‘In his despair the prince threw himself from the tower. He escaped with his life, but lost both eyes.’
The above quote comes from The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (translated by Jack Zipes). In the first version of this tale recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (published in 1812), Rapunzel conceives a child with her prince. It is only when Rapunzel asks why her clothes are becoming too tight that Mother Gothel learns of her relationship with the prince. This betrayal causes her to banish Rapunzel to a ‘desolate land’. When Mother Gothel tells the prince that Rapunzel is gone forever, he jumps from the tower as described above.
This holds several points of interest. Firstly, we have a very clear example of disability being used as a symbol for sadness and suffering. The prince is heart broken and grieving. But he could have roamed the desolate lands looking for Rapunzel ‘eating nothing but grass and roots, and [doing] nothing but weep’ whether or not he was blinded by thorns.
The prince’s blinding is included to emphasise his misery based on the ableist assumption that to be blind is to be unhappy.
The symbolic nature of the prince’s disability is further implied because the chances of falling from a tower and landing precisely on one’s eyeballs has to be very small. Arguably, it would have been more realistic if he had jumped from the tower and broken a leg, maybe even his back. The fact that the prince is described as having ‘escaped’ with his life demonstrates how deadly that fall might have been. But no— he goes blind at the very moment he is separated from Rapunzel.
What’s more, his blindness is miraculously cured when he is reunited with Rapunzel. Once again, this hammers home the association of blindness with despair, and sightedness with joy. The prince recognises Rapunzel’s voice and she recognises him in return. But it is only when two of Rapunzel’s tears land on the prince’s eyes— in keeping with the theme of unlikely aim!— that the prince’s vision is cured. Are they happy tears? Pity tears? Who knows. But Disney’s Tangled replaces this prince’s blindness with a stab wound to the heart: I.e death. But luckily, again, Rapunzel’s tears have unexplained healing powers here too! On a serious note, that blindness and death are used interchangeably speaks volumes for the ongoing representation of blindness as a tragic state.
The problem with this is the single emotion (sadness) attached to being blind. It takes a complex lived experience and reduces it to an assumption made by sighted people. As a child growing up, this was one of the few representations of visual impairment I had and I didn’t want to be a miserable prince crying my way through a boggy landscape. Representation is important. It’s not about removing disabled characters from fairy tales, it’s about having them there as rounded people. It’s about separating the assumption that happiness is only achievable after a cure.
Let me know what you think about this? Maybe your go-to version of Rapunzel is different to mine? Is Mother Gothel a fairy, a witch, or ogress? Does she curse the prince, or is he blinded by thorns? Is he cured at the end?
About the author:
Beth O'Brien is a writer and PhD student, researching the (mis)representation of disability in contemporary fairy tales. You can follow her on twitter: @bethobwriter
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!