Mr Big is a tale told by a storyteller narrator, who we meet on the very first page and then soon forget. Almost all picture books have third person narrators but most often we don’t consider who that might be, so there must be a good reason for introducing Mr Big’s friend. The good reason is that the friend is very small, taking up about an eighth of the title page. Then, when we meet Mr Big on the following page, he seems adequately and ridiculously large.
The ideology of the story exists as back cover copy: A true friend comes in any shape or size!
SHORTCOMING OF MR BIG
“Now, Mr Big had a small problem,” we are told. “Compared to everyone else he was extremely… (page turn) big!”
The rule of threes is utilised as the first ‘act’ of the picture book takes us through various situations in which Mr Big is lonely. He is so big he scares everyone away from
His psychological shortcoming is clearly explained: “No one stuck around to find out who he really was. So inside, Mr Big felt very, very small.”
As in many picture books, our main character’s shortcoming has been clearly stated in words. In this format there’s no time to show it, hoping the reader will work it out for themselves.
The desire, on the other hand, is left up to the reader’s deduction.
Mr Big is lonely; therefore he wants __________. Any child can probably work that out.
This has me asking a question I haven’t had until now, even after all this time of breaking down the structure of picture books: Do successful picturebooks spoon feed EITHER shortcoming/need/problem OR desire, but not both? This is something I’ll have to take a closer look into.
Mr Big’s opponent is his own body — a variation on ‘he’s his own worst enemy’. But for a story that’s never quite enough — the opposition has to be personified (anthropomorphised in this story, ‘peopled’ with animals). The opponents are all the smaller creatures who refuse to stick around to get to know who he really is.
Mr Big gives up on friendship with ‘people’ and instead seeks solace in the company of a piano who looks all alone in a shop window. He feels a connection to it, takes it home and sits down to play, to assuage his own loneliness.
Instead of everyone gathering for an epic big struggle, everyone gathers in the square to listen to the beautiful music coming from Mr Big’s window, sort of reminiscent of Rapunzel. Remember how the prince hears Rapunzel singing as he rides by and makes it his mission to discover who it is? I’m also reminded of the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday in which a piano player has the ability to enchant the people around him, changing their lives.
The ‘big struggle’ sequence in this kind of story is perhaps better called the ‘Culmination’. The piano playing ends with him getting invited into a local jazz band.
The ultimate success of a piano player is to be seen on the stage, and so we see him playing to a crowd, who now think he’s marvellous.
But the stage scene is also the anagnorisis.
At last everyone could see the real Mr Big!
Just like a film such as Le Week-end, anagnorises/end-of-big struggles often occur in front of an audience. This is a staple from traditional mythic structure. The 3000-year-old version of ‘Photo or it didn’t happen.’
Wisely, the author replaces the problem of loneliness with the problem of celebrity:
Mr Big has a new problem. He doesn’t get much time to be alone… and that’s just the way he likes it!
The street in Hamelin, where the children were last seen, is today called Bungelosenstrasse, translated to ‘street without drums’. No one is allowed to dance or play music there. This street is now a tourist attraction — alternatively, you can check it out on Google Earth, though it appears the Google street car has yet to traverse the area.
Any cultural image in which children follow an adult playing music is likely to conjure images of the Pied Piper. https://youtu.be/yWCcLW08dsU
SETTING OF THE PIED PIPER
Hamelin is a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are a number of theories.
THEORIES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE PIED PIPER
THE BLACK DEATH THEORY
The story of the Pied Piper suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. In Black Death days, those with literacy skills generally wrote to other towns nearby to warn them of it.
According to Marina Warner, in No Go The Bogeyman, The Pied Piper legend warns that the fey and the pied, the eldritch and the elf, are dangerous to humans in their capriciousness. They personify the unpredictable mischief making of fate. The Pied Piper story is dated to 1240 when Hamelin is known to have suffered a similar plague and in several ways its hero prefigured many spectres who come to haunt Germany. Though not devilish or otherwise monstrous the piper appears in the motley sometimes worn by the devil and even more by the fool who mocks truth while the mountain, which uncannily opens when he plays in order to swallow the children, is the familiar habitat of elves and deserves and giants and other messengers from the dark side.
THE PIED PIPER INVENTION AS COGNITIVE BIAS
It’s perfectly reasonable to think there was no human figure leading the children away, that it’s all metaphor. Throughout history there is evidence a persistent cognitive bias — humans have a tendency to find meaning in the universe by imputing agency to events that might as plausibly or more plausibly be due to chance.
A better documented historical example are the French famines. Under the old regime, the population could never accept that nature was solely responsible for the dearth. The general assumption was that people were hoarding grains somewhere, driving the prices up. The actual cause, we are sure now, was a bad harvest. This particular conspiracy theory is known today as the Pacte de Famine.
