As mentioned in last weeks post, Neil Gaiman shared advice on how to look at what is around you with fresh eyes, for writing inspiration. As I shared, fairytales and folktales continue to have great impact on me, as an Anthropologist I love to study them as a part of their cultures, so I chose to look at a fairytale from my childhood with fresh eyes. The fairytale I chose was Rapunzel.
I went back to the original 1812 Grimm’s version of Rapunzel. The original story is darker and contains four characters, a husband and wife, their daughter, and a fairy. The original story has the fairy as the antagonist. I chose to look at the story with the fairy as the protagonist and a curse as the antagonist. The Curse is known as Hunger. Please enjoy my short retelling of Rapunzel below:
My wife saw your rapunzel from our window, and such a longing came over her, that she would die, if she did not get some to eat.Grimm’s Fairytales, 1812
Rapunzel Retelling by Angela VanWell
Once upon a time, there lived a fine fairy who had a garden. Her garden was not a typical garden. Yes, there were roses, but they sucked blood through their thorns. The ivy entangled its prey, weaving a web around them, followed by a month of hanging before the ivy and the willow could absorb its flesh. Each plant was unique, which is why she kept them in her nursery. To keep them safe. The magical plants were her life’s work. However, they acted naughtily, so she raised a high wall to keep them safe and used her magic to block them from stalking mortals outside the wall.
One day, the fairy noticed her human, female neighbour staring out her window, lips parted, her fingertips touching the window’s glass. As though she wanted to touch the garden through the glass. Her skin appeared tight against her skin, no longer the plump figure she had been. Though time passed haphazardly for the Fairy so she was not sure how long ago it was. Many emotions had been rioting from their house over the years, loss, sadness, hope, fear, all delicious snacks to her garden. The fairy deepened her magics into the soil to keep the emoting out. The chaos of it would influence the growing patterns of her lovelies, and with them in bloom she was ever vigilant.
Not that she didn’t understand the compulsions of her nursery. The ivy reached for her as she strolled, and she let the delicate end touch her finger. It shuddered as it twisted around her finger, and she shared a knowing grin.
“How strong you have grown.” she crooned, as she loosened a wisp of magic down to her finger tip. The juvenile stem shuddered. Changing from green to purple as her power pulsed down its line. The creeping vines released their web that had grown around her and turned their blush pink blossoms towards the sky. They recognized a predator.
A throaty laugh escaped her lungs. It brought her joy to see them grow strong. The other delicate herbs, splendid blossoms, all flourishing, leaned away as she passed. They had tested her and recognized her power. They shared their perfumed calls and splendid blooms for the remainder of her walk.
The house wife touched the window again. Her gaze darting after the fairy who sauntered through her garden with no thought of her neighbours and their slumbering garden. Winter still froze their ground. It had been months since she ate anything fresh, and the larder lay near empty.
It should have been a time of joy. For years, the couple tried for a child and failed. Then one day, like magic, she became pregnant. They spent the winter nurturing their miracle. Thrilled, the husband denied her nothing, no matter how big or small, how innocent or dangerous.
Taking a deep breath, she inhaled the magic on the breeze, escaping the garden. She had a craving. After many days ignoring it, it seeded in deeper as she broke into tears. Her stomach’s growl shook her.
Grabbing fistfuls of fabric from her rapidly swelling belly, she whimpered, “I will die if I have none of the Rapunzel.” The lettuce stood tall, covered in dew, in the bewitched garden. The farm wife could deny her craving no longer.
He watched as his wife, who was so fair and now stood wan, lean into the window. Her hands shook as she held her belly. Walking over, he pulled her into his arms, rocking in place as he felt her chilled frame against him. She stood rigid and then slowly melted into his warmth. He didn’t understand why she desired something from the garden. The magic didn’t affect him. The St. John’s Wort he took for his depression, kept him safe from the garden’s magic.
Holding her shivering, boney body close, he thought to himself. “No matter what it costs. I will bring her the Rapunzel.” She’d grown leaner as the winter progressed. As though her body sacrificed itself to their new family member. The thought of her dying before their miracle baby’s birth was too much for the husband. He resolved to grant her wish that night.
As evening fell, he clambered over the wall. Tiptoed through the garden until he arrived at the Rapunzel. The rosettes of the young plants with spoon-shaped leaves called out to him under the dusk light. Surrounded by so many competing, amazing smells, he wished to pick a piece of the lot. To bring it all to his wife and to see her joy. See her skin flush again with happiness and warmth. But she had eyes only for the rampion, Rapunzel.
Crouching, he turned and watched as fireflies brightened the night. Swarming a grand tree deeper in the garden. Their dance drew him away from the Rapunzel and towards a willow whose branches twisted into the breeze, snaking towards him. He lifted one foot after another towards it until his heart squeezed tight in pain. Pain darted through him, like a knife blade in the gut, clearing his head. Reminding him. It wasn’t safe to be in a fairy garden. He cut a rosette of Rapunzel, as it reached up to his ankles, then slipped back over the wall and to the warmth of his family.
