I thought of Rapunzel the other day. We all carry certain images from childhood. While Rapunzel wasn’t one of my favourite fairy tale characters, I have quite a clear visual image of a blank conical tower made of smooth grey bricks with no entrance, no stairs and just a lone high window. The single window is factually accurate I find, rereading the fairy tale. Inside is a burnished golden-haired girl weaving or spinning. And of course who can forget the call to the girl to let her hair down so that the prince can climb up? I seem to have temporarily forgotten the witch in my abbreviated remembered version of this story.
There is a tradition in literature, as perhaps in life, of women being locked in towers or rooms. I remember the Lady of Shalott but also The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a short story composed in the late 19th century of first-person journal entries written by a woman suffering from nervous depression who is locked by her husband into the upstairs bedroom of a house. She becomes obsessed by the yellow wallpaper and the world closes in on her. In the end she feels safe only in this room.
I also think of Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre, and Penelope weaving in her tower. Each of these stories has a different aspect to it, yet they all share an element of enclosure, withdrawal from the world, and in the more extreme cases fear, madness and repression. These women are closed in from the world by others (often but not always by men, though the stories themselves are often written by women), and sometimes by their own choice; and in some cases the world closes in on them. What are they closing out?
The maiden Rapunzel can become a full-blooded woman only when she literally lets down her hair to let in the world in the form of the prince, and then weaves a ladder to let herself out. In the fairy tale, the witch entraps her and her prince, and she is sent to the desert and he is blinded for a time. So Rapunzel is punished for making worldly contact beyond that of her captor.
In all of these stories women are placed in containers as if they are a dangerous element and need to be controlled – or is it protected? They do not build their own towers as men do.
The story of Rapunzel would have been so different if Rapunzel had been a man. A man in a tower is a warrior, a captive, a hostage of war, a child being bred to lead the world; or a wizard in the making. The image of an enclosed man is very different from an enclosed woman, is it not? A man would not wait patiently in captivity, he would have been dragged there against his will or he would persistently strive to find a way out.
A man’s tower is altogether different.
A man might build his own tower and this could be a deeply creative act. When Jung built his tower in Bollingen, he said:
‘I had to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Or, to put it another way, I had to make a confession of faith in stone. That was the beginning of the “Tower”’ (p. 223, Memories, Dreams and Reflections).
The tower may be the creation of a place to embody the Self – a place in the world, but not of the world, set apart. It may also be a place of protection, to keep oneself safe, a place of recovery and restoration yet also of isolation. It may be a place of power, of surveillance, a spot from which to view and review the world, take its measure, take its pulse.
Men or women, we are all Rapunzels in our towers. We see the world through our single little window. Do we have a door for entry and exit, or are we trapped in our towers? Must we let our hair down to let others in and out? This came to me quite powerfully as I was picking my way with care down the uneven steps of a tower I was visiting.
The views from out the tower are always the ones we are drawn to, but what about the views within?
I felt someone watching me as I made my way down carefully, conscious of the risks of losing my footing, a lesson in self-consciousness.
Visiting someone else’s tower can only be approached with care and trepidation, and also with hope. How will they greet us? Will we be welcome? Will the window be open or barred? Will they let their hair down to guide us in?
Being in a tower, even one of our own making, is from one perspective choosing to barricade or protect ourselves from the world. This may be a wise choice. Yet it may not be a choice at all. I see people in towers that are a mere few steps above ground level, as for an elderly person who cannot navigate steps easily and so feels cut off from the world both physically and psychologically. This sense of imposed detachment is captured tangibly and poignantly in the arduousness of those few steps.
If someone lives in a tower, whether physically or metaphorically, they can see visitors or intruders coming a long time before they actually arrive. There is good time to prepare. Yet how does it feel when the visitors go, once more alone in the tower with oneself?
Artwork courtesy of Penelope Hill.