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADES THEORY
However, there may have been a person involved. Another theory involves children taken away for The Children’s Crusades. In this story, dating from the Middle Ages, young, charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. However, there’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. The crusades were almost certainly much smaller than legend has it. There remains no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit.
THE CULT RECRUITMENT THEORY
It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier those days (around June 20-22).
THE DANCING PLAGUE THEORY
Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania. There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. Injuries were sustained. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.
THE ABDUCTION THEORY
But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a terrible news story similar to that one.
THE RAT PLOT
In early, 1400s versions of the Pied Piper tale there was no mention of rats. Of course, by the time Robert Browning turned it into a poem, rats seemed vital to make the story work.
Why and when did the rats come into the story? Rats were a problem in every town and city throughout the history of cities. They’re still a problem today. Rats have often represented the worst of humanity since they thrive in urban environments we’ve come to associate rats with other urban ills such as crime and overcrowding and disease.
The Ratcatcher is a fairytale in its own right. The Brothers Grimm recorded The Ratcatcher(in 1839) which is separate from The Pied Piper, also collected. There are no disappearing children in this fairytale. Instead, it is much more concerned with a magician who can charm rats. A Danish version of the tale similarly elevates the role of the ratcatcher to an almost godlike status. In the Grimm version of The Pied Piper, the children are taken through a portal into Transylvania (a spooky country where vampires live). At this point in history Transylvania lay dormant. Good land was going to waste. Other places such as Germany were overpopulated and starving. This leads us to another theory: Many Germans settled in places such as Transylvania during this time. They would drum up volunteers to go with them. Is it possible that the children of Hamelin disappeared because they were taken by fellow townspeople migrating? By people who needed young, healthy workers? Perhaps the parents even sold the children, or at least gave them permission to leave, knowing that starvation was the other option. They may have been led away by a persuasive, military march. Perhaps people joined this march without too much in the way of thought. Hunger is a strong motivator.
It looks like the fairytale of The Ratcatcher (as collected by the Grimms) combined over time with the real story of the missing children of Hamelin and now we have a fairytale/legend hybrid. This seemed to happen in the 15th century. By the mid 16th century they seem permanently intertwined. The first written version of The Pied Piper was penned by a guy with the wonderfully fairytale name of Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern, and that included the rats.
After it was re-written in German a couple of times (including by the Grimm Brothers of course) Robert Browning wrote a considerably more cheerful version. By the mid 1800s, the disappearance of the children of Hamelin is truly mythic.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE PIED PIPER
Below: You probably recognise whose these illustrations are by. Arthur Rackham.
Illustrator Errol Le Cain chose a similarly limited, warm palette.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN”
Robert Browning’s version, and similar adaptations. This is the version you probably know. This is the one I grew up with.
I have realised in the writing of this blog that I have a harder time working out the ‘main character’ of fairytales than I do of modern stories. Every now and then in a modern story you find the ‘main character’ is actually an ensemble cast a la Little Miss Sunshine or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Winnie-the-Pooh, in which each member of the cast represents a different facet of human nature. Fairytales are like that, I think. Normally we can ask ourselves: Which is the character who changes the most? That is your main character. But what if, as in this legend, an entire town changes forever?
Well, there are the rats of course. But these rats are not the slightest bit anthropomorphised, so let’s treat them like any other natural phenomenon such as a tsunami, earthquake or flood.
The Opponent is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the town council. (Some see the Pied Piper as the personification of death.) He appears in the form of a piper in a long, brightly coloured gown. It’s significant that it’s ‘pied’, because this means he’s pieced it together out of bits of rag. In an era where clothes were clear signifiers of wealth (due to the expense of clothing), the ragtag clothing suggests someone wearing a mask — a duplicitous person who pretended to be more important than he was.
The Pied Piper is the subcategory of False Ally Opponent because at first he helps the town. However, his motives are revealed to be entirely selfish. He is just as morally lacking as the town council who refuse to pay him. He sacrifices the lives of an entire town’s worth of children, collateral damage.
Or is he? Do you come down on one side or the other? The tale of The Pied Piper endures partly because it asks us to think about the nature of altruism. Is the Pied Piper an altruist?
To be genuinely altruistic an action has to satisfy two conditions:
Proactive not reactive
Anonymous (not clear cut when God comes into it, because in some cases the agent believes God is watching)
The Pied Piper was proactive. He wasn’t asked to save the town — he offered. However, he is a businessman. He’s doing it for money. So he is quasi-proactive.
He’s not anonymous. He could have simply gotten rid of the rats without telling anyone, expecting nothing in return.
But what if the Pied Piper was starving and needed payment in order to eat? Does that change our calculation of his altruism? The modern leftie view is that all people deserve a living wage, and the modern right-wing view is that people who contribute a lot to a society deserve a very large living wage. So according to any point along the modern political spectrum, the Pied Piper should garner some sympathy.
