Rapunzel The ur-Story Of Young Female Sexuality

Rapunzel Michael Foreman

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.

Rapunzel in her tower by Anne Anderson


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.

'The Princess Imprisoned In The Summerhouse' by H.J. Ford, from 'The Orange Fairy Book' (1906)
‘The Princess Imprisoned In The Summerhouse’ by H.J. Ford, from ‘The Orange Fairy Book’ (1906)

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.)
  • The ogress has no real motivation in this story because at this point in storytelling history it was assumed that certain women are inherently evil, ugly and dangerous.

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.)
  • Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (apricots were believed to induce labour, a belief utilised here)

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.

For more on the author see here.

When Paul O. Zelinsky illustrated a modern retelling of Rapunzel he chose to paint in an art style reminiscent of this period.

Paul O Zelinsky

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.

Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair by Anne Anderson
Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair by Anne Anderson

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.

Marilyn French

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.

Go Into The Story

Not surprisingly, we have the usual gender ratio of one female to two male characters, despite this ostensibly being a tale about a girl. (The anthropomorphised horse is gendered male.)

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.

Superbabies Don’t Cry

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.)

Rapunzel by English Art Nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite illustrator, Emma Florence Harrison


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.


Singing The Bones Rapunzel episode (podcast)

Kate Forsyth is a Rapunzel expert and has written both fiction and non-fiction based on Rapunzel stories. Check out her blog.


Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson

The tale of Rumpelstiltskin asks a moral question: Who is the worst of the three men? The lying father who gives away his own daughter, the greedy King who threatens death, or the proto-men’s rights activist dwarf? Or is it the daughter herself?

rumpelstiltskin dancing around a fire

This is my all-time favourite fairy tale because it’s so twisted. It’s got everything: greed, abandonment, deceit, royalty. If you ask anyone who the monster of this story is, they’d most likely say Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who bargains with the desperate young woman for her firstborn child. But here’s the real story: The young woman’s father wants to impress the king, so he brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her over the course of a series of nights and demands that she perform this trick (which she does, thanks to Rumpelstiltskin). The last time, the king tells her that if she doesn’t succeed he’ll kill her, and if she does succeed, he’ll marry her. So of course she does succeed, and then she gets to marry the king who threatened to kill her. Happy ending?

That last story gets me every time. Who’s the real monster? Is it actually the little guy who fulfills his promise? Or is it the father who sells out his daughter to impress the king? Or is it the greedy king who is already rich but threatens the life of a powerless young woman in order to get even richer…and then forces her into marriage? I don’t know about you, but there are a couple of pairs of red-hot iron shoes I’d happily give to those guys.


Or perhaps we are to pass judgement on the miller’s daughter, who promises her first born under duress and then ‘fails’ to follow through, by handing the baby over to the gold-spinning dwarf? We are certainly invited to pass judgement on The Frog Queen, who promises to marry a frog if he retrieves her golden ball, and then promptly changes her mind once the frog has given it back. The idea that women have free will is a much newer concept than this tale. The morality of the miller’s daughter is interesting because she is both trapped in a prison, but also an honoured guest. Scholars of feminism will realise that this gilded cage has resonance for many women even today. Any girl who takes the ‘lazy’ way out by getting someone else to magically do her (spinning) work for her is judged harshly. The ethic of work hard and you will be rewarded is very old.

Rumpelstiltskin is a rags-to-riches tale of sorts — we don’t hear about the miller after he gives his daughter to the King, but we can assume he lived in comfort, at least for a good while.


