Where are you tonight? 3: From Rapunzel to the Battle of Passchendaele

On April 5, we published here on Untold a first chapter of our attempt to elevate “Where Are You Tonight?” to the canon.

That article (“Chanson d’automne”) mainly focussed on the unusual form, the ten Spanish Sestets, in which the song is written.

Part 2, Jochen’s take on the first two Spanish sestets, followed  and today we conclude with the “Rapunzel”-sestet and the following refrain.

For the remainder of Jochen’s take on Dylan’s “Where Are You Tonight?”, interested readers are referred to the book Jochen wrote: Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) – Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic, available on Amazon.


He took dead-center aim
but he missed just the same
She was waiting, putting flowers on the shelf
She could feel my despair
as I climbed up her hair
And discovered her invisible self

One of the most successful books in world literature is published in 1812 under the title Kinder- und Hausmärchen but is nowadays mainly known as The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Somewhat misleading; Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were not writers, but scientists who (among other things) collected fairy tales out of scientific (linguistic and folklore) interest – not so much out of literary ambition. They initially collect the fairy tales in the circle of acquaintances; they ask friends and acquaintances of friends to tell them the fairy tales of their childhood.

Wilhelm in particular, however, appears to have a special talent for transforming the notes into catchy, stylistically perfect stories.

Quite a few traces can be found in Dylan’s oeuvre; he often reaches for fairy tales. Less often than for the Bible, but still. Cinderella has a fairly prominent role in “Desolation Row”, “Fairy, fie, fo fum,” the cheerful introduction of the sinister giant from Jiminy and the Beanstalk, we hear in “I Shall Be Free No. 10”, a fairy queen swirls along in “Soon After Midnight”, Aladdin sits in front of the “Gates Of Eden”, Rapunzel has previously inspired on Street Legal (“He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching on to his long golden locks” in “Changing Of The Guards”), the I-person in “Sara” likes to read Snow White with the kids, and the title Blood On The Tracks itself is a quote from – again – Cinderella (“Prithee, look back, prithee, look back; there’s blood on the track”).

Highway 61 Revisited even opens with the standard of every fairy tale (“Once upon a time”) and in the same “Like A Rolling Stone” the princess on the steeple, the princess in the tower, is a secondary character – again a reference to Rapunzel. In the next song, “Tombstone Blues”, the pied pipers (The Pied Piper of Hamelin), go to prison and before the last groove of Highway 61, fairy-tale characters like lumberjacks, Tom Thumbs, bandits and Louie the King come along. And the very Biblical sounding “Lo and behold” is actually nowhere to be found in the Bible, but in a fairy tale – in the song Rumpelstiltskin sings when he spins gold from straw:

Round about, round about,
Lo and behold!
Reel away, reel away,
Straw into gold!

Rapunzel, though, is Dylan’s favourite; “Where Are You Tonight?” is already the third time a reference to the blonde long-haired beauty pops up.

Quite remarkable, still; Rapunzel is certainly not an archetype like Sleeping Beauty or an icon like Snow White – her story is too specific for that, not as easy to generalize as the aforementioned ladies or, for example, a Little Red Riding Hood.

Rapunzel has a special, layered structure, strange plot holes, and a rather extraordinary plot twist, which might fascinate. She is locked up in that tower with no entrance and no stairs, but actually has a conflict-free relationship with the sorceress who locked her up. Rapunzel calls her Frau Gothel (godmother), does chat nicely and peacefully with her and also lets her hair down every day, so that the sorceress can visit her and bring her food. When the king’s son has discovered her and love has ignited, he comes every night and they live “lustig und in Freuden eine geraume Zeit und hatten sich herzlich lieb – cheerfully and joyfully for a long time and they loved each other dearly.”

Rapunzel accepts his marriage proposal, because “der wird mich lieber haben als die alte Frau Gothel – this one will love me more than that old woman.” A fairly thin motivation, but alright. The escape plan is bizarre. The king’s son now has to bring a strand of silk with him every evening, so that Rapunzel can weave a rope ladder from it. Why she doesn’t just let him bring a rope ladder right away is completely puzzling.

“Someday” the girl’s slip of the tongue reveals the secret visits (“Why is it, Frau Gothel, that it is so much harder to pull you up – the king’s son is always upstairs in no time”). This scene is extremely clumsy, but probably written in by Wilhelm Grimm to avoid awkward children’s questions about sex. In the original version, the witch sees that Rapunzel is pregnant. However, from the second edition, the Grimms have removed any reference to pregnancy – perhaps in response to reader complaints – and replaced it with that implausible slip of the tongue.

The wicked witch cuts Rapunzel’s hair and takes the unfortunate girl to a “Wüstenei, wilderness”, where she has to live “in großem Jammer und Elend – in great misery and hardship”. Frau Gothel returns to the tower and awaits the prince (how they both managed to leave the tower and how the old woman has climbed back into the tower remains unclear). When the king’s son reappears that evening and calls the usual Rapunzel Rapunzel, laß dein Haar herunter – let down your hair, she lets Rapunzel’s cut hair hang down, the prince climbs up and experiences his evil surprise.

