Last time we talked about the sequels to the movie Tangled. But I didn’t say anything about the music. One song in particular deserves a comment of its own.
Music in the Movies
“I See the Light”
Disney generally gets good composers to do the music for its major movies. Tangled was especially productive; I already had on my playlists the charming love song “I See the Light” (video here), and the end-credits song (is there a name for that niche?), “Something That I Want” by Grace Potter.
The theme song for the TV series actually premiered in the short film Tangled: Before Ever After. “Wind in My Hair” deftly expresses Rapunzel’s excitement as she anticipates continuing to discover the wide world outside her tower—the “endless horizon.” And there’s a bit of humor in the title: who, after all, is more suited to having the “wind in her hair” than Rapunzel?
“Put On Your Sunday Clothes”
“Wind in My Hair” falls into a category that TV Tropes calls “Setting Off Songs,” like “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” or “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly!. There’s always a certain excitement when people are getting started on a journey, be it an epic trip to the Emerald City or just a Sunday jaunt to New York City. In keeping with Rapunzel’s character, “Wind” is upbeat and optimistic, adding to its charm.
But Rapunzel has much farther to go than we see in the short movie, or the first season of the series. Most of those stories remain inside the Kingdom of Corona. It’s at the beginning of the second season that Rapunzel and company set out into the real terra incognita outside the kingdom. And at that point we get yet another expeditionary song, one that simply knocked me over. Hence the inevitable reflection: why do I love this song?
“Next Stop, Anywhere”
“Next Stop, Anywhere,” by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, is a Setting Off Song squared and cubed. It appears initially in Season 2, Episode 1, at about 3:23.
Rapunzel has a mission: to backtrack the ominous black rocks that began to appear in the short film. The prologue to S2E1 gives us some rather grim history hinting at what she’s going to find. But when we flick back to Rapunzel and her True Companions in the present day, she’s mostly excited about venturing into the outside world (“It’s our first big city outside of Corona!”).
The song starts with a fast, steady beat, and a series of flute trills, which suggest movement and vigor along with the sunny lightness characteristic of our heroine. The visuals of a hummingbird and a field of flowers reinforce the musical cue. Rapunzel leaps out of their ambling caravan and races around in a montage, observing the heavens, using her hair to climb a giant tree, dashing off her signature paintings, turning cartwheels. The refrain comes in with a bouncy drumbeat that bears out the lyric: where might we be going next? Anywhere!
The steady beat continues throughout the following mix of dialogue and singing. Rapunzel’s enthusiasm is indomitable. Her romantic interest Eugene is not quite as keen on following “a bunch of creepy rocks” into the unknown; but at Rapunzel’s wry loving look, he has to admit that of course he’s excited: “I’m with you! What else could I be?” He alternates lines with her in the next verse, and they both participate in the next series of acrobatic misadventures. The theme of first love is an additional source of excitement.
The pointy black rocks turn up from time to time as they cross the landscape, but Rapunzel and Eugene ignore them; at this point their grim purpose seems trivial. That theme of leaping over the difficulties to focus on the adventure is refreshed when the caravan, driven by the wary Cassandra, catches up with them (2:05). Cass admonishes Rapunzel for running off and warns her that “the real world isn’t all fun and games.” Doesn’t matter. The song resumes, and even Cassandra can’t resist singing a line or two. Rapunzel is going to seek out her destiny, but that will cause her to grow: “find the best in me.”
As the canny viewer may have expected, Vardaros, the “first big city” they encounter, falls disastrously short of expectations. One character narrowly dodges death, and another, marriage. The mystery warrior Adira turns up with more ominous warnings about where they’re going. They’re not ready to move forward again until the end of the second episode (listed on the Web pages as Part II of Episode 1). (Actually, they spend another couple of segments in Vardaros anyway, but the reprise of “Next Stop” occurs in the second episode at about 20:50.)
