Picture Books · Reading

Rapunzel Tales, or the Fear of Letting Our Daughters Grow Up

The idea of a daughter contained has appealed to many parents over the centuries. In Greek myth, King Acrisius of Argos locks his daughter Danae in a box when an oracle tells him his grandson will kill him. Rather than let events unfold as they might, where his daughter normally would marry someone from another town and go live with her new family, assuring that any grandchildren grew up well away from him, Acrisius acts on his fear and walks right in to the prophecy, as so many do.
He imprisons Danae in a chest and Zeus gets in by trickling in through the cracks as a shower of gold, landing in Danae’s lap. The metaphors abound. The short-sighted father, in trying to keep his daughter off the marriage market, has as much luck as one does avoiding a sunbeam. Danae gives birth to Perseus, who much later and in an accident completely unrelated to his feats of daring, kills his grandfather with a stray discus at an athletic event.
This image of locking away daughters, then, has old roots, and sometimes it is the father who is unwilling to let his daughter grow up. There is a medieval French tale called “The Miller and the Two Clerks” (famous now because Chaucer tweaked it for his “The Reeve’s Tale”), where a father locks his daughter up in a bin each night within his own one-room house to protect her virginity. That fails too, of course, in this case hilariously, when the daughter is convinced to let in a house guest on the grounds that he has a magic ring capable of restoring her virginity.  He neglects to tell her he picked it up from her father’s own fireplace moments before. In any case, the Daughter in a Box trick fails.
And then we get to the tower stories. Many European variants on this tale exist, and many of them make this a woman’s problem. It is, of course. Mothers worry about their daughters and about losing them to marriage. But the Grimms’ version and some Italian versions (“Beautiful Angiola” from Sicily and “Filagranata” from Rome, for instance) change the imprisoner to a witch. The witch possesses something a woman wants—something from her garden that the woman is willing to risk anything to obtain. And the witch, who has no child, wants the baby daughter whom she demands in compensation for theft. In the Grimm version, Rapunzel’s father fetches lettuce for his pregnant wife, but in “Angiola,” the woman and her friends are plundering the witch’s garden before anyone is pregnant, and Angiola is the price her mother pays, some time later, for her thievery.
So something has shifted. The concern of an over-protective father (either for his own sake or for economic reasons—the miller, of course, can marry his daughter higher up the social ladder if she is a confirmed virgin) has shifted to a witch or ogress who has no daughter of her own. The witch protects her as well, but as much from her family as from the world. In these versions the maiden is imprisoned apparently indefinitely, as the witch who imprisons her shows no sign of relenting. In these tales there is no hope of the maiden ever being let go. It goes some distance toward indulging maternal fear to imagine a way to keep a daughter safe from the world, but to make it a witch who orchestrates this shows how unnatural and cruel it is.
But of course, with the inexorability of Acrisius stepping in to his fate, the world comes to Rapunzel if she can’t go out in the world. A dashing prince happens by–or in the recent Disney film, a dashing thief with a complex past but one more than capable of true love–and the maiden’s society, which has been limited to one, doubles: her world explodes. Whatever trials and drama ensues, the process has begun:  Rapunzel embarks on a process of self-discovery that, despite the witch’s best efforts, leads her in to the world, never to return.
In some ways, the maternal fear is confirmed. But in others, the natural cycle of birth, maturing, and starting a new life, even a new family, is a promise made good.  That’s the problem with kids: we can’t keep them forever. They are not for keeping—not in a box, not in a tower, not at all. They are for loving and raising and letting go.
[By the way, the best collection I’ve seen of Rapunzel tales is in the Sur La Lune collection, edited by Heidi Anne Heiner. And today’s image is from the Barbie Rapunzel movie, which adds dragons and a magic paintbrush. Hooray!]

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