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The matriarch in the Rapunzel stories is almost always described as a "wicked Enchantress" or witch and is often depicted visually as being a classic witch/hag figure

(this image is by Kay Nielsen)

(from favorite Fables)

(from Read to me: Fairy Tales)

(from fairy tales)

But actually she is a lot less wicked than many fairy tale matriarchs. While yes she does take the baby, (and there's a retelling dying to get out here about a narcissistic overprotective over entitled adoptive parent,) the witch isn't evil, she isn't wicked. In some tellings she is less likable than others and in The Annotated Brothers Grim Maria Tartar explains that: Much turns on the character of the maternal figure in the tale. But even so even at her most wicked she locks Rapunzel up in the tower to protect her, rather than punish her and she almost always does it when Rapunzel turns 12, so on the cusp of adolescence to protect her from those who may take advantage of that adolescence.

And in almost all the tellings of the story when she demands the child as payment, she says something like: I will take care of it like a mother and it will not want for anything. So unlike other fairy tale fiends she does not want to damage her through greed or spite or malice. I'm not suggesting that the way Rapunzel was treated was good but I think it’s a whole lot more complicated and has a whole lot to say about mother daughter relationships under patriarchy than just the witch being "bad".

Marina Warner also suggests that she keeps Rapunzel captive not out of wickedness but out of the need for a woman alone to be looked after in her old age:

[many retellings assume] the possessiveness of a perverted mother love between witch and captive in the Rapunzel story; a more historically based view would see that the old woman's desire for the baby girl corresponds to material needs for helping hands at home

I think Rapunzel's witch is a knitting together of Grandma and the witch She tries to resist the patriarchy or at least tries to keep Rapunzel away from patriarchal harm but she also acquiesces by needing Rapunzel in the first place, understandably, because historically older woman alone did not have a very good survival rate.Then she finally capitulates completely by blaming Rapunzel for her encounters with the prince even though she never told Rapunzel that such encounters were possible or what their consequences could be.
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if patriarchy sees women as occupying a marginal position within the symbolic order, then it can construe them as the limit or borderline of that order...Women seen as the limit of the symbolic order will in other words share in the disconcerting properties of all frontiers: they will be neither inside nor outside, neither known nor unknown. It is this position that has sometimes enabled male culture to sometimes vilify women as representing darkness and chaos....and sometimes to elevate them as the representatives of a higher and purer nature...In the first instance the borderline is seen as part of the chaotic wilderness outside, and in the second it is seen as an inherent part of the inside: the part that protects and shields the symbolic order from imaginary chaos

From Sexual/textual politics by Toril Moi, Quoted in Deconstructing the Hero By Margery Hourihan (both excellent books by the way)

This is why grandma lives on the outskirts of the village, or the edge of the forest

and the difference between grandma and the gingerbread witch is not very much really they both get punished, destroyed, consumed for living independently, for knowing things, even though one acquiesces to the patriarchy and one resists it
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Our Mothers, or the older women in our lives at least, mothers, stepmothers, witches, bad fairies send us out in to the wilds of the forest to loose ourselves

  • Red gets sent through the forest to grandmas house

  • Snow white gets sent in the forest to be killed

  • Gretel [and Hansel] get left in the forest to starve or be killed

  • Sleeping Beauty was trapped in a forest entwined castle

  • Rapunzel gets shut up in a phallic symbol tower
  • in the middle of a forest

and why, sexual jelousy? slow burning anger? inheritance anxiety? misplaced over protectivness?


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October 2010

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