Special Report: Above the World

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


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In the Grimms’ retelling of Rapunzel, the famous tower that holds her away from the world has a number of features that make its construction seem impossible, or supernatural. It has no doors and no stairs, which could make a reader wonder how Rapunzel gets into the room at the top of the tower to begin with—perhaps through some spell of the sorceress, levitation, or teleportation, though this is never clarified in the Grimms’ version of the tale. Whatever the case, the tower’s magic allows it to act as another world, a tiny and confining world built only for Rapunzel. Indeed, when the sorceress learns that Rapunzel has been visited by the prince, she cries, “What am I hearing from you? I thought I had removed you from the whole world.”

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Towers stand as symbols of otherworldliness in many other tales, including the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, where humans attempt to construct a tower high enough to reach Heaven, and in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in which the dark tower of Barad-dûr is held together only by magic and houses Sauron’s great fiery eye.

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Towers are a major theme in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, a founding member of the scuola metafisica (metaphysical school), a short-lived movement in 20th century Italy whose goals included “painting that which cannot be seen,” and had profound influence on the later development of surrealism. Some of de Chirico’s best-known paintings include The Red Tower and The Nostalgia of the Infinite, each of which use sharp contrast between light and shadow to imbue the work with a mysterious and dreamlike quality.

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The Red Tower and The Nostalgia of the Infinite are made all the more unnerving because the ominous towers around which the paintings center cast no shadows on the ground beneath them, even though the people and other buildings in the paintings cast shadows of exaggerated contrast.

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In the PlayStation 2 classic, Ico, the game’s protagonist is a boy born with horns who is cast out from his village for fear his presence will bring a curse. Ico is condemned to the dungeon of a tower under the dominion of a sorceress, and as he attempts to escape he meets a girl (the sorceress’ daughter, Yorda) being chased through the tower by shadowy monsters. The majority of the gameplay focuses on navigating the tower’s impossible architecture, filled with chasms, spiral stairways, and M. C. Escher-esque bridges, all of which would seem to tumble from the cliff sides were it not for the sorceress’ magic binding the structure together. One could find it difficult not to think of Rapunzel and her prince as the player leads Ico and Yorda hand in hand through the tower’s ethereal halls.

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Interestingly, Ico’s cover art is said by the game’s director, Fumito Ueda, to be inspired by Gorgio de Chirico’s The Nostalgia of the Infinite.


This special report brought to you by staff reader Jarrett Eakins.