Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy, #1

post about a Rapunzel re-telling


Megan Morrison’s Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel

If you missed the introduction to this year’s Fairytale Fantasy series of posts, find it HERE.

Of the Rapunzel-themed novels I decided to discuss this year, Morrison’s Grounded, Book I of her Tyme series (2015), is the YA book of the three. It skews a young YA, too, so a thirteen-year-old could comfortably read it. In fact, the publisher, Scholastic, suggests it for grades 5-9, so it’s appropriate for even younger readers. As an adult reader, though, I’m here to tell you that it is a fun and happy read, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Megan Morrison's cover for Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel, book 1 of the Tyme YA fantasy series.
See Morrison’s web site, for more about the book and where to find it.

Grounded starts with the classic “once upon a time” beginning, but from there, Rapunzel is nothing like the princess you expect to see in the story. We readers can tell the imprisoned Rapunzel is a spunky girl, even though she has been thoroughly gas-lit by the witch (whom she knows only as Witch) into believing her life is perfect. As in the story, Rapunzel has freakishly long hair, and the only way to get into her tower is by climbing up her braid. Witch calls out, Rapunzel lowers her hair via an ingenious little wheel device, and Witch climbs up. But one day, a strange boy appears instead. Exciting adventures ensue, and the result is. . .well, you know the fairy tale, so you know roughly how it turns out. But you’re probably not counting on all the twists and turns Morrison takes you on the pathway to solving Rapunzel’s mystery and fulfilling her quest.

Morrison’s ingenuity is one of the book’s many pleasures. All the tropes are there, but often fractured and stood on their heads. Witch, for one–is she thoroughly wicked? What motivates her? The complications of the wicked witch trope are by now pretty familiar. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, for example, retells the Wizard of Oz story through the witch’s point of view, and other writers have done similar things with wicked witches. Morrison is able to take this potentially tired newish twist in delightful new ways.

Another device Morrison uses with aplomb is the combination of the Rapunzel story with other fairy tales. In this novel, the most important of these is the Jack and the Beanstalk story, another tale of a plucky main character with a tall structure to climb. Not to mention one of the most endearing of all the features of this endearing book, the fairy tale of the Frog Prince.

The characters themselves are part of the fun. They don’t talk and act like cardboard cutouts from some stereotyped story. They are fully developed and very human (or amphibian). The magical parts are skillfully sifted into the human parts, often with comic effect. Rapunzel’s hair, for example. She does get out of her tower and goes on an elaborate quest, but who could do that and at the same time manage yards and yards of heavy hair?

The world-building is pretty ingenious, with plenty of interesting fairy lore. I’m guessing the other books in Morrison’s Tyme fantasy series do even more with it. If anyone has read them, report back!

There’s a flirty hint of romance, too, but nothing too strenuous. Most important, nothing that takes away from Rapunzel’s determination and ingenuity and grit. She is a great girl role-model, no swooning princess waiting in a tower to be rescued. There’s a whole lotta rescuing going on here, but a lot of the rescuing is by Rapunzel herself.

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. I haven’t read the others in the series, but if they are anywhere close to this ingenious, they’d make a great gift for anyone in grades 5-9. Or. . .for someone older. Someone a whole lot older. . . /wink

COMING UP NEXT: My discussion of Measha Stone’s Tower. NOT a book to give to a kid. Be warned.

Heading into Valentine Week!


LAST YEAR: fantasy based on fairytales from around the world.

THIS YEAR: three books each from two beloved fairytales, RAPUNZEL and CINDERELLA

FAIRY TALE: This term is confusing. Frequently, tales we call “fairy tales” don’t involve fairies at all, and the books I pick for this Valentine feature may or may not include fairies–fae–the fair folk–whatever you call them. Besides, fae fantasy is a subgenre all its own. As I use the term here, “fairy tale” is a synonym for “folk tale,” stories from anonymous tellers of tales, passed around orally, often for centuries, before they are written down. I should mention two cautions: except in passing, I won’t deal with Disney re-tellings. Also, some of the stories we think of as “fairy tales” aren’t fairy tales (folk tales) at all, but are works of literature crafted by individual authors, communicated to their readers for the first time in writing. Examples of these: Alice in Wonderland. Peter Pan. Pinocchio. The Wizard of Oz. These aren’t fairy tales, although they were written to resemble fairy tales. They’ve just entered the popular imagination and have been re-told so often, in so many different ways, that they’ve reached the status of fairy tales.

