Today, we’re going to sink deeper into the waif archetype to understand the true essence of the powerful fairytale and heroine Rapunzel.
This episode is available when you subscribe to the podcast on ApplePodcasts.com/Heroine (or wherever you get your podcasts). You can also stream it live from any browser here.
Let’s bring back Kate Forsyth – an incredible novelist and fairy tale connoisseur – from the last episode. Kate argues the motifs we believe are passive in the tale, or that look passive at first glance, really aren’t. Here’s our convo.
Majo: Yeah, I mean on the one hand her hair is kind of passive because it's dropping off the side of the building and it's being climbed on or it's being used but on the other hand –
Kate: See I don't think that is a symbol of passivity, her own hair is the only form of ingress to her, it's the only way that people can reach her in her isolated state and in the end try and think of it more her hair is actually a symbol of her own strength that is being used against her. And once she's freed from that that is when she comes into her true power. It's not necessarily a symbol of passivity, in fact Rapunzel is not a passive figure, she sings with all of her strength and that draws the prince to her, she allows herself, she takes control of her life even though she is trapped against her will in this confined space. It's a misunderstanding of the fairy tale to use her as an example of female passivity.
Majo: Yeah, that's really helpful, I love what you wrote, "Rapunzel's no passive maiden awaiting rescue. She was an active agent in events, an empowering figure. Though later versions increasingly drain the tale of it's subversive power."
Kate: I mean that is exactly right, so the earliest versions are when she's at her most active.
So what happened? Turns out the Grimm brothers, who were telling these tales in a very religious society, received a ton of backlash for the Rapunzel story. The story of lovers having sex in a tower was too racy (especially for children), so they stripped away the eroticism, darkness, and violence out of the original story. As Kate shares,
The Grimm's were trying to make their stories more suitable for children but Rapunzel was never meant for children, it was always meant for young women on the verge of their own sexual lives.
Because the truth is Rapunzel was proactive, clever, and resourceful. She was not waiting around. In one older version of the tale by Italian folk collector Giambattista Basile, Rapunzel is even more fierce, as she finds three acorns from the witch she then uses against her. Each acorn becomes an animal ally of sorts – first a dog, then a lion, and finally a wolf that devours and kills the witch. I was super into this version, and was going to go with it and be like, “See Rapunzel’s a warrior!” until I met Kate, who brought way more refinement to the conversation.
Kate was attracted to the version written by 18th Century French, female writer Charlotte Rose De La Force. Because in that version, it is Rapunzel who heals the prince with her tears. The more I reflect on both versions, I do love what De La Force did to the tale...Rapunzel’s tears are not a sign of weakness, but of power. This got me thinking about something a friend once told me, “healing doesn’t happen through force, or action, it happens through relaxation, opening…release.” Tears are a form of release, sacred tears are the release that, like the rain, allow for new growth to happen. For centuries, we’ve been shamed for having tears, for being emotional, we’re called hysterical, when our feelings are a source of our intelligence as women, and I think that’s what Rapunzel is truly all about. Feelings, sadness, grief, and tears, allow us to release and move on, allow us and others to heal. Tears are a sign of compassion. In