DEPICTIONS OF THE PIED PIPER
The Pied Piper is depicted by illustrators in a number of different ways, largely dependent on the era. The unifying feature is of course his clothing, but we can group his body type into a few distinct categories.
Most recently we have ‘hot’ pipers.
But he’s more traditionally very skinny, with pointed feet, nose and hat, and long fingers. See Errol Le Cain’s version (above), which may have influenced character design in Shrek.
Why all the skinny, pointed representations? I suggest the illustrators see the Pied Piper as a symbol of death — whereas he does have skin, he is nevertheless a skeletal/skeleton figure, not so different from many depictions of the grim reaper.
Eleanor F. Brickendale (who died in 1945) even made him slightly androgynous — he could almost pass for an old woman.
Promise to pay the piper and then not pay him. We don’t know if this is because the town can’t pay him or they won’t. It is implied they simply will not, but if the town has suffered famine for an enduring period, it’s also likely they cannot pay him.
Would you have lied to the piper in order to save your town? This is similar to the moral dilemma posed by philosophers: If you were dying and a drug company possessed a drug that would keep you alive — but they charged so much you couldn’t afford to buy it — would you steal it?
Oh. We should have honoured our promise. (Audience: honour your promises. Retribution is often way out of whack with your original misdemeanour.)
The mid 1800s were an era which favoured retributive justice, so Browning would have written his poem influenced by this idea: That if someone does not honour their promise, you are fully justified in meting out retribution. However, he would have been influenced by the ‘eye for an eye’ idea. That phrase is often mistaken today to mean, “If someone takes your eye, feel free to take theirs.” It’s actually an expression urging moderation — “If someone takes your eye, do not take both of theirs — you may take only one in return.” (In other words, don’t go batshit when dishing out punishment.)
So the Pied Piper’s actions, killing all the children, will have been seen by the 1800s audience — as they are today — as completely over the top evil.
I wrote a re-visioning of The Pied Piper. It’s called “The Magic Pipe“. I wondered when, exactly, children became immune to the music. Did it happen overnight? Adolescence takes a while. There must have been a group of adolescents or young adults who heard it but faintly, sufficiently conscious of the draw of the music to perhaps resist it. What would that story look like?
Le Week-end is a comedy, drama, romance, but not a rom-com — unlike the bulk of romantic/comedy blends this is about a couple on their 30th wedding anniversary, attempting to fall in love with each other again. The promotional material shows the characters laughing, but this is not representative of the mood, which is heavy. The humour is dark. If you’re familiar with the work of Hanif Kureishi, well, that’s who wrote it. No surprises re the darkness.
This film bears resemblances to Date Night (2010) — an unusual blend of comedy, crime and romance. This film, too, might have been ‘crime’ had the emphasis been slightly different. In order to bond, our old couple engages in petty thievery (doing a runner from a high-class restaurant) and then by maxing out their credit card on the most expensive suite in a fancy hotel. They walk out on that, too, and eventually they are forced to call on Morgan to bail them out of that mess. Judging by IMDb, neither Date Night nor Le Week-end have particularly broad appeal. This type of story must be especially hard to do.
This story is, however, a mythic journey. The journey underpins the structure. Even if the audience feels uncomfortable in the company of these characters, it is a very well structured film.
STORYWORLD OF LE WEEK-END
The setting of Paris is ironic and highlights out all the shortcomings in the characters, because if cities have their own symbolism, Paris is the city of love. If you’re failing at a romantic weekend, it’ll be all the worse if you’re failing in Paris. Micro settings within Paris itself area also symbolic, from the beige coffin of a room to the ridiculously luxurious room they choose next (a symbol of a life which is actually quite comfortable) to the graveyard they walk through to the jukebox cafe where they dance.
DESIRE IN LE WEEK-END
We first meet them on the TGV. At this point they are nameless. The camera guides us down the aisle and settles upon this couple as if we, too, are a passenger on the train looking on. We know immediately that this is an long married couple because they sit side-by-side, she with a novel (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), he looking out the window. He wants to buy a cup of tea. The wife knows this before we do — she knows that’s what he must be up to after many years of travelling together. “You’ve got the Euros,” she says, annoyed. After this many years together they have divvied up the jobs — I suspect Nick always carries the Euros.
We see that this couple is on their way from England to France for a holiday. It’s enough for them to want to ‘have a good holiday’, but far more interesting that there is another overwhelming desire: to rekindle a marriage in trouble.
If this is a comedy (and it is), we know these two will fall in love with each other again. If they left Paris separately it would be a tragedy.
PSYCHOLOGICAL NEEDS, MORAL WEAKNESSES IN LE WEEK-END
Once in France it is revealed that they have been here before when much younger and happier and in love.
