READING RAPUNZEL

The second episode of the “Reading, Short and Deep” podcast is devoted to a discussion of the Grimms’ version of the tale of Rapunzel. The reading proposed is very interesting, and demonstrates the explanatory power of a sociocultural Freudian approach. The discussion is illuminating and the tools proposed to analyse the fairy tale seem quite adapted. I do not wish to criticise this reading, nor to provide a full-blown alternative interpretation but merely to factor in some further considerations. I also would like to compare the tale of Rapunzel with the SF story by Ray Bradbury, “Zero Hour”, that was discussed in the first episode. So I will confine myself to a few brief remarks.

1) Pluralism: The language of the fairy tale is translated into the language of sexuality. The tower is a phallus, the roots of the rampion are phallic, letting down the hair is a sign of setting aside inhibitions, “happily ever after” means no more sexual turmoil, etc. This language is further coded in Oedipal terms. This is no dogmatic imposition: the fairy tale calls for such a reading. But other languages could be explored, in particular the language of individuation and transformation.

2) Individuation: On this reading we would be sensitive to situations of disindividuation or alientation and their transformation into more individuated states.

The matriarchal state at the beginning of the story is static and stifling, leading to the ardent wish for newness (a baby). However the mother craves satisfaction for her selfish caprice even more than the new possibility, and a matriarchal contract transfers ownership of the future baby to the sterile crone who intimidates with her magical power. The male element, the husband, is totally disindividuated, serving as a simple appendage to his wife’s desires. A possible interpretation of the witch’s words is that the rampion from her garden will serve to fecundate the mother. The newness is contained and neutralised, instaurating only a closed matriarchal dyad. This is well described in Anne Sexton’s poetic retelling of the tale.

In the next phase the situation is even more matriarchal as the masculine element has become even more attenuated, absent at first and later present only as a sort of ambience, the phallic tower in which Rapunzel lives imprisoned, a sheltered life, ignorant of the outside world. Her long hair and her singing are her own magical relation to the outside, attracting and providing entry for a new element, this time more individuated: a grown man and not a baby girl. A patriarchal imbalance is created as Rapunzel prefers this “King’s son” to the witch, “old mother Gothel”, who at least has a name, and is more individuated.

In the third phase Rapunzel has to fend not only for herself but also her children in a wasteland, and the prince wanders in misery, alone and blind, living frugally.  Both have had their protective shelter, including their “puppy love”, removed. They meet again for a more mature, more individuated, union, and Rapunzel’s magic (her tears) restores her lover’s sight, instaurating a new vision, a new relation to the outside.Rapunzel’s magic individuates and makes whole, enchanting through love and healing, whereas Gothel’s is disindividuating, proceeding by fear and punishment, mutilating.

3) Overkill: Any interpretation is one-sided, and we may be tempted to force all the details to fit some preconceived scheme. Eric Rabkin and Jesse Willis pursuing their translation of the story into sexual language go too far in one case. They comment on an expression, “The King’s son wished to go in to her”, as being explicitly sexual in meaning. They ignore that the formulation is “in to ” and not “into”. They also ignore that the same expression is used a little later for the witch: “the witch climbed up by it and went in to her”. This is an artefact of the translation, as the German reads: “der Königssohn wollte zu ihr hinauf sreigen”, “the King’s son wanted to climb up to her”.

4) Comparison with “Zero Hour”: The fairy tale seems to be more complete than the short story.

In Rapunzel we have four ages of woman: girl-child, maiden, mother, crone. In Zero Hour Bradbury gets by with only the girl child and the mother. The initial situation is one of alienation, but this time the order is patriarchal: enforced peace, the balance of terror, all-pervasive technology (in the air, at the job and at home). The mother, Mary Morris, is alienated relying on machines like the “kitchen butler” and cut off from her imagination and her intuitions. The world is without surprises, impregnable, stabilised. It has almost eliminated all possibility of transformation. Yet children are a vector of change.

The little girl Mink is emprisoned, like all children under nine, by parental discipline (this corresponds to the tower in Rapunzel), and like Rapunzel she is open to newness through her imagination (Drill corresponds to the King’s son, but also to the witch, as his magic is negative, a false promise of freedom by punishment of adults and scoffers; the hammers and pipes correspond to Rapunzel’s hair).

Mink is living things in terms of a fairy tale matrix (“I might be queen”). However, here the fairy tale serves only to mystify, to manipulate, and to disindividuate the children. The mother is deaf, she has “shut her ears” to what is happening; the father is blind, he looks at the childrens’ game only to check that there is no electricity involved, and he sees no danger.

The alienation has gone too far, the polarisation is too extreme. Change will come, only explosively, by means of the phallic invader from another dimension, and no longer by the gentle ingress of a loving prince.

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