Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy: Rapunzel Untangled

Written by Cory Gross. Posted in Yesterday Tomorrow and Fantasy

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Published on July 31, 2014 at 2:00 am with 4 Comments

Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy is an unofficial guide to the world beyond Disney, exploring the original stories and sources of beloved films and attractions. This week, from Fantasyland: Rapunzel Untangled - Cory

The adjective used to title Walt Disney Animation’s 50th animated feature film could just as easily describe the circuitous route taken by the original story transcribed by the Brothers Grimm before it was rendered in 3D CGI. Rapunzel was first published in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales in 1812. Like my previous piece on Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, I’d like to tell that story for you, with a few notes to follow. This translation from the original German was by Margaret Hunt, for the two-volume publication Grimm’s Household Tales in 1884.

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There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child. At length the woman hoped that God was about to grant her desire. These people had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world. One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden, when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion (rapunzel), and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, and had the greatest desire to eat some. This desire increased every day, and as she knew that she could not get any of it, she quite pined away, and looked pale and miserable. Then her husband was alarmed, and asked, “What aileth thee, dear wife?” “Ah,” she replied, “if I can’t get some of the rampion, which is in the garden behind our house, to eat, I shall die.” The man, who loved her, thought, “Sooner than let thy wife die, bring her some of the rampion thyself, let it cost thee what it will.” In the twilight of evening, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress, hastily clutched a handful of rampion, and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it, and ate it with much relish. She, however, liked it so much—so very much, that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before. If he was to have any rest, her husband must once more descend into the garden. In the gloom of evening, therefore, he let himself down again; but when he had clambered down the wall he was terribly afraid, for he saw the enchantress standing before him. “How canst thou dare,” said she with angry look, “to descend into my garden and steal my rampion like a thief? Thou shalt suffer for it!” “Ah,” answered he, “let mercy take the place of justice, I only made up my mind to do it out of necessity. My wife saw your rampion from the window, and felt such a longing for it that she would have died if she had not got some to eat.” Then the enchantress allowed her anger to be softened, and said to him, “If the case be as thou sayest, I will allow thee to take away with thee as much rampion as thou wilt, only I make one condition, thou must give me the child which thy wife will bring into the world; it shall be well treated, and I will care for it like a mother.” The man in his terror consented to everything, and when the woman was brought to bed, the enchantress appeared at once, gave the child the name of Rapunzel, and took it away with her.

Rapunzel grew into the most beautiful child beneath the sun. When she was twelve years old, the enchantress shut her into a tower, which lay in a forest, and had neither stairs nor door, but quite at the top was a little window. When the enchantress wanted to go in, she placed herself beneath this, and cried,

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Let down thy hair to me.”

Rapunzel had magnificent long hair, fine as spun gold, and when she heard the voice of the enchantress she unfastened her braided tresses, wound them round one of the hooks of the window above, and then the hair fell twenty ells down, and the enchantress climbed up by it.

After a year or two, it came to pass that the King’s son rode through the forest and went by the tower. Then he heard a song, which was so charming that he stood still and listened. This was Rapunzel, who in her solitude passed her time in letting her sweet voice resound. The King’s son wanted to climb up to her, and looked for the door of the tower, but none was to be found. He rode home, but the singing had so deeply touched his heart, that every day he went out into the forest and listened to it. Once when he was thus standing behind a tree, he saw that an enchantress came there, and he heard how she cried,

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Let down thy hair.”

Then Rapunzel let down the braids of her hair, and the enchantress climbed up to her. “If that is the ladder by which one mounts, I will for once try my fortune,” said he, and the next day when it began to grow dark, he went to the tower and cried,

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Let down thy hair.”

Immediately the hair fell down and the King’s son climbed up.