Le Week-end makes us wait. First, we are shown a number of sequences and almost asked to pick sides. I suspect the audience is expected to side with the Jim Broadbent character (whose big, blue eyes and old-man vulnerability lend themselves well to audience empathy). His wife is complaining about everything. She not only complains about the room he has picked, even though he is trying to recreate a holiday they had here when younger, but storms out, seemingly happy to leave him behind. This after he tries to explain in bad French why his wife doesn’t like the room. He is doing is utmost to placate her. She leaves the building. We watch him thump on the roof of the taxi before it takes off. We watch him try to rekindle physical passion. She pushes him and he falls onto the road, hurting his knee. She tells him to grow up, to stop being a girl, to be a man. To make her seem even worse, they get a call from their son who is going through some sort of crisis. The wife has guessed that he wants to move back in with them. It seems they’re being kicked out. He has a wife and they have a three month old baby. The husband entreats his wife with, “We can’t abandon our son.”
This dynamic feels familiar — that need for a man to placate his woman, trying but failing miserably. The wife with simmering rage. I imagine many viewers will be completely put off by this woman from the outset, but older women, I predict, will know that there is a very good reason for this rage. There is a short story by Alice Munro, Away From Her, which explores a very similar dynamic. That, too, was made into a movie. The increasingly demented wife seems very cold and the husband seems very caring and sad as he transitions her into an old people’s home. Why is this? Is it just the Alzheimers? It comes out later, after we’ve seen the wife take up another relationship with another man with Alzheimer’s that this husband (also a university lecturer) has in the past had affairs with students. Finally we get some of the wife’s story. We’re not in her head — we are asked to imagine what she’s had to endure.
Naturally, Le Week-end cannot be made up entirely of passive-aggressive rage. The audience cannot spend 93 minutes with this old-married couple who seems to hate each other, especially when one is painted so pathetically and the other so callous. The writers get us through this by giving us emotional whiplash — these brutal interactions are followed by moments of genuine affection. Anyone who’s ever known a long-married couple, anyone who’s ever been a long-term couple, will understand the feeling of being fully in love with someone but not wanting to be anywhere near them.
It seems at first glance that Nick’s psychological need is that he is too much of a push-over. Too willing to please his unreasonable wife.
It seems Meg is completely unappreciative. Moral shortcoming: She needs to learn to appreciate her husband. Psychological shortcoming: She is suffering from middle-aged ‘blah’ (symbolised by the ‘beige, coffin’ of a room she refuses to stay in, and needs to find a new lease on life to remind herself she’s not dead yet.
On a couple of occasions the couple walks up hills/stairs. They contrast their panting (deliberately cut to sound sexual) against the ease at which their younger selves climbed these same steps. Steps are, of course, an obvious metaphor for life itself.
Those are the surface shortcomings, but because this film is basically a character study, their psychological shortcomings and needs are more complex than this.
DIALOGUE IN LE WEEK-END
It is interesting, given that we’ve been adequately shown, that the dialogue underscores us everything about this emotion.
“You can’t not love and hate the same person. Usually within the space of five minutes, in my experience.”
Conveniently, since there are only two speaking characters for the opening act of the film, these are self-aware characters. They are also articulate — it is revealed later that Nick Burrows is a lecturer in philosophy. He is an artist, a musician, and this sort of character can sustainably withstand this kind of reflective dialogue. Contrast with the teenaged characters of Australian aboriginal film Samson and Delilah, whose writer/director went out of his way to avoid the falsely self-aware dialogue given to fictional teenagers — teenagers who haven’t got the first clue about who they are, or how to describe what they’re feeling.
PLANS IN LE WEEK-END
Nick’s original plan to take his wife back to earlier happier times in France don’t pan out when he either fails to remember the exact location or the place isn’t as they remembered (viewed through the lens of more cynical eyes), or the renovations have rendered the place unrecognisable. A masterful thing about Kureishi’s writing is that any and all of these things could be true, and they all say something deeper about the characters.
So they throw away the holiday plans and Meg decides to let down her hair, with not a care to finances. They will stay at the most expensive hotel in Paris and drink everything out of the fridge.
Holiday plans are interspersed with talk about their larger, life goals. The graveyard setting as they stroll along, talking about the rest of their lives, is of course another ironic touch.
We learn that Meg does not want to be an HOD high school teacher anymore. She doesn’t want Nick in her life. She doesn’t want her layabout son in her house. She doesn’t want another man. She only knows what she does not want.
We learn that Nick wants things to go along as they always had, but that is no longer possible because he is being forced out of his job. He has thoughts of being an artist. Once so full of promise, he considers himself to have lead an entirely hum-drum life.
With this weekend as a microcosm of their wider life, they have no solid plans for Paris. Plans are made for them when Morgan invites them to his dinner party.