  • “Rumpelstiltskin” is a German fairytale, also known as “Whuppity Stoorie” in Scotland, “Gilitrutt” in Iceland, “Joaidane” (جعيدان) in Arabic, (Martinko Klingáč) in Slovakia and “Ruidoquedito” in South America. Other versions are found in Israel, Serbia and Japan. Although individual plot details inevitably differ, the core of the story is the same as the German “Rumpelstiltskin”.
  • A Japanese tale called Oniroku and the Carpenter (だいくとおにろく)has strong Rumpelstiltskin vibes. Instead of spinning straw into gold, a supernatural creature (an ogre) builds a carpenter’s bridge for him. Instead of threatening to take the carpenter’s firstborn, he threatens to take his eyes, unless the carpenter can guess the ogre’s first name.
  • Rumpelstiltskin stories are likely over 2500 years old, and possibly as old as the Indo-European’s life on the Steppes 6000 years ago. The earliest literary mention of Rumpelstiltskin occurs in Johann Fischart’s Geschichtklitterung, or Gargantua of 1577 referring to an “amusement” for children named “Rumpele stilt or the Poppart”.
  • There are various ways to spell Rumpelstiltskin and in Germany, in case you were wondering, it’s Rumpelstilzchen. It means ‘little rattle stilt’. (The ending -chen is a German diminutive classifying something as “little” or “dear”.)
  • A rumpelstilt or rumpelstilz was the name of a type of goblin (also called a pophart or poppart) that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks. The meaning is similar to rumpelgeist (“rattle ghost”) or poltergeist. But at some point, and by the time it was translated into English, ‘goblin’ became ‘dwarf’.
  • Some of his other names include Tom Tit Tot, Päronskaft, or Repelsteeltje.
  • There is a version of this tale in sorts of cultures from Japan to Iceland.
  • As for the Grimms’ collected tale, this one is similar to The Three Spinners. Unlike Rumpelstiltskin, the characters in The Three Spinners are women — from the Queen (rather than the King), the mother (rather than the father) and the three deformed women who show up to do the spinning for the girl.
  • Most of the early stories related to Rumpelstiltskin involve a fairy trying to take the woman to be his wife. When the Brothers Grimm got hold of it, that’s when Rumpelstiltskin suddenly wants a baby.
  • Rumpelstiltskin hasn’t been made into a Disney film, though the character Rumpelstiltskin does exist on the TV series Once Upon A Time, played by Robert Carlyle.
  • Gold has long been associated with fairies and similar creatures (such as hobgoblins). Why? Fairies come from underground, and that’s where treasure comes from, too.
Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon A Time

By the by, there is a live action film of Rumpelstiltskin: the 1940 live action one produced in Nazi Germany, directed by Alf Zengerling. I’ve not sought that out.

I consider this fairytale well-suited to the oral tradition. The part where the Queen/miller’s daughter guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name can be turned into a type of word game where young listeners play with language and come up with all sorts of different, original names each time.


Who is the main character of this story? If in doubt, the main character is the one who changes the most. Failing that, the one who learns a life lesson. The King and the Father are monsters of men with zero shades of grey. (When it comes to fairytale archetypes, Kings and Fathers are basically the same person.) This whittles it down to either the nameless miller’s daughter or Rumpelstiltskin.

I will treat Rumpelstiltskin as the main character, not because he is given a name (indeed, in the title) but because the miller’s daughter is entirely passive. In the era this tale existed, she would not have been considered someone even capable of making plans. She is simply a chattel. Even the baby is more important than she is — I presume the baby is a boy, though it is not specified in my version of the fairytale (1979, Cathay Books).

“Rumpelstiltskin” by Willy Pogany


Rumpelstiltskin is a dwarf, presumably shunned by society for this ‘deformity’. He has no status or power despite having the wonderful and rare skill of being able to turn straw into gold.

Rumpelstiltskin as illustrated by John Dickson Batten for British version called Tom Tit Tot.
Rumpelstiltskin as illustrated by John Dickson Batten for British version called Tom Tit Tot.


He wants power. Surely he could get rich on his own, if he can spin straw into gold. His real aim must therefore be to enter the realm of royalty. But as explained by Ravens Shire, Rumpelstiltskin must have a goal, but it is not clear to the audience:

Rumpelstiltskin, despite outward appearances, is neither clear in his goal nor his motivation. On the cusp of it, it would seem that he wants the girl’s first-born baby. However, most fairies in stories don’t ask for the child they want, instead they simply take it. Rumpelstiltskin, however, despite being clearly able to sneak into a prison, being able to weave magic doesn’t just take the child as he obviously could. He tries to get the girl to accept giving the baby to him. What’s more, even after he comes to collect the child, he decides to give her another chance to escape her agreement with him.

