There once was a fair maiden, imprisoned through no fault of her own... Very appealing concept. Many aspects of the “Rapunzel” story work for the human imagination. The girl must be beautiful. The witch must be evil. Whoever saves her must be a prince. It’s a story that readers easily invest themselves in, letting their imaginations trot cheerfully alongside the plot. If the story takes an unexpected turn, the reader doesn’t balk.
Why? This is a story with thin spots. And places where readers really should think for themselves. What’s the deal? How is it that centuries of perfectly sensible people would tell and retell this story? Snow White had helpless innocence going for her. Cinderella had that persecution thing down pat. What does Rapunzel have?
Rapunzel has a set of parents who make poor decisions—both for themselves, and for their child. Sad, but true. What else? Rapunzel has a witch—who, by default, must have wicked motives at heart. What kind of mother imprisons her child? (Parents of teenagers, feel free to chime in...) Rapunzel has a prince—who must be young and handsome. Who wants her tower breached by a slobbery old guy? And Rapunzel has a fair maiden—who needs to be rescued.
This is a story that’s been rewritten a time or two, especially in recent times. (Disney princess, number 10) Certain elements of the story stay in, others are inevitably changes. Usually to make Rapunzel more of a “go-to” girl—someone who does more herself, instead of waiting for a savior.
And yet...there are other aspects of the story that are impossible to sweep under the rug, toss out the window, or tastefully erase. Perhaps because the writers aren’t paying attention, but also perhaps because the reader wants these aspects in the story.
This, I suspect, is where Rapunzel gets its mojo. The prince may be young and he may be charming, but nobody ever said he was perfect. Rapunzel herself isn’t the pristine, innocent girl found in many of the commonly known fairy tales. Most fairy tales center on characters placed in a set of circumstances. This is a story about characters who generate the plot, instead of being taken over by it.
More on this later, but can you think of stories with characters who make their own trouble? Where the story hinges on the characters putting themselves in sticky situations, even if for the right reasons?