CHARACTER WEB IN LE WEEK-END
The writers needed this couple to meet some other characters. Road journeys are hard (holidays are a type of road trip, for narrative purposes). They tend to feel fragmented because the main characters go from place to place and they’re always coming up against completely new allies and opponents, and the writers is going to have to manufacture some big struggles, because the big struggles the main characters are having between themselves are going to feel real old real quick.
That’s why Morgan comes in. A chance encounter with an old friend of Nick’s — an American, to contrast against Nick’s utter Englishness. Jeff Goldblum ‘plays’ the American very well (of course, it probably helps that he is American). In contrast to the reserved main characters from Moseley, Morgan is effusive and touchy-feely and upfront. He wastes no time telling the pair he has moved on to his second wife, who he is also effusive about.
Morgan is the character Nick could have been… were Nick not Nick. Nick, too, could have left his wife. He could have moved to Paris, as indeed, he suggests whimsically to Meg at one point as she admires the view from their hotel balcony. Later in the story, Morgan not only proves to be Nick’s ‘could-have-been’ character but is also his ally, who lets Nick in on an uncomfortable truth. The audience has already deduced this about Nick — this is one of his main shortcomings — he is ridiculously comfortable in life and doesn’t know it. Meg is no better — she laughs (perhaps scornfully, but who knows?) when it is revealed that Nick is being forced to leave his position at the university due to an ill-received comment about a black student’s hair. Apart from grim acceptance of his forced retirement, there is no evidence that real reflection has taken place. It is therefore masterful on the part of the writers (and on the actor, who looks positively uncomfortable and cowed), that Morgan tells Nick how easy he’s had it. A beautiful wife, a tenured profession with a generous superannuation. (Most of that is true — all of it is partly true.) The audience knows Nick better by now — another facet of his psychological shortcoming is his comfortable white middle-class-ness. This has made him slightly anxious, inclined to talk about bathroom tiles on a romantic getaway. A more predictable script would show us that he is ‘ungrateful’, but that doesn’t describe him at all.
Morgan’s unexpected son is another character who exists for two reasons: To remind us that Nick was once young like this, enjoying ‘all kinds of music’, and as a sounding-board for Nick’s slightly drunken speech on his bed. Meg interrupts. “What was he telling you?” “To be honest I couldn’t really make sense of it.” In fact, Nick’s speech makes sense to the audience. He’s not all that drunk. If the son can’t ‘make sense of it’, that’s because he’s too young to have the first clue about love, and how love is so much harder than sex.
Here a completely off-screen character has a function: Morgan’s first wife (the son’s mother) has been so depressed she jumped out of a window. With the symbolism of the balcony, and the earlier dread that Nick has perhaps ‘left’ Meg (jumped off it?) it is clear to both Nick and to the audience that things could be much, much worse.
In parallel, Meg talks to Morgan’s young, new wife — appropriately pregnant — she is full of the joys of first love. The much older Morgan has already confided in Nick that she can’t see through him yet, though it won’t last. The starry-eyed love of the young pregnant woman who would love to spend all day every day with her husband stands in stark contrast to the worn-out exhaustion of Meg, whose husband can’t stand to be alone and is terrified that no one wants to spend time with him. (Another drip-fed psychological shortcoming.)
This way, Nick becomes an increasingly flawed character and Meg becomes more relatable.
BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE IN LE WEEK-END
Apart from verbal sparring there are some minor physical tousles. I’ve noticed in fiction, unless it’s meant to be heavy, it’s more acceptable for a wife to cause harm to the husband than the other way around. The reasons for this are obvious. Women tend to do less damage when they do hit — with less physical strength the threat is lesser and the mood can remain light. This film would have felt quite different had the husband pushed the wife onto the road, hurting her knee and, later, slammed her into a wall.
In myth stories, it’s not simply a ‘self’ revelation — it is a public revelation. The hero discovers that s/he is not just a regular person but also a king/superhero/great leader. This is a metaphor for a character realising s/he has to take responsibility for not just him/herself but for the community, as a leader. Sometimes these stories include a ‘cosmic’ revelation, which is where a hero gets a vision about how an entire society should act in the future: Moses on the mountain top, Jesus on the mount.
What is the ultimate big struggle — the big struggle all the others have been leading up to? I suggest it is the dinner party spectacle, in which Nick is expected to make an impromptu speech and instead ends up using a table full of eminent strangers as an audience for his turmoil. Perhaps it’s fitting that this takes place at the American’s house — this seems to be a particularly American thing to do in fiction. In Big Love we have Nicolette making a neighbourhood speech from the rooftop — there are many other examples of humiliations being all the worse for taking place in front of a crowd of people. This is one trick writers use to tell the audience, “there were arguments before, but this is the BIG one.” Until recently I felt this was an American phenomenon rather than a British one.
