Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday!  Today, by popular vote, we’re looking at the feature’s first retelling of “Rapunzel.”  Sorry it’s so much later than I thought!  As I said in my previous post, there was an issue with the library.  Ultimately I just bought the ebook because it seemed that the library copy was never going to come.  So let’s jump into Zel!

Side note: Please excuse the rather horrendous picture.  The kindle edition doesn’t have a cover photo for who knows what reason, and the lighting conditions weren’t ideal.  Sorry!

My Rating: 4 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

Napoli mainly draws on the German version of the tale by the Brothers Grimm, which itself heavily draws from the French “Persinette” written by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force.  She begins the story by establishing the relationship between Rapunzel, nicknamed Zel, and Mother.  While both the Grimm and the de la Force versions say that the witch/fairy raises Rapunzel/Persinette outside the tower until she is twelve, they do not give any details.  Napoli begins her story during this point and shows the events leading up to Mother locking Zel away in the tower.  Zel and Mother live in an isolated alm with only each other and animals for company except for the two times a year they go to the market in town.  It is just a few days before Zel’s thirteenth birthday, and Mother leaves her watching a horse being shod at the blacksmith in order to buy her birthday presents.  We see that Mother has no intention of ever letting Zel leave her almost immediately, though we don’t learn the reason.  While Mother is buying cloth to make Zel a new dress, the shop woman guesses that Zel will be married within the year.  This upsets Mother, who states in her narration that she and Zel must remain together forever.  Meanwhile at the blacksmith, Zel meets Konrad, a young nobleman who becomes instantly smitten with her.

Napoli doesn’t give the reader the backstory of how Mother ended up with Zel until much later, but this seems like a good time to discuss it.  It follows the set-up we find in most versions of the fairy tale: a pregnant woman develops a craving for the rapunzel lettuce (or parsley, depending on the version) in her neighbor’s garden to the point where either she or her husband steals it.  The neighbor, a witch in the Grimms’ version and in Napoli’s, catches them and demands the child as payment.  However, Napoli goes much further into this backstory, showing us why Mother makes this deal.  Mother desperately wants a child but is unable to have one, causing a great amount of unhappiness and bitterness.  She ends up making a deal with devils for power over plants with the promise that it will help her get the child she wants.  In exchange, she barters away her soul and agrees to get her daughter to make a similar bargain. With her new power, the garden she plants flourishes and the rapunzel lettuce catches the eye of her pregnant neighbor.  Mother is fully aware of this and uses it to her advantage.  She refuses to sell the lettuce to the neighbor, making the woman desperate enough to have her husband steal it when the opportunity arises.  Mother watches it all and allows it to happen the first time, but the second time she catches the man and asks for their unborn daughter in return for the stolen lettuce.  She has to make thistles grow around him in order to torture him into accepting the offer, but he does eventually agree.

Mother moves Zel into the tower shortly after their day in town after she sees the effect meeting Konrad has on the girl.  She realizes that Zel will not give up her wish to get married, even if she would receive the ability to converse with animals in exchange.  So she changes tactics and convinces Zel there is someone who wants to kill her and she must stay in the tower to be safe.  While the Grimms don’t give any details about the tower, de la Force goes into a great amount of description.  Her tower is hardly an uncomfortable prison; there are all kinds of luxuries to amuse Persinette.  Napoli chooses not to use this; Zel’s tower is a stone room with nothing but a hay mattress and a slop bucket inside. After initially putting her there, Mother comes to visit each day for an hour and brings food and drawing supplies for Zel.  She also brings special herbs to keep Zel’s hair growing.  None of the variations of the tale provide an explanation for how Rapunzel’s hair is so long, but it is implied that it is that length right from the start of her imprisonment.  Zel’s hair does not begin to grow at such an alarming rate until she is in the tower.  Before her hair grows out, Mother gets up to the tower by magically growing a nearby walnut tree.  We don’t receive an explanation for why she chooses to use Zel’s hair instead.  It causes Zel a great amount of pain, and she does beg Mother to go back to using the walnut tree.

In all versions of the tale, Rapunzel does not meet the prince until she is in the tower.  The prince hears her singing and instantly falls in love.  On her part, he is presumably the only man she’s ever met, and she falls in love with him too.  However, as previously mentioned, Zel and Konrad meet prior to this and the meeting has a major effect on both of them.  Konrad immediately becomes enamored with Zel despite their differences in class; he’s particularly captivated by how she interacts with his horse, Meta.  After their initial meeting, he tries his hardest to find her without success.  His obsession with finding her takes over his life for years, preventing him from marrying someone else.  On Zel’s part, her interest is more in the horse, but Konrad does work his way into her artwork.  They meet again years later when Konrad happens upon the tower while out riding.  He instantly recognizes Zel, though she believes he is a hallucination.  At this point, she has been in the tower for two years and is losing her grip on reality.  However, she becomes convinced he is real after he climbs up her hair to meet her, and she accepts when he asks her to marry him.  The two also have sex.  He leaves the next morning with a plan to come back before Mother does and get Zel out of the tower.  This is actually a bit different than most well-known versions of the tale.  In both the Grimms’ and de la Force’s versions, the prince returns many times.  Like Konrad, the prince in the German version plans to get Rapunzel out of the tower and brings silk each visit so she can make a ladder to climb down.  In the French version, there is no mention of actually getting Persinette out of the tower.

