Monday, October 1, 2012

Rapunzel (According to Cassie)

Rapunzel (According to Cassie)

Basically, there’s this couple who desperately want a baby, but can’t seem to conceive. The wife, depressed with longing, gets a glimpse out the window one day of the garden that belongs to the woman who lives next door, a woman who happens to be a witch.

Being a witch, she’s able to grow all sorts of things in her garden that won’t grow normally or as well anywhere else, and the wife catches a glimpse of a kind of lettuce called rampion that she then and there decides she absolutely has to eat right now, or she’ll die. Whether it’s an enchantment or just the wife being melodramatic is left up to the reader to decide.

Anyway, she pesters and pesters and pesters her husband to get her some, and refuses to eat anything else, to the point that she actually begins to waste away. The husband, so worried about his wife, resolves to obtain the rampion. Trouble is, the witch is terrifying, and he can’t bring himself to ask her for the vegetable. And so, like a dunce, he decides that scaling the wall and stealing the lettuce is the much better option.

And he actually gets away with it – the first time. But the wife is just not satisfied, and forces him to go back a second time, and a third, and because this is a fairy tale, on the third trip, he gets caught by the witch.

She, reasonably, asks him what exactly he thinks he’s doing, stealing from her, and since he’s not in a position to deny it, he tells her the truth – that his wife is desperate for this vegetable, and he was afraid she would die if she didn’t get it.

The witch is immediately sympathetic, which to me proves that the husband really could have avoided all this unpleasantness if he’d just, you know, told the witch all this from the get-go, but trust me. We’ll get to that.

The witch tells him that his wife may have as much of the rampion as she desires from here on out, on one condition – when the baby she’s carrying is born, the witch gets it to raise as her own. Yep, turns out these were pregnancy cravings!

And at this point, there are any number of things I would expect the husband to do – beg the witch to come up with some other price, offer his life in exchange for his child’s, say he’s gotta run this by wife. Really anything other than saying “Okay!” and agreeing on the spot. I get it, he’s a dunce and he’s scared of the witch, but she’s already proven that she’s sympathetic and not a scary as he seems to think.

Anyway, when the child is born, she’s handed over the witch, and the parents disappear from this story. The witch names the girl Rapunzel for the lettuce her mother so loved, and she raises the girl as her own.

Now, it’s interesting to me, in reading this story, that the classic tower Rapunzel gets locked in? Doesn’t make an appearance until Rapunzel is twelve. Before that? We don’t know. Did the witch raise the girl next door to her real parents, forcing them to watch as she presumably raised their daughter better than they would have? Or did she take Rapunzel away somewhere else? We aren’t told, we just know that Rapunzel grows up to be beautiful, and that when she’s twelve, the witch locks her in the tower to keep her safe and makes her grow her hair to incredible lengths so that she can use it as a climbing rope.

This continues for a few years, presumably until Rapunzel is 16 or 17, and then things get complicated when a man enters the story. See, a passing prince happens to catch a glimpse of Rapunzel as she sings  in her tower, and is so overcome with longing and love for her and her voice that he falls in love on the spot and won’t rest until he has won her heart. This seems to be happening to the witch a lot . . .

Anyway, he hides out when Mother Gothel comes by one day, and he hears her call the classic, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” and he decides to try it for himself.

When he gets to the top of the tower, Rapunzel is understandably alarmed. I mean, she’s been alone with Mother Gothel for how long now, right? So the appearance of a strange man is going to cause some tension. But he’s able to talk her down from her terror, and he confesses his love, and she comes to love him as well. He wants to steal her away, so they hatch a plan: he’ll bring a skein of silk every time he visits, and she’ll spin them slowly into a rope that she can use to escape. This is a clever plan, and it’s Rapunzel’s. Why is that important? Because of what happens next.

Now, at this point, whether or not we see this as a problem tale depends a lot on whose version you read. See, the Brothers’ Grimm loved their guts and gore, but they’re from 18th-19th century Germany, so they were real squeamish about sex. See, in the earlier version of this story, Rapunzel and her prince have sex up in that tower, and Rapunzel gets pregnant (did I just ruin your childhoods? Don’t blame me – blame the Grimms!). But the Grimm brothers weren’t about to put that in their fairy tale, so they wrote it out, and not particularly well.