Ravens Shire

Ravens Shire has some interesting theories about why Rumpelstiltskin wants this baby:

  • he may be a forgotten god
  • a baby would offer him love
  • he could bring the baby up as ‘the good king’ to eventually replace this evil one
  • he is seeking revenge (for what, I wonder?)
  • he will utilise the baby’s help at a later date

I’m thinking the original creators of this tale lived in a world where an imp’s/goblin’s intentions were assumed because of pre-existing stories about these creatures. Let’s not forget that the baby twist came quite late, in the mid 1800s. I wonder if this was a throwback to an earlier tale or if it was a brand new twist at that time. (In the same way, Disney have changed certain fairytales in the public imagination. We’ll always think of the dwarves in Snow White as miners, for instance.)

But in Troublesome Things, Diane Purkiss encourages us not to ask why a fairy (or a hobgoblin) would want a baby:

Why did fairies want babies? No one knows. The short, modern answer is that fairies reflect a mother’s love … Babies, especially boy babies, are wanted because everyone wants a baby — or is supposed to. But why do the fairies want human babies? This si not the right question: the point is that babies are, in certain crucial ways, like fairies. we… fairy beings in the ancient world are liminal, borderers; so medieval fairies remain. They wander between the dead and the living.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

Rumpelstiltskin would’ve had this in common with a baby: They were both on the edge of life.

Later in the same book, Purkiss says something else which makes me think again of Rumpelstiltskin: ‘Giving up your baby in exchange for your own power or security is the ultimate crime in agnatic kinship’. That the girl did not want to give up her baby means she is a good girl, because she is conforming to the patriarchal structure designed to keep her in her place.


Aside from society at large, Rumpelstiltskin’s opponent in this story ends up being the miller’s daughter who, once Queen, has ‘forgotten’ all about her promise: to hand over her firstborn. (I guess PTSD wasn’t a thing back then.)


The only way to get power is to act through people connected to the King. Rumpelstiltskin himself must pull strings behind the scene (at night, in the barn), like a puppeteer. If he were to get his hands on a baby of normal height — the King’s son no less — he would be the owner of the ultimate bargaining power.

More specifically, he notices when the King keeps a girl captive and must have somehow overheard the miller boasting. The dwarf’s diminutive size must therefore allow him to be almost omnipresent, blending in to the landscape — his status so low that he is invisible.

In the illustration below, I feel those birds may represent Rumpelstiltskin’s messengers.

Almost all illustrated versions of Rumpelstiltskin show both dwarf and girl in the barn. Often she is crying; sometimes they are engaged in conversation; other times we see him at the spinning wheel, working away.

Edward Gorey 1973
Helga Gebert, 1985
Paul O. Zelinsky has chosen a warm palette, presumably because they’re surrounded by straw and gold.


The big struggle scenes are the episodes in which the miller’s daughter tries to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name, and the final big struggle scene is of course when she gets it right, after having heard word from a man who passed a man in the woods singing all about his name. The Rule Of Three is used here and in the very sentence structure of some retellings, with repetition of words three times, for instance.

In some versions it is the Queen who sends out her messenger to find the dwarf in the woods, giving the female character more agency by turning her into a trickster who is a worthy opponent for the baddie. In my version she asks for help from the people in suggesting names, but in the end the revelation is an accident.

In the 1812 edition of the Brothers Grimm tales, Rumpelstiltskin then “ran away angrily, and never came back”. The ending was revised in a final 1857 edition to a more gruesome ending wherein Rumpelstiltskin “in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.” Other versions describe Rumpelstiltskin driving his right foot so far into the ground that he creates a chasm and falls into it, never to be seen again. In the oral version collected by the brothers Grimm, Rumpelstiltskin flies out of the window on a cooking ladle. (Why cooking ladle? Well, why broomsticks?)

It’s not surprising that we don’t see Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in two in illustrations for children. Instead we see the seconds leading up to it — there are many images of a dwarf/goblin dancing around a fire. The fire conjures up associations with hell.


As in Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and various other non-bowdlerised fairytales, there is no anagnorisis because the dwarf tears himself in two and dies.


We must extrapolate that the Queen gets to keep her first born. Don’t think about it too hard, however, or you’ll realise she’s living in a permanently abusive relationship under a powerful man who keeps her not only as a gold-spinning slave but as a sex-slave. And now she has no way of continuing to expand his fortune. I don’t envy her prospects.

Header illustration: Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson

Badjelly The Witch by Spike Milligan (1973)

“Badjelly The Witch” is better known as a radio play than as a picture book, at least to any New Zealand child of the 80s. There wasn’t much in the way of media entertainment back then, and I looked forward to Radio New Zealand’s Sunday morning children’s show with Constable Keith and Sniff the German shepherd, who was also voiced by Constable Keith. (I didn’t realise this until much later!)

