30 May 2014


A Final Flashback for Meme Month

Hosted @ This Miss Loves to Read

How is this for a "blast from the past"? I did a handful of "Faerie Tale Friday" posts with Irina, who stopped blogging three years ago. In 2012, I found a similar meme at Books 4 Learning, right before it kind of petered off. I don't think anyone is hosting a linkup today, though.

Given this month's May is for Mothers theme, it's kind of sad that I waited so long to write about faerie tales. These folk stories are full of mothers--both the good kind and the bad kind. And of course every story's Bad Mother is just its Good Mother turned on her head. Let me explain . . .

Rapunzel vs. Thumbelina

The Good Mothers: Who could blame the mother in Rapunzel for craving the neighbour's rampion so much that she makes her husband steal some for her? Not someone who has also been pregnant, that's for sure! On the other hand, you already know that I totally blame any mother who tries to have a baby without a father around, including the lonely old lady in Thumbelina, who really just wanted someone to love.

WINNER: Rapunzel--because the story of the rampion has dark similarities to the story of the first forbidden fruit.

The Transition: Most of the time, the Good Mother "dies" in order to make room for the Bad Mother--but today's two stories give us more complex dynamics. In Rapunzel, the Good Mother barters her baby's life for a snack. In Thumbelina, the Good Mother has her daughter kidnapped from their own home.

WINNER: Rapunzel--because parents who knowingly sell out their children are arguably worse than parents who are just too dumb to know better.

The Bad Mothers: We break the Evil Stepmother trend here as well, for our two Bad Mothers don't actually want to kill their daughters. They just happen to have some really twisted ideas of nurturing. The witch in Rapunzel clearly sees nothing wrong with keeping someone locked up forever, probably rationalising that it's for the latter's own protection. And the frog and the field mouse in Thumbelina take turns pushing the poor girl into an arranged marriage, because of course it's for her own good. 

WINNER: Thumbelina--because in the field mouse's case, we get a rare three-dimensional character: someone who, given a different set of circumstances, would be a wise guardian. 

The Daughters: And now we come to the main characters, who are, like seemingly all faerie heroines, initially defined and confined by their physical appearance. Rapunzel has hair so beautiful that it is compared to gold--and so long that the witch can use it as a rope ladder while keeping Rapunzel prisoner in a tower. Thumbelina is also beautiful enough for both a frog and a mole to want to marry her--but her tiny size is probably what makes everyone think they can push her into arrangements she doesn't want.

WINNER: Thumbelina--because there is so much that you can do with hair (Trust me on that!), but height is the real challenge.

The Escape Plans: Whether you're trapped in a tower or in an engagement to someone you don't love, you're going to want out--and our protagonists are no exception. After Rapunzel and the prince fall in love, they hatch a plan for him to sneak silk to her and for her to weave it into a rope ladder for both of them. Thumbelina is even more dependent on others: she would never have made it off the lily pad if the fish hadn't felt sorry for her and chewed through the stem . . . or out of the tunnel if the bird she had nursed back to health hadn't invited her to fly away with him.

WINNER: Thumbelina--because working directly toward a goal is great, but discovering that there are additional rewards to kindness, compassion and other things that don't automatically "pay off" is a triumph of both effort and character.

The Princes: By now you must have thought: why didn't the prince in Rapunzel just get a team of his subjects to work day and night until he had a rope ladder he could take back immediately? Wouldn't that have been better and quicker than making his lady love slave over it herself? Well, yes, but then she wouldn't have been a partner in her own rescue, would she? And we wouldn't have a metaphor for the way a relationship is built over time! As the savior to the bird that eventually rescues her, Thumbelina becomes such a partner as well. And you know, there's a reason why injured-hero-meets-nurturing-heroine is a popular romantic trope! (What injured hero, you ask? Read on!)

WINNER: Rapunzel--because her prince is a buddy as well as a boyfriend.

The Darkness: It's not just our heroines who suffer. After the witch in Rapunzel tells the prince that he will never see Rapunzel again, he leaps from the tower in despair and lands in some bushes, which both break his fall and blind him. (If you blinked, you missed the moral.) He must wander as a bind beggar until, by chance, he hears Rapunzel's voice again and her tears at his misery restore his sight. The flower-faerie prince in Thumbelina doesn't seem to undergo a similar ordeal, but now I'm going to be controversial and suggest that the bird whom Thumbelina saves is his stand-in: you know, the way the bears and other beasts in different faerie tales are princes in disguise. For the story would work if the bird had turned out to be the flower-faerie prince, trapped in the dark tunnel by both winter and a curse.

WINNER: Rapunzel--because the prince gets a proper character arc, highly improbable ending aside.

The Endings: In a way, both our heroines get to come full circle. Although Rapunzel is betrayed by her mother before she is even born, she doesn't make the same mistake by selling out her own unborn children. (Note to those who got the "clean" version of this faerie tale: Rapunzel and the prince aren't found out because she stupidly mentions him to the witch, but because her dress starts to get tight around the middle.) And Thumbelina, who came out of a flower, discovers a whole kingdom of people who live among flowers and who accept her as one of them. They also give her a pair of wings--the part of her that had been missing all that time.

WINNER: Thumbelina--because she both starts her own family (or so we can assume) and finds an entire tribe.

The Plants: This is just a tie-breaker category. I usually don't get this far in a faerie tale face-off without a winner emerging and it took a while for me to think of something else our two stories have in common. In Rapunzel, the rampion plants are a little bit sinister--as are any plants growing in a walled garden. You could say they both parallel the Good Mother's pregnancy and foreshadow the heroine's incarceration--both of which can be described as "confinement"! On the other hand, every last flower in Thumbelina is benign--and the faeries who live among them are a better family to her than the humans and animals who must make their own homes. It's not quite "Natural State vs. Machine State", but you could say it takes a stand against the artificiality of arranged marriage.

WINNER: Rapunzel--because women's sexuality is far more frightening (even to women themselves) than any social arrangement which tries to manage it.

(Doesn't it seem like forever since Shredded Cheddar was a Horror blog???)

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Rapunzel vs. Thumbelina


Image Sources: a) Rapunzel retold by Barbara Rogowsky and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, b) Thumbelina retold by Jane Falloon and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark


Sullivan McPig said...

Rapunzel is the more interesting story imo. But then I've always liked stories with a dark edge more. Thumbelina always seemed so... nice...

Enbrethiliel said...


I enjoy a bit of edge, too. =)

There's a sadder version of Thumbelina in which the bird falls in love with her and then has his heart broken when she chooses the flower-faerie prince . . . but that's mostly Hans Christian Anderson's self-pity again.

Belfry Bat said...

Something that has been bothering one spot in my brain since last week is the purported connection between the names "Rapunzel" and "rampion". The (mysteriously modern) Linaean name seems to be campanula rapuncula; and while "rampion" sounds like English as old as Chaucer, "rapuncula" sounds too much like Latin for "small thing asking to be stolen". Either it's an excellent pun on the part of the storywriter, or ... or something else. Was theft of rampions such a common thing way back when that that's what the thing was called? Or am I just being silly? (It could be that I'm just being silly!)

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm going with the excellent pun! =P Thanks for pointing it out!