Rapunzel by Paul O Zelinsky
Puffin Books 2002 (1997)
Children’s Classics; Fairytale
Once upon a time there was a happily married couple whose only sorrow was that they did not have a child. Then one day, they learn the woman is pregnant and the sorrow is replaced with joy. The wife liked to sit by the window overlooking a beautiful walled garden owned by a sorceress. One day she saw an abundant bed of the herb rapunzel, and a great need to eat some overcome her. Telling her husband she will die if she doesn’t have some, he dutifully climbs down into the garden and steals some. But it’s not enough, and the next day he goes back – and is caught by the sorceress.
On explaining his problem to her, she tells him he can take the rapunzel, but in exchange she will take their baby when it is born. She names the child Rapunzel, and raises her in isolation in the wilderness. When Rapunzel turns twelve, the sorceress takes her through the forest and puts her in a tall, narrow tower with no door and only one window, high up. It’s a magic tower, and spacious inside, but Rapunzel is sealed off from the world. To get inside, the sorceress calls out “Rapunzel Rapunzel, let down your hair”, and she climbs it.
One day a prince discovers the tower and is curious; he has heard rumours of a fabled beauty trapped inside. He hides in the forest and witnesses the sorceress’s method for gaining access. When the sorceress is gone, he calls out to Rapunzel to lower her hair and climbs inside, giving her the shock of her life. But he’s nice and friendly and soon they become lovers and Rapunzel falls pregnant. The sorceress, on discovering that Rapunzel has betrayed her, cuts off her hair and sends her out into the wilderness to perish. Instead, Rapunzel survives and has not one baby but twins, a boy and a girl.
Meanwhile, when the prince returns to the tower and calls out to Rapunzel to lower her hair, the sorceress hooks the shorn hair to the window and confronts him at the top of the tower. She tells him Rapunzel is lost to him forever, and in shock and despair he falls. He doesn’t die, but he is blinded and weak, and stumbles for months through the wilderness until, lo! he hears Rapunzel’s voice and finds her. Her tears of joy fall onto his face and his blindness is cured. Together with their two children they return to the town and the king’s palace, where they live happily ever after.
“Rapunzel” wasn’t a story I really read as a kid – I didn’t have my own copy, or a beloved version. I knew the story in a vague way, but I don’t know if that’s because Rapunzel tropes and distinctive symbols crop up so much in our society and culture (like a lot of other fairy tales and Shakespeare plays). In short, I can’t actually say with any certainty whether I read the story as a child or not. As an adult with a young child of my own, I suddenly became interested in collecting really good editions of fairy tales and other classic stories – hence my lovely Robert Ingpen-illustrated editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and others.
Finding a good edition of fairy tales is a harder task, though. Ideally, I wanted to browse through book shops and check out the version quality (text) and the illustrations, before committing to buying any. Sadly, the bookshops only had rather trite and silly, or Disneyfied, editions, collections of heavily abridged stories in “bedtime” volumes. So I took a gamble on Paul O Zelinsky’s beautifully illustrated retelling, buying it without being able to check it out first.
And it is a beautiful rendering of the story of Rapunzel. I wanted a version that hadn’t been made cutesy or had the darkness removed from it – fairy tales should be dark stories, they were originally moralistic, cautionary warning tales, after all. Zelinsky’s illustrations are vivid and richly detailed, colourful and patterned yet still broody and full of atmosphere. (I do find the prince’s mullet to be a bit off-putting, though!) The story reads well, though in typical fairy tale fashion, plot holes abound. You just have to take those in stride; realism was never the point of a fairy tale, though Zelinsky (whose is “the son of a mathematics professor and a medical illustrator” according to his Goodreads page) provides a lot of precision in his illustrations, which also have the feel of classic Italian paintings. The illustrations are both real and romantic; as an adult I feel that they don’t really capture the human emotions or fill in any gaps in the story, but I also feel that as a child I would have been drawn to this style of illustration (I liked the precise and finely detailed, like intricate mazes and Where’s Wally? pictures).
Not having anything to compare it to, though, I can’t offer an opinion on this retelling over others. I’ve given you an abridged run-down of Zelinsky’s retelling above, and I’d love to hear how it compares to other versions that you’ve read. This is just the kind of edition I was looking for, and it has a three-page “note” at the back about the history of the story and its history, and the alterations its undergone over the centuries, which is by far the more fascinating part of the story for me! My young son, however, is quite interested in the story itself, and I hope it will be one he (and any sibling he may have) can enjoy for years to come.