Ever since I saw Disney’s movie Tangled, my literary-deconstruction-sense has been tingling. The story of Rapunzel is a very old story, and it has a sort of mythic resonance to it, which Disney’s re-imagining didn’t mess with. If anything, the writers slipped in various lietmotifs and recurring symbolism that complemented the older story. There’s a lot to see here, and I really want to tease it all out into the open.
This whole thing is going to be chock-full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, and intend to, don’t read this one.
Maybe a little context is in order first.
1) The Salad Bar: Rampion, Rudaba, and Radishes
Okay, first, let’s look at the originals. The story of Rapunzel probably descended from (or is related to) the Persian story of Rudaba, but many elements integral to the Rapunzel story (such as the tower of isolation) are absent, so we’ll pick up the thread at the German folktales that the Grimm Brothers collected. The folktale begins with a standard faerie-tale trope, as old as Hannah or Sarai: the childless couple who want children. This particular couple live next-door to a faerie (or sorceress, depending on the version), who has a magnificent garden.
Well, it came about that the childless wife does become pregnant one day. While pregnant, she has an incredible craving for a plant that she sees through her window. (In some versions it’s rampion radishes that the wife sees; in other versions lamb’s lettuce; sometimes it’s parsley; of course, in the most familiar version, it’s the rapunzel plant.) She has such an intense craving for this plant that her life becomes threatened, and her husband repeatedly sneaks into the faerie/sorceress’s garden to steal some for his wife to eat. Long story short, he gets caught, and the sorceress/faerie demands payment in the form of their firstborn child; when the girl is born (and is named after whatever the plant was that her mother ate), the faerie/sorceress/whatever claims her.
Raised in isolation, in a tower without door or stair, little Rampion/Rapunzel holds the only means of entrance in her hair, which she lets down for “Frau Gothel.” One day a young prince overhears the means of entrance and begins to visit Rampion/Rapunzel when the faerie/sorceress is away. Eventually Rapunzel accidentally gives away the secret of her lover’s visits–in the older versions, by asking why her dresses are all suddenly too tight. Enraged, the sorceress/faerie cuts Rapunzel’s hair, sends her away to the desert, and when the prince next comes visiting, she throws him down to have his eyes blinded by thorns.
Years later, as an older Rapunzel is living in poverty in the desert with her twin children, the blinded prince comes stumbling across her path. She recognizes him, weeps over him, and her tears heal his wounded eyes. Then they all go back to the prince’s kingdom, where (you can hear it coming) they live happily ever after.
Okay, so on reading this, you can see that Disney changed a lot between the Grimm’s version and their own. No, duh. I doubt Disney could have made the Grimm’s original, what with ‘Punzel getting preggers and the prince getting blinded and all. But look at what survived the cut.
–It all starts because Rapunzel’s parents dug up a plant to feed to Rapunzel’s mother, who was dying.
–Frau Gothel takes baby Rapunzel as repayment/vengeance
–The tower of isolation, while no longer representing sexual chastity, still is associated with parental protectiveness (or, you know, foster-parental protectiveness).
–Rapunzel’s lover is wounded when trying to visit her again, when Gothel is the one waiting for him instead.
–Rapunzel’s lover is healed by her tears.
Sure there’s a lot more that was added–animal friends, musical numbers–but I’d wager that a play-by-play comparison between Grimm’s and Disney’s versions of Beauty and the Beast would show more was changed in that movie. (I mean, where are Maurice’s other daughters? And where did Gaston come from?)
Besides, I like what they added. Whoever the scriptwriters were had a sense of the mythic. Let’s dig deeper…
I’ve recently been introduced to the world of alchemical literary theory by better literary critics than I, such as Mr. Pond and Professor John Granger. Most of you are no doubt familiar with the concept of alchemy–a medieval attempt to change one element into another (usually lead into gold), the ancestor of chemistry. What literary alchemy is, is a story of purification that roughly follows the three stages (and three colors) of classical alchemy.
The story of Eugene FitzHerbert, a.k.a. Flynn Rider, is one such story of purification. When we first meet him he’s somewhere between a Loveable Rogue and a Phantom Thief, stealing for profit and for glory, double-crossing his less-than-savory accomplices when it suits him, and working on maintaining an Errol-Flynn-like reputation as a “dashing” outlaw. Despite his claim that he “doesn’t do backstory,” we learn that his childhood upbringing has led him to prize material gain above all else. Hardly the noble prince of the original story! Eugene/Flynn is somewhat lost in his own facade, buying his own publicity, but he’s all spectacle and little substance. By the end of the story, however, he’s willing to make selfless choices, even ones that benefit someone else but are detrimental to himself. What changed?
