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The Lost Princess: Untangling Our Identity

In chapter 8, in the 2nd book of the Disney & Apologetics duology (Disney & the Moral Imagination), Timothy E. Bartel presents Rapunzel’s story as an artistic rendering of humanity’s deception and redemption. He offers an insightful analysis of Disney’s Tangled in contrast to the original tale popularized by the Grimm brothers, revealing how Disney’s telling of the legend is particularly rich with theological symbolism. The lost princess, imprisoned by deception and now without identity, is a fitting allegory for the human condition. The path to redemption presented within indeed leads to death, but that is not the end, for the light of the sun, embodied in Rapunzel, leads to healing and resurrection. The discovery of the truth of her identity leads to restoration of the kingdom. Bartel notes that so long as the princess was lost, the entire kingdom was in a state of deprivation. He closes with a profound observation concerning art’s mediating role, as it is art through which truth is communicated and Rapunzel’s identity is finally realized.

The opening scene of Tangled begins with a voice-over: “This is the story of how I died,” says the narrator. The voice is that of Flynn Rider, who will be the main male protagonist of the film. “Don’t worry,” he continues, “this is actually a very fun story, and the truth is, it isn’t even mine. This is a story of a girl named Rapunzel, and it begins with the sun. Now, once upon a time a single drop of sunlight fell from the heavens.” This opening is a bold choice on the filmmakers’ part, not just from a narrative standpoint but also because it casts a dark frame for the rest of the story. This story will end in, or at least include, death. In Rider’s story of the sun, a “single drop of sunlight” falls to earth, and where it falls there grows a “magic golden flower.” This flower possesses a heavenly origin and contains the power “to heal the sick and injured” when a song is sung in its presence. We then see an old woman, who Rider calls “Mother Gothel,” who finds the plant and sings a song which repeats the lines “Flower, gleam and glow... Bring back what once was mine.” As she sings, Gothel’s wrinkles and white hair are magically replaced by smooth skin and dark locks. Though this story does not contain any exact parallels to the opening of [the Grimm Brothers'] Rapunzel tale other than the name Gothel, the observant viewer can see parallel ethical themes emerging. We have the theme of healing drops, which appear, with Rapunzel’s tears, at the end of the original tale. And we have a woman who seeks out a plant, this time growing in the wild on the edge of a seaside cliff, not in her neighbor’s garden. But we see the woman hide the plant under a basket, and Rider, still narrating, tells us that instead of sharing the magic of the flower, Gothel hides it and keeps it to herself.

Tangled is a film full of art, and it is through art that the major transformation of the tale takes place. The film is itself, of course, a piece of art, but it is also about an artist and how she comes to understand her true identity through art. Rapunzel is a painter, and she paints not only lovely scenes of nature and star charts, but also, as the centerpiece of her tower, she paints a girl with long golden hair sitting in a tree looking at the strange floating lights; it is herself, contemplating a mystery. Part of what draws Rapunzel and Rider together is that Rider can interpret Rapunzel’s art properly. It is through his interpretation of her art that she first learns of the lost princess. Further, when the duo gets to the city, Rapunzel interacts with the inhabitants of the city through art; she draws a huge, ornate sun-flower, and as she does, she observes another piece of art—a mosaic of the king and queen and herself as a small child. When Rapunzel has her realization of her true identity as the lost princess, it is through reflecting on her recurring motif of the sun-flower in her own paintings, connecting it to the sunflower motif she saw all over the kingdom, and, finally, correctly identifying the little princess in the mosaic as herself.

This post is meant simply to offer a glimpse into our Disney & Apologetics project. Excerpts alone, however, cannot stand for an entire chapter, nor can they stand as representative for all the other ideas to be explored and arguments to be made in this 500-pp, two-volume work. There is much more to ponder within these pages! If you want to think more carefully about morality, about using the formative artifacts of pop-culture to approach Christian apologetics, and about the connections between imagination, aesthetics, and theology, buy this book! You can see what others say about it here and here.


Timothy E. G. Bartel holds a PhD in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts (University of St Andrews) and an MFA in Poetry (Seattle Pacific). His scholarship focuses on the influence of Early Christian Theology on American literature and culture. He has published essays on literary figures, like Dante and Longfellow, as well as popular artists, like Rowling, Malick, and Whedon. Dr. Bartel is author of several books of criticism and poetry, including, most recently, The Heroines of Henry Longfellow: Domestic, Defiant, Divine. His poems and essays have appeared widely in periodicals including Christianity and Literature, First Things, Notes and Queries, and Saint Katherine Review. He currently lives with his family in Houston, TX, where he serves as Provost and Professor of Great Texts and Writing at Saint Constantine College.

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