Then the next remarkable plot twist follows: the witch is not killed, but the prince in desperation jumps down. Precisely into the thorn bushes, the thorns “zerstachen ihm die Augen – puncture his eyes.” Blinded, he wanders through the forests for years, living on berries and roots, doing nothing but whimpering and whining over the loss of his beloved. Until he comes to the Wüstenei where Rapunzel lives “with the twins she gave birth to, a boy and a girl”. Her tears fall on his eyes, he can see again, the four of them go to his realm and they live happily ever after.

Both these twins and the metaphorical potential of “being able to see again” seem like tempting preys for the poet Dylan, but all three references (“Like A Rolling Stone”, “Changing Of The Guards” and “Where Are You Tonight?”) refer only to the tower and hair climbing.

The Uses Of Enchantment (1976) is the brilliant standard work of the controversial child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim on the meaning and usefulness of fairy tales. He commits quite a few words to Rapunzel, but especially to the other story elements (that the parents sell Rapunzel to the sorceress, the meaning of the mysterious twins, the actions of the king’s son) and less to the confinement:

“Thus, hers is likewise the story of a pubertal girl, and of a jealous mother who tries to prevent her from gaining independence—a typical adolescent problem.”

However, thanks to a young reader, Bettelheim is made aware of a deeper symbolism of the hair climbing: “Rapunzel found the means to escape her predicament in her own body – the tresses on which the prince climbed up to her room in the tower.” And once again:

“The happy ending in Rapunzel is again brought about by Rapunzel’s body: her tears heal her lover’s eyes, and with this they regain their kingdom.”

Interesting, all of it, but no interfaces with “Where Are You Tonight?”. Dylan seems to use hair climbing as a metaphor for the effort you make to reach your loved one psychologically – to really understand her, to get to know her “invisible self”.

Successful as a picture, but a little lame as a reference; after all, the story tells that the prince climbs up so remarkably effortlessly. The king’s son only feels despair when he is tricked. But the resulting conclusion that, according to the poet, the sorceress is the invisible self of that dear Rapunzel, in other words: that the true nature of his beloved is an ugly witch, goes too far. In the end, the poet Dylan uses the images from Grimm’s fairy tales only superficially – just as superficially as, for example, the references to Roman mythology in “Changing Of The Guards”, to Charley Patton in “New Pony” or to Jesus in “Señor”.

The Battle of Passchendaele

There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped
There’s a million dreams gone, there’s a landscape being raped
As her beauty fades and I watch her undrape
I won’t but then again, maybe I might
Oh, if I could just find you tonight

The Third Battle of Ypres, better known as the Battle of Passchendaele (July 31 – November 10, 1917) is one of the most horrific and senseless massacres of the First World War, and that is saying a lot. It starts to rain on the first day and continues for six weeks. At the end of September, it is dry for a few days, but that is not enough – when the fighting around Tyne Kot (October 4-9) begins, the battlefield is half an impassable mud terrain and half an enormous pool in which the rotting corpses of thousands of soldiers are floating around. It is, according to generals on both sides, hell on earth. Until the (senseless) taking of Passchendaele in November by Canadian troops, nearly half a million men die – more than five thousand a day at peak times.

Poetic soldiers on both sides (Siegfried Sassoon, Ernst Jünger, Herbert Read, Remarque) have put the hell into words, often using the idiom Dylan chooses here. “Demons”, “lost dreams”, “destroyed landscape”. As veteran Philip Child puts it in God’s Sparrows (1937):

“A raped landscape, naked, raw, and expiring … a morass utterly devoid of any homely landmarks.”

It is not the first time the poet Dylan chooses the visual language and idiom of the War Poets, that is true. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” of course, and especially “Shelter From The Storm”:

’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

And further down trench jargon like steel-eyed death and men fighting to be warm and buried in the hail, and ending with an image that we also have in this “Where Are You Tonight?”: If I could only turn back the clock. An ode to the comforting, warmth-giving qualities of a worshipped lady apparently triggers poet Dylan’s inclination to contrast with the most horrifying things people can do to one another.

The first image in this chorus may not be entirely conclusive. The next three (the released demon, the faded dreams and the ravaged landscape) fit so well into a poetic processing of a Flemish trauma, but there’s a lion in the road actually less so. Out of context, it could mean something like “insurmountable problems await us”. “There is a great big wild animal standing in the way.”  In that case, you really can’t go on, no. But the phrase itself is the first phrase on this entire album coming almost literally from the Bible: Proverbs 26:13: “There is a lion in the way”, and there it does mean “an insurmountable problem,” but then as an example of an unreliable excuse, the excuse of “a slothful man”, the sluggard, of “people who are not worthy of honour”.

That underlying layer is completely misplaced in “Where Are You Tonight?” – it seems that the poet did remember the powerful expression lion in the road, but not the sobering context.

Tiny Ruins – Straw Into Gold:

Where are you tonight: the series

What else is on the site?

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The index to all the 602 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

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  1. Great post on a great song. I’ve always thought this song to be one Dylan’s greats, even better than ‘Tangled up in Blue’, with which it can be compared.
    And a detail… remember Masters of War, how ‘young people’s blood/flows out their bodies and is buried in the mud.’ Vietnam echoing Passchendaele?

  2. I am absolutely mesmerized by this song. If you engage and stay with it, the ending is utter joyous madness.

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