Rapunzel (Continued)

by Terri Windling

Illustration by John Cowper

La Force and other writers of the period championed the idea of consensual, companionate marriages ruled by love and civility. (Some also believed that Fate intended certain souls to be together.) The emphasis on love and romance in their stories can seem quaint and saccharine today, but such stories were progressive, even subversive, in the context of the time. La Force herself was an independently–minded woman from a noble family who caused several scandals in her quest to live a life that was self–determined. She fell in love and attempted to marry a young man without parental permission. When his family locked him up to prevent an elopement, she snuck into his room dressed as a bear with a traveling theater troupe! The couple escaped, and married — but the law eventually caught up to them and the marriage was annulled. She then got caught publishing satirical works critical of King Louis XIV. La Force was exiled to a convent for this crime — where she wrote her book of fairy tales and a series of popular historical novels. Eventually released, she spent the rest of her life earning her own living through her writing.

Like all of La Force's fairy tales, "Persinette" is a sensual, sparkling confection with a sly, sharp humor at its center. It's not hard to see why the tale of a girl locked away in a tower would have appealed to her.

Once upon a time, the tale begins, a young couple prepares for the birth of their child and all is well until the wife conceives a passionate craving for parsley. Her doting husband steals the parsley out of a fairy's enchanted garden. (The gate stands temptingly open, implying the fairy knows very well what will happen — and may, indeed, have magically caused the craving that sets the tale in motion. Fairies are well known, after all, for their penchant for stealing infants.) The second time the husband sneaks into the garden (again he finds the gate open), the fairy catches him and demands his unborn child as payment. The man agrees "after a short deliberation." When his wife gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, she promptly hands the child over to the fairy without a word of protest.

The fairy raises the child tenderly until Persinette (as she's come to be called) reaches the age of puberty. Then, in order to keep the girl safe from harm (the eyes and attention of men), the fairy builds a magnificent silver tower deep in the forest. It contains all that the girl could desire: large and airy rooms elegantly furnished; wardrobes full of sumptuous clothes; delicious meals that are gracefully served by invisible fairy servants; books, paints, and instruments so Persinette need never be bored. What it doesn't have is a door or stairs, so whenever the fairy comes to call she says, "Persinette, let down your hair," and she climbs up through the window.

Years pass, and one day the son of the king is hunting in the forest nearby. He hears the maiden singing and falls in love with her, sight unseen. He finds his way to the tower and spies a shadowy figure far above — but when he calls to her, Persinette takes fright. It's been many years since she's seen a man, and the fairy has told her that some are monsters who can kill with a single look. The prince leaves discouraged, but he cannot forget the sound of that lonely, lovely voice. He makes inquiries in a nearby village and learns that the girl is a fairy's prisoner.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

The prince returns, waits, and watches how the fairy goes in and out of the tower. The next day, when the fairy is gone, he stands and calls out in the fairy's voice: "Persinette, let down your hair." Her long gold hair comes tumbling down, he climbs, and steps into the tower. Persinette is frightened once again — but she soon recovers her aplomb as the prince persuades her of his love. He proposes to marry her there and then, and she "consented without hardly knowing what she was doing. Even so," writes La Force archly, "she was able to complete the ceremony."

The prince continues to visit the tower, and before long Persinette grows fat. Innocent, she doesn't know she's pregnant — but the fairy certainly does. Furious, the fairy takes up a knife and cuts off Persinette's long braids, then she sends her off in a flash of fairy magic to a remote place. The fairy hangs the braids from the tower window and waits for the prince to come. He clambers over the windowsill and is shocked to find his lover gone. The fairy angrily informs the prince he'll never see Persinette again, and she flings him from the tower. He lands in briar thorns, which blind him.

For several years the prince wanders the world, living on charity, till at last he reaches a remote place where he hears his wife singing. Persinette now has twin children, who instantly recognize the blind man as their father. Persinette cries with joy, and her tears magically restore his sight.

But wait! The fairy is still angry, and not yet prepared to leave them be. The food in the larder turns into stones, the well fills up with venomous snakes, the birds in the sky above turn into dragons breathing fire. The little family huddles together, preparing to die of the fairy's wrath — but the lovers are happy, nonetheless, to have found each other at last. At this, the fairy's heart finally melts. She sees that their love is strong and true. She forgives them, blesses their marriage, and transports them to the king's castle, where the king and queen welcome their son and his family with open arms.

Friedrich Schultz's "Rapunzel," published in Germany one hundred years later, faithfully follows La Force's plot while toning down the flowery language common to fairy tales of the earlier period. The only marked change Schultz makes to the story is that the fairy is portrayed with greater sympathy. Confronting Rapunzel's pregnancy, she's more Disappointed Mother than Vengeful Fury; and she doesn't throw the prince from the tower — he leaps himself, in a fit of despair. Overall, Schultz merely re–tells La Force's tale rather than spinning it into something new.

The oral version of "Rapunzel" collected by the Grimms half a century after the Schultz publication follows the Schultz and La Force plot and is clearly derived from one or both. But the Grimms made several changes before they published their "Rapunzel" in 1857. Once again, the story begins with the overwhelming cravings of a pregnant woman. She craves rapunzel (a form of lettuce), which grows in the garden of a sorceress. (The Grimms often edited fairies out of their stories, for they considered the creatures to be too French. It was not until later English versions that the sorceress became a witch.) When she reaches the age of puberty, the girl is locked up in a tower by the woman she now calls Mother Gothel (a generic name for a godmother). The tower has no door or stairs, and the only way to enter it is to stand and deliver the famous line: "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."

