Picture Books · Reading

Rapunzel Revisited

Five thoughts on Rapunzel that would have taken the first blog too far afield:

1. The Barbie movie is interesting.  In fact, there’s a spate of Barbie movies from about 2001-09 starring Kelly Sheridan as the voice of Barbie, that retell a variety of fairy tales, from Rapunzel to the Nutcracker, and they’re quite good—interesting adaptations. 
Rapunzel does some work to explain why the witch steals the baby (she is a spurned lover of the king—it’s almost like Disney writers know their Barbie).  It also adds a spunky baby dragon sidekick–why not?–and a magic paint brush that Rapunzel can use to paint things in to life.  All these Barbie movies are a little postmodern.  Rapunzel has the means to save herself.
     2. There is a whole rash of folk tales about over-protective fathers throughout myth and folklore.  Some set an impossible task for their daughter’s suitors, like “The Glass Mountain,” which has an early cognate in Marie de France’s “The Two Lovers” and some are just too clingy, like the father in many a “Beauty and the Beast” tale, where Beauty is just as reluctant to leave her father and grow up as he is to let her go.  The desire to imprison one’s daughter to keep her follows about the same fairy tale logic as the bad guy shtick: “You won’t marry me, so I’ll imprison you until you fall in love with me,” but it does serve as an absurd extreme for us to learn from.  Real people, we hope, wouldn’t go that far, but it sometimes helps to see our impulses played out to their logical conclusions.
3. If you want to go Freudian, you certainly can.  In many of the tales where a father locks up a daughter, he puts her in a chest or a box (symbolic of the womb).  In the tales where a woman locks her up, it’s often a tower (a clearly phallic symbol).  Is this a way to control the power of the opposite sex?  I’m not offering answers there, just acknowledging those readings are possible.
4. Leaving the tower is just the beginning.  In Rapunzel tales, frequently the prince finds the maiden because she’s singing, or because he overhears the witch ask Rapunzel for access.  But once he gets up there, she does just what the witch fears—runs away with him or conceives his children.  What happens when they run away is as awkward as the end of The Graduate.  They don’t know what to do.  They wander, sometimes together, sometimes alone.  Sometimes Rapunzel ends up in a desert with twins, and the prince finally finds them and she heals his blindness with her tears.  Sometimes they go a little “Baba Yaga” and have to outrun the witch with the help of magical items given by protective fairies.  But it’s almost never just “leave the tower; get on with Happy Ever After.”  There’s more she has to learn before that can happen, which seems to acknowledge the deficits of her sheltered existence, so I approve.
5. In the past this has been a relevant tale of sexual politics and the marriage economy.  A daughter used to be worth more (literally!) if she were a virgin, and therefore fathers had a reason to ensure they didn’t get too much experience too soon.  But a box or a tower is a ridiculous extreme and almost a challenge, as can be seen in the story of Danae or “The Miller and the Two Clerks.”  Shifting the focus to the mother’s fear changes it somewhat.  Mothers fear losing companions and help with the housework, and when the daughter leaves, she often isn’t seen again.  This gets closer to the modern mindset.  There is a real emotional loss when the baby bird leaves the nest, and we sometimes still need reminding that it’s ok, in fact important, not to build towers, but to build up our daughters instead.
(The image comes from my new favorite version.  My daughter loved it too, commenting on the beautiful images and the charming idea that the characters don’t have to be royalty for the story to work.)

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