Thoughts on “Rapunzel”
A common reading of “Rapunzel” is that it’s about captivity and freedom—just look at Tangled, Disney’s recent adaptation. The film is about the girl getting out of her high tower and seeing the world on her own terms. But look more closely at the Grimms’ tale, and you’ll see that “Rapunzel” is also a story about motherhood, from start to finish. Three mothers inhabit the story—one nearly driven mad by cravings (enough to give up the child in her womb), an adoptive mother nearly driven mad by jealousy and covetousness, and finally Rapunzel herself, a young unwed mother driven out into the wilderness with her children. (Disney does away with the pesky issue of Rapunzel’s clothes getting a wee bit too tight after her trysts with the prince—but then again, so did the Grimms, in later versions of their tale. They chose to have the children mentioned at the end of the tale, without any physical clues as to how they came into being. Disney erases them from the story entirely.)
In his notes on the tale, Philip Pullman includes an interesting detail—that the plant craved by Rapunzel’s birth mother in an Italian version of the tale is actually parsley, which can be used to trigger menstruation in the early weeks of a pregnancy, thus ending the pregnancy (weird but true). One might wonder whether Rapunzel’s mother is actually trying to lose her child, through one set of means or the other. She and her husband very quickly give up the baby to the witch when this idea is posed. And so when the witch takes her and raises her as her own, her expectation of Rapunzel’s gratitude is, at least in her mind, absolutely justified—after all, her own parents would just as well have induced a miscarriage. Logically, this doesn’t quite make sense—after all, the witch does give the plant to the mother, and it does not cause a miscarriage. But thematically, the elements of the story are turning our attention to pregnancy and motherhood, wanted and unwanted. The witch wants to be a mother, and the real mother, despite the story’s opening which insists that the couple desire a child, seemingly does not. And poor Rapunzel does not know what it means to be a mother—though she very quickly becomes one.
This is one of the few stories of the Grimms’ in which their strict notions of morality do not dictate who is rewarded and who is punished—for although Rapunzel must wander in the desert and have her hair shorn after her illegitimate pregnancy is revealed, she is rewarded in the end by being reunited with her prince, and having her family complete. She is a “ruined” woman by the story’s end, having very obviously had sex outside of marriage (though naturally the Grimms’ decorum bade them cover it up as much as they could). Yet the ending is a hopeful celebration—after less-than-stellar examples of motherhood have been shown throughout the story, Rapunzel is the one who ends up with a loving family which she and her prince have made. He loves her despite her shorn hair and castaway status, and she restores his sight. They’ve made children together, and suffered to find each other. In the end, it’s one of the most progressive and satisfying relationships in Grimm.