Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fate in Fairy Tales

One of the interesting trends evident in Rapunzel tales is the element of irony: often a maiden is imprisoned in a tower for the purpose of shielding her innocence. Yet all these tales seem to end in her not only meeting a man, but becoming pregnant.

For example, in the Jewish tale "Solomon's Daughter," as found in Surlalune's Rapunzel and Other Maiden in the Tower Stories From Around the World, Solomon imprisons his daughter in a tower because he reads in the stars that she will marry a poor youth. However, an eagle carries a poor youth to the roof of the tower, where he and the maiden fall in love. It was the very act of keeping his daughter in a tower that enabled her to meet her poor lover.

This is very similar to Sleeping Beauty, in which the young princess pricks her finger on a spindle. The irony here is that her father the king had ordered all spindles banned to keep the thirteenth fairy's prophecy from coming true, yet because he did this, his daughter didn't even know what a spindle was. In both of these tales, if the father character hadn't attempted to thwart the prophecy, it may not have even come true; it may be one of those self-fulfilling prophecies that sets off the chain of events.

In many of the cultures in which these tales circulated, the people may have given more credence to prophecies in general, whereas today we tend to consider prophecies only as interesting features of fantasy and supernatural genres. We are fascinated by the concept of being able to see into the future and the potential implications, and the possibilities of multiple futures that depend on current choices.

Yet these tales may also have a very simple message: though parents may wish or try, they cannot keep their children from growing up. Sleeping Beauty's finger prick is often given sexual/maturational connotations; although her father is trying to prevent her death in the story, on a symbolic level he may be trying to prevent her from ceasing to be a child. The witch in Rapunzel can be seen as an overprotective mother, trying to keep her daughter in ignorance of the ways of the world; yet the world has a habit of making its ways known, and often trusting your children with (appropriate) knowledge is much better than attempting to keep them ignorant and naive. In the words of the witch at the end of "Into the Woods" when she sings, "Careful the things you say/Children will listen". As Time Magazine said about the original musical, its "basic insight ... is at heart, most fairy tales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong — which is to say, almost everything that can — arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions."

Illustrations by A.H. Watson


  1. Tolkien's Lady Galadriel says it well: "Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them. The Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds."

    All prophecy, foresight, foreboding, calculations of statistical probability, and even deep-seated parental fears are like that: a mirror of reality that that tells the truth...but tells it slant. Protective intentions are ultimately useless if the isolated maiden is not taught or enabled to protect herself. Maybe the real trouble is that she so often needs protection from her own protectors, which is the one thing that her guardians are generally unwilling to provide. That would require sharing or perhaps relinquishing power. The maiden fulfills the very prophecies her parental figures want to subvert because those parents were in truth protecting their own interests rather than the interests of their child. So they turn aside from the path of parenthood and adopt the role of jailer or treasurer instead, making the maiden into a prisoner or property (or both) instead of a person in her own right.

    I fate itself meant to be a liberating force in these tales? Like a force that deliberately circumvents parental intentions, thus allowing cursed or imprisoned children to grow beyond their parents' expectations? Even to escape their parents' expectations? Rapunzel becomes a loving survivor, mother, and healer at the end of her story. In other words, a competent adult despite all odds.

    1. Yes, yes, yes, I love everything you say here! The maiden who needs "protection from her protectors," and I love your idea that fate is the liberating force. What else would be the purpose of stating something will be so, if it was going to come true anyway?

  2. The idea that the witch in "Rapunzel" is trying to "fence time" as it were seems pretty obvious because of when Rapunzel's captivity begins. Most people imagine it starting earlier, but the Grimm's explicitly state it as age 12. That's right about at the start of Rapunzel's adolescence. What's interesting is how this idea has seeped into the retellings that show the witch trying to stop time from moving for herself as well. Both Bitter Greens and Disney's Tangled involve plots by the witch to keep herself from aging.

    1. Yes, good point. Although it is a little more confusing just because the witch isn't actually Rapunzel's mother, it would make more sense if it were a parent trying to keep their child from growing up; maybe this is another example of the split mother character, the good mother back home and the overprotective mother who doesn't want to admit her daughter is growing up.

      The witch trying to keep herself from aging-an interesting parallel to Rapunzel, and also ties her in to Snow White's witch or any other villain motivated by the fear of losing her beauty