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Rapunzel: Censorship in Fairy Tales

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    The Grimm brothers have a rich collection of fairy tales. This is not a surprise because writing or telling fairy tales is a way to introduce children to some themes, like oedipal conflict, sibling rivalry, pubertal awakening and adult sexuality (Oliver 85-86), which may otherwise overwhelm them.  Because fairy tales are mostly passed on through oral tradition, there may be different versions of one fairy tale.  Rapunzel is an example of a fairy tale which the Grimm brothers themselves have written not just one version of.  The two main versions of the tale are the Grimms’ 1812 and 1857 versions.

    These two versions compared side by side will illustrate the Grimm brothers’ attempt to make the story appropriate for children but without completely omitting parts from the plot outline.  Even with the presence of other writers’ versions of Rapunzel, the 1812 and 1857 versions of the Grimm brothers have best kept the tale’s original literal and symbolic representations of pubertal awakening and sexuality although the latter version has been sanitized for children’s reading.

    The most popular versions of fairy tales are those written especially for children, because they will definitely have a bigger audience.  Understandably, the original Grimm versions are not those read aloud as children’s bedtime stories.  Rapunzel is no exception.  The fairy tale does have some versions changed to suit the culture of a country, for example, Sugarcane: A Caribbean Rapunzel by Patricia Storace.  In this version, the heroine’s mother is a fisherman’s wife who craves sugarcane, not rampions or rapunzels. “Storace’s story cleaves close to the original’s basic elements: the sorceress locks Sugarcane in a high tower…Sugarcane’s voice draws a handsome young man to her high prison, and the young couple falls secretly in love.  The story allows a more hopeful (and chaste) ending: the lovers escape in a whirl of terrifying magic and hold a joyful wedding before having their own child” (Engberg 7).

    The Grimm brothers’ “Rapunzel” is not the first version of the tale of a maiden with long hair trapped in a high tower by a wicked sorceress.  Rapunzel’s story is preceded by earlier, similar tales which are “Parslinette” written by the French Marie Rose Caumont de la Force in 1697 and the Italian tale “Petrosinella” by Giambattista Basile (Mazzoni 18).  Both versions have the heroine’s mother craving for parsley instead of rapunzel.  The sexual overtones are already present in the earlier versions.  When the Grimm brothers have published their version, they have been criticized for including an inappropriate tale into a collection that children “could get their hands on” (Mazzoni 18).

    The “Rapunzel” tale must have created a considerable impact for it to be retold in many versions, and in various countries.  It is then a fascinating story to analyze in order to discover the themes it employs, especially those that adults may discern but children will not even get a chance of hearing about because they are the original forms of the folk tales which have been later censored to become the fairy tales children know and love.

    “Rapunzel” is a tale among other fairy tales that explore the repression of female sexuality.  “We must look closely to discover that it is at puberty that Rapunzel is locked in a tower, Snow White is sent out to be murdered, and Sleeping Beauty put to sleep. Such heroines have their freedom severely restricted at a time in life when heroes are discovering independence and increased power” (Stone 47).  “Rapunzel” is then part of the group of fairy tales who have defenseless maidens waiting for someone to rescue them or release them from spells.  “The restriction of women at puberty can also be interpreted as a reaction of men to the threat of female sexuality” (Stone 47).  This shows the double standards that even modern society still practices; these are the standards that provide men with more sexual freedom than women.

    The Rapunzel tale starts with a married couple wanting to have a child of their own.  After a long time of waiting, the woman finally becomes pregnant.  She craves rampions, or rapunzels.  However, the rampions can only be found at a fairy’s/sorceress’ garden.  The man has to steal the rampions from there.  He gets away with it during the first time, but his wife craves for more.  When the fairy/sorceress catches the husband, she spares him but with the condition that when the child is born, the couple will give the baby to her.  She takes the child right after birth, and names her Rapunzel.  Rapunzel grows up to become “the most beautiful child under the sun”, and so at the age of twelve she is locked in a high tower. There she stays and lets her guardian climb up the tower through her long, golden hair.  One, day when the prince sees the fairy/sorceress climbing up through Rapunzel’s hair, he decides to do the same when the guardian is away.  When he does, Rapunzel is first frightened having seen a man for the first time but soon they fall in love.  Later, when the sorceress finds out, she banishes Rapunzel into the wilderness where she suffers greatly, until she is reunited with her prince.