His wife rejoiced. Drawing the dewy greens from him, he gaped at her transformation. Her shoulders lowered, the shine returned to her eyes, and her smile returned like the morning sun. She created a beautiful salad between the Rapunzel and dried fruit from the pantry, and devoured the entire salad with an intensity he had not seen since their nuptials. When she finished, she was satisfied. They returned to their joyous state of soon-to-be parents. Once again, their home burst with love and laughter.
And that made the husband happy too.
Hunger struck again the next dawn, Hunger like the house wife had never experienced before. The insides of her stomach quivered in agony, twisting around and filling her with fear. Even in the periods of famine, she hadn’t known deperation like this. Shocks snaked through her system and she feared the loss of their child. It wasn’t the child causing her pain, but the Rapunzel. It was not ordinary Rapunzel; it was Fairy Grass.
Fairy Grass, or Hungry Grass, contained a curse. It doomed any who walked across it or ingested it with ravenous desire. For though the fairy had protected the mortals from her plants spreading from the garden, she hadn’t stopped mortals from entering. When she was away, the garden had fed on the prey they called. The corpse’s cry of agony reached up through the soil and became one with the grass. The grass that wove its needs through the housewife.
In terrible pain, needing MORE, the wife begged her husband to once again scale the wall and fetch more Rapunzel. The cravings grew stronger than the day before, “I will die this time without it.”
Her husband knew, to save his family, he must visit the garden again. He sensed a wrongness in the air. A shiver of danger ran along his skin. The joy drained from him as he prepared for his journey. This time he would not be so lucky. But he’d made a vow.
And so he went. Petrified this time the fairy would catch him. Yet he pushed himself to enter the garden, keeping his eyes focused on his goal. His families’s health. When he reached the patch, he bowed to the ground, ready to fill a bag with Rapunzel.
The fairy yelled from behind him. “Why do you invade my garden? It belongs to Fairy not mortals.”
The husband turned, horrified. The diminutive female growing with her anger. Much as the fireflies had swarmed the tree, he watched as light glistened down to her fingertips.
He pleaded, “but I must. This is the sole food my spouse will eat. She’s pregnant with our precious baby. I don’t wish her or the baby to starve. Please, please, I beg you to let her have the Rapunzel.”
The fairy noted the man’s lack of fear for himself. His malaise and medication protected him from the magic of Fairy. His eyes flashed with fear, but the fear reflected to his home.
Movement in the window caught her eye. She watched for a moment with both her eyes and her magic. She recognized the wife’s suffering. It was the curse of Hunger. Insatiable Hunger. She had a Knowing as the magic murmured its secrets to her. It was not the wife, but the baby who was cursed. The baby who was not quite human. It’s magic touched her and recoiled back. It was young and weak.
Saddened, the fairy said to the miserable fellow, “I shall grant you the right to pick my Rapunzel, as often as you need.” The fairy exhaled a heavy sigh, savouring the magic she breathed in from the garden surrounding her. Her charges and her debt.
“You shall take nothing else in the garden or you will lose your life. The Rapunzel is only for the babe and her mother. Upon the child’s birth, she is mine.” This too was part of the Knowing.
The husband’s devotion to his partner was strong, but his dread of the fairy greater. He agreed to her terms.
He continued to scale the barrier, pick Rapunzel and deliver it to his wife as it was the sole food she could eat. The one item that sustained her.
Then the day came where his wife gave birth to an exquisite baby girl. The fairy appeared, declared the baby’s name Rapunzel, and snatched her away. His wife’s eyes dulled at first, with the loss of their miracle child. But then she blossomed, like their garden, both grew healthier than ever before. She returned to herself and once again was his loving bride. He gathered her up and fled the area. Grateful they had survived their encounter with Fairy.
At first the fairy raised Rapunzel in her little house next to her garden because Hunger needed fulfillment. The small girl was exquisite, a porcelain doll, her every look and smell, addicting. Enticing. And the fairy rejoiced for the lovely, wicked gift the garden had provided. She raised Rapunzel, in the cottage beside the garden, until the young lady turned twelve-years-old. Hunger grew stronger than the spells containing her small nursery and her home. The fairy realized Rapunzel required a place with deeper magic, a place to contain her.
They traveled to a fairy knoll. From its centre grew a magnificent tower, with no stairs, no exits, and a modest window at the top. Magic swelled from where the tower rooted in Underhill, in Fairy itself. The fairy knew it would contain Rapunzel without removing her needing to Rapunzel from the mortal world.
Rapunzel developed into a lovely young woman with golden, glowing hair and a voice so appealing, she drew the birds down from the sky. Such allure, twisted with Hunger, was dangerous where mortals roamed. She was like the fairy’s meadows, herbs, and blossoms; poisonous to mortals, but exquisite in her own way. The fairy didn’t believe poisonous creatures deserved removal from the world, instead she guarded them. So she protected Rapunzel as she did her garden.
