Flower, gleam and glow,
let your power shine,
make the clock reverse,
bring back once was mine —
what once was mine.
Disney’s 50th animated motion picture, “Tangled,” is a fascinating adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale, “Rapunzel.” It features a little poem (above) as a song sung by Mother Gothel to a magical flower, created by a drop of sunlight, that has the power to heal and to keep her forever young. The flower, however, is one day taken by the King’s guards and used to make a medicinal drink for the Queen to help her recover from illness in her pregnancy. Later the queen gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, Rapunzel, with sun-bright golden hair. That hair, unbeknownst to the king and queen, has the same magical power as the sun-flower.
But Mother Gothel suspects.
So she comes to the castle at night to cut a lock of the golden hair to keep it for herself. But she discovers that, once cut, the hair loses its power. So she kidnaps the baby and raises her as her own, singing the song over the little princess, brushing her hair and using her to keep herself alive.
This story is a little bit different from the Brothers Grimm version. In the fairy-tale, Rapunzel is from an ordinary family, not a royal one. Her father steals not a sunflower, but a vegetable called rampion (which, coincidently, contains precursors for synthesizing the hormones necessary to sustain a woman’s pregnancy) from the garden of a witch — for his wife who craves it. The witch says that to pay for this theft the family must give him their firstborn child, which they do, and she locks up Rapunzel in a tower where her hair grows very long.
Changes made in the Disney version ennoble Rapunzel, free her father from the taint of wrongdoing, and create a different motivation in Mother Gothel for her actions: eternal youth, not revenge and the desire to enslave another person to her power. Still present in both versions is the problem of human trafficking and child slavery. Only in “Tangled,” Rapunzel’s imprisonment is made pleasant by painting, pottery, puppeteering, and playing guitar (among other things!). For Disney’s Mother Gothel needs Rapunzel to be manipulated, not man-handled, into sharing the life-giving power of her magical hair.
Making Rapunzel’s hair not only long but magical emphasizes not the amount of time she’s been locked in the tower but something divine: her ability to heal people who are hurt. The idea that cutting her hair causes some or all of the power to be lost looks very much like the biblical story of Samson in the book of Judges. Samson has superhuman strength when his hair is long, but loses it when it is cut — as Delilah discovered. In the Disney film, the awareness of this link is even alluded to in a conversation Rapunzel has with Flynn Rider (aka Eugene FitzHerbert) who asks, after she heals a cut on his hand with her hair, if he will now have superhuman strength “because that would be pretty cool!” (Agreed.)
In “Tangled,” Flynn Rider is actually the narrator of the story who begins it by saying “this is the story of how I died.” But as he is still speaking, we suspect upon hearing this that he somehow came back to life again — which proves to be the case in this version of the story. At the end of some wonderful adventures, in which Rapunzel leaves her tower to celebrate her birthday under the shining light of 1000 floating lanterns, she is recaptured by Mother Gothel and Eugene comes to rescue her. But the witch stabs him, intending to kill him. As he is dying, Rapunzel begs to be allowed to heal him with the magic of her hair. Mother Gothel agrees when Rapunzel promises to remain with her forever and never run away again.
But Eugene is against this damning covenant, and when Rapunzel is about to sing the song that would heal his wound, he cuts off her hair with a shard from a broken mirror. Rapunzel instantly becomes a brunette! And Mother Gothel, whose life has been utterly dependent on Rapunzel’s magic, ages rapidly, trips and falls out the window, turning utterly to ashes by the time she hits the ground. Then Eugene dies, too, but only after telling Rapunzel that she was his “new dream.” Rapunzel begins to cry. As she does, she sings:
Heal what has been hurt,
change the fates’ design,
save what has been lost,
bring back once was mine —
what once was mine
One of Rapunzel’s tears falls on Eugene’s face. In her tear is the power no longer in her hair. It baptizes Eugene with the same life-saving grace Rapunzel’s birthmother experienced when pregnant, and Eugene comes back to life. The light of the sun-flower shines through the wound and closes it.
I was watching this film for the first time on Easter, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the resurrection plot, the sun-flower symbolism, and the spiritual themes: our human need for healing, the imprisonment of our souls caused by deception and selfishness, our natural desire for freedom, and, above all, the power of love to motivate self-sacrifice for someone else. As my friend Professor Jerry Root pointed out to me and those members of the Root family watching the film with me on Easter Sunday afternoon, both Rapunzel and Eugene demonstrate Christ-like qualities at the moment when they’re willing to give up their lives for each other.
The Brothers Grimm fairy-tale ends very differently. When the young man goes to the tower to rescue Rapunzel, he finds the witch but not the girl. It is he who falls out the window and scratches out his eyes on long thorns at the tower’s base. For many long years after, he wanders until at last he comes to the place where Rapunzel has been living in the desert with the twins she gave birth to, their children together, and his heart is restored and healed by the sound of her voice — which he recognizes as her own.
This ending is much more complex. Evil is not destroyed, a good man is hurt, and a woman who was a slave struggles to provide for her children as a single mother until her blinded lover can come to her. The theme in the fairy-tale is not resurrection of life, but the continuation of life from generation to generation — not the magical power of Rapunzel’s hair, but the divine power of her fertility.
I love both versions of the story.
p.s. Eugene FitzHerbert is a fine name for the otherwise nameless man who comes to Rapunzel’s tower. The name means “well-born son of a glorious warrior.”
p.p.s. “Rapunzel” is the German word for the vegetable rampion, and Gothel means “godmother” in a dialect of southern German. The most fascinating name of the movie, however, belongs to Rapunzel’s pet chameleon: Pascal. This was the name of the 17th century French physicist and philosopher who came up with the idea known as “Pascal’s Wager” — something worth reading about!