As in the Grimms’ and de la Force’s tales, Zel and Konrad end up getting caught by Mother.  In an even earlier Italian version called “Petrosinella,” the lovers actually succeed in their escape plan.  In de la Force’s tale, they are found out because the fairy realizes Persinette is pregnant.  This is also what happens in the original version the Grimms published.  However, in subsequent editions, they changed it and Rapunzel gives away her secret by carelessly asking why the witch is so much rougher about climbing her hair than the prince.  Napoli actually uses both of these.  Mother returns before Konrad and tries to convince Zel to trade her soul for the ability to talk to animals.  However, Zel confronts her about all the lies she has told.  Zel calls Mother “darker,” “plumper,” and “heavier,” meaning in comparison to Konrad, though Mother doesn’t know what she’s talking about at first.  Eventually, Zel tells her she has known passion with a man, and Mother is able to see with her magic that Zel is pregnant.  She bites off Zel’s long braids and transports her to a desert.  This is in keeping with the Grimms’ version of the story.  While de la Force’s fairy does cut off Persinette’s hair and send her away, she is much kinder and puts the girl in an isolated yet comfortable cottage.  Konrad and the princes in both versions of the tale suffer the same fate of blindness.  Mother uses Zel’s cut off braids to bring Konrad back up to the tower and tell him he won’t see her again.  He moves to attack her and Mother moves to defend herself, causing the braids to hit him and send him falling out the window.  This is different from both versions.  In de la Force’s, the fairy uses her magic to make the prince jump out the window.  In the Grimms’, the prince jumps out the window himself to avoid the witch’s wrath.  All fall into brambles, causing them to go blind.  In the book, Mother uses the last of her strength the grow the brambles and then kill herself.

As in de la Force’s tale and the first edition of the Grimms’, Zel gives birth to twins.  While her predecessors do so in isolation, Zel does not; she is found in the desert by some people and brought back to a town.  She lives there, comfortable and content, with her children until Konrad comes.  Konrad wanders blind trying to find Zel, just as the princes in the fairy tale do.  When he finally finds her and the children, Zel’s tears restore his eyesight.  This happens in both the German and French tales as well.  However, while the Grimms’ story ends there, de la Force’s does not.  Once the family is together again, the fairy sends snakes, dragons, and all sorts of unpleasant things to kill them.  The prince and Persinette are determined to die together rather than live apart, which eventually moves the fairy to spare them and give them her blessing.  There is some aspect of this in the ending of Zel.  Though Mother is dead, she is able to watch everything happening and feel happiness.

My Thoughts:

One of my favorite aspects of this book was Mother as a character.  While she does some truly terrible things, it is also clear that she really does love Zel.  It is a selfish love, shown by the fact that she refuses to let her go, but it is still love. Zel acknowledges at the end that Mother was a good mother for the first thirteen years of her life.  Zel has a happy childhood in a safe environment, and Mother encourages her to learn and be creative.  However, she still acknowledges the harm Mother inflicted on her, which is as it should be.  There can be happy moments in abusive relationships, but it doesn’t change the fact that abuse occurred.  I also did see Mother as a bit of a victim of circumstances.  The story is set in mid-1500s Switzerland.  This is a society that expects women to get married and have children, and Mother is not able to do that.  Her husband leaves her when it becomes clear she can’t have children.  The devils prey upon her weakness and convince her that the only way to be happy is to do these horrible things.

I also really liked that Napoli explores how being locked in a tower affects Zel’s mental health.  It seems natural that being alone almost all the time for two years and locked inside would eat away at someone’s sanity.  She talks to the animals she meets as if they were human and spends large amounts of time examining colonies of ants and lice.  She stops wearing her clothes except for when Mother comes to visit.  She hallucinates and thinks about hurting herself.  It’s very dark, but it feels realistic for someone in this situation.  It’s also something this fairy tale invites us to think about.  How could someone survive in these circumstances?  I enjoyed seeing it explored.

However, Zel’s deteriorating mental health did cause one problem for me with the book.  Considering the state she’s in by the time they meet again, I felt really uncomfortable with the relationship between her and Konrad.  Even before this point, I did feel it was kind of insta-love.  Konrad falls for her after only meeting her once.  This is portrayed as obsession though; he is in love with the idea of her and doesn’t actually know anything about her at all.  This is never addressed.  They aren’t even able to get to know each other; she agrees to marry him during their second meeting.  I understood why she would since she wants to get out of the tower.  However, what bothered me is that she is not in a fit mental state to consent to sex.  The whole thing felt creepy to me; he obsesses over her for years, her sanity is extremely questionable when they meet again, and then they have sex.  It’s just kind of…ick considering the world we live in today.  So while I overall enjoyed the book, this aspect kept my rating from being higher than it might have been.

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  I haven’t read many retellings of this tale, so there aren’t as many starred ones as usual.

Other Retellings of “Rapunzel”:

More Retellings by Donna Jo Napoli:

About the Fairy Tale:

This review is also posted on aliteraryprincess.tumblr.com


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