The music starts with a tensely suspended organ tone. Then, over a somber bass note, Eugene begins singing more slowly—but his words are expressing determination to continue. Rapunzel joins in, and they clasp hands. As the music speeds up and brightens, they invoke their faith in each other. By the time we reach the refrain, we’re back to full speed and full strength. The “with you close to me” line expands visually to include Cassandra and the others: they can overcome the coming obstacles with not only the power of love, but the power of friendship. Even the serious aspects of the journey give way to the boundless exuberance with which the original song started. The music, as well as the lyrics, firmly rejects somberness in favor of joy—like the opening passages of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: not by ignoring the dangers and difficulties, but by acknowledging and surpassing them.
The theme of exploration and discovery is a favorite of mine, and the Setting Off Songs tend to live and move in that theme. “Out there . . .” is exactly how “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” begins. We don’t yet know what’s out there, but we’re eager to find out.
The theme isn’t confined to songs, of course. The iconic opening of the original Star Trek series and its Next Generation sequel hit exactly that note, invoking the “sense of wonder” SF is famous for: “The final frontier . . . To seek out new life and new civilizations.” To my mind, the intro to the “Star Trek: Enterprise” series is even better, with its sequence of daring steps in exploration (real and fictional) over inspiring music. Similarly, the best scene in the unfortunate first Star Trek movie occurs at the very end, at about 1:30 in this clip.
‘Let’s see what’s out there.’ That attitude, it seems to me, is highly to be prized: with the sense of incipient wonder, the expectation of finding amazing things, and some degree of confidence in our ability to deal with them. (Chesterton said, “Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them”—Orthodoxy, ch. 7.)
It’s important that we be able to see the trials and perils of life as an adventure, not merely an imposition. That attitude is one of the essential factors in a mature human personality, and it merits perennial refreshing and reinforcement. That’s why “Next Stop, Anywhere” is so pleasing: it hits just the right note.
So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+. It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc. But there were these other things. First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be). Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.
By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was. And I was off and streaming . . .
One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story. And thereby hangs a blog post.
A Tangle of Sequels
I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie. But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good. As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II: Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look. (Frozen II is a decided exception.)
But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media. To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.
In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”). Nothing of interest there.
However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled: Before Ever After. As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence. The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations. At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks. When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee. But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.
This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward. It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed. The series was initially labeled “Tangled: The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure. Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest. Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.
The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs. It concluded in March 2020. At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”). There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity. Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.
Opening Out the Ever After
The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending. Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after. If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension. In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.
The “before ever after” notion is thus productive. The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed. We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely. To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.
It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen). Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic. (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)
Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels. She doesn’t accept at once. She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet. This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage. It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline. As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor. It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.
Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures. The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere. It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.
The World and the Plot
Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world. The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit. For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian. Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy. He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.
The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks. An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra. She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side. This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series. The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie. Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.
This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform. There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse! The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!). Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense. In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere. (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings: “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!”) At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point. The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot. For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.
The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky. Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary. Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks. The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.
The story is willing to deal with serious issues. For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone. Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2. Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation. Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work: the locals don’t trust these strangers. Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform. The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.
Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated. The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light. An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel. And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.
The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions. In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.” An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin. “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration. And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.
Carrying On the Characters: Rapunzel
The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.
Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating. That’s one of the things I like about the movie. Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect. It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”
Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence. Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group. She becomes capable of making difficult decisions. She isn’t intimidated by threats. When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents. The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.
She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right. Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool. Of course, this is cartoon physics. This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip. The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it. It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby). Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.
While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time. This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2. TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.
The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition. She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie. To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare. When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.
Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”: turned into a caricature of himself. His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode. His capability is uneven: sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require. This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.
Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed. In the movie, they’re merely props: the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end. In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that. Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion. The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.
The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra. Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel. That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season. In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention. What happens if you’re not the Chosen One? If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character? Doesn’t she have a destiny too?
The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game: an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain. The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times. The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good. But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.
The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance. We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually. But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.
During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what? We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love. It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.
The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity. While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc. As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her. The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.
