Maiden-in-tower tales and folk traditions can be found throughout history and cultures – and Rapunzel is probably one of the most known ones. Forbidden desires and locked doors; freedom versus captivity. If you are reading this during 2020, then you’d know we’ve had quite the ride, globally. We all had to be locked down in our own towers and many of us still are, though these towers were built long ago by our very minds. I hear many people nowadays wanting to “erase” this year and even erase some parts of history, with censorships and changing textbooks’ content, etcetera. I feel that it is absolutely important to remember history – because when we erase or choose to forget, we will repeat it. The story of Rapunzel was written during very important socio-economical times, and it is one of the very few tales, where the strict notions of “morality” didn’t dictate who was punished and who was rewarded. It was a tale written by revolutionary people who stood for human rights.
I am someone who needs freedom. My very blood needs it. Often times, I’d even rush to completing a task just so that I feel free again. And the very thought that someone could restrict me in some shape or form makes my skin crawl. I’ve been fortunate enough to keep my mind free, just as my spirit is free; I am not one to be manipulated, controlled or go with the herd, unless I myself have researched an issue and have come to that same conclusion. This is why I try to remain independent and take all information with a grain of salt. This is why I have thousands of interests and why I’m addicted to learning and finding out more and more, thereby pushing beyond my own conditioned ideas and perceptions. In fact – I often watch movies which I initially wouldn’t want to; and challenge myself to find something interesting about even the most mundane “boring” thing.
and maybe we didn’t become a revolution, but at the very least we were a questioning
When it comes to freedom, the question should be: what does it really mean to us? How much time do we actually spend trying to “free ourselves”, that we imprison or bind ourselves further? Think about this. In what way, are we in this moment already free? What do you do to keep yourself not-free, just for the sake of fighting to be free afterwards? Perhaps before we look for the freedom beyond the physical walls, we must have gotten through the inner ones. The story of Rapunzel shows us very clearly that while the girl is the one in the tower – it is the witch who is the most imprisoned of them all; for she is bound to her bitterness and maliciousness.
When we can’t travel outside, we open the other doors. Because there’s no other way. We shift the souls of our feet towards exploring the familiar yet unknown landscapes of our inner world; where new insights will emerge and we’ll make a choice whether we’d allow them to inform us, and grow us. When we are faced with limits – is when we enrich our existence and truly expand. And we become really rooted within the core of who we are; of our values, our morals and our being. Who we are matters now, especially now in these changing times. And sure I had to cancel Iceland this year … but for the first time in my life I saw the magnolia tree blossom from start to finish. And when I fight for freedom – I know my “why”.
There is also something else that we learn when we are forced in our “towers”: we learn that we don’t know it all. I admit, for someone like me who sort of knows a lot, it’s been an important lesson; one that life reminds me over and over again. It humbles me and I am grateful for it; because life is so extraordinary that it aligns perfectly just when you least expect it. And this means: we ultimately learn to trust ourselves and life, in a way we couldn’t have otherwise, if we knew it all.
Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman
These are important lessons of trust that we can learn when we are forced in isolation amidst global uncertainty; trust in something so much higher and larger and intelligent than all of us combined. Trust that life knows best and will always channel through the right people and moments on our path to support us for our highest good. We were never meant to know it all anyway.
And in our unknowing is where we create space for the miracles to come in; for allowing life to surprise us and enchant us in the most beautiful ways.
Many people might see Rapunzel as a passive character; as a girl who is isolated and needs yet another prince to save her. This is not true. She is in reality one of the most self-reliant storybook characters, who despite her limits and limitations, proved to be resourceful, brave and incredibly strong. In fact, Rapunzel was one of the most important and rebellious tales written during its time, as it touches upon important social and moral issues, considered not just taboo but were even punishable.
Rapunzel by Florence Harrison and Ernest Liebermann
Let’s go back to the beginning.
The term “fairytale” which is now used by the English speaking world as a generic label for magical children’s stories, was actually started by the literary salons of 17thcentury Paris by a group of writers who wrote and published tales for adult readers. As such, these tales often included themes that were dark, sexual, taboo, and even violent – to reflect the human condition and moral and socio-economical issues of society.
The Italian tales by writers such as Giambattista Basile and Giovan Francesco Straparola, who wrote the original stories of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, were the inspiration for generations of writers in Paris. The salons were gatherings hosted by prominent aristocratic women, where they discussed important issues of the day such as social issues of marriage, financial and physical independence, love, health and access to education. These were times of oppression and suppression, where divorce was unheard of, abuse was a daily reality, childbirth death was common, education was not given to most women and arranged marriages were the norm. Some of the most gifted women writers came to these salons, one of which was Charlotte-Rose de La Force.
