Usually, Rapunzel retellings tend to focus on the princess in the tower, the sad and lonely girl imprisoned by an evil sorceress who uses her stolen daughter’s golden hair as a ladder. But in Mary McMyne’s debut novel The Book of Gothel, there are more references to rapunzel the plant than Rapunzel the person, and that’s just the first of the many surprises in this exceptionally original, propulsive fairytale reimagining that feels a bit more like a reclamation than anything else.
A retelling of Rapunzel that centers its story around the witch who held the princess prisoner, The Book of Gothel will delight fans who have reveled in publishing’s recent trend of giving the often unfairly maligned and supposedly evil women from folklore and mythology their voices back. (And, not for nothing, a story about a woman who secretly helps other women deal with unwanted, problematic, or troubled pregnancies from her mist-shrouded magic tower feels especially welcome right now. Just saying!)
The story follows Haelewise, daughter of Hedda, a sickly young woman who has been plagued by mysterious fainting spells for as long as she can remember. Her mother is their village’s midwife and has done her best to teach her daughter her craft, though their neighbors are occasionally leery (read: wildly superstitious) about taking assistance from a girl with black eyes and a strangely inexplicable lingering physical malady. That Haelewise is branded a witch soon after her mother’s death probably won’t surprise anyone, but instead reminds us of a sad fact of human society throughout the ages—-when a woman is different, that difference all too often makes her a target. And that goes double if that woman has any sort of power of her own.
Left penniless by her father—who’s preparing to marry a rich widow, because of course he is—Haelewise is forced to sell the last of her mother’s handmade poppets to survive, even as she clings to the hope that her childhood friend Matteus will decide to defy his father’s social climbing dreams and marry her. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t, another twist I don’t think anyone reading this will be surprised by.) Forced to flee into the forest after being pursued by an angry mob threatening physical violence, Haelwise discovers the mysterious tower called Gothel and the magical wise woman who lives within its walls.
Through her subsequent lessons with Kunegunde, Haelwise slowly begins to learn more about her supposed sickness, her own abilities, and the hidden side of her mother she never knew. She learns how to project her soul into animal familiars and how the strange plants known as alrune can enhance her gifts. In the process, she begins not just to better understand her place in the world, and since The Book of Gothel is told by a Haelewise looking back over the course of her own life, she’s also a woman who’s well aware of the ways her story has been warped and altered in the frequent retellings of it. This nuanced layering is perhaps most interesting in the ways we see her refer to her own choices, as well as the often selfish reasons that drive her to make them.
As a heroine, Haelewise is both brave and infuriating, a woman whose determination is as admirable as her stubbornness is annoying. McMyne doesn’t shy away from the fact this purported villain is actually a complex figure who makes plenty of bad choices, and who rightfully deserves some of the criticism that’s leveled at her. Her Haelewise is simultaneously a brave young woman who (rightly) refuses to settle for the life she’s told is all she can ever expect to have and a frequently stubborn child who (repeatedly) refuses to deny her own wants.
Her insistence on having her own way and her refusal to admit that anyone else could have a valid point about why the things she wants are…if not outright wrong, at least extremely questionable, feels beyond frustrating at various points in this novel. (Particularly when terrible things could so easily be avoided had Haelwise simply chosen not to lie to the people trying to help her or accepted that perhaps someone other than herself might know best.)
In addition to being a fairly groundbreaking reimagining of the Rapunzel story, The Book of Gothel is also an excellent piece of historical fiction, weaving a complex tale that both reflects medieval society’s discomfort with female power and features real-life examples of the extraordinary women who nevertheless rose to wield significant influence during this time period. (Hildegard of Bingen, Walburga, to name just a few.) The book’s depiction of life in twelfth-century Germany is rich and thorough, and its blending of familiar elements from fairytales and legends into the real-life reign of King Frederick is deftly handled.
The honesty with which the book treats unpleasant realities—that merchant’s son Matteus would never have been allowed to wed Haelewise, that even queens and princesses are generally powerless in the face of their royal spouse’s desires, that antisemitism was both real and generally widespread—is refreshing as well.
And though your mileage may vary when it comes to the wildly convenient way that the issues of Matteus and Haelewise’s love story are ultimately resolved, the deft way McMyne sets the pieces in motion that lead to (at least part of) the story we’re familiar with—Rapunzel, Mother Gothel, a magical tower that can only be found by those who know where it is—is simply delightful to watch unfold.
The Book of Gothel is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.