In alchemy, the three stages of altering a base metal into gold were: Nigredo, the “black” stage, the stage of putrefaction or decomposition, in which the base metal is broken down into a sort of primal matter; Albedo, the “white” stage, the stage in which impurities are washed away; and Rubeo, the “yellow-red” stage, the stage of fusion, in which the material finally took on the properties of gold.
Nigredo — a breakdown, a state of ultimate despair. Eugene/Flynn has one such moment when he and Rapunzel are trapped in a tunnel that is rapidly filling with water. The light goes out, leaving him in total blackness. All that he is, or that he thinks he is, rather, has broken down, failed him, and he comes to the end of himself. This is when he finally admits his real name.
Albedo — the removal of false self-images, the gain of insight into ones self. The white horse Maximus, the symbol of law and justice, joins the party, and Flynn comes to an uneasy truce with him. Meanwhile, they travel with Rapunzel through the white city, a sort of conflation of Minas Tirith and Mont St. Michel, where (as Rapunzel dances) Flynn begins to wonder if material gain is really what his heart’s deepest desire is.
Rubeo — the fusion of spirit with matter, of pure with impure; the solar awakening. Out on the lake, in a boat with Rapunzel, Flynn reevaluates his life goal, his dream. As he does so, the two are surrounded by Rapunzel’s dream, hundreds and hundreds of burning sky-lanterns, in the film’s most visually impressive moment. The fire flickers yellow-red, and Eugene/Flynn comes to a decision, and finds wholeness.
I wish I knew if there were any alchemical significance to the color green, because in the film, green seems to be associated with Flynn’s past. The Stabbington brothers wear green, and right after the sky-lantern scene, we see them on the shore holding a green lantern. I’ve been picking at that but can’t find any deeper meaning to the color choice.
3) Rapunzel and the Light
Rapunzel’s story, however, is not a story of purification. It’s a story of revelation. And thus it’s quite fitting that the symbols and motifs that surround her story are not those of the alchemical process, but those of the properties of light, particularly sunlight.
–The “drop of sunlight” that formed the magical flower
–The crest of Rapunzel’s family is a yellow sun
–The various suns that Rapunzel subconsciously worked into her paintings
–The sky-lanterns that Rapunzel’s parents send up in her memory
–Her own hair and its glow
–The mirror that Gothel obsessively looks in; mirrors reflect light.
–Even her animal friend, Pascal, is a chameleon, changing his color to reflect different wavelengths of visible light.
During the film’s song “Mother Knows Best,” Mother Gothel sings about how Rapunzel can’t ever leave the tower because of all the scary things that are out in the world, making disparaging remarks about Rapunzel’s ability to handle “life out there.” (“Mother knows best./Take it from your mumsy./On your own you won’t survive./Sloppy, underdressed,/Immature, clumsy,/Please!/They’ll eat you up alive!”) As she sings, she walks around slamming shut windows, making the interior of the tower darker and darker. Rapunzel follows her around, trying to re-light candles so she can see, but Gothel just keeps putting them out again. Symbolically this one’s a no-brainer: Gothel is figuratively keeping Rapunzel in the dark, keeping her cloistered and isolated for selfish reasons. Rapunzel knows nothing of her real parentage, nothing of her own past–and doesn’t even know why it is that a cloud of lights appear in the sky every year on her birthday.
Light is truth, is knowledge–you can know what is in a lit room, but not in a dark room. Light reveals. It’s no accident, then, that Rapunzel’s longing for self-knowledge is represented by her longing for light–to know what the “lights in the sky,” the sky-lanterns, are.
When Rapunzel finally has her moment of revelation, it comes in the form of the sun. Groping through dim childhood memories, she suddenly sees that all her paintings contain the same sun-crest that hung over the city–her family’s crest. The girl whose hair holds the power of the sun-flower can now see clearly, see who she is, see what Gothel is. Her self-knowledge comes symbolized by the sunlight she embodies.
Gothel’s disparagement of Rapunzel hit all sorts of uncomfortable notes with myself, when I was watching this movie in the theater: I’ve witnessed codependent relationships and emotionally abusive relationships, and Gothel’s mother/daughter relation with Rapunzel had strong hints of both. With her constant emotional manipulation she tries to keep Rapunzel on a leash, and that manipulation seems associated with Gothel’s mirror.