At first Rapunzel was terribly frightened when a man such as her eyes had never yet beheld, came to her; but the King’s son began to talk to her quite like a friend, and told her that his heart had been so stirred that it had let him have no rest, and he had been forced to see her. Then Rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, “He will love me more than old Dame Gothel does;” and she said yes, and laid her hand in his. She said, “I will willingly go away with thee, but I do not know how to get down. Bring with thee a skein of silk every time that thou comest, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and thou wilt take me on thy horse.” They agreed that until that time he should come to her every evening, for the old woman came by day. The enchantress remarked nothing of this, until once Rapunzel said to her, “Tell me, Dame Gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young King’s son—he is with me in a moment.” “Ah! thou wicked child,” cried the enchantress, “What do I hear thee say! I thought I had separated thee from all the world, and yet thou hast deceived me!” In her anger she clutched Rapunzel’s beautiful tresses, wrapped them twice round her left hand, seized a pair of scissors with the right, and snip, snap, they were cut off, and the lovely braids lay on the ground. And she was so pitiless that she took poor Rapunzel into a desert where she had to live in great grief and misery.

On the same day, however, that she cast out Rapunzel, the enchantress in the evening fastened the braids of hair which she had cut off to the hook of the window, and when the King’s son came and cried,

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Let down thy hair,”

she let the hair down. The King’s son ascended, but he did not find his dearest Rapunzel above, but the enchantress, who gazed at him with wicked and venomous looks. “Aha!” she cried mockingly, “Thou wouldst fetch thy dearest, but the beautiful bird sits no longer singing in the nest; the cat has got it, and will scratch out thy eyes as well. Rapunzel is lost to thee; thou wilt never see her more.” The King’s son was beside himself with pain, and in his despair he leapt down from the tower. He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell, pierced his eyes. Then he wandered quite blind about the forest, ate nothing but roots and berries, and did nothing but lament and weep over the loss of his dearest wife. Thus he roamed about in misery for some years, and at length came to the desert where Rapunzel, with the twins to which she had given birth, a boy and a girl, lived in wretchedness. He heard a voice, and it seemed so familiar to him that he went towards it, and when he approached, Rapunzel knew him and fell on his neck and wept. Two of her tears wetted his eyes and they grew clear again, and he could see with them as before. He led her to his kingdom where he was joyfully received, and they lived for a long time afterwards, happy and contented.

As we can see, Disney removed a great many parts of the story that essentially define what it is about. That no doubt goes a long way to explain why Tangled is a conceptual mess, with a kitchen sink-full of disparate, incoherent elements (A chameleon! Fighting a horse with a frying pan! A barbarian mime! Why not?). While the least interesting possible interpretation of any given fairy tale is it being a metaphor for puberty, the reproductive cycle is unmistakable in Rapunzel. The story begins with a pregnant woman’s cravings, in this case for the leafy, lettuce-like plant called “rapunzel.” Such garden greens typically fall prey to expecting mothers’ predatory cravings for vitamins. Rapunzel, the plant, also known as “rampion” is an ornamental plant with purple bell-shaped flowers whose leaves are rich in Vitamin C and whose roots can be boiled and eaten like a carrot. Another plant is also identified with rapunzel in Germany, being a salad green with high Vitamin C, beta-carotene, B6, iron, and potassium.

rampion

Rampion, Campanula rapunculus.
Photo by Olivier Pichard, via Wikimedia Commons.

rapunzel

A plate of rapunzel, Valerianella locusta.
Photo by Schwäbin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another layer is added with the object of her desire being found in the walled garden of a lady enchantress… A reference to a midwife and herbalist. The rapunzel may not be simply a culinary craving, but a medicinal need. The husband’s attempt to steal the rapunzel may be interpreted as an attempt to steal the proprietary knowledge of medicinal herbs from the village wise woman. While some uses have been suggested through time, rapunzel is not known to have any scientifically validated medicinal properties.

The narrative of a man acting on behalf of his wife trying to steal proprietary herbal knowledge from a village wise woman may or may not have implications of gender relations. The Grimm’s 1812 transcription of the story was preceded and influenced by an Italian version from 1634 that has the wife acting of her own volition. Petrosinella (Parsley) by Giambattista Basille cuts out the literal middle man:

There was, once upon a time, a woman named Pascadozzia, and one day, when she was standing at her window, which looked into the garden of an ogress, she saw such a fine bed of parsley that she almost fainted away with desire for some. So when the ogress went out she could not restrain herself any longer, but plucked a handful of it. The ogress came home and was going to cook her pottage when she found that someone had been stealing the parsley, and said, “Ill luck to me, but I’ll catch this long-fingered rogue and make him repent it; I’ll teach him to his cost that every one should eat off his own platter and not meddle with other folks’ cups.”

