There is nothing inherently wrong with biology. Nor is there anything evil about math, astronomy or any of the other logical sciences. I admit they fill a need. Without them, the world would be an enigma and we would all be reduced to hapless parasites. But there are moments when scientific methods of inquiry and explanation are simply not appropriate. One such instance is in the large body of literature which comes under the heading “fairy tales.”
The story of Rapunzel should not make children squirm. It should not confuse them. It should not, above all, be used as a vehicle with which to teach the facts of life.
As a child, I never bothered to wonder why Rapunzel was locked in the tower or why, for that matter, the prince wanted to come up. Being locked in a tower seemed to come naturally to princesses in these stories and the prince obviously wanted to climb the tower because its seemingly unclimbable exterior challenged his masculinity. Once arriving at the top, his purpose accomplished, I assumed he turned around and came right back down. It’s not as if there could have been much to do in the tower, unless there were some good board games or maybe a trampoline.
My ignorance was not cleared at the homefront. Either I owned an abridged version of the Brother’s Grimm or the same relative who gave me a copy of Lives of the Saints also tore out all the pages in the fairy tales alluding to sex or violence, but it was not until my second grade class went to see a version of Rapunzel performed by a particularly bohemian Children’s Theater group that I was exposed to the horrifying second half of the story.
Who knew that, thanks to a vengeful witch, the prince would take a nasty fall, blinding him and prematurely curtailing his tower-climbing career? Who knew that Rapunzel, banished from her tower, would appear graphically pregnant and the two of them would be doomed to wander separately in some sort of miasmic wasteland produced by vast quantities of dry ice, which was the special effect of choice for all the Children’s Theater productions? That later, Rapunzel would, even more graphically, become unpregnant and have twins?
I don’t remember how the play or the fairy-tale ended. In my memory Rapunzel is frozen as an enormous, ill-begotten, disembodied stomach, wandering around in the fog, continually slightly to the right of the prince, who is lying in a heap on stage left. The details of how Rapunzel had gotten pregnant was a topic not to be entrusted to the Children’s Theater and was handled much later via video, so at the time all we could gather from the information before us was a vague sense of something sordid. We agreed that the general unhappiness of this scene stemmed from the mystery of Rapunzel’s pregnancy. Various misconceptions were proffered. Many children were convinced there was a direct correlation between the pregnancy and the fog, others that the prince was blinded as a result of her distended belly.
It didn’t really matter. Theories engendered in the brains of my classmates could make no difference. For me, the story of Rapunzel was ruined beyond salvation, as were the beauties of various reproductive issues. I’m fairly certain , that if a poll were taken today of my second-grade classmates, they would all be found to maintain an inarticulated fear of pregnancy, dealing tangentially with blindness, misfortune, and dry ice.
The problem is you cannot mix The Miracle of Life with towers and witches and expect to produce well-balanced children. Either the prince goes up and comes down, goes up and comes back down enough times that, for the sake of convenience, he and the princess tie the knot and are later greeted with many smiling, cherubic babies, or a series of brightly-colored, computer-generated graphics illustrate the story of meiosis and mitosis. There can be no middle ground.
Otherwise, children get confused. Perhaps “happily ever after” does tend to gloss over certain issues. It leaves out Prince Charming’s eventual battle with gout and Sleeping Beauty’s chronic narcolepsy. The reader is not privy to the atomic structure of the rocks mined by the seven dwarves or the psychological disorder afflicting Snow White’s stepmother which led her to talk to reflective surfaces.
But who are we to tell the youth of America that 1 in 4 people are predisposed to contract gingivitis and there is nothing they can do about it? Such facts can terminally depress a child who cannot draw on a store of untainted tales of enchanted castles and flying pigs. Far better that they reach an age closer to puberty (when moral confusion is inevitable) before letting loose images of unhappy women giving birth, alone, to twins on a vast and foggy plain.
So when faced with a tribe of cherubic faces of your own, think twice before reaching for the Encyclopedia Britannica as a bedtime story. Facts are great, but be sure to adjust the dosage.