The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible. You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.
Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character. But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle. It’s something we always need to see more of.
Buying gifts for small granddaughters reminds me that the popularity of Disney’s Frozen (2013) is undiminished. This is a fine thing. It’s a great movie and includes some good role models for little girls. However, there is something faintly disconcerting about seeing children’s clothing emblazoned with the slogan “Let It Go” (title of the lead song from the movie).
“Let It Go”
At these links, you can find the lyrics to the song (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez); a video clip of the song as it appears in the movie, sung by Idina Menzel, with the lyrics helpfully added; and a pop version, with a driving rock beat, by Demi Lovato (with slightly different lyrics).
You’ll recall that Elsa, the newly-crowned queen of Arendelle, has her uncontrollable ice powers suddenly revealed in public, and flees the city. Alone on the mountainside, she abandons the careful restraint and concealment that her dead parents imposed, and gives her abilities free rein. As she creates a magnificent ice castle, she renounces the land and people she’s left behind. She proclaims that she will break through the limits and use her powers as she will: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me: I’m free!”
It’s a great song. I have both versions on my playlists. The music is powerful, and the lyrics take some clever turns. (It’s the first time I’ve heard the term “fractal” used in a song.) Moreover, the movie visuals that accompany the song are amazing.
Elsa as Role Model
As an anthem for young girls, “Let It Go” is a very appealing choice. It praises the kinds of qualities we all want to see in young people growing up: asserting your own identity, using your abilities, being unafraid to admit what you are. (“What you are” could represent anything from personal tastes and talents to sexuality—the latter of which is suggested by Elsa’s costume change). The song evokes the “breaking free” trope that’s so appealing to the young—not to mention, now and then, the rest of us—and speaks for self-reliance and independence.
So far, so good. We can always benefit from another strong female role model. The trouble is that fixing on “Let It Go” as a rallying cry assumes these attitudes are what we admire in Elsa. But that’s not actually the role the song plays in the story.
I assume that by now pretty much everybody has seen this movie, so I won’t issue the customary caution about spoilers—since we now have to discuss specific plot points.
Elsa wants to cast aside all association with humanity (“kingdom of isolation”). She has a praiseworthy motive—she feels she has to be alone, so others won’t be harmed—but she also revels in the freedom of isolation. She declares independence, not only from arbitrary constraints, but from moral rules (“No right, no wrong”).
Once we’ve seen Elsa’s moment of solitary glory—and it is glorious—the story starts to subvert that declaration. Her isolation leaves her unaware that she’s transformed summer to winter, not just where she is, but also back in Arendelle. Not until her sister Anna and the skeptical Kristoff struggle up the mountain to find her does she find out how far-reaching the consequences are.
To her credit, Elsa is taken aback at these unintended consequences (which are not a consequence of her self-assertion per se, but an incidental side effect). She hasn’t really abandoned all concern for other people. On the other hand, she still doesn’t know how to release this Fimbulwinter. She can’t turn it off. Her only resort is to further distance herself—which endangers Anna and doesn’t solve the problem.
In the end, renunciation of human contact and human limitations is not the right answer for Elsa. Her salvation comes in re-establishing contact with her sister and, eventually, with the rest of the world. Anna’s loving sacrifice reminds Elsa that love is the right answer. As soon as she realizes this, she is able to use her powers under full control, for good purposes. (The abruptness of this solution is a little implausible, but this is a fairy tale, and we’ll let it pass. Maybe she’ll return to Dagobah to “complete her training” some other time.)
Love does enable and empower; but through connection, not disconnection. In the end Elsa renounces the very withdrawal she was expressing in “Let It Go.” The disjunction may have been a necessary stage, but eventually it’s replaced by a deeper bond. Which is, after all, just the kind of development that normally faces a child making her way through adolescence to adulthood.
To Be Continued?
So I have some misgivings about “Let It Go” as an ideal motto for kids. The message of the whole story is broader and deeper than that of the song alone. It’s still a great song, though. What I’d really like is to have it paired with a song that’s as powerful an affirmation as ”Let It Go” is a renunciation.
