What if Rapunzel had been a man?

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.

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10 Responses to What if Rapunzel had been a man?

  1. Aristotle says:

    Go down to the far south of the Mani and see how all the old buildings are defensive towers (against pirates).

    If a man sat in a tower waiting for a lady to show up he could grow old waiting.

    Whereas a gentleman will always hunt down the fair lady.

    We are not al Rapunzels in towers. Some of us avoid being trapped and will always choose an open area where we cannot be crept up upon.

  2. Interesting comment, Michael. I should have guessed this one would draw you out! Some provocative assumptions here …. and fascinating language. 🙂

    • Fran says:

      I have always loved fairy tales (and still do!) so this post particularly grabbed me. Again I know this one very well but was not strongly drawn to it as a child. I liked the ones in which, looking at this retrospectively, the female characters were more active eg little mermaid (which still makes me cry) and the snow queen. But this post has interesting and illuminating ideas about the function and construction of a personal space for control of one by another or for personal integrity. The immediate connections that came to me were Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song (which I love) and Poe’s powerful stories revolving around terror of being entombed alive (beating heart and cask of the amontillado etc). both masculine examples i am disappointed to see – but perhaps the latter does show an example of a masculine Rapunzel!

      • Thanks Fran – we will have to explore this further on our next walk! I didn’t know you were also a fairy tale lover. My favourite is Beauty and the Beast. Like you I prefer the tales with more active female characters, and also shadowy men. I hadn’t thought of the Poe story as a masculine Rapunzel – good link though. Is being entombed (under ground?) the same thing as being trapped in a tower way above ground, I wonder?

  3. Robert G. Longpré says:

    Beautiful post, a very insightful use of myth to capture the present psychological and even physical fact of our separateness, and often isolation from the outside world. I have wandered down those steep steps of towers and pagodas; I have thought of my own wish for an attic loft for my “work.” Thank you. 🙂

  4. michael oliver says:

    I very much enjoyed your original piece and subsequent comments. Your tentative suggestion that being entombed under ground might be synonymous with being held in a tower way above ground does not ring true for me. The end result might be the the same ,however it is very different having the choice to look out from your window ,rather than to be totally entombed. The latter holds far more terror, even if one does not suffer from claustrophobia. From a tower one can at least survey. Within a tomb one can only decay!

    • Hello Michael,
      thanks very much for your comment. I completely agree with you about the difference between being entombed vs trapped in a tower, and I intended my tentative question to raise the difference you helpfully articulate. I’ve been feeling a little mentally entombed myself since getting off an airplane earlier in the week, having picked up some sinus virus, and my ability to express myself no doubt reflects that!
      All the best,

      • michael oliver says:

        Lovely to hear from you Karin. We are sitting in a tiny hostel in Villa de Leyva, Columbia and it still seems miraculous that we can communicate effortlessly!
        Hope your sinus is better it is so debilitating when you feel grim.
        Mike and Sally

      • Hi Mike and Sally
        Glad you are enjoying the South American lifestyle still – look forward to catching up when you return which I guess is not too far away now. I am still trying to recover from the flight/illness, it is a pain. But have been to a great folk music concert tonight so am feeling inspired in one sense if not another….keep exploring, keep reading, and do keep your comments and thoughts coming. All much appreciated.
        Be safe and well,

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