    Rapunzel is more than just a fairy tale made to entertain children.  In fact, as mentioned earlier it has been considered inappropriate to be placed in a compilation of stories for children.  There are many themes that are discussed in the narrative.  Each character represents something bigger than his, or her, own role.  For, example, the character that locks Rapunzel in the tower, is a wicked sorceress who is, of course, an older woman.  She represents parents who want their children, especially their daughters, kept innocent from sexuality (Mazzoni 19).  The action used by the parent figure is extreme, locking the young girl at the age of twelve, a time when sexual feelings may be awakened in the girl.

    The fact that later on Rapunzel is still able to meet the prince while on the tower may be a reminder to parents that growing up is inevitable; it may also mean that if children want to leave they will eventually leave.  Moreover, Rapunzel is locked up so her desire to leave her parent figure may actually be stronger than what is usual in other children.  If she does not feel a sense of injustice, she must have felt some curiosity about how the world is like after she has turned twelve.  On the other hand, the prince gets to travel into unknown places so that he is able to encounter the tower Rapunzel is imprisoned in.  Males are shown as more dynamic, and though also youthful, they are free to go where they want when they want.

    Girls like Rapunzel are expected to remain virginal until the parent figure decides it is time for them to get married.  Children who read the fairy tale will not be able to see the sexual theme that has been diluted by the Grimm brothers.  It is best that it remains this way because “to a child, says Bettelheim, sex is disgusting, frightening, and beastly. By acknowledging these feelings of revulsion, the fairy tale enables the child to transcend and ultimately to transform sexual anxiety into acceptance and pleasure” (Oliver 89).  Little girls who do read into the sexuality of “Rapunzel” may derive the wrong notion that “as they brush their own tresses, they too may dream that by offering their bodies as vehicles to the waiting prince, they can escape the confines of a walled existence.  Unfortunately, fairy tales do not teach alternative paths to freedom” (Oliver 91).

    In addition to the role of parent figure, the sorceress in “Rapunzel” is also “the instrument for the inculcation of sexual repression in the young girl” (Oliver 89).  The sorceress acts as if Rapunzel is not capable of making responsible decisions regarding her sexuality. Imprisoning the young girl may have increased her curiosity and willingness to explore what is forbidden.  Years before her imprisonment, her biological father has also done something forbidden: stealing rampions from the sorceress’ garden.  Rapunzel has become a ransom for her parents’ irresponsible actions.  This misuse of the daughter further establishes the helplessness and passiveness of women in fairy tales.  They are used as pawns by way of ransom or reward.  What can also be noted of is the naming of the girl “after the object of craving” (Mazzoni 18).  The docile maiden may still be locked in her tower if not for becoming the prince’s object of desire.  It is meeting him that has changed her submissive life.  The question will now be if she is being removed from one form of submission to another, because the prince is already established as a more dominant, male character.  This is compared to Rapunzel’s submissiveness under the powerful, parent figure.

    “Rapunzel” has two main versions, the 1812 and 1857 versions, the earlier being the Grimms’ original version of the story.   They are the best versions to compare to each other because they best show the transition of the tale from a folk tale which implies sexuality to the cleaned up version for children.  The two versions are also both written by the Grimm brothers.  It is the first version that critics deem to be inappropriate material for children.  The most crucial difference in the two versions is on the extent of intimacy between Rapunzel and the prince.  The first version reads as follows:

    “At first Rapunzel was afraid, but soon she took such a liking to the young king that she made an agreement with him: he was to come every day and be pulled up.  Thus they live merrily and joyfully for a certain time, and the fairy did not discover anything until one day when Rapunzel began talking to her and said, “Tell me Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes have become tight for me and no longer fit? (B. Grimm xxxi)”

    This is changed to:

    “When he entered the tower, Rapunzel was first terribly afraid, for she had never laid eyes on a man before.  However, the prince began to talk to her in a friendly way and told her that her song had touched his heart so deeply that he had not been able to rest until he had seen her… They agreed that until then he would come to her every evening…the sorceress did not notice anything, until one day Rapunzel blurted out, “Mother Gothel, how is it that you’re much heavier than the prince?  When I pull him up, he’s here in a second (B. Grimm)”.

    In the second version, the Grimm brothers try to put in some romance by making the prince explain how he falls in love with Rapunzel’s voice, and with Rapunzel herself.  Meanwhile, the attraction in the first version happens suddenly, without any explanation.  It seems to suggest that Rapunzel will like any man since she has not since a man before.  Trysts with the prince become more of sexual experimentation, not the meeting of two people who are really in love.