There’s actually a sequel to the movie scheduled for release in 2019. I have no idea what it’ll be about, and such sequels don’t have a good track record for coming out well. But maybe the story will develop in such a way as to give an opportunity for just such an affirmation song. We can always hope so.
Our stories are always built on other stories. We draw not only on real life, but on all the other tales, tropes, and archetypes that we’ve encountered.
Some of those stories are especially powerful. They express patterns that seem particularly meaningful to us. Tolkien and Lewis called these “myth”—not in the sense of something false, a “lie breathed through silver,” but in the sense of something fundamental.
Some mythologies are works of imagination: the Greek or Norse gods, Superman, Star Wars. Some may be built on elements of truth: the fall of Troy, King Arthur. Some may be literally true, though we can select parts of the overall story and express them in imaginative terms—for example, the tales of the American Revolution (Hamilton or 1776,) or what Lewis called the Christian myth (The Prince of Egypt, The Nativity Story).
Whatever their sources, all these tales make up a reservoir of plots, characters, themes, and locales on which authors draw—our cultural inheritance. In his famous essay On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien described it this way: “Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits . . .” (Pp. 26-27 as reprinted in The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine, 1966); p. 10 in this online reproduction of the full text.)
A good storyteller does not simply repeat a story verbatim. We give it our own spin or flavor. In doing so, we draw from the Cauldron elements from all sorts of other tales. As they say, “When you take stuff from one writer it’s plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.”
This is true even when we purport to be retelling an existing story. The great tales tend to be open to reshaping. But how far can we go with this sort of adaptation, and still claim to be retelling the original tale? How much stretching and twisting can a given story take before it becomes something else altogether?
The best example may be the Arthuriad, the mythology of the Arthurian tales. But that’s so large a subject that it deserves a discussion of its own. A more manageable example is the story of Robin Hood.
One thing that helps us feel free to adapt is the lack of a single, “canonical” original version of the story. Any presentation of The Lord of the Rings—the movie, for example—will be judged against Tolkien’s book. But there is no unique original source for Robin Hood. The earliest sources are a variety of medieval ballads, according to Wikipedia’s extensive discussion.
When I went in search of a standard version of the Robin Hood tale for my children’s library, there was no single obvious choice. There is an influential Howard Pyle version, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood—I haven’t read it, but apparently it’s written in an invented antique English idiom that might not be ideally accessible to young people. I ended up with Roger Lancelyn Green’s 1956 The Adventures of Robin Hood, which struck me as a good, middle-of-the-road retelling on which to start a young person.
There are enough different elements in the Robin Hood story to allow for a range of interpretations. On the surface, there’s the sheer romance of a band of rough but virtuous rogues living cheerfully in the forest: the “Merry Men” theme. There is the legendary adept or quasi-superhero element: Best Bowman Ever. (At least, “best” until you get to Katniss Everdeen, Hawkeye, (Green) Arrow, and other successors — all of whom owe something to the Robin Hood archetype.)
There are also political themes. The conflict between underdog Saxons and Norman aristocrats got tossed into the Cauldron in the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia. More specifically, Robin is often seen as defending the absent Richard the Lionhearted against Prince John’s machinations. And of course one can focus on the economic aspect, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and make Robin a hero of the 99% against the 1%. The tale generally includes a strong romantic element as well.
We can see how these elements can be differently mixed in some of the movie versions, all of which are fairly successful.
In the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Robin is good-humored and high-spirited. Merriment abounds; the dashing Robin treats much of the action almost frivolously—“Where’s your love of fights, risk, adventure?” He fights with a smile, like John Carter. Marian says: “he’s brave and he’s reckless, and yet he’s gentle and kind.” In keeping with this light touch, much of the soundtrack music has an antic air. Robin is an expert bowman, of course; we see this especially in the tournament/trap sequence (which seems to have been too frivolous to be used in the later movies, below).
