Since the beginning of time people have been telling stories. They have been passed down the generations in song, story, image and memory. We have millions of stories that are told everyday. History itself is one long story about the human race. Stories are our memories, and our past. They can teach, express, and question life in ways that we couldn’t do without them. I have always loved stories, and of course grew up hearing all the classic fairytales.
In the modern world we like to take stories like the old classics and turn them into new and exciting things. We ask questions like, “What if Snow White befriends the Huntsman?” and “What if Alice wasn’t dreaming?” and then create new stories from the old ground work. But what if there is an underlying story that we missed in all the old fairytales?
While he was on the earth, Jesus told parables to his listeners that taught the lessons of his heavenly kingdom. He explained that there was more meaning to the stories than what was literally said. What if the fairytales, that we know so well, are no different. Using the correspondences explained by Emanuel Swedenborg in the Heavenly Doctrines, I want to examine the story of Rapunzel in the Tower and explain what it teaches us on a spiritual level.
Like any old story, there are many versions of this story, so first I will summarize the version that I am using (a retelling by Paul Zelinsky) and remind you of the important details.
The story begins with a husband and his wife who are struggling to have a child. Then one happy day the wife finds out that she is pregnant. She then begins to crave Rapunzel (a type of salad plant) that she sees growing in the garden outside her window, which belongs to a Sorceress. She begs her husband to climb over the garden wall and steal some for her, which he does. When his wife has eaten all that he took, she begs for more. Again the husband goes to the garden, but this time he is caught by the Sorceress. She forces him to promise his unborn child to her in exchange for the herb.
When the child is born she is taken away by the Sorceress and named Rapunzel. When Rapunzel is twelve the Sorceress locks her in a high tower. The only way in or out is to climb Rapunzel’s long hair.
One day a Prince, riding through the forest, hears Rapunzel singing. Entranced, he is determined to see her, but he can’t find the way in. He then sees the Sorceress call to Rapunzel to let her hair down and climb into the tower. When the Sorceress is gone, he also calls to Rapunzel and climbs up to the window of the tower. Rapunzel and the Prince fall in love and get married.
When the Sorceress finds out that Rapunzel is pregnant, she cuts Rapunzel’s hair and casts her out into the wilderness. When the prince comes back, the Sorceress puts Rapunzel’s hair out of the window on a hook. The Prince, thinking that Rapunzel is waiting for him, climbs up. When he sees that Rapunzel is gone, he is so distressed that he falls out of the window and loses his sight in a thorn bush. He wanders in the wilderness for a year, looking for Rapunzel. Then he finally finds her and their twin children living in the wilderness. When they are reunited, her tears of joy recover his sight, and they live happily ever after.
Now it gets interesting as we take the correspondences of the major details of the story to find a new message underneath.
A husband and wife together in marriage represent truth and good being put together and made divine and celestial (Arcana Coelestia 2517). The husband and wife in the beginning of the story signify good and truth, however they are barren. This means that they are without genuine truth (Apocalypse Revealed 535). However, they do become pregnant, meaning that they found that genuine truth. This is why the wife craves the herbs in their neighbor’s garden. Herbs represent the truth of the church and a garden symbolizes wisdom and intelligence (True Christian Religion 467). Wives and mothers often symbolize the church. This means the wife and her craving represents the church longing for truth, so that she can grow and flourish by sustaining the genuine truth she needs to be pregnant.
The Sorceress embodies those people who covet knowledge and truth. She guards her garden (wisdom and intelligence) with a careful eye and is outraged when the husband tries to steal from it. She wishes to keep it to herself in order to feel powerful and not to use it to be useful or to live a good life within the church.
Because Rapunzel’s mother had craved and eaten the herb that represents truth, Rapunzel herself represents truth. In fact, she represents the spiritual truth of the word, or its inner meaning. That is why the Sorceress wanted to take her away; Rapunzel signified the truth that had been in her garden and now was in this child. When the child is old enough she is taken up into the tower. The tower represents the doctrine of the church (Spiritual Experiences 4979). The Sorceress doesn’t wish to share Rapunzel’s truth with anyone. So she hides the truth away, burying it underneath layers of doctrine making it hard to see or understand.
Hair stands for the natural truth (Apocalypse Explained 555). Therefore, Rapunzel illustrates the deeper truth of the word and her hair symbolizes the more external truths of the word, or its literal meaning. There is only one way to the spiritual significance of the word, through the literal sense. This is represented by Rapunzel’s hair being the only way into her tower.
The Prince represents the primary truth or the most basic truth (Arcana Coelestia 2761.5). He is like a person or group just starting out with the basic truths they learned as children. Now they long to find a deeper truth and use it to live a full and good life.
The Prince longs for Rapunzel and wishes to reach her but the Sorceress has got in his way. He wishes to be able to get passed the doctrine and ritual of the tower and reach the spiritual truth. But he can see no way of doing this, until the Sorceress shows him the way in through the external truths. Once he has seen how to get into the tower from the Sorceress, he is able to use the literal sense of the word to reach its spiritual meaning. This is a process every human has to go through: see and understand the literal truth so that they can see and understand the internal truth. When the Prince climbs up her hair and into the tower, they fall in love and get married. Now the primary truth that was the Prince has grown into a deeper understanding of that truth.
As we saw before, pregnancy illustrates goodness springing from truth, and the Sorceress is outraged when she finds that Rapunzel is pregnant. The covetous and selfish people (the Sorceress) who hide the truth are outraged when good comes out of that truth, especially when it’s not their good. The Sorceress cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and casts her out into the wilderness. This represents the literal truth being cut away leaving the spiritual truth vulnerable and exposed. The wilderness represents the destruction of the truth (Arcana Coelestia 2702.9). With the internal sense of the word gone, the Sorceress can manipulate the literal meaning of the word any way that she wants. She hangs Rapunzel’s hair out of the window to draw the Prince back in. When the Prince finds that the Spiritual truth that he loves is gone and only the literal sense remains, he is overcome with despair and blinded by his fall. Becoming blind represents losing the understanding of the truth (Apocalypse Explained 239.1). The Prince believes he has lost Rapunzel forever and wanders in the wilderness for a year. A year signifies everlasting just like it may have felt like everlasting agony as the Prince wandered pining for his love (Arcana Coelestia 10209.1). Then at last he finds Rapunzel and their children in the wilderness. Her tears clear his vision. Tears, in this case, represent innermost compassion (Spiritual Experiences 4099). Rapunzel is not only overjoyed to be reunited with her love but is overcome with compassion for his blindness. They then take their children and live happily ever after in the Prince’s palace. Truth united with good in marriage in a state of everlasting joy.
As you can see, the fairytales that we have loved and enjoyed for generations can mean so much more than we thought. They may even be from ancient people who only spoke in correspondences. We can get so much more out of these classic stories than happily ever after. They are not only a thing to be treasured but even a guideline or instruction book on how to live a good life.
Inspired by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – A Christmas Story?” by Jerry Simons and an assignment from Erica Cantley in sophomore English class
Heavenly Doctrines.org. 20 september 2013, <http://heavenlydoctrines.org/dtSearch.html>
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Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Celestia. Vols. 1-12. Trans. John Elliot. London: the Swedenborg society, 1983
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Zelinsky, Paul O. Rapunzel. New York: Dutton Children’s books, 1997