This ‘duo’ issued safety warnings and life lessons to children but also offered quizzes where you could ring in (I once even got through!), and these gags and lessons were interspersed by a selection of radio plays, mostly British, the number of which I can count on the fingers of one hand. This meant that Badjelly the Witch, performed by the comedian author himself, was played pretty much every single Sunday morning to children throughout the country.

There was also a radio play featuring snails who spoke in deep, slow voices about lettuces, but I can’t remember the name of that. There was another about a train — I think it might have been “The Little Engine That Could”. As you can see, Badjelly the Witch was the radio play which left the strongest impression on my childhood. It is read by a British male narrator who chuckles at the jokes. The radio play underscores the fact that Milligan’s narrative voice is primed for oral recitation: Like fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood of yore, and nursery rhymes with punchlines such as “wee wee wee, all the way home!Badjelly The Witch is meant to be performed rather than recited.


My copy has a purple cover and is full of line drawings rendered in ‘naive style’, epitomised best of all by the literal naivety of Milligan’s six year old daughter, who drew the opening double page spread. The author has handwritten the story himself and has fun with the font, turning words into pictures in places.

There is something particularly apt about the line drawings which display nothing in the way of ‘good draftsmanship’.

That’s not to say that professional illustrations don’t draw in this style. Here’s an example obviously done by a pro, retaining Milligan’s style:

Badjelly The Witch newly illustrated

Like the illustrations, this is not a ‘careful’ story. This is a narrative which makes fun of narrative. We even have God coming in at the end, in a lampoon of deus ex machina. There is no moral. Badjelly The Witch follows classic myth form and draws its influence from various sources, but there is no moral lesson. No significant anagnorisis. Pure fun. So why not have fun with the drawings, too? You won’t easily find a ‘serious’ illustrator who introduces the cat with the back, tail-up view, but that’s what Milligan does.

Badjelly the Witch Fluffy Bum The Cat

A professional illustrator would most likely introduce Lucy the cow wearing a straw hat, since that becomes her identifying signature (learned later in the story), but Milligan doesn’t bother with such details. There is no playing with perspective — aside from the cat, who is presented backwards, all characters are face on or side on, which always lends a folkart vibe to a picturebook. Jim the Eagle is the first character we see depicted in semi-realistic style.

The following illustration is a landscape of the castle with the eagle’s body in the foreground. This illustration shows an individual and unique composition.

In short, it’s a hodge podge affair.

And this is the thing about stories in which characters go on a journey. They meet lots of characters, none of whom are related to each other, and these stories tend to be quite fragmented, as a category. Hell, why not the illustration style, too?


  • The Wizard Of Oz — the mythical journey along a ‘path’ (through the forest etc.), the evil witch, and the tin lion, which feels like an amalgamation of the tin woodman and the lion of L. Frank Baum
  • Enid Blyton — especially when it comes to alliterative, onomatopoeic sounding names such as ‘Binklebonk’. The escape from the castle is similar to the first chapter of The Wishing Chair.
  • Fairytales — the journey into the forest, the pastoral scene (house with a thatched, straw roof), the importance of the cow to the family’s fortune (a la Jack and the Beanstalk), brother and sister huddling together in terror as they are about to be eaten (Hansel and Gretel), asking after a cherished thing who has run away (The Gingerbread Man)
  • Bible stories — in Badjelly the Witch we even have God as a character
  • Like Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan finds humour in casual putdowns based on somebody’s physical appearance — the children’s teacher apparently has ‘legs like tree trunks’, and also in humiliating revenge (the giant is down-troued and runs off to Barebottom Land). This was a particular kind of adult male humour of the mid-twentieth century — few female writers then, or today, make jokes about a giant whose eyes go all around his head ‘so he can see the pimples on his back’.  Milligan also seems to find sausages very funny.

(Perhaps female comedian writers for children are just not getting published as often. Even today, the big name comic children’s writers tend to migrate from celebrity world, e.g. David Walliams or from a television background e.g. Mo Willems, Jon Klassen. While the publishing world is relatively open to diversity, the same can’t be said for broadcasting and showbiz.)