The plot gives us Saxons versus Normans, with Robin a Saxon nobleman (though he had traditionally been portrayed as a yeoman). In this version, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a fat fool; the villains are Prince John and Guy of Gisborne. Richard is a noble and honorable king, though he has to be reminded of his homeland duties by Robin. His return is protracted, and the politics is internal. Robin (and Marian) speak for one England, not Normans against Saxons, under the one true king. The climactic battle scene is essentially a civil war—John’s supporters against Richard’s.
Maid Marian is a pampered Londoner, a royal ward, though she comes over to Robin’s side promptly when he shows her the sufferings of the poor. As usual, there is a competitor for her hand—in this case, Guy. This Marian is not an action heroine. She arranges the plan to save Robin from hanging after his capture, but it’s his men who execute the rescue. The love story is a central thread, and the film ends with Robin and Marian rushing off from the celebration together.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner (1991), presents a more serious treatment. Wikipedia describes it, accurately, as a “romantic action adventure.” The Merry Men angle appears only vestigially, befitting Costner’s somewhat dour screen presence. The Expert Archer trope certainly makes its appearance, as Robin makes progressively more unlikely bowshots to save the day.
Costner’s Robin is again an aristocrat, allying himself with the downtrodden when he returns from the Crusades. (The notion that Robin had been on crusade with Richard is unusual: he is usually seen as being driven to outlawry while Richard is away.) We have the traditional Saxon-Norman conflict, complicated by throwing in a batch of wild-card Celts as well. But the ethnic or class difference is not prominent; it is expressed primarily as a revolt against the weirdly evil and almost demented Sheriff of Nottingham. Curiously, Prince John is not mentioned at all. But King Richard does make an appearance at the very end, to bless the romance. (In an entertaining nod to film history, Richard is played by Sean Connery, who had himself played Robin Hood in 1976’s Robin and Marian.)
Prince of Thieves leans heavily on the romance. Marian, a local aristocrat, was acquainted with Robin when they were children—she despised him. She takes a shine to him, however, after Robin returns to find the Sheriff has murdered Robin’s father. Here it is the Sheriff who has designs on Marian’s virtue. The romantic drama rides on Michael Kamen’s epic score for the music—with a main theme so good that Disney has come to use it as the generic musical cue for Disney’s logo.
The most recent movie version is called simply Robin Hood, directed in 2010 by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe.
Crowe’s Robin is serious-to-grim; no frivolous japes here. Like Costner’s version, Crowe’s is returning from the Crusades with Richard. But this Robin is a common archer, not a nobleman. He does some fancy shooting, but he spends more time swordfighting. In the climactic battle, he leads a more traditional cavalry charge—and on a beach, not in a forest. (He does, however, deliver the final coup de grace to Godfrey the villain with a bowshot.)
This film’s whole atmosphere is more cynical than in either of the two versions described above. For example, where Errol Flynn’s Robin gives King Richard some home truths and is honored for it, Crowe’s Robin gets put in the stocks for giving Richard an honest evaluation, even though Richard specifically asked for honesty. The movie makes a few more nods to actual history, in the relationships of John, Richard, and Walter Marshal—though with a few minor tweaks, such as an imaginary French invasion. (The Wikipedia page lists several criticisms on the history.) Richard is killed near the beginning, in France, rather than returning triumphantly to England. The focus is more on international politics than in the two preceding versions: the big final battle here is against the French.
For most of the story, this Robin doesn’t live in the forest. Nor is he precisely an outlaw, though he and his friends do stop one shipment of grain as “men of the hood.” Rather, his central role is as a somewhat anachronistic voice for democracy. Robin’s father Thomas Longstride was a “visionary” who believed in raising up all people; the repeated slogan is “Rise, and rise again, until lambs become lions.” Thomas wrote a charter of rights, signed even by barons. In one of the few nods to the Merry Men, these rights include the right for each man “to be as merry as he can”—a livelier form of “the pursuit of happiness.” There’s a reference to “liberty by law,” as opposed to the despotism of a “strongman” tyrant. Marion too, though she’s a lady, is shown doing mundane chores alongside the farmers (Robin originally mistakes her for a farm girl).
