Thinking about Rapunzel


There’s a lot that’s on the surface in Rapunzel, even more so in the older, unexpurgated versions of the fairy tale. Of course, it’s a coming of age story: Rapunzel goes from a 12 year old to an adult with children.

Mother Gothel obviously views the prospect of Rapunzel going through puberty and becoming a sexual adult as a terrifying time: at 12 years old she locks her in a tower with no doors and no stairs, and when she finds out that Rapunzel has been seeing the prince/king and is having sex she cuts off her hair and banishes her to the wilderness/desert. She is furious both at the girl and at the prince and threatens to have the cat scratch out the prince’s eyes so he can’t see his beloved, a threat that is fulfilled not by the witch, but  by thorns when the prince jumps from the tower.

Anonymous illustration from 1909-from SurLaLuneFairyTales

As an adult, you read this as a cautionary tale: you can’t prevent your child from growing up and living her own life. She will and must make her own decisions and will and must grow up and become an adult, and adults, like it or not, are sexual. But this is a story to be read to children, and how will the child hear it? Certainly she will understand that the mother who selfishly pushed the father to steal the rampion, and the Witch, aka Mother Gothel, who both raised her with love as her own child and locked her in a tower when she turned 12, are one and the same. See part of the evil step-mother discussion here. Mother is human, with human failings. She loves the child and yet smothers her when the time comes that she should be letting go gracefully and helping her become an adult.

Everyone seems to want to point out how the tower is symbolic of a phallus, and that is pretty much true. But the more interesting thing is that the mother/witch puts Rapunzel in the tower. I think that goes back to mother-love, and to the witch/mother’s desire to be everything to Rapunzel, to contain her in her womb, to keep Rapunzel in her life. The tower is a sort of womb,then, as well. And I think it expresses the witch/mother’s desire to be able to give Rapunzel all that she needs, including an adult male lover, in order to keep Rapunzel in her life. If the Disney movie Tangled has a failing, it is the loss of this nuance. They make Mother Gothel a villain: she doesn’t love Rapunzel, she uses her to stay young.

The understanding that the Witch loves Rapunzel and wants to keep her is a key to why she is so angry at both Rapunzel and the prince. She is both a mother lied to and a betrayed lover (in her own wish to be all that Rapunzel ever needs).

Why is Rapunzel’s hair so much the hallmark of this story? Why does the Witch cut it off? Why put out the prince’s eyes? And what about the children? Those are for the next post or two.


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