She borrowed elements from the original Rapunzel called “Petrosinella” by Italian writer Giambattista Basile sixty years prior, and wrote her retold version, called Persinette, publishing it in her fairytale collection Les contes des contes in 1697. La Force was part of the group of writers who created adult fairytales in the literary salons of Paris, including the other writers, Charles Perrault, Madame D’Aulnoy and Madame de Murat.
Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman
Many people might see Rapunzel as some tale about a weak girl who plays a victim locked in a tower, waiting to be saved – and as such disempowering. But that’s not true. The tale of Rapunzel, told by both Basile and La Force, is actually very empowering telling the story of a young girl who was not weak at all. It is important to understand the essence of tales – and remember the history – so that we are more aware of just how important these voices were.
La Force, who was known as a very rebellious woman, wrote just like Basile, for an educated, aristocratic audience, that were meant to both entertain and bring awareness to contemporary life. One of the issues of that period was the common practice of arranged marriages, where daughters were used to cement alliances and settle debts; they were sold off. Sex was the husband’s legal right, whether or not the woman wanted it, consent was a mirage and rape was reality. And the disobedient daughters and women, were sent away in convents or locked up in madhouses. It is no wonder then, that French tales are filled with stories about girls handed off to wicked witches and creatures, by their cruel parents, or locked up in towers where only true love can save them.
La Force and other writers, fought hard to champion the idea of consensual marriages ruled by love and humanness. The emphasis on the themes of love and romance may seem silly today, but these stories were progressive, rebellious, meaningful and greatly important for their times. La Force herself was an independent thinker who came from a noble family and caused several scandals because she chose to live a life that was authentic and true to her heart.
Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky
Behind The Scenes: Real life is stranger than fiction.
La Force fell in love with a man much younger than herself and attempted to marry him without parental permission. His family locked him away to prevent the marriage, and she snuck into his room dressed as a bear with a travelling theatre troupe. They escaped and married, until the law caught up to them and annulled the marriage. She then published satirical works criticizing King Louis XIV and when she got caught, was exiled to a convent to pay for the crime. Actually this is where she wrote her book of fairytales.
Rapunzel, or Persinette, is a sensual story with sly humour at its core. Rapunzel is a strong character, who showed herself to be quite resourceful when it came down to it and had the courage to run away following her awakened-in-desire heart. She even became a single mother (because the dude got dropped into some thorns, lost his sight and got lost) and looked after her children for a few years in some remote unknown place, faced with many hardships.
After the two lovers reunited, Gothel sent them famine and all other imaginary evil events, but they persevered, staying strong together. Humbled by their true love, Gothel’s heart finally showed signs of humanity and she sent them well on their way. Towards the prince’s castle, of course. I can only imagine Gothel lived a better, happier life after, since she decided to let go of the bitterness in her soul.
Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky
Imagine: Rapunzel lived almost her entire life locked between four walls, with limited contact, no education and no true affection. Despite her circumstances however, she showed herself as witty, clever, resourceful, clear-minded, self-reliant, courageous and very loving. All her imposed limitations had actually given her the opportunity to develop these within her. She couldn’t depend on anything external for happiness so she had to find her own entertainments and amusements. The sweet girl didn’t even know that she was pregnant because she didn’t know what “pregnant” meant. And yet suddenly, she was a single mother in the desert left all alone to give birth and care for herself and her two children, in the outside world; the one she’s never been in, the one that she was experiencing and seeing for the first time.
Rapunzel is not a passive character. When the time comes and she is faced with someone or something she truly wants, she is initiative and brave, as she is the one who plans the escape. And she never denied her true heart of love and kindness, despite Gothel’s jealous, possessive, controlling and evil ways. There is a thing or two Rapunzel can teach us about the art of surrender. Fate doesn’t always come on our terms; it has its own timing. And often times, it requires passive acceptance and surrender. This doesn’t mean we don’t do anything with our lives – because we ourselves create our destiny by what depends on us, which is mainly our own hands, feet, mind and heart. There are times in life to lay low, other times we speak out; we choose our battles and learn the cycles of the land. But in the meantime, even if stuck in a room, we develop our character which ultimately guides our choices, and this creates our destiny.
