(This version is by Paul O. Zelinski, as is the cover art.)
I’ve recently been stunned by the understanding fairytales have deep archetypal meanings, the recognition of universal human patterns with biological underpinnings. We know these archetypes in our bones – the king, queen, prince, princess, witch, devil, servant, disloyal servant, sage, whore, jester, wretch, and hero – but we fail to consciously assess their identifying characteristics, and as a result, we err in our actions. When understood, Rapunzel is nuts. Is it true? The analysis gives chills, so yes, I think it is. It’s meaning is the contrast between the dominant feminine archetypes from nature: the devouring and nurturing mother.
Once upon a time, a couple are having trouble, but finally conceive. Their fates fall when the woman becomes obsessed with the herb rapunzel. She is on the verge of dying and losing the child. She represents the weakness of femininity overrun by mother nature itself.
Below her window is a garden, walled on all sides and filled with rare, fantastical things. It belongs to a sorceress (an intellectual variant of the emotional, primeval witch) and teaches the identifying element of the sorceress, the devouring mother – she who gathers rare objects to keep for herself, to the death of others. (I’ll do Hansel and Gretel next, which elaborates the behaviors of devouring mothers.) The poor fool has little choice but to steal the herbs and is caught, bargaining to save his life and his wife’s, but forfeiting the child, a failed hero crushed by the wheel of fate.
The sorceress raises the child until age 12 (when her cycle begins), then locks her in a tower with a single window – a giant phallic symbol. This captivity signals the sorceress’ rejection of Rapunzel’s feminine nature and its size represents the Sorceress’ superiority to men. The ironic inversion, placing the woman in the phallus to prevent the phallus being placed in the woman, and the isolation represents the rejection of natural order, signaling nihilism, much like an inverted or broken cross. Sorceresses do not share, and will force others to violate their nature in order to process them as objects and dominate reality itself.
Prince & Princess
The king’s son is riding through the wilderness, where prince archetype ought to be – standing on protective structures but exploring the edge of chaos, learning and growing. The beauty of Rapunzel’s singing captures him, and Rapunzel is captured by his persuasive words and kind approach. This is real advice for suitors and young women, defining attraction by capability to affectively incorporate the Logos, God, the powerful patterns of language and music.
Vengeance & Exile
On discovery, the sorceress banishes Rapunzel to the wilderness. Witches will destroy everything, even a person, rather than share (see Carol Dweck’s research on mindset). She then treacherously lies in wait for the prince and springs on him, proclaiming she is smarter and more powerful than he. He is so overcome with loss he lets go and loses his sight on landing (in some versions she claws his eyes or pushes him; both versions carry meaning, one for the impact of losing of love and the other for the raw vengeance of mother nature).
Losing eyesight is the loss of the metaphorical ability to encounter the future, to have a plan, to build, to grow, and to know. We use the word sight in habitual literal and figurative language for this reason. This teaches us that encountering devastating failure and loss at the hands of chance throws us into the void. Without sight he is lost, wandering, and in grave mortal danger, without a future and without an identity, in hell.
The Salvation of Collapse
But the state of being lost is his salvation. He finds the princess in the wilderness, the thing he needs most in the place he would have never looked had he been rescued and returned to the city, blind. This is the critical part of the hero’s journey which we have lost as a society – finding the thing we need most in the darkest place, in the midnight of the soul, in hell, in the wilderness, where we are least likely to look. We must pay attention when failed princes return from hell – they have something to teach us about the human spirit, evil, and chaos.
Lover & Nurturing Mother
He still hears, and his ears, those sensory parts attuned to the logos, the Word of God, allow him to regain his love, that which was lost. Even more, the welcoming tears of his beloved restore his sight. This incredible contrast to the devouring mother shows Rapunzel’s lover/princess archetype to be the nurturing mother – she embraces the failed prince, loves him unconditionally, and in the process, restores his sight. The prince then knows the way and returns his family – the treasures won from his encounter with the wild chaos – home.
In summation, the devouring mother (sorceress, witch, evil queen)* can be both chaos and order but hoards rare objects obtained from the world, inhibits the development of those she possesses, and destroys rather than shares. In contrast, the nurturing mother (princess, queen, lover, beloved, servant) creates life, offers love, cultivates beauty to share, and thus gives sight to the hero.
* Note “whore” is included in the devouring archetype as a designation of an unfaithful or intentionally barren wife, but “prostitute” or “harlot” is often designated aligned with the nurturing mother and seen as a princess in need of rescue, much like the prince in this story. More on that another time.