In this version, the Sheriff is practically a nonentity. John and the character representing Guy, who has mutated into “Godfrey,” are the villains. Here John is a much more ambiguous character, rising to an almost heroic role at the climax. But he then throws that role away by refusing to sign the Magna Carta—a historically dubious twist—and condemning Robin.
The romance element is also strong here, though to some extent it takes a back seat to politics (Wikipedia describes the movie as an “epic historical war film”). Robin finds himself pretending to be the deceased Sir Robert of “Loxley” on his return to England. At the real Robert’s father’s insistence, he steps into Robert’s shoes—including becoming (for public relations purposes) “husband” to Robert’s wife Marion. This puts us somewhere in the region of the “Marriage Before Romance” trope, and allows for some endearing scenes as the two begin to fall for each other.
Marion herself is stronger and more assertive here than either of her film predecessors above (harking back to Green’s description of Marian as an “expert fighter,” p. 222). She’s competent with sword and bow work; she frees her villagers; she even joins the final battle, in an Eowyn-style armor disguise. At the same time, she still needs to be rescued occasionally, and is again pursued by unwanted romantic attention from the Sheriff.
In place of the usual happy ending, Robin is finally declared an outlaw at the very end—riding off into the sunset, as it were, as a perennial spirit of rebellion. “And so the legend begins,” a title tells us.
As noted above, my view is that all of these movie treatments work, despite their varied treatments of Robin’s character, his martial prowess, the political angles, the villains, and the romance. They all seem to be acceptable ways of telling the Robin Hood story. One can appreciate the same tale rendered in a number of different ways, mutually inconsistent in their details, but able to coexist in the viewer’s mind.
On the other hand, there are limits to this variability.
The Robin Hood subgenre also offers an example of distorting the underlying myth too far — stretching the rubber band till it breaks. Robin McKinley’s novel The Outlaws of Sherwood tries so hard to avoid the usual tropes that, in my estimation, it fails as a Robin Hood story.
McKinley’s Robin is anything but merry—he’s a gloomy, plodding yeoman forest ranger. The Norman-Saxon conflict is active, but Robin has no political awareness at all; he has to be chivvied into revolt by Marian and Much the miller’s son, who handle most of the overall strategy. Adding insult to injury, he can’t hit the broad side of the barn with an arrow. All the fancy shooting is done by others, including Marian. This is a pleasant nod to female action-hero equality, but leaves our image of Robin himself sadly lacking.
About the only thing McKinley’s Robin is good at is provisioning a comfortable forest home for his followers and their families. You might say he makes a fine quartermaster, but he’s hardly a leader.
The political themes are muted. Guy and the Sheriff are the villains, and larger national or international issues are not prominent. Richard the Lionheart does appear, to receive the main characters’ fealty and thus end their outlawry, though he then takes them to the Crusades as a sort of penance.
The Robin-and-Marian romance is integral to the story, but it proceeds in slower and more complex ways than in the movies. Robin is hesitant and tongue-tied, the opposite of the dashing Errol Flynn. Only when Marian is injured, after taking Robin’s place in the famous tournament, does he admit to loving her.
McKinley is aware of the way in which authors construct tales in different shapes as they draw their preferred elements from the Cauldron of Story. She notes in an afterword that “[m]any people have strong ideas about who Robin was and what he was like; and a lot of our ideas are as incompatible with each other as they are with history” (p. 277). Her version has its points; but to my mind, it stretches the main themes and tropes too far to be a satisfactory iteration of the Robin Hood legend.
We can adapt a myth in any number of ways, but not infinitely many. There are boundaries that must be observed if the story is to remain recognizable at all. A story seems to have an “essence,” and violating that essence makes it into something different. The something different may be valuable in itself; it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to adapt familiar bits from the Cauldron of Story into a new tale. But that—of course—is another story.
