Breaking down Rapunzel

Rapunzel. The one with all the hair.

The best known of Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 310, The Maiden in a Tower. This iconic story was the second of the Barbie movies, though it took until 2010 for Disney to finally produce the perfect note of Tangled.

It's the tale that we're telling together in The Arista Challenge. So let's break it down, shall we?

Basic Plot: Woman has pregnancy cravings and gets her husband to steal some greens from their (not-so-)friendly neighborhood witch. Witch demands the baby in return.

Witch puts the girl in a tower, names her after the plant that was stolen from her. Girl has LOOOOOONG hair, which the witch uses as a ladder up to the tower room. Girl also has beautiful singing voice.

One day, a prince happens by, hears her singing. Sees her in the window. Falls in love. Can't figure out how to get up there to her. Finds out that her hair is the ladder. Calls it down. She's scared at first, and then she falls in love. They plot to make their escape together, but then she says the wrong thing to the witch.

Witch gets angry, cuts off her hair, and tosses her into the desert, and then tricks the prince into climbing the tower, at which point she laughs in his face, pushes him back out of the window, and he blinds himself in the thorns below.

Prince wanders blind through the world for some time until he finds the girl, who may or may not have given birth to a pair of twins. She cries on his eyes, his vision is restored, and they live happily ever after.

The Parents. The mother whose foolishness led to her daughter's loss, and the father who was just trying to make his wife happy.

The Witch. The woman who's responsible for Rapunzel's prison.

Rapunzel. The girl with very long hair, and who is trapped in the tower.

The Prince. The poor fellow who happens by, falls in love, and gets his life royally messed up.

Elements and Themes.

First of all, the hair. A Rapunzel retelling isn't a Rapunzel retelling if the girl's hair isn't at least to her knees. Floor length is better. Seventy feet of it is best of all. Also, with only the rare exception, the hair WILL be cut by the end of the story. I think one of my favorite uses of the hair was Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale where her long hair was the result of the witch's growth potion, and she used her twin braids like lassos because it was wild west and delicious and brilliant.

The Tower. This doesn't have to be a literal tower - it's a space satellite in Cress by Marissa Meyer, for instance. The important part is that it's a means of isolation. It cuts Rapunzel off from the rest of the world. It is how the witch can feed her a false construct. With Blossoms Gold by Hayden Ward is an interesting twist on the theme, though, as it's the girl's agoraphobia that keeps her in the tower.

Motherhood. This is the story of a mother who traded her daughter for some greens, a witch whose parental method was "stick the girl in a tower where she can't get into trouble," and (in many versions), a girl who has an unplanned pregnancy has has to give birth in the desert and raise her children by herself until her prince can return. I think the retelling that best demonstrates this is Zel by Donna Jo Napoli.

Song. Rapunzel's singing voice is what attracts her prince to her tower. I don't see many retellings that put a heavy emphasis on this fact, but Song of the Sword by Hope Ann shows this brilliantly.

Love Against the Odds. I mean, really, things are stacked against Rapunzel and her prince. She's stuck in a tower. He has to figure out how to get up there to her, and then they face the issue of how to get her down. Then the witch finds out and he's blind and she's in the forest. Into the Wild and Out of the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst really emphasize how, beyond Beauty and the Beast, they're the tale where the hero and heroine have a real chance to get to know each other. Indeed, pretty much the only thing that could go wrong is the small fact that he was the FIRST and ONLY young man that she'd ever met.

Healing. This is the angle heavily played in Tangled. After all, it was Rapunzel's tears that healed the prince's eyes. And then there's the emotional healing due to all of the trauma they went through.

So, those are the elements I find when I read this lovely tale. What about you? Have you noticed any that I missed? What are some retellings that you've read that excellently show or brilliantly twisted these elements?


  1. "A Rapunzel retelling isn't a Rapunzel retelling if the girl's hair isn't at least to her knees. "
    This isn't an absolute, right? There was that one where she's bald, and you mentioned you liked it.
    Since I'm doing a sequel, second-time-around, story, the witch is a little smarter and is making sure long hair doesn't happen again.

    1. I haven't read Golden. However, if I remember right, the witch's DAUGHTER had the long hair in that retelling. I think.

      Sequels have a lot more freedom. Have at.

    2. I'm not making an absolute, though, just stating a convention of the fairy tale's retellings.

    3. But you stated it as almost absolute. :)


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