NEW SITUATION IN LE WEEK-END
The audience watches as Meg and Nick wait for Morgan in the coffee shop. Significantly, Meg is now wearing Nick’s hat, which she sort of stole from the porters who are clearing out their room. With Meg wearing an item of her husband’s clothing, the individuals of this couple have reunited.
This part of the story is only hinted at. A musical rom-com often ends with a dance of some kind — here we have a trio who have lost their inhibitions — partly because they are abroad and partly because they are now of an age where they can start caring less about what other people think.
Whether it’s women locked in attics, teenage girls protected by their fathers, children living in gated communities, missing girls or dead mothers, Rapunzel is a significant ur-story.
THE HISTORY OF RAPUNZEL
The life of a fictional woman hasn’t diversified much over the years. Rapunzel is not the only girl who was locked up — take the Irish myth of Ethlinn, for instance. Ethlinn was a moon goddess whose father imprisoned her in a tower so that she could not produce the son prophesied to kill him. Kind of like a cross between Oedipus and Rapunzel, don’t you think?
It seems so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning: The girl locked in a tower thing is a metaphor for how family members would gather around to protect a young woman’s virginity. The fertile woman’s body has historically (and into the present) never been considered her own.
Patrisonella — ‘Neopolitan Rapunzel’ by Giambattista Basile (1630s)
This story predates the Grimm version by about 200 years. ‘Literary’ means it was written down rather than started orally. Neapolitan Giambattista Basile, like the German Grimm Brothers, was a collector of fairytales rather than a creator of them. He wrote down the story of Petrisonella. His sisters published a couple of volumes of his collections after he’d died.
In this version our heroine is an active participant in the tale. She works out her own way to escape the tower. She is named after the vegetable which grows in the ogress’s garden.
Petrosinella isn’t given over at birth as Rapunzel is.
There’s still that backstory with the mother who has cravings for, steals the petrosinella. In this retelling it’s the wife herself who takes the parsley (In Neapolitan, petrosine is parsley.) The mother promises the ogress that she can have her unborn child. The ogress is going to kill her if she doesn’t comply. (Sounds fair. Parsley IS delicious.)
The child, Petrosinella (Little Parsley), lives with her parents but every day on her way to school she passes this ogress who whispers, “Tell your mother to remember her promise!”
The daughter doesn’t know the backstory of this, and repeats this to her mother day after day. The mother eventually advises her own daughter to say to the ogress, “Take it!”
Poor Petrosinella is taken. Dragged by the hair, in fact, and locked in a tower in the woods.
We might assume Petrosinella suffers from PTSD. If a human were to be locked up as Rapunzel was, she would not be thriving. We actually know this from real life examples, such as the case of Blanche Monnier. She knows what it’s like to have a family and friends. She’s basically been sacrificed by the mother who didn’t even tell her the truth. In this way, Petrosinella is an ancestor of ‘Ma’ in Emma Donaghue’s Room. It’s no surprise, really, that Donoghue is a writer who has a strong grasp on the history of fairytale and folklore. Apart from Room she has also written Kissing The Witch: Old Tales In New Skins. Another author with a strong background in fairytale and folklore is Australia’s Kate Forsyth, who brought Petrisonella — or rather the version as written by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force — back to life in her historical novel Bitter Greens.)
I have no real issue with the enduring publication of fairytales, which come out year after year after year (presumably at the expense of original tales, because they sell), but I do wonder why publishers insist on continuing under the influence of Grimm rather than purposefully looking back further in time, when heroines were not such unilateral victims.
Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1698)
Charlotte-Rose also wrote a Girl In The Tower tale closely related to the Neapolitan Petrosinella. She wrote a bunch of things but is best remembered for “Persinette”.
In this version it’s Persinette’s father who takes the parsley. He doesn’t even have to take it. He makes a deal to exchange the baby for the parsley when the witch catches him in her garden. This makes no sense to a modern reader, but Jack Zipes explains that pregnancy cravings were taken very seriously in earlier times. It was thought that if pica cravings were not met, bad luck would befall the pregnancy, because cravings were given prognosticatory significance. “It was incumbent on the husband and other friends and relatives to use spells or charms or other means to fulfill the cravings.” (The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes). Other examples of stories in which pregnant women crave fruit and vegetables:
Cherry Tree Carol (The Virgin Mary tells Joseph she’s pregnant by asking him to pick some cherries for her.)
Anyone who has been pregnant lately will be keenly aware of all the rules around what expectant mothers are and are not allowed to do; even before cigarettes and the ready availability of soft cheeses, pregnant women were controlled via superstition taken seriously: It was thought that if a woman gave in to her cravings she would cause supernatural intervention which would bode poorly for the baby. This ties in with pre 20th century ideas that ‘control’ is what people valued in antiquity. Michel Foucault wrote about this, especially in regards to sex. (The idea that one’s sexual orientation defines you is modern. For ancient civilisations control over one’s own impulses is what defined you. Look to the Ancient Greeks.)