By now it should be possible to discuss The Force Awakens without issuing a spoiler alert, since everyone in this galaxy has probably seen it.
I was tempted to use “Everything old is new again” for the way SW7 harks back to the original movie, but it turns out several commentators have already done that. Then I thought using the phrase “Back to the Future” might express the sense of familiarity the new movie evokes for old-time fans—but it turns out a number of reviews have already done that too (for example, here, here, and here). Somebody’s even done a Star Wars-Back to the Future mashup.
The great thing about the Internet is that it’s easy to find out what everyone else is saying. The depressing thing about the Internet is that, when you set out to say something, someone else has probably said it already.
Is the familiarity of Episode VII’s tropes a strength or a weakness? Is director J.J. Abrams just rehashing old material, or is he providing us with a charming return to our roots?
In this case, I think imitation is the sincerest form of homage.
The familiar moves came off well, by and large. Heroes with downtrodden humble beginnings – that’s classic storytelling. Desert planet—Actually, I could have done with a new setting. But the landscape does express the aridity of Rey’s prior life, and it allows for some nice contrasts. (“I didn’t know there was this much green in the whole galaxy.”) And we aren’t there for very long, after all.
Invoking family dysfunctions and mysteries also harks back to the original trilogy, of course. The angle that struck me particularly (since I’m old enough to appreciate it) is that “Rey Who?” sparks as feverish a storm of fan speculation as Darth Vader’s Empire Strikes Back bombshell.
It’s hard to remember now, when “I am your father” has become a ubiquitous meme, that at the end of ESB we didn’t really know whether Vader was telling the truth. He probably was; it was too good a narrative twist to pass up. But those us who were still attached to the image of Luke’s heroic dad spent three years trying out alternative scenarios.
Even more, we debated “There is another.” We canvassed every conceivable answer to that mystery, and some that were inconceivable. Same with Rey’s parentage: I’ve already heard suggestions that are all across the map.
At least, on Disney’s more aggressive release schedule, we’ll only have a year and a half to run this issue into the ground, as opposed to three years back in the 1980s. Which is a good thing: by the time Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, we had overthought the matter so much that the actual revelations were almost anticlimactic.
(Of course, the real answer, obviously, is that Rey is Chewbacca’s daughter. They hit it off so well, and he accompanies her to find Luke at the end. This explains why Han, Chewie’s old friend, is so protective of her. She doesn’t look like Chewie, you say? We can just assume that Wookiees develop all that hair and the growly voice later, post-adolescence.)
By and large, I enjoyed the frequent callouts to Star Wars IV-VI. The new movie combined the nostalgic recognition of familiar themes with the freshness of new characters and relationships. Rey and Finn and Poe play off each other well, but not in the same way as Luke and Leia and Han. Abrams has restarted the story without having to reboot.
On the other hand, there were a couple of repetitions that could be dispensed with.
The biggest (in every sense) is the Death Star. Er, Starkiller Base. The whole end sequence in SW7 was fun, to be sure. But we’ve seen this scenario twice already in the original trilogy. Three desperate attempts to blow up an Ultimate Weapon is enough. Can we agree, no more Death Stars, no matter how big they are or what fancy names we give them?
We need something different for the third trilogy. It’s not as if there aren’t other mythic motifs available. I’ve always felt the third trilogy would work well as a Quest. Let there be something Our Heroes need to find to set a New Republic or new Jedi Order on the right track.
With the classic quest theme in mind, the fact that Luke set out looking for “the first Jedi temple” is suggestive. He’s not just on this island as a hideout; he seems to have been looking for something. What might one be looking for in the Jedi temple that would make a good MacGuffin for Episodes VIII and IX? The “Holocron,” a Jedi teaching device invented for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, might be a good candidate. (In a year or so, we can look back and see how far off-track I was—which is the fun of making rash predictions.)
We can analyze all these questions to death while we’re waiting for Episode VIII to come out. But if we’ve learned from the 1980s experience, we may prefer just to enjoy the anticipation.