unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through



illus-085bhis tale strikes to the heart of what fairy tales are. What they have been and what they can be. It is, happily, one of the best known of the Grimms tales. It is, rather unhappily, the most recent to fall into the clutches of the Disneyfication monster (for which my spell checker wants me to substitute ‘Densification’—not too far off really). I say ‘unhappily’ not only because watching the newer Disney adaptations are like watching some mean-spirited hoodlum stamping on the precious relics of a happy childhood, this particular tale speaks with ever deeper meaning and power that I could have guessed as a sweetly oblivious six-year-old.

I’m not going to summarize this tale. I assume you know it. Heck, I saw it on Lamb Chop. This tale is simply embedded in our culture, for all its troubling symbolism. If you don’t actually know this tale, you can read it here.

The tale, simply, is about growing up. It is, as the sages would say, a coming-of-age tale. A story about puberty and adolescence, sexual maturation and true love. Not all at the same time. But it’s about how the one can blossom into the other. Simply and poignantly, with all the heartbreak and sweetness of a summer camp romance, “Rampion” is the tale of two confused young people who fall in love, without really understand what that means, or what the ‘rules’ are. They endure physical and emotional damage from prudish cultural enforcers, from their own violations of unstated morals, from their own physical development and uncertainty.

The tale begins with the inflexibility of law in the perilous realm. Do not climb the wall and eat of the dainties in the garden. Do not offend wizards. Do not steal.

An obliging husband does all three when his pregnant wife develops a craving for rampion salad. I find this detail to be quite touching really—the irrational craving of the expecting mother, the noble but thick-headed thoughtfulness of the soon-to-be-proud father. There is a tenderness and humanness in this tale already that many tales lack.

Of course, the father breaks the Rules, and—with unforgivable cowardice—agrees to exchange one theft for another. That’s the Rules. The witch claims the long-awaited and much-loved daughter, and names her Rampion (or Rapunzel, in the German). You have stolen my rampion she seems to say. Therefore, I will steal yours.

The little girl enters immediately into bereavement and loss. She lives in seclusion, safe in the garden. True to her name (see the link above) she is beautiful as anything. As a little girl, she’s given a chance to explore, even if a limited world. As soon as puberty begins, however, the seclusion becomes absolute. The witch believes the child should know nothing of her world, of her own development.

Rampion’s imprisonment is a sort of silence, unspoken (or spoken) taboo and shame inflicted on an already fearful menarcheal young woman. She is not allowed to understand. The implication is that she is ‘other,’ something is ‘wrong with her.’ She is restricted into vague half-knowledge and fear of growing up; her developing sexuality becomes at once her blind alley, and her only locus of identity.

So, despite everything, boy meets girl. He takes the risk—and it is a very real risk—of exploring his own sexuality by actually talking with a girl. (When you’re a teenage boy, that takes a lot more courage than you’d expect.) His encounter with Rampion—his volitionally climbing the tower—brings sexual maturity to both of them. Physical maturity, I mean. Emotional and spiritual maturity doesn’t always—doesn’t usually—arrive at the same time.

The Grimms are at their most Victorian here. There’s a fastidiousness, a primness, when they say:

At first Rapunzel was terribly frightened when a man such as her eyes had never yet beheld, came to her; but the King’s son began to talk to her quite like a friend, and told her that his heart had been so stirred that it had let him have no rest, and he had been forced to see her. Then Rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, “He will love me more than old Dame Gothel does;” and she said yes, and laid her hand in his.

Oh, really? He began to talk ‘quite like a friend’ so she ‘put her hand in his.’ Then, I suppose, she put the kettle on and they had tea and biscuits and talked about their health and the weather. Because that’s always what teenagers who are meeting teenagers of the opposite sex for the very first time always and only think about, ever.

This explanation passes as given. They decide to steal Rampion again. With a silk ladder. Why a silk ladder? Really? Bob the girl’s hair and get out of there. You’ll be halfway to Carthage before the witch gets back. But no, and no again, and would you believe that little old ladies are heavier than burly princes, and Rampion would just so blithely ask, ‘Why are you so much heavier than my boyfriend?’