De la Force spends a lot of time describing all the luxuries that Persinette has in her tower.French culture at the time was all about having the best and newest luxuries. You’ll find similar descriptions of the Beast’s castle if you read the original French version of Beauty and the Beast. In both tales, the reader is encouraged to believe that the female prisoner is actually very lucky, having all these nice things around her. She’s, like, almost not even a prisoner at all!
In this version Persinette falls in love with the handsome prince in no time at all. Charlotte-Rose skirts around the wedlock issue by having them ‘married within the hour’. The speed at which Persinette goes from scared to fully in love is more than a little creepy by modern standards:
“He fell at her feet and kissed her knees with persuasive ardor. Persinette was frightened. She cried and then she trembled, nothing could calm her. Her heart was full of all possible love for the prince.”
In this version the fairy finds out Persinette has been ‘seeing’ the prince and is furious, but instead of banishing her to the forest she banishes her to a cute cottage by the sea which provides her magically with food.
When Paul O. Zelinsky illustrated a modern retelling of Rapunzel he chose to paint in an art style reminiscent of this period.
What Did The Grimm Brothers Do To It? (1812)
As usual, the Grimm brothers modified it — or picked the best of many versions — to suit their own morals at the time. Specifically, they changed the ending, because remember they were trying to monetize their work by selling collections to kids instead of sitting at home while people sent them their stories. Oral fairy tales such as “Rapunzel” were never created specifically for a young audience:
The Grimm’s (sentimental) ending to the story of Rapunzel(where the Prince’s blinded eyes are magically restored after Rapunzel’s tears land on them) cannot be found in the oral tradition of this tale.
Here’s what else the Grimm brothers always did to classic oral tales: they took a brave, intelligent heroine and made her passive and naive.
In order to avoid the controversial issue of Rapunzel getting pregnant before getting married, the Grimms have her instead ask the witch (as if she’s a true fool) why she’s so much heavier than the Prince. Some have argued that this Rapunzel is smarter than critics give credit for. For instance, it’s Rapunzel who comes up with the Prince’s plan when she says, “I will willingly go away with thee, but I do not know how to get down. Bring with thee a skein of silk every time that thou comest, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and thou wilt take me on thy horse.”
As you can see, our ‘ogress’ is now a ‘witch’ — basically another version of an inherently evil woman. The green vegetable stolen from the witch’s garden is now ‘rampion’ which actually refers to three different green, leafy vegetables. The rampion bellflower had leaves which were used like spinach and a root used like a parsnip. These days you don’t really hear about rampion outside this particular retelling of Rapunzel. (Unless you’re a keen gardener, I suppose.)
Barbie As Rapunzel (2002)
Similar to lots of feature-length films starring girls, appealing mainly to girls, the Barbie version of Rapunzel went straight to video. It was produced by Mainframe Entertainment and Mattel. A film like this is never going to get good critical reception and this is no exception.
Say what you will about the Barbie franchise — this version of Rapunzel is probably a bit better than the Grimm’s version. I mean, at least Barbie has agency. She ‘paints’ her way out of the tower. It passes the Bechdel test because Barbie is telling a story to her little sister, Kelly, who doesn’t have confidence in her own painting abilities.
I don’t want to oversell the feminist aspect. My argument is simply that this version looks no worse than the many, many book versions which are told to kids today.
What Did Disney Do To It? (2010)
I have a complicated relationship with Disney/Pixar. Like churches everywhere, they sit consistently slightly behind the times. Okay, Pixar are starting to do some genuinely good stuff. (Inside Out, Moana.) They get a lot of undue credit for sometimes ameliorating what are truly outdated values set in stone by the Brothers Grimm. For instance, when Disney made Rapunzel, they at least gave Mother Gothel a good reason to want a girl in a tower. In earlier versions of similar stories the ogress was given no motive. As 20th C feminist Marilyn French has written, it is important that female characters in stories are given motives for their evil doings:
Myths transforming or diminishing female figures like Hera elide such suggestions. Instead, they omit the past and transform the character of the female into something venomous, ugly, dark, mysteriously threatening. By erasing any reference to an earlier power or power struggle they make the hostility of these female figures appear unmotivated, a given. Social charter myths at least acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not — thus the evil power of females appears to be biological, natural. Such a procedure penetrates the moral realm and affects an entire society’s view of women.
The other thing Disney is credited for: keeping these tales alive. Without Disney/Pixar, I wonder how many parents would still be buying fairytale collections for their kids. Perhaps these fairytales would be getting lost to history right now, and reading them to our five-year-olds would seem as quaint and hipster as reading them The Jungle Book or tales from Norse mythology.
