Monday, February 17, 2014

Rapunzel--Sounds familiar, but do you really know the story?

                Rereading fairy tales as an adult, I have to say I am completely in shock.  I remember growing up on a steady diet of fairy tales likes Snow White, Rapunzel, The Frog and the Prince, and so many others.  One of my favorite shows to watch was Shelly Duval’s “Fairy Tale Theater.”  In all my years of growing up on fairy tales, I never realized how not-child-friendly are many parts of the story.  When I think about it, it makes sense because these stories were not originally made for children, but were oral legends that were written down much later, yet still not for children.

     Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel (Published 1997) does not stray far from the classic Rapunzel tale that we see with the Grimm brothers.  We begin with a couple who has tried so long and so hard to have a child.  Finally, the woman gets pregnant.  She has such a terrible craving for the Rapunzel that grows in the garden of the sorceress next door that her husband decides to sneak in and get it for her.  He does this, but the next day her craving comes back even fiercer.  The loyal husband decides to sneak in again, but this time he gets caught.  The sorceress allows him to take the Rapunzel, but only if he promises to give her the child that his wife is carrying.  He agrees, and when Rapunzel is born, she takes her away and raises her as her own.  As the years pass and Rapunzel grows up and grows more beautiful, the sorceress locks her in a tower.  It is there that the prince hears her voice, and manages to sneak up into the tower.  Rapunzel and the prince fall in love, and the consequences of that love prove to be long lasting.

                This story is one that I feel children will love, but I can also see how there are parts that would make grown-ups feel uncomfortable.  Paul O. Zelinsky has one of the most poetic ways of talking about pregnancy I’ve ever read.  In the beginning, he states that, “Then one spring, the wife felt her dress growing tight around the waist.”  Later in the story, in the span of three pages, Rapunzel goes from being an innocent woman who has never seen a man, to having her dress grow tight around the waist, too.  I love a good fairytale, and I know that this is a fairly faithful retelling of the Grimm tale, but as a modern woman of the 21st century, I have a little bit of an issue with this.  It breaks my heart that Rapunzel is just so weak.  She never questions her stepmother (in this version), and she barely even knows a man before she decides to marry him and have her dress grow tight around her waist!  The men in the story aren’t much better—the husband willingly goes into a witch’s garden and when she tells him the price for the Rapunzel will be his first born child, he goes with it!  The prince is so love-struck by the sound of Rapunzel’s voice that he just won’t go away.  I can’t think of any characters, aside from the babies, who are not guilty of some ignorance of malevolent behavior.

                If Paul O. Zelinsky was alive during the Renaissance, I think we would be calling him a
Renaissance master today.  I still think that his illustrations are worthy of the Sistine Chapel.  Since we don’t have any spare one of those laying around these days, the American Library Association decided to give this book a Caldecott Award.  The paintings all evoke feelings of the Renaissance, which is evidenced by the clothing and the sort of Greek and Roman revival feeling that you see in the buildings.  In the picture where Rapunzel is playing as a child, there is a Pantheon-esque ruin in the background.  These oil paintings feel like they were drawn in the 1500s.  A part of me doesn’t ever want to know what Paul O. Zelinsky looks like, because I’m going to be really disappointed if he doesn’t at least resemble Michaelangelo.  My favorite painting is the one where the sorceress cuts off Rapunzel’s hair after discovering her pregnant with the prince’s child.  We can only see half of Rapunzel’s face, and the half that we see if full of nothing but despair.  As for the sorceress, Zelinksy could have painted her simply angry and bitter.  There is anger, yes, but we also see hurt in the wrinkles and frown of the old woman’s face.  She feels that Rapunzel has done her wrong, and Zelinksy shows us her pain.  In a way, this painting actually reminds me of the Akedah, the biblical story where Abraham goes to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The scissors look more like a knife, and you get the sense that the sorceress is going to do more than cut off her hair.  A great deal of Renaissance paintings dealt with biblical scenes, and I can't help but wonder if Paul O. Zelinsky himself thought of this while painting.

                I think there needs to be a story written from the sorceress’s point of view. I thought it was such a good idea that I knew I couldn’t be the first one to think of it.  Sure enough, when I went on the internet, there was a bunch of fan fiction told from the point of view of the evil witch/sorcerer character.  Surprisingly, though, I couldn’t find much that was actually published.  There is the Jessica Gunderson book Really, Rapunzel Needed a Haircut!:  The Story of Rapunzel as Told by Dame Gothel.  Jessica Gunderson has a whole series of “The Other Side of the Story” fairytales that are told by the villains.  They are very light-hearted, and I can’t help but feel there is a lot of sadness to the sorceress that a light-hearted story wouldn’t do her justice.  Why is she all alone?  What prompted her to want to take the child in the first place?  What kind of intense, misguided love must she have had for Rapunzel to keep her locked up?  I think that a seriously dark and depressing sort of tale (my favorite!) is necessary to get her side of the story out.  Rapunzel, the prince, and their two twins get a happy ending, but why should they be the only ones?

                The illustrations are what I love most about Rapunzel, although I do think Paul O. Zelinksy did a good job retelling the tale.  I think that above all, it has raised my awareness.  I am an avid reader, but I don’t always take the time to read the books that I put in my library.  I have had this book in my classroom library since I began teaching, and this is the first time I have read the book through.  I was completely unaware of the weak characters that are hidden behind beautiful words and illustrations.  Would I recommend this book to a child or a parent?  Absolutely, but I am also now aware of the fact that it is not the book I would go to for helping my students find strong characters they can emulate.
Image sources:


  1. In my head, as I'm reading this, I'm turning it into a metaphor for modern life where I get pregnant, have an intense craving for pickles. Joe goes to the store and there are no pickles to be found! So an evil witch meets him in the parking lot outside of Food Lion and says, "Hey Joe, I have some Claussen pickles here, the best in the land, but if I give them to you, in return you must give me your first born child, that your wife is currently carrying, which is the reason she wants these pickles so badly!" And Joe, in his desperation for pickles, says "Hmm..ok. That sounds like a totally reasonable proposal."

  2. I'll write the book, you draw the illustrations. Does the baby have to be named PIckles? Like Tommy Pickles from the Rugrats? Maybe that's how that whole show got started. See, lasting nature of fairy tales.