Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jack Zipes on Rapunzel

The tale of Rapunzel features two story elements which were very common in fairy tales and midieval literature. The first is the maiden imprisoned in a tower, the purpose of this being to protect the maiden's chastity. Ironically, since these stories all seem to involve the maiden being discovered and wooed by a man anyway, you could take the meaning of the tales to imply that, no matter how hard you try to hide a woman from the world, or perhaps prevent a girl from becoming a woman, it's going to happen whether you like it or not (remember, in early versions, Rapunzel became pregnant before the prince was discovered). And often, if a child is sheltered to the extreme, they may go to the opposite extreme out of spite.

The other motif is that of the pregnant woman craving a certain food and going to extreme lengths to procure it. Zipes sheds some light on this in historical context: it was believed that if a pregnant woman's cravings were not met, bad luck would befall the pregnancy, so "it was incumbent on the husband and other friends and relatives to use spells or charms or other means to fulfill the cravings."

Madame D'Aulnoy's "The White Cat" (1697) uses both of these motifs, with one major twist from the versions we're used to: the prince dies (eaten by a dragon), and the Rapunzel character becomes a white cat, until she can find a prince who resembles her dead lover.  Kind of a disturbing twist, but Zipes explains that D'Aulnoy was critiquing forced marriages, a popular topic for female French fairy tale authors at the time.

Illustration by Anne Anderson. Information taken from The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes.

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