Never Afters Story Notes (Part 4): Braid

This is the fourth of six posts concerning my Never Afters novella series, published by Brain Jar Press in 2022. Each title re-visions a well-known fairy tale, originally written as the creative component of my PhD thesis. Dark, powerful, and brimming with magic, the Never Afters tales weave a world in which the fairy-tale girls grow up to find both love and heartbreak, family and friendship, loss and forgiveness.

Cover of Braid by Kirstyn McDermott. The illustration is of loose-plaited hair against a dark yellow background.

My Rapunzel, my first Rapunzel, had auburn hair. Or, more accurately, bright orange hair, the orange of juicy mandarins in autumn, of a child’s crayon clenched in a chubby fist, of a cartoon tiger grinning from the front of a sugary cereal box. She graced the pages of a Little Golden Book, her long braid winding around towers and princes both, a decidedly come-hither look in her eyes. I read that book over and over again as a young girl, the illustrations imprinting such an indelible version of the maiden in the tower that, when the movie Tangled was released many years later, I found myself rolling my eyes and muttering, “Well, trust Disney to make her a blonde!” In fact, from Basile’s “Petrosinella” (1634) to La Force’s “Persinette” (1698) to the Grimm’s “Rapunzel” (1812, 1857) she has traditionally been depicted as fair-haired – a fact I only realised when undertaking my PhD. Among several creative restrictions I tried to place upon myself in my re-visioned fairy tale sequels was a prohibition against any significant alteration to the plots, characters, or established relationship dynamics in a hypotext – the “original” text – that would serve as a familiar backstory for readers. I could reinterpret all I wished, but the “facts” of the fairy tale would need to remain largely intact. So, Rapunzel – my new Rapunzel, my Zel – needed to be blonde. I chafed at this, at first, barely mollified by the decision to give my Gothel that beloved auburn hair, and it provoked another line of questioning: What do I consider to be my source for each story? Can I really identify it with an accuracy? When it comes to fairy tales, what exactly do we mean when we speak of hypotexts?

It’s quite easy to say that Ulysses by James Joyce is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, but when it comes to the origin texts of retold fairy tales there are so damn many to consider. The illustrated stories we read as children, animated and live action films, other retold versions, and even critical responses, can all feed into the picture we build of a particular fairy tale. I think of this more as drawing from an amalgamation of antecedents, rather than a single source tale. An amalgamated hypotext of “Cinderella” in contemporary US-dominated culture, for example, would be spun from wicked stepmothers and jealous stepsisters, princes and marriage balls, fairy godmothers and glass slippers. That its compositional elements may have been conflated from sources as diverse as Charles Perrault, the Grimms, Disney, or Little Golden Books, or that divergent variants of the tale also exist, does not undermine the argument that an amalgamated hypotext is the culturally dominant, if more generalized, shape by which a particular fairy tale has become best known.

Certainly, where “Braid” is concerned, I struggle to produce a neat list of specific versions that I mined. There was that Little Golden Book and probably several forgotten volumes of fairy tales for children that laid the bedrock. I also drew upon from the maiden-in-the-tower stories by Basile and La Force, as well as the earliest version of Grimms’ “Rapunzel” (1812) – wherein the heroine is caught out by her understandable ignorance of pregnancy and what it is doing to her body, rather than a ridiculous remark about the witch being heavier than the prince when being pulled up into the tower – and I definitely owe a debt of gratitude to “The Difference in the Dose” by Marina Warner for supplying a more precise raison d’être for my Gothel’s adoption of her daughter. “Braid” is centered around Zel and the life she has led since her exile from her homeland and from Gothel. The relationship between these two women is crucial; it informs Zel’s connection with her own daughter and granddaughter, and her perspective of herself as a mother. Of the many contemporary re-visions of “Rapunzel” I came across, two stand out for the richness and complexity of the relationships they portray between younger and older women: “Little Radish” by Angela Slatter and “The Tale of the Hair” by Emma Donoghue. I highly recommend them both, not least for how they shift the focus away from themes of female jealousy and maternal control, and in their place create something far more intimate and complex. To some extent, the re-visions by Slatter and Donoghue informed the real relationship that existed between Zel and Gothel during the days of the tower, while the “Rapunzel” hypotext – a little from the Grimms, a little from Little Golden Books, a little from the tangled cultural web in which this fairy tale has long been ensnared – served as the stories, half-truths, and gossip that have been told about them since.

It’s no easy task to write sequels to well-known fairy tales. The benefit of having a “backstory” with which the reader is likely familiar brings with it a multitude of restrictions and challenges, not the least of which is this ever-recurring question: How far from the story can I wander before it ceases to be that story? I have certainly taken some liberties with “Rapunzel,” from the recasting of a handful of “facts” to the setting of the land of Zel’s exile far from Europe, an unnamed place I based heavily on my experience trekking on horseback in Mongolia—as soon as I saw the steppes I knew it was where Zel lived. What interested me most about this fairy tale, as with others I chose to re-vision as part of Never Afters, was first dissecting the relationship between the primary female characters, and then stitching it back together, breathing life once again into its lungs. And, by expanding the narrative decades beyond its hypotext, I could also explore the effects of Gothel’s actions on Zel’s relationship with her own daughter and granddaughter, to examine the ways in which the past pushes into the present and how we might learn to finally set it aside. For me, a re-vision almost always begins with a question, a variation on the same theme: What if? What if it wasn’t quite like that? What if she loved the witch? What if she missed her, always and forever? What if she had her own daughter? And there, there, the spindle from which I weave: What kind of mother does a maiden in a tower turn out to be? Because, despite what the stories say, there are always different ways of knowing them.

A lengthier and more academic version of this post was published as ‘Despite What the Stories Say: Introduction to “Braid”’ in Marvels & Tales, Vol.35 No.1 (2021).

Decades after escaping the tower, Zel makes her living as a healer and wise-woman, travelling the lands with her family and the sentient, serpentine braid that still carries a touch of the witch’s magic. Short-haired and happy, Zel prepares for the birth of her first great-grandchild, only to find herself shaken by unexpected news: Mother Gothel is dead.

Memories of the woman who raised her, isolated and imprisoned, unlock within Zel an equal measure of anger and grief, forcing her at last to reckon with the tragic events of that long-ago summer when her own children came of age … a season where implacable death stalked her family across the wild, grassy plains and the world Zel knew split open and soured.

For there are graver threats in Zel’s world than witches, greater sorrows to be borne than the loss of true love, and some dangers from which even the oldest, strongest magic may not be enough to protect her.

Braid will be released on 30 August 2022 and is available for pre-order now from Brain Jar Press.

You can also subscribe to the Never Afters series and get each chapbook delivered monthly and at a discount.

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The other posts in this series can be found here:
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 1): Burnt Sugar
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 2): The New Wife
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 3): After Midnight
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 5): By the Moon’s Good Grace
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 6): Winterbloom