[looking in the mirror with Rapunzel]
Mother Gothel: Look in that mirror. I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady.
Mother Gothel: Oh look, you’re here too.
Mother Gothel: I’m just teasing! Stop taking everything so seriously.
Mirrors reflect light, but they don’t always reflect light accurately. Think of a funhouse mirror, that stretches or distorts its image. Likewise, if light represents truth, Gothel’s mirror is a skewed perspective on truth–a view of the world that Rapunzel’s foster-mother has foisted upon her.
Notice the circumstances under which the mirror breaks:
Mother Gothel: Now, Now. It’s alright. Listen to me. Everything is as it should be.
[tries to touch her but Rapunzel grabs her wrist]
Rapunzel: No! You were wrong about the world. And you were wrong about me! AND I WILL NEVER LET YOU USE MY HAIR AGAIN!
[Gothel breaks free of Rapunzel’s grip only to cause a nearby mirror to fall and smash. Rapunzel then turns to leave]
The mirror breaks at the moment that Rapunzel rejects her foster mother’s worldview, the skewed version of reality that she had been feeding Rapunzel. The twisting of light has ended, now that Rapunzel knows who she is.
When Flynn cuts Rapunzel’s hair, to keep her from being “kept” by Gothel, he does so not with a knife or with scissors, but with a shard of the broken mirror. He is, in essence, using the broken symbol of Rapunzel’s former psychological shackles to free her–because by cutting her hair, by breaking the healing enchantment even before it can be used to save him, he is releasing the reason for Gothel’s hold on Rapunzel.
4) Gothel and Time
Rapunzel’s story of revelation is associated with light; Eugene/Flynn’s story of purification is associated with the colors of alchemy; Gothel’s story, however, is one that has to do with time.
Neither a sorceress nor a faerie, in this version, Gothel is simply an old woman obsessed with youth, a sort of Elizabeth Bathory, selfishly hoarding the regenerative power of the sun-flower–and when that is taken from her, stealing the child that has inherited its powers. Her gaze turns past-ward, to the “beautiful young lady” that she was and wishes to remain. Listen, too, to the song she sings to activate the flower’s (and later Rapunzel’s hair’s) enchantment:
“Flower, gleam and glow, let your power shine. Make the clock reverse, bring back what once was mine. Heal what has been hurt, change the Fates’ design. Save what has been lost, bring back what once was mine, what once was mine.”
It’s all about reversing time, stopping decay, and clinging to what was. Gothel is, in Perelandrian terms, “one who shrinks back from the wave that is coming… and would like… to bring back the wave that is past.” She seeks to keep things as they were.
And this is true not only of her own physical appearance, but of her relationship with Rapunzel. She seeks to keep Rapunzel a child, essentially–dependent on herself, incapable of venturing out into the world. She wants this for purely selfish reasons, of course–to keep the magical power of the sun-flower close where she can get to it.
But this has its mirror in real-world parenting. What of helicopter moms, or obsessive parents who treat their thirty-year-old children like infants, or other such parenting phenomena?
My mom has a great phrase: “A good mother works herself out of a job.” That, essentially, it is the job of a parent to equip and encourage their children to become independent adults, rather than to hold them back at their favorite stages. A bittersweet thought, but one essential for a healthy parent/child relationship. Gothel, of course, has no such sense, but then, Gothel isn’t setting out to be a good parent, just to keep the source of her eternal youth a prisoner.
Rapunzel: I can’t believe I did this.
Rapunzel: I can’t believe I did this. *I can’t believe I did this!* Mother would be so furious. That’s OK though, I mean what she doesn’t know won’t kill her. Oh my gosh. This would kill her. *This is so fun!* I, am a horrible daughter. I’m going back. *I am never going back!* I am a despicable human being. *Woo-hoo! Best. Day. Ever!*
Ultimately this is a coming-of-age story, a story about finding oneself and one’s dreams. But for all that cliche stuff, there’s a surprising amount of depth to Tangled, and a lot of room to dig. I haven’t enjoyed a Disney film this much since Beauty and the Beast, and as a literature teacher, I haven’t had so much fun exploring the deeper meanings of a Disney film since, well, ever.
What did I miss? I’m sure there are layers here that I haven’t yet touched–this movie is like an onion, or parfait. Thoughts?