Scattering Rapunzel’s Hairpins: A Creative Process for Modern Fairy Tale Retelling
Guest Blog by Alicia K. Anderson
The call for stories for the Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline anthology appeared at the same time as the quarter’s syllabus for Folk and Fairy Tale Traditions class. I’m pursuing a degree in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute, which is nearly as fantastical a sentence to write as a fairy tale retelling might be. I hadn’t wanted to write Rapunzel, but I saw the image of her standing on a factory floor with her hair in a tight golden bun. I could see the love interest in my mind’s eye tell her that she needed to let her hair down. This was the first hint I had of the story that would become ‘Ramps and Rocket’.
Maiden in the ToweR
I wanted to make my Rapunzel story a proper Rapunzel story. I used various versions of the tale — including Basile’s Petrosinella and de la Force’s Persinette -- which Jack Zipes credits as the primary inspiration for related tales from Bierling, Bechstein, and the Grimms. I also looked at the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folk tale index, and the descriptions of the pieces required for tale type 310. “The Maiden in the Tower” — a subset of the “Magical Adversaries” category. These are the basic components of the story:
Aside from setting and narrative frame, I left the initial transgression largely intact. The father in the story steals the rampion, and Gothel takes her payment in kind — a baby named Rampion.
Rapunzel is named after the German word for rampion, a European vegetable used in salads), and her name is the clue for understanding what happens. [….] [T]he sorceress gains the care of Rapunzel because her parents had, first transgressed into her forbidden domain and, second, agreed to hand Rapunzel over. So the sorceress wanted Rapunzel more than her parents did, or so it seems. (Bettelheim 148)
The change in era and aesthetic made it necessary to adjust the tower in which Rampion is imprisoned. She lives in, and is the beloved foreman of a tall, smoky factory that makes the bits and knobs used on dashboards of automobiles and airplanes. The tall factory tower still separates Rampion from reality. She is kept apart from her coworkers by Gothel and by her position in charge.
The factory itself was born of the dieselpunk theme of the anthology. The story needed to smell of exhaust fumes and leather belts, of fires and boilers and early versions of internal combustion engines. It needed to be dirty and productive, full of life amidst giant machines. I needed to invent some new machine to cement my story in this aesthetic of time and place.
It’s All About the Hair
The style of Rampion’s blonde hair is also adjusted for era and aesthetic purposes. Though I updated the quantity and styling of Rampion’s hair, I didn’t change its color. In her essay “The Language of Hair” in From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner brought to light the fact that “Blondness and beauty have provided a conceptual rhyme in visual and literary imagery ever since the goddess of Love’s tresses were described as xanthe, golden, by Homer” (363).
Fairness was a guarantee of quality. It was the imaginary opposite of ‘foul,’ it connoted all that was pure, good, clean. Blondeness is less a descriptive term about hair pigmentation than a blazon in code, a piece of a value system that it is urgent to confront and analyse because its implications, in moral and social terms, are so dire and are still so unthinkingly embedded in the most ordinary, popular materials of the imagination. (Warner 364)
The concept of Rampion “letting down” her hair as a passport to her feelings, emotional release and possibly sex was not lost. Though the story never speaks of her isolation from the outside world or the world of sexual maturity, her blondeness implies it. “All though blondeness’s most enduring associations are with beauty, with love and nubility, with erotic attraction, with value and fertility,” writes Warner, “its luminosity made it also the traditional colour of virgins” (367). Gothel cuts Rampion’s long banner of golden hair as a punishment for her indiscretion. “Maidenhair can symbolize maidenhead – and its loss too, and the flux of sexual energy that this releases [….]” (Warner 374).
In Rapunzel, the element that fills me with envy and desire is the character of the Prince. Until he is blinded by the witch, he comes and goes as he pleases. He has a horse. He has access to enter and exit the tower. His movement and freedom inspired me to invent Rocket’s wheelchair that was also a motorcycle. Rocket is unlimited in where she can go, and at what speed. She can wheel indoors, or she can take off along the highway at the end of the day.
The name “Rocket” is chosen for the dual meaning. First is the object that blasts off into space — how she might blast off down the road on her motorbike. The second meaning of “rocket” is the British slang for the green that in the US is called arugula. Rampion and Rocket are both expensive salad greens. They are both women. It was important to me on an emotional and intuitive level that the characters were more alike than they were different.
Healing Emotions via the Body
When I write, my creative process includes tapping into the parts of myself and my own unconscious that are activated by the story I’m retelling. I have been working on my relationship to my chronic illness and my own identity as a disabled person. Rocket’s disability as a function of her freedom is absolutely something that touches upon my experience. The inability of my body to move freely forced me to become more emotionally vulnerable and “free”.
In his introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes of a young boy who found Rapunzel comforting. “Rapunzel found the means of escaping her predicament in her own body — the tresses on which the prince climbed up to her room in the tower. That one’s body can provide a lifeline reassured him that, if necessary, he would similarly find in his own body the source of his security” (Bettelheim 17). I had not read Bettelheim’s analysis of the story until after I’d written my retelling, and I’m very glad for it. He would have spoiled the ending!
"The fantastic element is that which provides that final consolation: the power of the body is imaginatively exaggerated by the overlong tresses, on which one can climb up a tower, and by tears, which can restore sight. But what more reliable source of recovery do we have than our own body?" (Bettelheim 149)
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1977. Print.
Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. New York: Noonday, 1994, Print
About the Author
On nights and weekends, Alicia K. Anderson squeezes creative writing between the assignments for a Ph.D. program in Mythological Studies. During the weekdays, she is a freelance SEO consultant — which is a form of wizardry in its own right. Sometimes she wishes she were locked in a tower with only occasional headaches from visiting loved ones. Alas, her husband and stepson don’t have to ask her to let her hair down to gain entry to her lair. At best, they sometimes knock. Find her online at aliciakinganderson.com
9/24/2019 05:58:17 am
As always, I am blown away by your ability to communicate the story in such a way that is both different and illuminating. I look forward to reading anything you write!
9/28/2019 12:28:56 pm
Found this through Rhonda Parrish's tweet. Rapunzel has always been one of my favourite stories, but this is the first analysis I've read. I love your perspective on it and also how you changed it and why. Looking forward to reading it in the anthology. Nice to make your acquaintance.
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