See, eventually, the prince’s visits are uncovered. In the Rapunzel’s Pregnant! version, Mother Gothel notices that Rapunzel is pregnant, because she’s not stupid, and figures out from there what’s been going on. That’s a realistic and natural progression. However, in the Grimms’ version, Rapunzel’s not pregnant – she’s just an idiot. Because one day, she thoughtlessly says, “Hey, it’s a lot harder to pull you up than it is the prince. Why is that, mother?”

I mean, really?? Wilhelm and Jakob, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. I would expect such weak female characterization from Perrault, but you’re better than that! I mean, how dumb do you have to be to forget that the prince visiting in secret shouldn’t be mentioned to the over-protective mother who locked you in captivity to keep you away from the world?? This is the girl who’s been secretly weaving a rope – for her to just up and forget to keep silent about the prince is just monstrously out of character.

Anyway, however she finds out, Mother Gothel gets pissed, and because we know already that she takes these things to the extreme, she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and banishes her to the desert to either bear twins or just wander around in the desert, depending on how squeamish you are about sex.

But Mother Gothel doesn’t stop there. No, she lures the prince to the top of the tower, then exposes that she knows what he’s done, and she’s sent Rapunzel away where he’ll never find her. Now, again, depending on the version you read, she either throws him from the tower into the briars that blind him, OR (Grimms again), he jumps from the tower in his despair at losing Rapunzel. I mean, really, dude? gives you the benefit of the doubt that you were jumping to escape the witch’s wrath, but that’s not how I read it. I read it that you were so despondent you tried to commit suicide, knowing full well that Rapunzel is, in fact, still out there somewhere. I mean, yeesh.

Anyway, this is the point where Mother Gothel disappears from the story, and as for Rapunzel and her prince, they bear their separation for years, until one day, when wandering blind through the world, the prince hears a familiar voice. He follows it until it leads him to Rapunzel, who, when she seems him, is so overcome with love for him and despair at his condition that she begins to cry, and her tears fall into his eyes and restore his sight. Why do her tears have magical healing power? We’re never told. It’s a fairy tale, we’re just supposed to accept things like that. But yeah, her tears heal his eyes (straight out of the original, folks – my knowing how Tangled was going to end was not as magical and psychic and some people seemed to think at the time), they’re reunited, and they live happily ever after.

My thoughts? I like this fairy tale a lot, the non-Grimm version, of course. It has a bit of an issue with loose ends and disappearing characters, but for the most part, it’s fairly well reasoned and contained, and I love the message of it. I also think it has a lot of potential, and it’s not quite “love at first sight conquers all” as a lot of other fairy tales. Rapunzel and her prince develop something of a relationship, and they have to work for their love in the end.

So what do I want in an adaptation?

Explanation for the parents’ behavior. Seriously. These guys are pretty far from being parents of the year, and I’d like to know why. Why was the husband so afraid of the witch? Why was the wife so insistent on that particular vegetable? Why did the father agree to hand over his child, and why didn’t the wife object really at all? And what happened to them after the witch took their child away?

Exploration of Rapunzel’s childhood with Mother Gothel. There’s twelve years before Rapunzel gets locked in her tower – what happened? What was her childhood like? What was her relationship with Mother Gothel like? Spend some time exploring these years and how Rapunzel grew up.

Explain the unexplained elements. How did Rapunzel’s hair grow long enough to hoist a full grown woman up a presumably tall tower, and how was Rapunzel able to stand having her head used as a ladder? Why did her tears heal the prince’s eyes? Could her tears heal other things? Has she always had this ability?

Wrap up the loose ends. There are a lot of them here. What happened to Rapunzel’s parents? What happened to Mother Gothel? Did the prince live in the wilderness with Rapunzel, or did he return to his kingdom to rule? What about the kids, folks? What about the kids? Oh, yeah, along with this – keep the pregnancy in or find a better way for Mother Gothel to discover Rapunzel’s secret.

So! The line-up for this month:

Week 1: Golden by Cameron Dokey
Week 2: Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair by Wendy Mass
Week 3: Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale
Week 4: Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

I’m really excited for this month, and I hope you are, too! Feel free to read along!


  1. Hey Cassie, great round-up there. I realise you posted this in 2012 and may well be over Rapunzel and onto other things, but I just thought I'd let you know that 'Let Down Your Hair', my own Rapunzel novel (which addresses all four of your requirements, more or less!) is coming on the 11th of December. Here's the URL: All the best with your teaching!

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