The iterative portion of the narration tells us who the main characters are, where they live, about their pets. The story switches to singulative at the inciting incident: One day they went out to the barn to milk Lucy, “but Lucy was gone!” They won’t have any milk unless they find Lucy, so they set off on a quest to find, quite specifically, a cow. This is also known as a ‘Grail Quest’. (The more concrete the goal, the more like a Grail Quest it is.)


They want to find their cow so they can continue to have milk on their eggs. (I’m not sure who does this, unless they’re talking about scrambled eggs?)


The children meet various opponents along the way, but the BIG BADDIE is of course the Wicked Witch, a trickster character who easily pops the stupid children into a bag.

More than in a myth for adults, these children meet a lot of allies along the way — characters who genuinely help them. This reduces the opportunity for conflict, which we keep being told audiences need, but Milligan still manages to insert conflict by means of humour. For instance, Rose doesn’t know which end of the jovial worm is his head, so the worm will put on a hat. They meet a shark crossing the river (another mythical symbol) and because the worm is the strongest worm in the world, the shark is bopped on the nose and takes off to the Shark Nose Hospital. In this world, every type of establishment exists, as and when you need it.


To walk along the road into the forest until coming across Daisy the cow. They will ask everyone they see if they have seen a black and white cow wearing a straw hat. If they are friendly and jovial, people will help them. And this is exactly what happens.


The children face a number of big struggles and face near death when they are locked in the castle. The witch plans to eat them with peanut butter for breakfast.


When the parents are scared of the eagle, carrying Lucy and the children to safety, it is clear that the children have achieved a sort of maturity via their trauma in the wild, whereas the parents who remained at home are still locked in fear.


They ‘lived happily ever after until next time’.

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore movie poster

Here’s what happens in the 2017 indie American film I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore:

When a depressed woman is burgled, she finds a new sense of purpose by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.

CHARACTER LINE: a depressed woman finds a new sense of purpose

ACTION LINE: by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour

SOME SENSE OF THE OUTCOME: They are either going to win or lose their big struggle against the pack of degenerate criminals. It may well be a pyrrhic victory since Ruth is well out of her depth.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore film poster


A middle-aged woman gets through her middle-aged disappointment with the world after the insulated life she has created for herself is invaded by exactly the ‘assholes’ she tries to keep at arm’s length.


Comedy, crime, drama

This is a black comedy with some horror gore elements but with the drama element it is also about the awakening of a middle aged woman — a coming-of-age story.

Note that this is not a thriller. A thriller has a villain-driven plot. The villain presents obstacles that the hero must overcome. In a thriller, a devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one in the wings. The perpetrator is known, but their guilt is not absolutely certain—or the main character wishes not to accept the truth of the villain’s guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.) 

That’s why this is a mystery rather than a thriller. (Crime is a subtype of mystery.) In a mystery the villain typically remains hidden, at least for a while.

Similar to a thriller, though, this story features a (darkly) happy ending in which the villains are killed or arrested. Also similar to a thriller, both villain and main character share an element of crazy. The actor who plays Chrissie has an excellent joker’s grin. The set up for Ruth’s ‘crazy’ is that her antidepressants have been stolen, or perhaps she is just sufficiently angry after suppressing her frustrations with the world for so long. 

Also similar to a noir thriller — but typical for the comedy that this is — at one point our main characters are going to pose as something they’re not. Then, with excellent comic timing, the mask will come off. Only after the mask comes off will they have to deal with a number of consequences in a transgression-consequence loop, and then Ruth will be able to grow without a mask.

Another example of this is Breaking Bad, in which Walter White wears the mask of a family man, or perhaps he really is a family man wearing the mask of a sociopath. (The genius part of that story is that the audience never really know which is Walt’s true self and which is the mask. We are in fact forced to conclude that one man can be multifaceted.)

The tone of this film is similar to something out of a Coen Brothers film. It’s also similar to the Australian film Two Hands with its spoofy, comedic crime plot.


Filmed in Portland, Oregon, this isn’t the usual backdrop we see when Portland is depicted on film. Our main character Ruth lives in suburbia but this is not the manicured version of suburbia. This is a mostly Black neighbourhood, as we find out when she goes door-knocking, and this generally poor area will soon be seen in contrast to the most ostentatiously rich part of Portland when our main characters visit the lawyer’s mansion with its unnecessary, expensive and slightly grotesque yard art.

