimm collected this story, the Protestant Reformation had been going on in Germany for two centuries… and the Grimms themselves came from a Calvinist family (don’t recall that they were raised in a religious setting but both their grandfather and great grandfathers were Calvinist pastors). I would suggest that Protestant influences –and their desire to sell more “child-friendly” books would have a greater impact on their choices of how to tone down the story (which they did, if you compare their 1812 and their 1857 version… the first being aimed at scholars, the latter aimed at children).
    Looking forward to more posts on fairy tales!

  8. Well Put
    Kudos for starting a blog, Chaz. It’s well overdue.
    Since the beginning of time, the story has been in the mouth of the storyteller, so I don’t see why this one should be any different. I’ve been known to utter many a sigh while watching a Hollywood retelling of one of my favorite stories, but I’m still happy to see them on the big screen.
    Perfect example: Beowulf (the 2007 CGI version). I complained inwardly throughout the entire film at the reckless abandon with which the plot was altered. Yet, at the end I thought, “At least Beowulf made it back onto the screen and into the brains of a new generation. The general idea is still there.” Sometimes, it would seem, these things are a compromise.

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