She Wolfe Tarot
Rapunzel is one of the few tales written during its time, in which the strict notions of “morality” do not dictate who is rewarded and who is punished. Rapunzel wanders in the desert, alone, her hair taken away, and she is basically shuned from “society” after her illegitimate pregnancy is revealed. By all means, she is a “ruined and disgraced” woman because she has sex before marriage and becomes pregnant -and yet she is rewarded at the end of the tale when she is reunited with her prince and has her family complete.
Throughout the story we are shown examples of bad motherhood. The witch wanted to be a mother and yet once she was, she treated the child in the most horrible ways. When as a child Rapunzel started playing outside with the animals, feeding them and being so happy with them, Gothel became incredibly jealous and this is why she locked her in the tower. Gothel refused to let go of her control, possessiveness, insecurity and jealousy. Love is about acceptance; we can’t imprison others, manipulate them, control them or limit them, so that they love us. This is not love.
And then there’s Rapunzel. She never knew she could be a mother but once she was, she showed her love, devotion, trust, acceptance, strength and perseverance to care for her family. And she is the one who ends up with a loving family; one that she and her prince have built and will continue grow.
He shows his true love for her, not in a superficial way, but proven through time and felt only because of heart. He loves her despite her shorn hair and castaway status. She restores his sight with the warmth of her eyes, and purity of heart. They fell in love in a weird way; unexpected and spent some love nights sneaking up in a secret tower. They had children together. They suffered but found one another. Then suffered some more but continued to love one another. It’s a celebratory ending and possibly one of the most progressive and satisfying relationships of all fairytale narratives.
Rapunzel by Alix Berenzy
Do you know the story about the fish? Two fish friends are swimming the vast blue and come across a third one, “How’s the water, boys?” “It’s great,” they reply. After they swim away, and after some silence, the two friends look at each other and say, “What the hell is water?”
This is what happens to us. Rapunzel knows this because she learned this. She wouldn’t have known neither the outside world nor her inside world, unless she was faced with another perspective through which to see it and contrast it. Once she realized that there was something truer to her heart – she didn’t even hesitate to explore it.
There are many towers built either by us or by others: ego, the “I”, the narratives, the thought patterns, the cultural conditioning and all that we identify with. Our human body is a tower we always live in. Things like career, degree, status, money, partner, categories, checked boxes, colours, hobbies, and on and on and on – become extensions of our hands and legs and ears and mouths and even hearts. We become “it”.
For example, writing is what I do – it’s not who I am. The minute I stop writing this, I’ll just go back to being. Some walls are purposeful, some aren’t. Some are physical, most aren’t. This is why we need to be aware. And just like Rapunzel, once we wake up, may we all get out of the enchanted forests or towers built, which have become a prison. Once upon a time, we needed them for protection, for amusement, for resting, for safety or maybe someone else built them for us and we just didn’t know any better. May we have a heart that knows wisdom and discernment. When we find the true, we need to grab it. True love, true friend, true connections – these are so rare. Have the eyes to see it and fight for it because it’s worth it all. Have the courage to climb the walls and get your heart’s desire. Have the courage to believe and to the continue walking despite feeling like you can’t see the destination.
All human societies need to love and to be loved, and to connect with one another. This is how we can experience the full fierceness of human emotions, and only then, would we be able to understand the value of the sacred part of our life.
1909 illustration, artist unknown
What Rapunzel knows is love. She knows freedom of mind, spirit and heart. She knows that we are stronger than we think and we shouldn’t doubt how far we’ll go through thorns, mud and brick. She knows aloneness, she knows abandonement, she knows weakness, she knows fear, she knows loneliness, she knows uncertainty. And she knows love. And knows that when she doesn’t know – she’ll trust her heart, and the souls of her feet and the souls of her hands will always know what to do. She knows that we carve our own destinies and that despite our circumstances we make a choice about the kind of person we want to be; that we can always look with eyes of love and hope and faith, and build a world beyond the walls. She knows that sometimes we are locked in towers but that doesn’t mean anything. One day when we want or need, something will speak or show, and we’ll let down our hair. No matter where, no matter how, like rivers flow to sea, what is will always be. Just be true to you. Stay true to you. Just like Rapunzel. Just like La Force. Just like all those who chose to live an authentic life, and whose voices we can still hear or read. And if that means we’ll be banned or judged – so be it – as we’ll only see even clearer those who hide in the shadows for their true colours.
In love + peace,
Cover Art: Rapunzel by artist Deann Cumner
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