Disney’s become obsessed with reimagining its classic fairy tale villains as the stars of the show, but while this new take on Rapunzel offers a similar twist, it couldn’t be more unlike the House of Mouse’s sanitised stories. Debut novelist Mary McMyne’s The Book of Gothel is a sumptuous blend of folklore and historical fiction that offers a fiercely feminist interrogation of the original tale.
The Book of Gothel, wrapped in a frame narrative set in the modern-day, reveals the true story of the witch who infamously imprisoned Rapunzel. Kind-hearted Haelwise is shunned by her mediaeval village for her unnatural gifts, forcing her to seek sanctuary at a tower situated deep in the forest known as Gothel. From there she meets a pregnant princess running from her husband, who it’s said can transform into a wolf…
While Rapunzel is naturally the primary inspiration, McMyne deftly weaves in allusions to other recognizable tales, including Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as incorporating genuine historical figures. Once stirred together in the author’s cauldron, the story is actually so far removed from its source material that those looking for a more direct intervention into the Rapunzel narrative may be disappointed.
The author isn’t nearly as interested in revisiting the familiar elements of the tale than she is in building out her own interpretation of the character of Mother Gothel - make no mistake, Haelwise is definitely not the villain here. Spoilers: it’s the patriarchy. Nevertheless, to call Gothel a dark retelling wouldn’t be entirely accurate as McMyne refrains from taking the easy route of turning the novel into a gloom-fest.
Despite the trials and tribulations Haelwise suffers throughout the novel, then, The Book of Gothel is an unexpectedly comforting read that transports you to a world that’s both historically accurate and a place of magic, mandrakes, and moon-goddesses. Its resolution may be too rushed and contrived to be wholly satisfying, but Gothel remains as rich and luscious as Rapunzel’s ladder-like locks.