Maidens and Their Guardians: Interpreting the "Rapunzel" Tale

By Getty, Laura J. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1997 | Go to article overview

Maidens and Their Guardians: Interpreting the "Rapunzel" Tale


Getty, Laura J., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


One major issue when dealing with folktales lies in the difference between the folklorist method and the non-folklorist approach: the former has usually involved collecting every known variant without critical comment on their meaning, whereas the latter focuses on a single text and interprets it - failing to take into account, as Alan Dundes notes, that a folktale type does not have a text, but rather texts ("Fairy Tales" 261). The Aarne-Thompson Index (AT), which is a product of the folklorist approach, identifies recurring plot elements and structures in certain folktales that link these stories together, thereby creating a tale type: for instance, the story of Cinderella has been told differently all over the world, but all the variants can be identified as belonging to AT type 510A. Many interpretations of tales from the Grimm Brothers' Kinder- und Hausmarchen collection, in contrast, follow a non-folklorist method by treating these individual stories as if they were unique texts, instead of single examples of variants. Recently, James McGlathery has argued for a middle position between these two approaches, one that accounts for the cultural, historical, and social context in which a tale is narrated, and which allows for changes in meaning over time and settings in which it is retold. (Romance 194).

The tale of "Rapunzel" lends itself well to such a contextualizing approach, for while it was the Grimm Brothers' Kinder- und Hausmarchen collection that made the tale known to a world-wide audience, their version represents a rewrite of a French literary tale that is, itself, several steps removed from the general plot of "The Maiden in the Tower" found in previous oral and literary variants. Thus whereas it is the Grimms' version of the plot that one finds in the Aarne-Thompson Index under type 310, which lists the basic plot elements for the "Maiden in the Tower" folktale, actually the Grimms' version must be seen as simply one variant among many, with primary importance being given to comparing the different tales and to examining the overall structure, and - only then - offering interpretations.

In this essay, therefore, I wish to examine several variants of "The Maiden in the Tower" that differ in several ways from the general outline (in particular, the ending) of the Grimms' Rapunzel. Since my concern is with the tale as it existed before, or independent of, their version, the name "Rapunzel," which was first used in the 18th century, will be regarded as an alias by which "The Maiden in the Tower" subsequently came to be known. The variants I will consider come from Persia, the Mediterranean region, France, and Germany; I will examine both oral and literary versions, acknowledging along with McGlathery, Linda Degh and others that the interrelationship of the oral and literary tradition is too intertwined to separate. My procedure will be first to provide a general overview and history of the variants, drawing heavily from the work done by Max Luthi, Paul Delarue, Heinz Rolleke and others. Next, through a comparison of the variants, I will conduct a structuralist analysis of the tale and attempt to define a probable basic plot for this tale type. Finally, I will focus on the older-younger woman relationship and offer a somewhat feminist interpretation of the story, based on speculations about how the tale relates to the historical and cultural interests in which it was redacted.

For those who are familiar with Rapunzel as a German story, it may be surprising that one of the earliest recorded instances of a "hair ladder" comes from 10th-century Persia. Ferdowsi (932-1025 A.D.) is the literary alias (his real name is unknown) of a poet who wrote a Shahname, or history of kings, in order to preserve ancient Persian culture, drawing on both the oral tradition and literature. In the "Maiden in the Tower" sequence of Ferdowsi's Shahname, Roudabe offers to lower her hair to her true love, Zal, to use as a ladder to climb up on to the roof of the women's enclosure. …

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