As I mentioned in my previous new book announcement today for Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens, I have a guest post by author Kate Forsyth to share with you today. The topic is Rapunzel and without any further ado, I will let Kate speak for herself. Thanks for sharing, Kate!
Rapunzel must be one of the most misunderstood of the fairytales, with most people thinking of the long-haired heroine as meek and passive, spending her days hanging round waiting to be rescued.
In recent years, many writers have retold the tale, seeking to return power to Rapunzel by making her stronger and less submissive. I am one of those writers. I’ve spent the past seven years working on retelling the Rapunzel fairytale as a historical novel for adults. I am also halfway through a doctorate on Rapunzel retellings at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
Most critical examinations of the tale have added to the understanding of Rapunzel as a passive victim, with the power all held by the witch as an oedipal figure of dark motherhood. For example, Maria Tatar says ‘Mother Gothel figures as the consummate overprotective parent’ (The Annotated Brothers Grimm, 2004, p55).
Joan Gould says, in ‘Spinning Straw Into Gold: What Fairy Tales reveal about the Transformations in a Woman’s Life’ (2005, p217), that ‘Rapunzel and her foster mother are White Bride and Black Mother. Rapunzel is first confined and then abandoned. The mother-witch’s fury is what pushes the girl from one condition to the other.’
Bruno Bettelheim describes Rapunzel as one of a set of fairy tales which aim to help a girl deal with oedipal conflicts, and says: ‘A little girl wishes to see herself as a young and beautiful maiden … who is kept captive by the selfish, evil female figure and hence unavailable to the male lover.’ (The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, 1975, p11)
Marina Warner wonders whether Rapunzel ‘stands for the dark time that can follow the first encounter between the older woman and her new daughter-in-law, the period when the young woman can do nothing, take charge of nothing, but suffer the sorcery and the authority – and perhaps the hostility – of the woman whose house she has entered, whose daughter she has become.’ (From the Beast to the Blonde: One Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, 1994, p220).
Margaret Atwood has even coined the term ‘Rapunzel Syndrome’ for women who wait passively, longed to be rescued. ‘These heroines,’ she says, ‘have internalized the values of their culture to such an extent that they have become their own prisons’ (Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, 1972, p209).
Women writers in the 21st century have grappled with the story in different ways, most seeking to return power to Rapunzel by giving her a more active role. Cameron Dokey (Golden: A Retelling of Rapunzel), Sara Lewis Holmes (Letters from Rapunzel), Adèle Geras (The Tower Room), Donna Jo Napoli (Zel) and Patricia Storace (Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel) are just some of the writers who have been inspired to retell this particular tale. Most have chosen to do so as a simple picture book for young readers, as a romantic fantasy novel for teenagers, or using the key motifs of the tale to add resonance to a modern day setting, again for a teenage audience.
Anne Sexton in her poem ‘Rapunzel’ and Emma Donoghue in her short story ‘Tale of the Hair’ have both cast the tale as a lesbian love affair, which is certainly a valid explanation of the witch’s motivations, in some ways more valid than the usual ‘Dark Mother’ interpretation.
I have chosen to retell the story as a historical novel for adults, partly because the Rapunzel tale has always seemed to me to be a novel about desire, obsession, and madness, and so much better suited to an adult audience. I also wanted to tell the story as if it had really happened, as if it was true.
In this way, I hoped to restore to the story some of its mystery and power, lost over the years as it was turned from a literary tale for adults into a rather strange bedtime story for young children.