    Rapunzel’s guardian is also changed from a fairy to a sorceress.  The second version emphasizes Rapunzel’s goodness against a sorceress’ evil, while in the first version she is portrayed as the daughter who has done something very wrong against her fairy godmother – getting pregnant out of wedlock. The guardian, described as a fairy, must have been right when she locks up Rapunzel. She still ends up pregnant, though.  Whatever the intention is in the change from fairy to sorceress, the main problem that has been addressed in the first version is the presence of obvious sexuality that may embarrass the parent telling the story to her children (Mazzoni 18).

    There are other changes that separate the second version from the first.  One of the changes that are part of the disguising of the sexual nature of the first version is the mention of the twins that Rapunzel gives birth to.  She still gives birth in the end of the second version but the inclusion of a sexual relationship is much more subtle.  There are also signs that the Grimm brothers are trying to create a more pious version, which will be accepted fully by its former critics.  In the first version, the tale goes “Finally, however, the woman came to be with child”, while in the edited version it says “Finally the woman came to believe that the good Lord would fulfill her wish” (J. a. Grimm).  In both versions, the prince throws himself from the tower in grief when he finds out that Rapunzel is no longer there.  However, the details about what happens to him when he falls have changed.

    “He escaped with his life, but he lost his eyesight in the fall” says the first version.  It is curious to know that in the second version, the loss of eyesight is more explicit in nature:  “He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell poked out his eyes”.  The sexuality becomes more subtle but the violence is more emphasized, as if to show that doing something bad will result to something as gruesome as the prince’s fate.  The fairy tale becomes a story with a warning against sexuality outside of marriage.  Moreover, the parental figure, which has become more fearsome as she changes from fairy to sorceress, is given a more maternal side.  In both versions, the fairy/sorceress catches the man stealing from her garden.

    However, in the first version, when the man explains how his wife needs the rapunzels because of her pregnancy, the fairy replies:   “I will accept your excuse and even allow you to take as much rapunzel as you want, if you will give me the child that your wife is now carrying.”  In the second version, she says “If things are as you say, I will allow you to take as much rapunzel as you want. But under one condition: You must give me the child that your wife will bring to the world. It will do well, and I will take care of it like a mother.”  The first version reveals only a bargain, with the child as the ransom for her parents’ mistake.  It is a cold judgment.  The second version makes use of the child as a ransom as well, but the sorceress though supposedly more powerful and fearsome offers to be Rapunzel’s new mother.  This solidifies the sorceress’ role as the parental figure which may have been too strict on her ward.

    The sorceress may think that this is the best way to raise an upright and virginal daughter, especially someone who will obviously have many suitors.  An evidence of this interpretation of maternal protection can be found in the sorceress’ exclamation upon discovery of Rapunzel’s meetings with the prince:  “You godless child,” cried the sorceress. “What am I hearing from you? I thought I had removed you from the whole world, but you have deceived me nonetheless” (Mazzoni 19).  The sorceress believes that locking up Rapunzel in a high tower away from countless temptations is justified by her desire to make her daughter pure.  This suggests that the imprisonment is not part of the punishment of Rapunzel’s parents.  Instead, it is for the protection of Rapunzel’s virtue, at least in the point of view of the sorceress.  It can be also noticed that she calls Rapunzel “godless”.  This scene when observed more closely slowly becomes more like any other mother finding out her daughter’s unacceptable behavior.

    “Rapunzel” is not purely the Grimm brothers’ brainchild; it has previous versions with the same prevalent themes and has been given several other versions including contemporary and culturally diverse ones.  However, the Grimm brothers’ 1812 and 1857 versions best illustrate and represent the attempts of writers to censor fairy tales in order that they may be enjoyed by children without “corrupting” them.  In a way, the society plays the sorceress godmother to children readers who like Rapunzel, have to be kept away from sexuality before they are old enough to make responsible decisions.  Children have to be contented with the sanitized and for some fairy tales, their more popular Disney versions.

    Works Cited:

    • Engberg, Gillian. “Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel.” Book Titles (September 2007): 7.
    • Grimm, Brothers. “Rapunzel.” Zipes, Jack. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. n.d.
    • Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Rapunzel by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.” 4 December 2007 <>.
    • Mazzoni, Cristina. Maternal Impressions: Pregnancy and Childbirth in Literature and Theory. Cornell University Press, n.d.
    • Oliver, Rose. “Whatever Became of Goldilocks?” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 2, No3. (Autumn 1977): 85-93.
    • Stone, Kay. “Things Walt Disney Never Told Us.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 88, No.
    • 347, Women and Folklore (January-March 1975): 42-50.

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    Rapunzel: Censorship in Fairy Tales

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