The Rebirth of Rapunzel

Rapunzel-CoverThis book was given to me by the publisher at no cost.

I adored Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens a few years ago – a reimagining of the Rapunzel story, along with the story of one of its first tellers, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1650-1724). It’s a book of excruciating loveliness, whose three interleaved stories are told in heartbreaking detail and with great compassion.

But I’m not here to talk about that. If you haven’t read it – and even if you don’t think you like fairytale reimaginings – you really ought to go read it.

What The Rebirth of Rapunzel does is present Forsyth’s research into the story of Rapunzel – about the differences in versions, and the people who told them, along with what the story has meant, can mean, and what it shows us about fairytales in general. I think it’s just awesome that research like this can find a home; it’s so depressing when something you’ve spent many years on simply… disappears into a black hole. Forsyth has made her research very readable. I’m coming from a background of literary and historical criticism (I’ve read a couple of the books Forsyth refers to), but I’m pretty sure that such a background isn’t necessary to understand and appreciate Forsyth’s points. This isn’t academic-lite; it’s academic-approachable. 

The book has three sections. First is Forsyth’s exegesis itself, with a remarkably personal first chapter in which she talks about the appeal of the story to the child-Kate, after a horrific experience that saw her spend a lot of her childhood in hospital. It’s here she also introduces the idea of a fairytale as a ‘memeplex’ which is brilliantly intriguing. In Chapter 2 Forsyth introduces a theory that fairytales can, or might, reflect lost matriarchal myths. I don’t think she’s making a definite claim for the great antiquity of Rapunzel as a story so much as showing its possibility, especially in a connection with the tripartite structure of the ‘Great Goddess’ myth. The next three chapters talk about the three named Rapunzel storytellers – Basile, La Force, and Grimm – and presents both potted biographies of them and how each of them inflected the Rapunzel story. She also connects these to her own Rapunzel creation in Bitter Greens – intertwining the tellers with the story, as integral to the very idea of a ‘mythic biography’. The conclusion of this section is about the later descendants of Rapunzel, including those written by William Morris, Edith Nesbit, the Shannon and Dean Hale graphic novel, and of course Tangled – of which Forsyth isn’t a great fan.

I had a couple of small niggles in reading this. One was the occasional tendency of Forsyth to preface her intentions with something like “what I was hoping to do…” – the self–effacing-ness of this is a bugbear of mine. The other bit was the suggestion that La Force, in particular, may have been deliberately introducing symbols of the Great Goddess’ triune nature. I would have liked to see some more evidence about just how prevalent this sort of knowledge was at the time

The brief second section is a translation of La Force’s version, “Persinette”. I liked that this was in a different font! The third section, “Books are Dangerous”, contains articles previously published by Forsyth in other venues on similar topics. My one complaint about these is that in some instances, there  is too much overlap between them and the exegesis. Perhaps that was most noticeable to me because I read the whole thing on holidays, and it only took me a day or so. Nonetheless, and despite already knowing some of this history, I enjoyed the first two brief articles on the births, respectively, on fantasy and science fiction – the first attributed to JRR Tolkien in his “On Fairy Stories” lecture and the second to Mary Shelley. I was deeply moved by “Fuddling Up My Mucking Words Again” in which Forsyth confronts the idea of stammering being connected to shyness and what it means to be a stutterer, using her own personal experiences. And finally the overview of Australians writing Rapunzel stories was fascinating, to see how the story has resonated in our relatively small pond of creatives.

It’s important to mention the product itself. This book is SO CUTE. It’s not much bigger than my hand; it’s hardcover with a really nice cover; and the cover illustration, by Kathleen Jennings (naturally) is wonderfully understated and resonant. Even the paper is nice, and the fonts used for the text and the headings (that tower image is repeated throughout the text to indicate breaks). I can totally imagine Fablecroft making this into a series – there seem to be a lot of Australian spec fic people doing creative PhDs at the moment! – and I would LOVE to have a matching set of them on my bookshelf.

This is a really great book. You don’t have to have read Bitter Greens to appreciate it – you’ll want to read it, though, after reading this. You don’t really even need to know the story of Rapunzel to enjoy it, since Forsyth talks about its narrative structures enough to allow any reader, I think, to follow the stories and arguments presented. And you definitely don’t have to be an academic. Just interested in the evolution of stories.

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