Rapunzel lived for many years, as the fairy visited and guided her and her Hunger. They sang together, cooked together, and cared for one another as family. The fairy believed Rapunzel protected and safe in the tower. But what she didn’t realize was while she was away, Rapunzel rested in the window and sang, attracting the wildlife surrounding the knoll. One day, it was not just the birds who observed her sing, but a prince.
Once the prince heard her sing, he watched her sit in the window, breathless. He noted how graceful she sat, how beautiful she was, and how much he needed her. She was more exquisite than any bird he had ever seen, and he discovered, just as caged. There was no means to reach her. He fantasized of sweeping her away to his castle, but could find no way to reach her. He couldn’t leave without meeting and winning the heart of the girl with the magical voice.
Then one day, while he watched her from afar, he heard her fairy mother cry,
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
A wondrous braid of spun gold dropped thirty yards below to the ground. The fairy, (who else would lock a lady away in a tower?), tied the roped braid around her and the damsel pulled her up and into the tower.
At last, he knew how to meet the girl who mesmerized him with her seductive voice.
He waited until near dusk, then he snuck to the tower and called out.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
He watched the spun gold fall from above. Once it reached the prince, he drew it around his waist and Rapunzel pulled him up to the window.
Upon his entrance, the prince terrified Rapunzel. Trembling, Rapunzel hid behind her wardrobe. She had seen no one but her fairy mother before his entry. But the young prince was so smitten, it didn’t take long before Rapunzel delighted at his company. He climbed the tower to call on her every night.
Over time, their adoration turned into love. Their need for each other was so strong, they rarely parted. The prince could hear his named called from afar, as his kingdom searched for him. But such a calldid not compare to the voice of his love. If only the fairy mother did not visit, they would never part again.
One day while the fairy visited her ward, Rapunzel asked, “Tell me, Mother Gothel, why are my clothes becoming so tight?”
The fairy stared at Rapunzel’s stomach and her previous Knowing came true. “What have you done?”
Despite moving Rapunzel within the greater magic of the Fairy Knoll, she hadn’t made Rapunzel safer, or mortals any safer from Rapunzel. And now, there grew another generation of Hunger. The fairy wept at her mistake. She was the protector, but had fallen in love with this poisonous flower. Knowing what she must do, she seized Rapunzel’s hair, wrapping it around her hand, and snipped off the braid with her knife. The glistening hair shuddered, then lay dead on the floor.
Heavy of heart, she then banished Rapunzel to the Mists. The Mists hid Underhill’s entrance, where the fairies played and humans died. There, at last, Hunger would be tied to the fae lands. Underhill was a merciless place, but Hunger was too strong for her spells to contain.
She knew that the prince would search for Rapunzel; his addiction to Hunger. So she waited. Throwing out the end of Rapunzel’s hair once he called.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
When the prince climbed up the cut braid, he was shocked to find the fairy and not Rapunzel. She looked at him, sadly. “Do you know what you’ve done, you poor boy? Rapunzel is lost from this world. And now, so are you.” She pulled on the Hunger, calling it with her magic.
The prince’s mouth fell open, his body frozen. He recoiled from her touch, shaking his head. His hands trembled as he reached behind him for the window opening. His eyes went out of focus and she could see the Hunger twisting his soul. It would unravel him. Then it would be contained. Sometimes pruning was necessary in a garden.
In his despair, the prince threw himself from the tower. He escaped with his life, but he fell into the Bramble at the edge of the fairy mound. And with that, he lost sight in both his eyes.
The fairy didn’t bother to capture him. She’s poisoned the seed within him. Her job was complete.
He stumbled away and wandered alone in the forest, injured, eating nothing but grass and roots, starving, weeping, longing for Rapunzel.
The mists surrounding the entrance to Underhill were a magical place. Much like the roots of the tower could connect the Fairy Knoll to the magic of Underhill, the Mists allowed the Hunger to call to itself. The seed dying within the prince felt the song of mourning Rapunzel sang at the mouth of Underhill. The prince heard the song, the voice that attracted him to the fairy tower, and followed it. Over time, he climbed over hills through forests foraging as he went along, following the sound carried by the mists, until at last he entered the mists themselves. The magic in her voice wove through UnderHill, up through the earth, pulling him to her.
The prince recognized her by touch. She recognized him too, despite the hollow man covered in mud and rot that crawled towards her, and they embraced. Her tears fell upon his eyes, clearing his vision. At last, he could see. Within the Fairy magic, the two united. And their family lived forever at the portal between earth and Underhill, unable to travel home. Calling others to them and consuming their wills so they too lived in the mouth of Underhill.
The fairy returned to her garden. This time she did not trust the wall to keep the garden safe. She added a magical curse to any who crossed the wall to wander, lost forever. Never shall they enter her garden or her fairy knoll again.
As you read, I returned to the dark ending of the original. Though it has Rapunzel raising the babies without prince within the briar patch until he happens upon her. It was a fun exercise to twist the tale and breathe new life into it.
I urge you to do the same. Happy Writing!