Have you ever had an epiphany? Maybe you suddenly realized that it really does hurt when you put your hand on the hotplate, or that leaning too far to one side in a canoe is likely to end in disaster. Or perhaps you've had an epiphany like Ebenezer Scrooge, who had a harrowing nightmare in which he was visited by a number of ghosts and woke up with not only a deep understanding of the meaning of Christmas but with a whole new lease on life. Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. What they have in common is this: an epiphany is a moment of clarity when we see things as they really are. Something clicks and we wonder how we didn’t see it before.
The 2010 film Tangled presents us with a character very much in need of an epiphany. Based off the classic fairy tale Rapunzel, this version has the princess Rapunzel kidnapped as a young child and imprisoned in a tower by the old woman Gothel. Rapunzel grows up there, all the while totally unaware that she’s a princess. She believes Gothel is her mother. She trusts her captor wholeheartedly, never suspecting her sinister motives. Meanwhile Rapunzel's real parents, the king and queen, continue to mourn her disappearance. It’s only after a trip out of the tower that Rapunzel finally sees the light.
Which brings us to Flynn Rider. While Rapunzel is unaware of her origins and is largely oblivious to what goes on in the world beyond her tower, Flynn seems to understand the world pretty well and his place in it. Flynn’s escapades as a thief take him anywhere and everywhere, including over palace rooftops. When we first meet him at the beginning of the film it seems Flynn may have found his ticket to a life of ease and comfort. Rapunzel’s crown sits on a pedestal in the palace surrounded by armed guards. The crown is covered in jewels and has remained long untouched these many years. So naturally Flynn takes it for himself, with no concern about how the loss of the last remaining token of Rapunzel's memory might affect the king and queen. Nor does he bat an eye when he betrays his partners in crime, the Stabbington brothers, leaving them to the palace guards while he makes off with the crown. Flynn clearly prefers working alone. And better to betray others first before they have the chance to do it to you.
So you can imagine that when Flynn stumbles upon Rapunzel’s tower and hears that she wants him to guide her on a little quest to solve the mystery that has long plagued her imagination—to find the source of some floating lights that appear in the distant sky on her birthday every year—he’s a little less than enthusiastic. For one thing, he works alone. For another, that would take him back towards the palace, to the very guards who would like nothing better than to execute him for his crimes. But Rapunzel figures out a way to have him come around. Having taken the stolen crown off his hands, Rapunzel's proposal suddenly seems a lot more acceptable. If Flynn helps her, he gets the crown back, and with it his ticket to a new life far away from there.
It’s interesting to note how similar Gothel’s outlook is to Flynn’s at this point in the story. Flynn wants to save his own skin. He looks out for his own interests because, if he doesn’t, who else will? If he has to use other people and betray them along the way to achieve that, so be it. Gothel has the same attitude. She survives because of her own resourcefulness. The reason she kidnaps Rapunzel in the first place is for the girl’s magical hair, which Gothel uses to stay young and keep death at bay. I have no doubt Gothel would prefer being alone if she could, and must view living with Rapunzel and her magical hair as necessary, but rather inconvenient. Similarly, Flynn says he aspires to one day retire “somewhere warm and sunny on an island that I own, tanned and rested and alone, surrounded by enormous piles of money.” Flynn seems to believe that he is his only friend in the world.
But the facts tell a different story. Over the course of their quest, Rapunzel saves Flynn’s skin more than once. She befriends a group of nefarious ruffians at a tavern along the way and convinces them not to turn in Flynn to the authorities. And at one of the bleakest moments in the film, when Rapunzel and Flynn are trapped in a dark cave that’s quickly filling with water, Rapunzel uses her magical hair to light up the darkness and find the way out just in time. And later when Flynn’s hand gets injured Rapunzel uses the same magic powers to heal him. Perhaps Flynn was wrong about being alone after all.
Rapunzel isn’t the only one in need of an epiphany. Flynn’s great epiphany is something so obvious that we might question his knowledge of common sense. And yet it’s something we have to experience before we can believe it. Flynn comes to the sudden realization of a simple truth—we’re not in this alone. We don’t need to have the self-centered attitude that life is all about what we can do for ourselves. That is a very narrow view of existence. When we only leave room for one, there’s no room left for the possibility of relationship and togetherness. But when we do make room, we open ourselves up to caring for and being cared for by other people.
As they watch the lanterns soar up into the night sky, the lanterns meant to commemorate the birth date of the kingdom's lost princess, Rapunzel and Flynn experience things from a new perspective. In that moment Rapunzel seems to understand that being there together is more important than investigating the lights in the sky, which are no longer so mysterious. And Flynn no longer sees the crown as his ticket out of there because suddenly escaping alone to freedom is not his priority. Their song together, "I See the Light," perfectly describes what we encounter in an epiphany. In the song Rapunzel repeats the phrase “Now I’m here,” while Flynn keeps coming back to the words “Now she’s here.” There’s something profound about being here, being present. Epiphanies happen in the here and now. Like I mentioned before, an epiphany is a moment. A moment in time when you see things as they are. In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis writes, “the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” Eternity, by definition, always exists. You might call it the reality behind the veil. But we don't always see it. It's only in a truly meaningful epiphany that the veil is lifted for a moment and the reality of eternal truth shines through.
Perhaps you remember the very first line of the movie. Flynn says, “This is the story of how I died," which is fitting because the line accompanies the first shot of the movie, featuring Flynn’s face on a poster which reads, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Flynn does die in this story after Gothel stabs him, but before that he dies another kind of death. At the climax of the movie Rapunzel promises to go back into Gothel’s custody and never leave her again if only she can be allowed to heal Flynn one last time. This is Rapunzel’s sacrifice, giving up her freedom for Flynn’s life. The old self-centered Flynn would have jumped at the chance to escape death at the expense of someone else. But after his epiphany, we’re dealing with the new Flynn. The old Flynn has died. Without warning the wounded Flynn slices off Rapunzel’s hair, removing its magical healing properties once and for all. His act breaks the spell preserving Gothel’s youth, thus causing her death. With Flynn’s sacrifice he gives up his life for Rapunzel’s freedom. And so Flynn, transformed by his epiphany, dies of his mortal wound for the sake of another person.
In the original fairy tale as told by the Brothers Grimm, the prince falls from the tower into the thorns below, which pierce his eyes and blind him. Eventually he and Rapunzel find each other again and Rapunzel's tears restore his sight. This is a picture of what happens to us in an epiphany. We move from blindness to sight. And, if we let such moments work their magic, lasting transformation is possible. We can move from the death of the old self to the birth of the new. Fittingly, Flynn Rider does not stay dead. Except he goes by a different name now, his true name, Eugene. At the end of the film Rapunzel saves him once again, this time with her magical tears, and restores his life.
Some epiphanies are more life-changing than others. Some realizations may fall under the category of interesting trivia we bring up at parties, while others shift our life in a whole new direction. And yet both can fit in a single moment of time. We experience them in a flash in the here and now. But only if we make room for them. Gothel was afraid of the future, afraid of getting old and dying. Flynn was afraid of his past crimes catching up with him. But rather than speculating about the future or dwelling on the past, it's in experiencing the present moment that we can sometimes see beyond. We catch a glimpse of the way things are, of the truth that's been in front of us all along.
David Raphael Hilder
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