FAIRYTALE FANTASY: Contemporary re-tellings of fairy tales (folktales), maybe in combination with other fantasy tropes.


The first three books I’ll discuss during Valentine Week are re-tellings of the popular tale about the girl imprisoned in a tower who must let down her long hair for a witch (and later, a prince) to climb up.

First, a little background. Rapunzel is an interesting hybrid. Its main motif (most recognizable trope) is “the maiden in the tower,” which the Aarne/Thompson folklore index identifies as “Type 310.” This motif has been found in folklore worldwide. It’s part of the story of St. Barbara, as imagined by the medieval French writer Jacobus de Voraigne. His collection of saints’ tales, which became popularly known as The Golden Legend, enjoyed a huge readership throughout 13th century Europe. Here it is, translated into fifteenth century English in the famous early English printer William Caxton’s version of The Golden Legend. An even earlier tale, a very important Persian 10th century text, contains many of the same story elements, especially the idea of using a woman’s long hair like a ladder.

In the form we usually know it, though, the tale actually comes from two literary sources, one Italian, one French. So the tale itself is not actually a folktale (fairy tale) in spite of its use of folklore motifs and the story of St. Barbara. Confusingly, the Brothers Grimm, German collectors of folktales and the source of many tales we think of as fairy tales, “collected” it as if it were a piece of folklore. It’s not.

In 1632, Giambattista Basile published Petrosinilla (“Little Parsley”). This is the first version that tells the tale we know so well, with a few differences: a wife with pregnancy cravings (not the father) steals a plant from the garden of a witch and has to promise her unborn baby to the witch. The witch imprisons the child in a tower, a prince finds her there, and they escape together. The “escape” part involving magical objects really is drawn from several folk sources, so although Petrosinilla is a “literary” fairy tale, it does have folkloric elements. In 1637, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a French noblewoman, published her own version, Persinette. Here‘s a blog that recounts the tale–the title of the post claims it’s the text of the tale, but the blog post suggests it’s the blogger’s retelling. The de Caumont de la Force version is much closer to the one we know, especially since it is the version the Grimm Brothers put in their collection. A German 19th century translation changed “Little Parsely’s” name to Rapunzel, and included its most famous line: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” The Grimm Brothers took it from there. You can refresh your memory of the classic (to us) Grimm Brothers version by reading it HERE.

In popular culture: many, many fairytale retellings for children include Rapunzel.

Grimm's Fairytale collection
Here’s an example.

Of course it has also gotten the Disney treatment in Tangled.

Here are the three (very VERY different!) Rapunzel retellings I will review this year. There’s something for everyone in this list, and I do mean everyone. Warning: Don’t just send a child to read these three, or not before you investigate, either on your own or through my blog posts. Only one of these is kid-friendly.

Megan Morrison’s Grounded

Measha Stone’s Tower

Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens


The next three books I’ll discuss in this Fairytale Fantasy Week series of blog posts is the fairy tale most familiar of all to most readers (American readers, anyhow). Yet it, like Rapunzel, is more of a literary fairy tale than a folk tale. Unlike Rapunzel, though, Cinderella has many more folklore precedents.

Here’s a recap from last year’s series of blog posts. I discussed another Cinderella retelling, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, last year. It’s a wonderful novel, a great historical novel about the famous Netherlands “tulip bubble” that the author gave a Cinderella twist, so I’ll send it a quick shout-out, even though I’ll be discussing different Cinderella retellings this year.

Here’s what I said last year about Cinderella’s folklore, literary, and pop culture underpinnings:

Cinderella, as most American readers know it, has filtered through to them through (shhh. . . Walt Disney’s animated movie version from 1950) a number of English language versions. The real ancestor of the English-speaking world’s Cinderella, though, is Charles Perrault’s French version of the story from 1697, Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper). Through the Perrault version, the story acquired the pumpkin coach, the fairy godmother, and especially that glass slipper. (Why doesn’t the glass slipper break and cut Cinderella’s foot? It’s magic! It’s fiction! Don’t ask!) You can read a translation of the Perrault version HERE.