All this is a bit incredulous. Except—awkwardly—these are teenagers we’re dealing with here. The text explicitly says that Rampion can’t be much older than fifteen at most. Teens aren’t exactly renowned for critical thinking. The frank fact of the matter is, they don’t know how to handle their shared discovery of sexuality. They think it has to be locked away, oppressed and repressed. It’s taboo. They are not allowed and thus not able to explore sexuality as part of humanness, but only as repressed and ‘dirty.’ Through the imprisonment of natural development, the tower encompasses their relationship. They are not able to communicate apart from that.

Which is, frankly, tragic. The story culminates, as teen romances so often do, especially when there’s intimacy, in heartbreak and deep woundedness. Rampion is humiliated and abandoned. Because she dared—dared—to try to understand her developing womanhood (admittedly not through the best means, but she didn’t know any better) she is robbed of her self-identifying symbol—her long hair—the outward physical beauty which, she thinks, is why she can be loved. She’s sent away, robbed of a family and belonging. This is emotional and familial abuse, really. She has to live in a miserable hut in the wilderness, a social outcast—a single mother with twin children.

Oh, ah—the Grimms stutter a bit here—she had twins. Somehow. Holding hands can be bad.

When the prince comes, he too is attacked by the cruel witch, the keeper of the taboo and the repressor of sexual development. The result is he throws himself from the tower to be broken and blinded by a cruelly welcoming crown of thorns. His eyes, source of his initial desire for Rampion, are taken from him. The eyes and the hair are gone. The ephemeral, physical symbols of sexuality, till now the whole of the relationship and, the young people think, all that sexuality and love really are, have been removed.

This is the act of violence that opens the door for grace. This is where it is a fairy tale; most teen romances I’ve heard of don’t end like this. Through grief and loss—through separation and rejection—the young people discover each other again, despite their pain. As they are reunited, drawn together not just in physical attraction but in spiritual empathy, with co-suffering, they experience healing, co-resurrection.

Rampion’s tears bring back sight to the prince; the relationship is healed, the love that was there clumsily blossoms and matures. They can understand sexuality for what it is—not a self-defining prison, but as a facet of humanness and love, a depth and complexity to a deeper relationship and understanding. In the end, through loss and through violence, in spite of grief, they are restored to loving family and emotional healing. They grow up, and find that happiness isn’t just for a distant ever after.

The tale is problematic in many ways. Teen sexuality and pregnancy, social taboos and attitudes surrounding it—from ‘teens are asexual’ to ‘teens should sleep around wherever,’ both deeply destructive, as I see it—are difficult questions. I certainly don’t want anyone to think I’m encouraging teen sex, or think that sexual activity is a healthy way for adolescents to learn about their sexuality. But making sexuality taboo—simply a temptation that will ruin your life—doesn’t work either.

I find in this tale a deeply sensitive and emotional handling of these subject, one that offers hope and healing despite the collision of maturity and taboo, of prudence and folly, of love and despair. (I doubt whether the Disney movie will handle this well at all.) It doesn’t give clear answers—nor should it. But it can, I think, help us understand.

And yet, looking at the tale again, a deeper meaning strikes me. Perhaps there’s more here than sexuality and growing-up. Perhaps there’s more here than boy meets girl. Perhaps—and this is a glimmer in my mind—the tale can be read as a picture for the struggles, the adversity, the pain of a soul on the way to union with G-d.

But that, as Kipling taught us to say, is another story.



2 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Fascinatingly, and supporting your reading that the story hinges on the witch’s attempt to shelter Rapunzel from sexuality–in the first edition, Rapunzel’s question that betrays her to the witch was not “Why are you so much heavier than the prince?” but “Why is my dress getting so tight around the waist?” Bowdlerization took effect by the second edition.

  2. Pingback: Unknotting “Tangled” | Mark Of The Red Pen

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