Folklorists tell us: it’s not about the hair! Instead, what makes Rapunzel a story told around the world is the motif of a girl locked away in a tower. And far from passively sitting around and being victimized by the witch who holds her captive, SOME girls in the tower demonstrate tremendous courage, intelligence and resilience (see that post, and this post, and also this post, for more on the protective factors for resilience).
Take the princess in Italo Calvino’s Italian version, The Canary Prince (also available in picture book format by Eric Jon Nones). It is her stepmother who convinced her father to stick her in the tower, where the girl wants for nothing except…well…freedom and companionship. A witch notices that a passing prince is entranced with her, and, feeling sorry for them both, gives the princess a magic book. When the princess turns the pages one way, the prince transforms into a canary, who can fly up to her window sill. When she turns them the other way, he becomes a man, and a great friend for the lonely girl. Talk about the power of the written word! AND what kind and competent helpers can do to give you hope!
When step-mommy dearest discovers that the canary who visits the tower daily is actually an enchanted prince, she sticks pins on the window sill to put an end to the princess’s joy. Instead of swooning at the blood, this quick-witted princess thinks on her feet, and using great self-regulation skills, immediately flips the pages of the magic book so that the mortally injured canary will fly back to where his men are waiting for him, transform into the prince, and can be carried home and cared for.
But that’s not all! No! She is beside herself with worry and so rips her sheets and makes a ladder so she can escape (good initiative and problem-solving, princess!). Off into the dark forest she goes, and hides in a tree, where she overhears witches talking about the one elixir that can save her prince’s life. She travels to his kingdom, disguises herself as a doctor, and convinces the king that he should let her into the royal chamber where the prince lies dying. Through persistence and careful attention to detail, she discovers the elixir and cures the prince (who of course doesn’t recognize her since, well…she IS in disguise). When the overjoyed king offers her “all the wealth in the kingdom,” the doctor/princess asks only for the prince’s coat of arms, his standard, and his bloodied yellow vest as her reward.
Back she goes to her tower, a bold, resilient heroine! BUT: what’s this???? That wretch the prince rides by and thinks SHE is the one who tried to kill him! He’s MAD and gives her the stink eye before riding past. Does she weep and wail and plead? Heck no. She whips out the book and flips the pages so he has no choice but to turn into a canary and fly to her window sill. She flips the pages again, and he turns into a very irritated prince. But when she shows him the vest, and tells him what she did to rescue him, he believes her at last, and recognizes his one true love. And of course, they live happily and resiliently ever after!
Critics of sharing fairytales with children often point to the stereotype of sighing princesses who are only fulfilled by marriage to their Prince Charming as sexist and outdated. Indeed, the Disney versions of many familiar tales often play into this. But the rich variants of our favorite stories embedded into other cultural traditions often show us very different, and far more resilient, heroines and heroes.
THESE are the models who can engage our children’s imaginations. These are the cunning, brave, and kind characters who continue to sneak into children’s own make believe and stories, even when well-meaning adults offer politically correct alternatives. These are the heroes who draw kids into a magical world where, no matter how overwhelming the challenges, resilience ensures a happy ending.
Intrigued about how Rapunzel and her resilient Italian sister in The Canary Prince can be shared with young children in a way that fosters THEIR resilience? Stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts on using fairytales in the classroom, starting with Rapunzel! Each story will feature a treasure chest of sparkling ideas, all designed to help you wave the magic wand of fairytales to nurture resilience in a child-centered environment!
*Many thanks to artist Silvia Dotti for giving me permission to use her beautiful image! Check out her magical renderings of fairytales and other literature on Etsy!