I’m surprised Disney didn’t get to Rapunzel earlier.Tangled was released in 2010, with a screenplay written by Dan Fogelman. He’s also known for Cars, Bolt, Fred Claus (for kids) and Crazy, Stupid Love (a rom-com about a middle-aged man who is forced to grow up after his wife says she wants a divorce).
In Fogelman’s own words, describing the story of Tangled:
It’s a really a two-hander of a movie. It’s really more than anything it’s about this love story at the center of the movie between the girl, Rapunzel, and the guy, Flynn.
Let’s take a look at the enduring appeal of Rapunzel.
You probably think of a pretty girl up in a tower who lets down her long hair so her boyfriend can climb up to see her. True, it’s a little weird that she was imprisoned there by a witch, but still: kind of romantic. How’s this version: When the witch sees what Rapunzel and her boyfriend are up to in that tower room (hint: it’s not knitting), she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and drops her into the wilderness to wander around alone. Then the witch sneaks up on the boyfriend, he jumps out of the tower window in fright, and blinds himself on thorn bushes. There is a lot of blinding in fairy tales.
There are so many versions of “Rapunzel” that I have to pick one to focus on for the story breakdown. I will take a look at the Grimm version, not because it’s my favourite at all, but because it’s the version I grew up with. I’m reading it from a sky-blue hardcover anthology published by Cathay Books in 1979.
In the Grimm version, the girl can no longer be the main character. It just doesn’t work because she is so passive. She might as well be a mannequin. So who is the main character? The main character is the one who changes the most. This does not refer to changes in circumstance (e.g. from rich to poor/alone to married). Who had some sort of awakening? The Grimms’ version posits the Prince as the main character. The prince is active.
The other difference in story structure when it comes to these really old tales: Modern readers don’t want to hear about the parents’ stories. A young adult novel these days isn’t going to regale the reader about how the heroine’s parents met. I guess family background was more important a few centuries ago, perhaps because it was thought that bloodlines were truly significant, and that if misfortune befell you, it must have had something to do with you deserving it, somehow, in a caste system of sorts.
How did the blind man get like that? Jesus’ disciples ask. Was it he who sinned, or his parents? My New Age mind/body connection was just another way to force the lepers outside the town walls. Vulnerability cannot enter here. Mortality cannot enter here. It was another way to push my fears away from myself and onto someone else. If you are ill, you can fix it yourself. If you cannot fix it, then you are to blame. It was, I realize looking back, pseudo-spiritual eugenics.
Today it’s enough to write a tragic tale about anyone from any background because according to modern morality, bad things happen to anyone at all. (There is still the rose-tinted idea that anyone can pull themselves out of hard times just so long as they work hard, but that’s an evolution for a future Golden Age of Children’s Literature, perhaps helped along by the Trump administration.)
The prince, like any young adult, is considered incomplete until he has found himself a wife. I guess he can’t become King until he finds a beautiful wife. So that’s his main problem.
He wants that young woman with the beautiful singing voice. Unfortunately there is no door into the tower. He can’t get in.
The witch has locked his prize in a tower to keep her away from the likes of him.
He waits and watches. The witch climbs up the girl’s hair, using it as a rope. He’ll do the same. (Because the girl is pretty stupid she doesn’t notice that a young man sounds different from an old woman, I guess.)
That bit where the prince flings himself in despair from the ledge after seeing the old woman instead of Rapunzel. Part of me wonders if he assumes Rapunzel has transmogrified into that old woman. If he lives in fairy tale land he might well have thought so. Anyhow, if he can’t have Rapunzel he’d rather be dead. Unfortunately, he suffers a fate worse than death. He is blinded on some sort of thorny bush. If he were dead, at least he’d be in Heaven. At least, that’s how readers saw things a few hundred years ago. For the same reason a tale like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl is not actually a tragedy — it has a happy ending because the little girl gets to see her dead grandmother in Heaven. Nope, going blind here on Earth is worse than being dead in Heaven.
He roams about in utter misery. He can do nothing but lament. He does this for ‘some years’. At last he finds himself in the wilderness. Now I’d like to draw your attention to The Symbolism Of The Forest. The Forest is where you will go to find yourself in the very pit of despair. We can assume he had some sort of epiphany. Oh, hang on, nope, he would have continued to be miserable but he stumbled upon Rapunzel who had also found herself in that very same forest.
Rapunzel has been caring for a couple of twins all this time. We assume they’re his. Yes, let’s do that. He takes Rapunzel and his twins back to his own kingdom where they are joyfully received. They live long in happiness and contentment together. And by the way, he’s not blind anymore — not in the Grimm version, because Rapunzel has magical eye-healing tears.