Monday, October 5, 2009

Fairy Tale, Hairy Tale

One of the things I find so very interesting about fairy tales is how far we’ve edited them from the original forms. In our modern, post-Puritanical, won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children modern world, we’ve changed stories nearly beyond recognition.

I didn’t notice this right away. I had it pointed out to me by a child.

About ten or twelve years ago, I was visiting my mother. One of my nieces was there – she was about five at the time – and we started talking about the video she was watching. It was Rapunzel, and since I am not the most child-friendly person, the best conversational opening I had was “what’s it about?”

She said, very seriously, “A girl who lives in a tower with a witch. She’s sooo beautiful that she can’t get out.” Thoughtful pause. “Nobody can escape and go do stuff until a prince comes to rescue them. “

I said, “Nobody? Does EVERYBODY need to have a prince?”

With the exaggerated patience of someone lecturing to the dimwitted, she said, “Yes! You can’t go anywhere if your prince doesn’t show up! Nobody can do anything until the prince gets there!”


What exactly was the message here? Your life doesn’t start until there’s a man in it? I didn’t like this one bit. I corrected things by teaching her a version where Rapunzel cuts her own hair, braids it into a ladder, runs away to the city, and gets a job. Rapunzel is not stuck, and isn’t waiting around for anybody. She’s got things to do and she by god gets them done.

And of course what I’m doing is editorializing, after the fact. Changing the story to make it fit our modern ideas of right and wrong. I’m altering the tale to give the message I think is appropriate, just like Disney does. The difference is that … well, I was going to try and take the moral high ground, but my high horse is in the shop.

The original story doesn’t allow Rapunzel to escape. She holds the key to her own liberty – the hair – but somehow she’s unable to use it.

The Maiden in the Tower – well, she’s a prize to be won, not an active character. If you’re familiar with the original, you know the girl starts life as a bad trade, given up by her parents in payment of the lettuce her mother craved. She’s kept in a tower, companion to the witch, until a prince finds a way to climb up the tower. They hatch a long, slow escape plan, which gets blown to smithereens when the witch notices that her darling girl is preggers and can’t fit into her clothes very well anymore. (I guess the prince is pretty darn charming, after all.)

The girl gets banished to the desert, where she gives birth to twins. The prince falls from the tower into a big pile of thorns and is blinded. Years later, he wanders into her path, she cures his blindness, and the lovers are reunited.

A lot of this story got changed pretty early on, of course. Around the mid-1800’s, the prince decided to propose marriage, and somehow the pregnancy got swept under the rug. Rapunzel fell in love with the prince, instead of being a silly easily tricked girl. I know it’s possible to blame Disney for princess marketing and branding, and oh I really do blame them, but the Victorians had some pretty uptight ideas that got implemented, too.

Even earlier versions of the Maiden in the Tower have an actual active heroine, instead of an object, a prize to be handed around and discarded once deflowered and therefore spoiled. And it’s funny how stories have echoes of other stories within them….

The Prince leaps from the Tower to escape.


The princess, Rapunzel, once she has (carnal) knowledge, is banished from the Garden. I can’t help wondering if her twins were named Cain and Abel.

So the threads of other stories and archetypes weave in and out of everything. Of course, now, when you do a search for blog illustrations, you have to sift through endless pages of Rapunzel Barbie. To get at the original stories, you have to sift through the bright sunny cheerful and above all plastic face that we’ve put on everything.

I can’t help but wonder why we’re so insistent that everything be so frelling cheerful all the time. If nothing else, we’re setting ourselves up for a huge disappointment, because life is not always cheerful. Life is nasty, brutish, and short. I’m just slightly more positive than that, actually, but it’s a quote from Thomas Hobbes (1651) and I’m always trying to find a way, no matter how small, to use my college education. My point is that we have changed one set of stories – the fairy tales – and since everything is connected, the change vibrates down the strings to other stories, and if we’re not careful we end up in one big irritating episode of My Little Pony.

Here’s hoping that modern marketing hasn’t distorted the tapestry too badly, and that the stories continue to weave and grow.

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