This setting is an outworking of Ruth — her house and clothes are drab, and her personality is featureless. Even her car is beige. This is very similar to the set up of the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad who you may remember wears a beige jacket, colourless trousers and beige shoes. Like Walter White, Ruth lives on the edge of economic security in a nurse’s aide job which pays her just enough to get by in 2017 America.

Who would Ruth have voted for? My guess is that she wouldn’t have voted for either candidate last year. She was probably working that day. She would feel repulsed by Trump and alienated from Hilary Clinton.

The neighbourhood/town arena is small enough for the characters to consistently run into each other.


This is what I’ll call a ‘suburban mythological structure‘. Another example is Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. The main character doesn’t leave the suburbs but goes from place to place within that arena finding herself in a series of escalating and comical struggles until she comes close to actual death. This story manages to avoid feeling fragmented because they keep happening upon the same set of baddies (an expanding set of them).

The pattern in which something missing is found halfway through a story endlessly recurs. Even if the protagonists don’t literally have to slay a dragon or steal fire from the gods, they always have to leave their home to solve the problem they find there, then bring tha tsolution back home. Journey there; journey back.

John Yorke, Into The Woods


The story opens at night time. That’s quite unusual. We’re usually afforded a fully-lit view of a landscape to help orientate ourselves in a film.

Ruth looks up through leafy trees into the sky. You can probably guess from this that she’s going to be having an existential crisis soon.

We see a long shot of Ruth drinking alone and in the background we hear laughter. Ruth is not a part of this laughter — the darkness is a shortcut to depression. Later, when we find out her drugs have been stolen we’ll read ‘depression’ literally. (Lexapro and Clonazepam are both used to treat anxiety/depression and the clonazepam is also attractive to recreational users.)

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore looking for meaning in the night sky

This kind of character is pretty common in coming-of-age stories — or perhaps it’s partly what makes for a coming-of-age story — she has no motivation to do anything. She is going through the motions of her day-to-day life, seeing injustice everywhere, avoiding confrontation. She has come to the pessimistic worldview that everyone is an asshole. This is quite a 2017 worldview, I would say. When the camera cuts to the TV news I can very much identify with Ruth’s sense that the world is all wrong.

This shot of the news is also foreshadowing the adventure to come, which will also involve stand offs and guns and police, but in a slightly different form.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore TV news

I like that we don’t get a ghost/backstory for the character of Ruth. A less original writer would have her grieving after a miscarriage or a relationship break up. I appreciate that this director has avoided the typical gendered tropes. Instead, it seems Ruth is depressed simply because of the way the world is. When we see her in the bar reading and she strikes up a conversation with a man (a cameo for the actor/director), we see that she isn’t even really romantically motivated. Not desperate, not wounded from past lovers, just okay the way she is. That’s refreshing.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore pub scene

Ruth needs to find some hope in a horrible world.

She basically treats others well, but we see a shortcoming in her when she sits on the bed of her best friend’s daughter — a five year old — and talks to her as if she’s an adult. This shows the audience that in some ways Ruth has the emotional maturity of a much younger person. She shouldn’t be off-loading on a five-year-old. It smacks of desperation. She is gently chided by her friend.


Ruth is burgled. She feels invaded and, as she tells her best female friend, this has plunged her into an existential crisis in which it feels the whole world is populated by assholes.

People are disgusting. The fucking taking, you know what I mean? … Everyone’s an asshole … Sometimes I feel like I’m underneath a whirlpool and I can’t even breathe.


Ruth would like to be left alone to exist in her own house without invasion. She would ideally like to live in a better world. This is a disappointed idealist we’re talking about. It’s significant that Ruth is closer to 40 than to 20 — she’s seen enough of the world to have become disappointed by it.

More concretely, Ruth loses her laptop and sentimental heirloom silverware and she would like those back.


Angered by the invasion to her home space, Ruth is galvanised to confront the man whose dog is leaving turds on her grass verge. Comically, the turd is half on the grass, half on the pavement — foreshadowing a dog-owner whose transgression can’t even really be achieved properly. As it turns out, this guy (Tony) is going to become Ruth’s biggest ally but for now, in a dark inversion of ‘meet cute’ in a rom-com, they have a low level argument.


The opponent, unknown and unseen at this point, is the person or people who burgled her house.