Identifying the keeper of the garden as an ogress in this version rather than a witch or enchantress is interesting and recalls the first use of the term, in Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, where it referred to the prince’s cannibalistic mother. Today, we tend to think of ogres as overly large, brutish, misanthropic creatures who may be green, and that can be the case in traditional fairy tales. However, much like other classic monsters – vampires for instance – there is much more ambiguity about what they are the further back you go in the textual record. Before Bram Stoker, about the only thing vampire traditions had in common was the hunger for blood and being neither exactly alive nor dead. In fairy tales, the ogre seems to be primarily defined by its interest in cannibalism. That raises a chilling option for exactly why she wanted to hold young Parsley/Rapunzel captive.  It also echoes the accusations made of women tried during the witch trial atrocities of the European Enlightenment, during which Basille was writing. If the Brothers Grimm were influenced by Basille (by way of a French version of the story published in 1697, titled Persinette), they were considerably more merciful on their enchantress.

The enchantress becomes a mother figure to Rapunzel, the girl, and must endure her transition from virginal youth to adult woman. Despite having a name that was only cool in the 1990’s, we can at least credit Disney with giving Flynn Rider a personality. In the Grimm’s story, he doesn’t require one because he is not a man as such. He is men, a representative of any given man, standing in as the object of Rapunzel’s awakening into maturity. Unfortunately Disney robbed us of the gory but touching finale in which the blinded prince and Rapunzel find each other again after much suffering, reaching fulfillment, peace, and clarity with one another. The adaptation has echoes of that, though, nested in Flynn’s blind, socially-alienated ambitions.

It’s hard to get too offended by Disney altering a story, unless it’s a particularly bad case like Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the alterations completely obliterate the entire theme of the story as it was originally intended. Its the sort of thing Disney has always done, with every story they have touched. Tangled is a bit silly and a bit of a mess, but it is still enjoyable enough in its own right and retains enough of the original story that I still wish it was given its proper title instead of an adjective.

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About Cory Gross

Cory Gross is a professional educator in the museums and heritage field, sharing his passion for history, science and art in his home of Calgary, Canada. He is also the creator of Voyages Extraordinaires, a blog dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Futurism, which can be found at http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com.

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  • Witches of Morva

    ORWEN: Rapunzel was always one of my favorite fairy tales and I was excited when I first heard that Disney was going to be making an animated film of it. But that was back in 1992–years before they actually got around to making it!! They kept putting it off for the longest time. It was originally supposed to come out around the time of Pocahontas but I guess the animators weren’t sure how to animate all that hair! I also hate the fact that they changed the title of the story to ‘Tangled’. That just doesn’t go down very well. Another thing that bothers me is that they made Rapunzel into a princess instead of a peasant girl, while changing her prince into a bad boy thief. Still, I like Disney’s over-all approach to Rapunzel. I think Mother Gothel was a great villain. The animation is wonderful and now I’m anxious to see what Disney is going to do with their next fairy tale–Jack & the Beanstalk, which they’re currently calling ‘Giants’…

  • rstar

    I heard they didn’t want to alienate the boys with another prencess movie with the name Repunzel. Thus, Tangled, being of unisex intrest.

  • I love the part about the prince’s eyes being pierced by thorns, causing him to wander blind for years. Only Rapunzel’s tears could restore his sight.

    Just imagine Disney trying to tell that part of the story.

  • Jabroniville

    I still think it’s funny how the trailers for Tangled totally cheated and made the movie look like pure wacky action with Rapunzel beating up Flynn and being mischievous. What we got was an entirely different movie. Reminds me of how Frozen looked like a Reindeer /Snowman Buddy Comedy at first look.