Illustration by Ann Andersen

The prince hears the maiden singing, finds the tower, and cannot get into it. He rides home again, but returns each day, compelled by the beauty of her song. When he sees the sorceress come and go, he learns at last how the tower is entered. "If that's the ladder one needs," he says, "I'm also going to try my luck."

He enters the tower, calms the frightened princess, and declares his undying love for her. He offers her his hand in marriage, and Rapunzel chastely accepts. Thereafter, he visits Rapunzel each evening when Mother Gothel is safely away. Each time he comes, he brings a skein of silk so she can weave a ladder to escape.

One day, as the sorceress climbs her hair, Rapunzel absentmindedly asks her why is she so much heavier than the prince? Mother Gothel guesses all and flies into a terrible rage. She cuts off Rapunzel's hair, banishes her to a distant wilderness, and waits for the prince to come that night, where she confronts him with his crimes. He leaps from the tower, is blinded by the thorns, and then wanders the world seeking Rapunzel — who's now referred to as his "wife." They re–unite, his sight is restored, and he learns he has two children. He takes them home to his father's court, and no further mention is made of Mother Gothel.

Although the Grimms originally expected their folk tale collection to be of interest primarily to scholars, they soon realized they had a large and lucrative readership among children and their parents. With each subsequent edition, they edited the stories further to make them more appropriate for young readers, deleting sexual references and making heroines more virtuously moral. Thus, in their version of "Rapunzel," they glide right over the conception of the twins, and over the fact of her pregnancy, until the children appear, without explanation, at the story's end. Because of the world–wide popularity of the Grimms' now–classic volume of tales, this children's version of "Rapunzel" is the one best known today.

Illustration by A. H. Watson

As fairy tales continued to be pushed to the children's shelves in the 20th century, the Grimms' version of "Rapunzel" was re–told over and over in countless picture books — sometimes edited further to delete the existence of those awkward twins altogether. In the public mind, Rapunzel's tale was one intended for very young readers — with few realizing that at its root this is a story about puberty, sexual desire, and the evils of locking young women away from life and self–determination. In the children's version, Rapunzel is just another passive princess waiting for her prince to come. In the older tales we glimpse a different story: about a girl whose life is utterly controlled by greedy, selfish, capricious adults. . .until she disobeys, chooses her own fate, and bursts from captivity into adult life, symbolized by the birth of her own children in a distant land.

In the latter decades of the 20th century, Rapunzel's story began to change again as fairy tales began re–appearing in poetry and fiction for adult readers. This new literary fairy tale movement was pioneered by feminist writers such as Anne Sexton and Angela Carter, and by genre writers such as Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen, and Tanith Lee.

Donna Jo Napoli's Zel, for example, is one of the very best renditions of the Rapunzel fairy tale. The novel is set in Switzerland in the middle of the 16th century, told from three different points of view: Zel (Rapunzel), her mother (combining the role of mother and witch), and Konrad (the son of a count). This is a dark, psychologically complex story, delving deep into each character's psyche: a mother unhinged by the possessive nature of her love, a daughter scarred by imprisonment, a young man obsessively in love with a girl he barely knows. It's a taut, beautifully written novel and highly recommended.

Illustration by F. MacDonald

In her story "Touk's House," Robin McKinley uses elements from Rapunzel, but re–works the plot extensively. Here, a woodcutter's newborn daughter is the price he pays for stealing healing herbs. The witch is a sympathetic figure, raising the girl like her own daughter and teaching her the herb lore with which she'll eventually win the hand of a prince. But the girl doesn't want the prince in the end, choosing the witch's sweet son instead. Gregory Frost's "The Root of the Matter," by contrast, is a dark and very adult tale exploring the sexual tensions inherent in the story, and its consequences. Here Mother Gothel is a woman deeply damaged by a history of abuse, and she damages the child she has forcibly adopted in turn. The story is told from three points of view: Mother Gothel, Rapunzel, and the Prince — the latter two undergoing true transformation by the story's end.

Abuse also factors into Esther Friesner's darkly comic story "Big Hair," about a girl on the beauty pageant circuit, her life controlled by her witch–like mother. The "prince" is a newspaper reporter who sneaks past the watchful mother's guard, and here too, we see how abuse is cycled and a maiden can become a witch. Lisa Russ Spaar's story "Rapunzel's Exile" is brief but packs an emotional wallop. Spaar imagines Rapunzel's journey as her Godmother leads her into the forest, and her dawning horror as she realizes that the tower will be her fate. For twelve years her Godmother raised her kindly — but now, with the onset of menstruation (her skirts still bloody, her body still seeping), her Godmother has turned into a different creature, pushing her into the tower at knife point, and walling up the door with stones.

The heroine of Emma Donoghue's "The Tale of the Hair" has chosen to live in a crooked stone tower. She's blind, and she has come to fear the sounds of the forest around her. "Block up the windows and doors," she tells the wise–woman who is her guardian and companion. One night a prince hears her singing, climbs up the tower, and introduces her to love. But soon she learns that the unseen prince is not quite what she thought. . . . Elizabeth Lynn's delightful "The Princess in the Tower" is set in an obscure and remote village somewhere in the hills of Europe: a place with fabulous, fattening food, and where zaftig women are prized. Poor Margeritina is so slim that everyone thinks she's ill and hideous. She stays in the family house in shame, trying to no avail to put on weight — until a young man stumbles into the village, hears her singing from her high window, falls in love and whisks her away to marry him and start a restaurant. The charm of the story lies in Lynn's telling, and in the sumptuous food descriptions. Anne Bishop's "Rapunzel" is a moving tale that is broken into three distinct parts: the mother's story, the witch's story, and finally Rapunzel's story. The first two parts are contrasting narratives of jealousy and greed; the third follows Rapunzel to the wilderness, where she finds new life beyond the tower.



Illustration by Walter Crane



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