And that’s the mystery, of course. Whodunnit? Who took the silverware? This is about to turn into a Grail Plot, in which our main character will go after some treasure as a quest.


The police. It is revealed in a hasty denouement that the cop who stands most in her way has been going through relationship problems, which partly explains his response to her.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore Melanie Lynskey


Whereas before Ruth didn’t really care about the stuff, just the invasion, she is annoyed by the dismissive attitude of the police officer and decides she really does want her stuff back.


There’s a footprint in her backyard which the police officer didn’t see. She decides to become a vigilante detective and buys plaster-of-Paris to make a cast of it. When this happens we know Ruth will follow this to its natural conclusion. We want to see her get her stuff back. Basically, she has decided to take the law into her own hands.

Like a good detective, she visits all her neighbours to find out if they saw anything. She happens upon the guy whose dog dropped a “BM”.

We’re not sure where she’s going to go with her investigation as she comes to a dead end, but as she is dancing in her living room when her phone beeps as it has located her laptop. It has been turned on and she can see it’s at 129 Grove Street.

She calls the cops but they won’t send any cars out.


When the police aren’t interested in her beeping laptop it seems she is done.


She plans to get her laptop back herself.

Pulling up outside, the people are in the front yard and look scary.

So she will ask the weird dog poop guy she met twice by accident lately, because he was working out and seems to be some kind of ninja fanatic.


She gets her laptop back in a comical ninja showdown in which one of them hits himself in the nose with a nunchuck, but these aren’t the main baddies. They purchased the laptop at a second-hand place. They give her the address.


When the story cuts to the track of the opponents we are shown who these people are. At first, due to the forest setting and the music and the drug-taking, these people are presented as truly evil. We later find out how hapless they are. There is a series of revelations in which the audience is given information the main characters do not: We are shown them buying a gun. They plan to commit a murder or something.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore blonde villain


Now she and Tony are fully invested in the mission. Weedy, big-eyed Tony has been training for just such a mission his whole life. They go to the second-hand place with the intention of finding the silverware. The second-hand place is the mythical equivalent of a labyrinth with many parts to it — dark overstuffed rooms, packed yards — disorganised chaos. Their mission is twofold: To find the silverware and to get out of there, like some sort of ancient test.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore second hand store

Like in any good myth story, the old man who owns the place is another good opponent — he’s not interested in listening to Ruth, he just wants to sell her some music. So she doubles down and decides to steal it back.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore cafe scene

She happens to be at this place at the exact same time as a guy wearing shoes she recognises from the footprint. This is impressive if you think about it. The audience likes a smart (vigilante) detective.


It’s interesting that, in this story, Ruth actually achieves her goal at the midway point. She wanted her laptop back. She got it. She wanted her silverware back. She got that, too. But now she’s seen the guy who stole her stuff, her drive has changed and galvanised.

Her motive is changed: She knows who the thief is, now she just has to convince the police.

Back to the useless police.


I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore playing cops

Not only is the policeman at the station unhelpful; he is downright condescending. I do appreciate the gender flip though, in which the policeman cries. Usually it’s the female character who cries out of frustration.

Now Ruth decides to track down the thief herself. She’s seen him get away so has his licence plate number. With the Internet and a credit card she finds out the owner of the silver van.

She decides to confront the offender to show him it’s no good being an asshole. She has the opportunity to express this while sitting in the father’s mansion. Chris elder asks what she wants with him, if not money.

This comes back to Ruth’s deeper psychological need: To make a bad person good. That way, one person at a time, the world will be a better place. She’s already shown us this tendency by confronting Tony about his dog shit.

There is another big struggle scene in here which takes place at what is slowly revealed to be the thief’s father’s house. They are talking to the step-mother. This is the part where they put on their comedic ‘masks’ and try to pass themselves off as officers. It is revealed in the mansion scene that the step-mother knew all along they weren’t cops — she let them in because she was just bored. This scene is a masterclass in comedic revelations.

A story is almost always improved when rich and poor people are presented side by side. The horrible lawyer father with questionable morals scoffs at their old car.


Upon being chucked out of the house, Ruth is enraged and destroys yard art.

It’s significant that Tony is Christian — along with some other unlikely personality quirks — because it makes sense that he disapproves of Ruth stealing a piece of yard art. He has her on about that in the car, because they are not the criminal — they are simply the (step-) parents. This leads to an argument and a brief separation. This argument asks the audience to consider the rights and wrongs of stealing, and what is acceptable by way of retribution.