But the story is truly ancient. Scholars have traced it back to ancient Greece and the tale of Rhodopis (“Rosy-cheeks”). Think only scholars know that one? Nope. It makes an appearance in the MMORPG Everquest II as one of the sillier quests in the Rise of Kunark expansion pack. Among others, there’s an Italian version, a German version (the Brothers Grimm collected that one, Aschenputtel), and a number of Asian versions. A lot of versions, a lot of variations on the story and its details. Folklorists classify it as Aarne–Thompson–Uther type 510A, ” The Persecuted Heroine.”

Whatever its true origins, the tale really resonates for generations of young women, especially those who long to become a “Disney princess.” The implications of this longing were explored most famously by the feminist theorist Colette Dowling, in The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence (Summit Books, 1981). The book discusses the Cinderella fairy tale as the template for contemporary women’s longing to be swept off their feet by some powerful male and taken care of.

Here are the Cinderella retellings I’ll blog about this year:

The three (again, as in the Rapunzel books, very different) Cinderella retellings:

JJA Harwood’s The Shadow in the Glass

Laura Wood’s A Single Thread of Moonlight

L. Philips’s Sometime After Midnight


Look for my discussion of Megan Morrison’s Grounded next.

Beowulf Redux!

We probably all know the role the heroic Anglo-Saxon tale Beowulf has played in creating modern fantasy. To recap: a poem from the late tenth century, written in Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English–not, as some think, that older type of English written by people like Shakespeare, but a completely different language related to German and Norse), recounts the thrilling deeds of the 6th century semi-mythical stalwart warrior Beowulf. It exists in a single manuscript nearly destroyed by fire in the 18th century but translated in whole or part over the years by toiling scholars. It didn’t come to popular attention, though, until a twentieth century Oxford philologist studied and translated it. That man, J.R.R. Tolkien, may have studied and taught philology as his day job, but we all know what he did for fun: write epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings, inspired by the early literature–such as Beowulf--that Tolkien studied. As a result, the fantasy reading (movie-going/gaming/etc.) world has never been the same.

Illustration copyright Jeffrey Thompson,

Generations of graduate students in English have groaned when they’ve been made to learn Anglo-Saxon, but there is a huge payoff! I say this as a person whose own grad program didn’t make me. Now who’s sorry? I am.

Why? Because Beowulf By All, a new community project, gives a wonderful way for (as the Stanford University web site puts it) “students, interested members of the public, scholars from all fields, librarians and archivists, long-time medievalists, lapsed medievalists, outraged inclusionists, and joyous fans of Old English” to essentially crowdsource a translation. Get the workbook! You can find it through Dr. Varnam’s web site (above), or download a free pdf version from the Stanford web site (above).Get cracking!

Here’s a great sample, which begins, “Heyla! We have a story about the Spear-Danes, from the old days/When they were big. . .” Some of these lines were translated by enthusiasts on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, others in other places. I’ve written about this on my poetry blog, too, but Dr. Varnam’s web site is the best place to find out about the project.

In Anglo-Saxon, the poem famously begins, “HWAET!”

Beowulf opening page of manuscript
Find information about the manuscript in the British Library.

Listen to how it sounded!

Well, you COULD just go with Leslie Hall’s nineteenth-century translation: “Lo, the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements. . .” Free through Project Gutenberg.

Tolkien’s translation is great, of course: “Lo! The glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old. . .”

I like Seamus Heaney’s translation: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by. . .”

Or what about this one, by Maria Dahvana Headley, which begins not with “Lo!” or “So!” but with “Bro!” Here’s a great read about that translation. I can’t wait to read Headley’s modern-day retelling of the Beowulf story, The Mere Wife, by the way. And of course, for re-tellings, nothing beats John Gardner’s amazing Grendel, told from the monster’s point of view. Here’s how Headley’s translation of Beowulf begins: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings! In the old days. . .”

That sounds great. Recently, though, I was enthralled by the lines from from the Beowulf By All people. Seriously. Know Anglo-Saxon? Get the workbook! Give us more!