Finding my Rapunzel

In the fairytale, readers don’t learn that much about what makes Rapunzel tick. We know that’s she’s beautiful, with long golden hair, and that she has a lovely voice and likes to sing. More significantly, as far as her character’s concerned, she’s been raised by a vengeful and controlling woman. One who took her from her parents as punishment for theft, and then locked her in a tower at twelve.

How would Rapunzel turn out after such a strange and isolated childhood? When the Prince turns up in the fairytale, we see that she’s innocent and sheltered. Though initially scared by the first man she’s seen, she comes to trust and embrace him very quickly. And then naively gives away the fact that he’s being visiting to her guardian, who cuts off her hair and throws her out.

In ‘Let Down Your Hair’, my Rapunzel is called Sage. Sage narrates the story, which is set in the present in an unspecified English-speaking country. When planning the novel, I was worried about how Sage would come across. Would anyone buy that a 22 year woman could be so ignorant of technology and popular culture? How could I make so sheltered and naive a character both plausible and likeable for readers?

What ultimately helped me find Sage’s voice was remembering a girl I met who was studying classical music. She was 19 or so, but her tailored trousers and blouse looked like something a 50 year old woman might wear to work. When she spoke, her voice was so serious and formal she sounded like she was delivering a eulogy. I asked where she’d gone to school, and she said “My parents educated me themselves. They don’t approve of schools.”

The writer in me was fascinated. I asked her what it was like being home-schooled, and it was like I’d opened a stiff and bitter floodgate. She didn’t mind at the time, she said, because they told her terrible things about schools, and she’d felt grateful and lucky to be spared them. It wasn’t until she turned eighteen and went to university that she realised what they’d done.

On the academic front, her parents had done a wonderful job. She spoke two languages, played several musical instruments, and topped every subject she studied. On the social front, however, she’d found they’d basically guaranteed that she couldn’t connect with her peers.

All the other students shared so many experiences that she could never have. Teachers and classmates and uniforms. Learning in a classroom with their days sliced into periods and lunchtimes and marked by the ringing of a bell. Childhood books and TV programs they’d all watched, slang they shared, songs they all knew the words to. “I grew up in the same country as them,” she said, “but I felt like I’d come from another planet.” I asked what she’d do if she had her own children, and she said, “I would send them to school.”

Many years later, that short conversation was crucial for developing Sage. Like her, Sage is homeschooled, and does brilliantly at university but can’t connect with her peers. She only starts feeling at home in the world when Ryan (the Prince) accepts her as she is and takes her under his wing.

I never met that girl again, but I sometimes wonder what became of her. I’m not sure whether she’d be flattered or horrified by the character I based on her at 19. Even if I managed to track her down, I don’t know that I’d dare to tell her. But I hope she’s no longer as bitter as she was. I hope she found her Ryan.

Tower of strength

When the Brothers Grimm published their collection of tales, the world’s tallest building was a cathedral. Strasbourg Cathedral, to be precise, which is 142 metres high (466ft), or the equivalent of a building with forty or fifty storeys. I found this out today, and it made me think about ‘Rapunzel’ in terms of its logistics. The events in a fairytale don’t need to be possible, of course, but it’s still quite fun to speculate.

With a flurry of Googling, I went to check the facts. Apparently, the longest human hair on record for 2014 is 5.627 metres long, and belongs to a Chinese woman called Xie Qiuping. A typical storey in a building is about 3.3 metres in height. By my calculations, allowing maybe three metres for the distance between the roof and the window and how high the Witch could reach, you could in theory have a tower around nine metres high (just under three storeys), which would have looked pretty impressive when ‘Rapunzel’ was published.

The next thing to consider is how much weight Rapunzel’s hair could bear. According to a scientific website I found, human hair has stronger “tensile strength” than nylon. This means if you stretch a hair and a strand of nylon of the same thickness, the nylon would break before the hair. Given that a lot of rope is made out of nylon, Rapunzel might in theory be able to weave a rope from her hair strong enough to support an adult human’s weight. Unfortunately, if this rope were attached at one end to Rapunzel’s scalp, it would almost certainly be yanked out at the roots long before the witch reached the window. She’d have to knot her hair-rope around something in her room to keep the hairs in their follicles.

In theory, then, using someone’s hair to climb a tower might not be completely impossible. Intriguing. Maybe I should give Xie Qiuping a call and see if she wants to take part in a little experiment…

Goldilocks: The Interloper

Happy New Year to all! After neglecting this blog shamelessly over Christmas, I am back and ready to muse on that odd stepchild of fairytales that is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. After extensive research (viz. checking the contents pages of my Grimm and Andersen collections and a quick Googling), I found myself scratching my head as to how this particular tale wangled itself into the well-known fairytale canon.

For a start, according to that fount of wisdom that is Wikipedia, it isn’t from either of the standard Grimm and Andersen collections, but was written (or at least recorded) by some 19th century English poet called Robert Southey. Furthermore, most of the other classic tales have at least some hint of an overarching theme. Lots of them have a “Victim triumphs over oppression” theme (e.g. Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, the Bremen Town Musicians), or a dash of “Love conquers all ills” (e.g. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel). In this department, Goldilocks has little to offer, unless you’re a fan of  “Picky housebreaker escapes justice”. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the age-old love for good-looking troublemakers and anti-heroes (see also Draco Malfoy).

I was amused to learn that the original housebreaker was a villainous old woman, who was changed to a pretty girl with golden ringlets. Apparently this went down much better with the reading public. It seems that all goods from cars to fairytales sell better if you market them with a blonde! (good news for me, since there’s a blonde on the cover of Let Down Your Hair…) At some point it might be interesting to speculate on why, but that would involve talking about far more hefty topics than I want to go into tonight.

Going back to Goldilocks, its threadbare theme makes it a tricky story to retell. You could do it as a short story, but to make it a novel you’d have to expand it a lot and be far looser with your adaptation. An interesting challenge, but not one I’m inspired to take up any time soon. I did take it up as a child, though… among my childhood papers I discovered a twisted version of Goldilocks I wrote in rhyming verse, aged around ten!  Don’t even remember writing it, but it goes to show I was destined for a lifetime of adapting fairytales…