“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill for
the caged bird sings of freedom”
Before there was the Cohen brothers, there was the Brothers Grimm. Jacob born in 1785, and Wilhelm in 1786 were raised in the Kingdom of Hesse (what is now central Germany). Their father died when they were young, leaving their mother Dorthea to raise six children. The eldest two Grimm brothers became the hope for the family. They were sent to get an education and eventually became two of Europe’s most preeminent philological scholars. They became interested early on in preserving the folk tales of the common people. In an effort to preserve their heritage in the face of Napoleonic oppression, they set out to unearth “every folk story ever told in German tongue.” They painstakingly collected and transcribed the tales. The collection of the tales was a communal effort. Many of the fairy tales were either collected by listening to other women story tellers, or recorded by women assisting the brothers in their project. From that collaboration the brothers produced “Children’s and Household Fairy Tales”, which has become a modern classic selling second only to the Bible in Western cultures. From them we get such classic tales as Rumplestiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the topic of my story: Rapunzel.
Recently I had a mother say to me, “Oh I took my daughters to see “Tangled.” (Based on the fairy tale Rapunzel). I loved it! It was so great. Of all the movies Disney has put out recently, this one is my favorite. You must go see it.” So go see it I did. Obviously the movie aimed for humor and it was definitely beautifully animated. Yet as I watched it I found myself being moved deeply and I wondered if anyone really understood the themes and ideas behind Rapunzel.
In the original version there was a woman who greatly longed for a child. After a long while it seemed that God was going to grant her wish. However the woman’s house overlooked the garden of an enchantress. In that garden was some beautiful rampion (rapunzel). Every day she longed to have some of the rampion. She felt she would die if she did not have it. Her husband climbs down into the garden and steals some and she eats it in a delicious salad. The next day she longed for it three times as much. So her husband dutifully steals some more, only this time he is caught by the enchantress. Greatly angered the enchantress agrees to allow him to have it if he will give her the child once it is born. So when the child is born the enchantress appears, names her Rapunzel and carries her away. The child grows up to be very beautiful with magnificent long hair, fine as spun gold. At the age of twelve, the enchantress shuts her in a tower, which lay in a forest and had no stairs nor door, but had a little window at the top. When the enchantress wanted up she would call for Rapunzel to “let down her hair” and she would climb up. Rapunzel passes the time by “letting her sweet voice resound.” One day the King’s son hears the singing and it deeply touches him. He eventually sees how the enchantress climbs up. After she has gone he too calls for Rapunzel to let her hair down. Climbing up he asks her to marry him. He is to bring a skein of silk with him every time so they can weave a ladder and escape. However, one day Rapunzel gives away the secret that she has been seeing the prince (apparently Rapunzel is very beautiful, but not too bright!). The enchantress cuts Rapunzel’s hair in a rage and banishes her to the desert, where Rapunzel gives birth to twins. When the prince comes the enchantress tricks him into climbing up. Instead of finding Rapunzel he finds the enchantress who gazes at him with “wicked and venomous looks.” He escapes by jumping out the window, but he is blinded by thorns when he lands. He roams about for some years lamenting the loss of his wife, until eventually he wanders into the desert and hears her beautiful singing. Rapunzel’s tears wets his eyes and his eyesight is restored. He leads her and their children to his kingdom and they live happily ever after. Definitely different than the Disney version for sure.
Let’s look at the themes. First we see the mother’s longing for the forbidden rampion. Here we are once again, back in the garden of Eden. The man is involved by getting the food for the woman. Once she has the rampion she “longs for it three times as much.” It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters. In describing pleasure Screwtape’s uncle reminds Screwtape that demons cannot produce a single pleasure, they can “only encourage humans to take the pleasures which God has produced, at times, or in degrees in which he has forbidden.” He says, “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.” We see that played out here. The woman eats the forbidden rampion, and then her craving increases for more. The end result of her eating the forbidden rampion is that she must give up that for which she originally longed: the child. The forbidden pleasure cost her the real pleasure which was the child.
In the Disney version of the movie Rapunzel is shown in the tower enjoying her solitude by doing various seemingly fun activities such as painting. Yet what Rapunzel represents is a very real reality for many people in this world. Kris Mohandie wrote an article for the Journal of Threat assessment called “Human Captivity Experiences.” He makes the point that “captivity provides a unifying theme to describe the dynamics that underlie many victim experiences.” What are some of the very real ways people live in human captivity situations? Here are a few: being a victim of domestic abuse, being stalked, human trafficking, prostitution, cults, being kidnapped, slavery. The first example is one that is widespread and common. Though you may not realize it, you know many people who are living in human captivity situations and you are affected by them living in this captivity. Let me say without equivocation that if you have an understanding of that, or even greater if you have experienced it first hand, you know for sure that captivity is hell. Though Disney tries to make captivity look fun, there is absolutely nothing fun about it. When you watch the movie, if you understand that, it is sobering to see Rapunzel in the tower. It’s gut wrenching. What do we do for the meanest criminals? The ones who behave the worst? We put them in solitary confinement. That is what Rapunzel is in. The only human she is allowed to see is the one who is cruel and mean to her. Believe you me, that sums up many a battering relationship. It is absolutely anguishing in reality to see a person cut off from others. It is exquisite torture to experience it. Only something evil would do that because it is mercilessly cruel.
What Rapunzel also represents is that try as you may, the human soul cannot be killed. Though she is in almost complete isolation the one thing the enchantress can’t take away from her, try as she may, is her voice. What does she do in captivity? She sings. It so beautifully depicts Maya Angelou’s poem. You can cage a bird, but you can’t cage it’s song. We could enslave African Americans, but they sang their beautiful gospel songs while working in the fields. We kept them down to a degree, but never totally. The human spirit endeavors to be heard. That is part of why I am writing this blog.
On a brighter note, the story reminds us all of the great story that has and is unfolding. The story of Rapunzel is the story of all humanity really. We have all been taken captive by evil, the evil of our own sin. We find ourselves trapped in a tower of this sin with no escape. Yet God in his mercy saw the anguish of this condition and heard the voice of our laments and sent a prince to rescue us. Christ came to free us from the bondage of being enslaved to sin. In “Tangled” we see Rapunzel rejoicing greatly at her release. She is ecstatic! She is dancing, skipping and squealing! She is rejoicing! And so should we. The great Prince has come and we have been set free! That is the greatest news that any man could ever hear. I wonder how many people who watched “Tangled” truly understood what they were watching? I hope after reading this post you do not miss the points. They are astonishingly relevant to everyone.
Paradiz, Valerie. Clever Maids: Te Secret History of The Grimm Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. First Touchstone Edition. 1996.