Now that Ruth has met the horrible father she sees there’s no changing horrible people and there’s no wonder Chrissie turned out the way he did. The world is a horrible place and there’s nothing she can do about it. Another apparent defeat.

Back at his own house eating cheese, Tony looks at his dog and has a revelation (that he needs to go apologise) and makes a decision (to go to her house). But once he gets there he realises she’s been kidnapped (he finds the plaster of Paris foot caste smashed on the floor and he puts two and two together, rushing to the mansion.


Ruth is forced into a heist after Chrissie is comically killed by a bus.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore knife and mask

A lot of masks come off. These awful people are revealed to be simpletons.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore monster villain

This all leads to a Red Wedding type farcical showdown in which only Ruth gets out largely unharmed. (Except for a red hand.)

The Red Right Hand [sometimes a left] is a form of Glamour Failure where the right hand of a supernatural character is blood-stained or marked with some other variation of red coloring. The red right hand could be seen as the spiritual equivalent of bright patterns on venomous animals – a warning sign that something wrathful this way comes.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore forest warrior

The setting is symbolic for the final chase sequence — Tony is slumped over in the dinghy it’s as if he’s crossing the River Styx. The final big struggle takes place in The Forest, or a suburban equivalent. The snake in the pond is a great touch. As in Kings of Summer, the snake is used as an aggressive opponent of nature within a forest setting, even though in reality snakes wouldn’t really cling onto someone’s face without significant and sustained provocation.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore boat

This is the worst thing for Ruth. She is at her absolute lowest point here.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore pyrrhic victory


When Ruth hits the king of the baddies with the rock even as he stands before her with his weapon (though out of bullets) this is the classic David/Goliath story playing out. The little woman wins. She gets away, helped along by that snake.

It’s dangerous to be the hero’s best friend. Tony gets it in the end.


She realises Tony is reading the exact same book as she is — planted in the bar at the beginning of the film. She realises Tony and her mightn’t make such a bad match.


At the beginning of the film, in the bit where we see Ruth’s life before the inciting incident, we are shown her watch on passively as someone in front of her at the supermarket puts an entire cartload of groceries onto the conveyer belt in the Express line. Now we see her again at the same supermarket but this time she is aggressive in the queue and pushes her way in front. After her brush with death she has decided the small big struggles aren’t quite as scary. In general though, we see that she is going on with her life pretty much as before. For instance, she sees the same big white utility vehicle with the pillars of black smoke billowing out and we wonder if she’s going to do anything about it. She doesn’t — she’s going to pick her big struggles, as before but more so.

Notice now the truck is the mirror image of the original one at the beginning of the film. This story makes use of the technique of mirroring — going back to the same places, showing the same people and the same situations only slightly modified. This creates a strong sense of closure in the audience and clues us in to the character arc and morality of the main character, and of the story as a whole. The ideology of this story: Stand up for yourself but pick your big struggles. Have faith that there are good people out there and you will find them. Don’t let the evil in.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore dirty truck


It is not clear to me why Meredith wouldn’t identify Ruth as one of the criminals when asked by police. It’s clear she remembers Ruth’s face because she remembered her when she came back. Perhaps she feels some sort of sisterly solidarity.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore documentation

She goes back to work.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore back to work as a nurse

Ruth is at a backyard BBQ with her best friend and husband. It hasn’t been clear for the denouement whether Tony survived or if he really is dead. We’re not sure if we just saw Ruth sitting in church as perhaps a born-again, or if she was attending his funeral. When we see the camera cut to a view of Tony BBQing alongside her friend’s husband, Dan, it is not 100 per cent clear whether this is in-world reality or if this is Ruth’s imagination. After several hallucinatory episodes in which she sees her elderly dead relative motivating her through her big struggles, we know that Ruth is capable of imagining this, and we know it’s a trick the director is capable of using. It’s therefore quite possible that she is imagining what might have been had Tony not been killed.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore ambiguous bbq
I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore ghost
I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore possibly ghost

Either way, Ruth is imagining/seeing a future for herself, which is a big step up from where she was at the beginning of the film.

This mindset will set her up for finding more people in her life in future.