Rapunzel (Fairy Tale Fridays)



"Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Let down your hair!"

Those words may be the most iconic and memorable portion of the story of Rapunzel, but the phrase, though oft repeated, is just a small portion of the original fairy tale.  Since my last entry for Fairy Tale Fridays featured Melisande, an updated long-hair princess story, I thought I would take this week to explore the classic version of Rapunzel.  As is often the case, the story has origins dating to the 1600's but the version that most consider the classic tale is the one recorded by The Brothers Grimm. (Full text of the story is available here.)

In this version, a childless couple lives next to a walled garden owned by a witch.  Seeking to please his wife, the man sneaks into the garden to steal some rampion.  Though successful at first, the man's thievery is discovered by the witch who demands, as payment, "the child [his] wife will shortly bring into the world".  It is unclear in the story whether the wife was expecting before the man went to steal the rampion.  I used to assume the the wife's craving was associated with pregnancy, but an interesting alternative was that the wife was simply looking for things denied to her as part of the frustration of her inability to have children.  With this perspective, it could also be taken to mean that the man's interaction with the witch caused his wife to conceive.  It could be that the only reason the man agreed to the witch's deal was that he did not believe his wife would ever have a child.  Needless to say, the man strikes the bargain, a child is born, and the girl is given over to the witch who promises to care for her as a mother.  (Rampion is a plant similar to lettuce or spinach and is also called rapunzel, giving the girl and the story its name.) 

Rapunzel, of course, is kept in a door-less tower by the witch who comes to see her and climbs into her window by requesting each time the well-known phrase, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair!"  In the Grimm story, her hair is golden and it's one of few details preserved from the original story in the Disney film Tangled.  (Loved the film, but for now I'm going to tailor this post towards the original story.)  The witch's method of entry into Rapunzel's tower is then observed by a prince who hears Rapunzel's singing and falls in love with her.  She is frightened by him at first but he wins her over with kind words and compliments.  He pleads for her to escape with him and she instructs him to "bring a skein of silk" every time he comes to see her and plans to construct a ladder to use to climb out of the tower.

This is definitely the portion of the story where the reader could conceive of better plans than the protagonists.  One wonders why the witch would not be suspicious of skeins of silk accumulating in the tower room.  And of all the materials to ask for, why silk for a ladder when hemp rope, linen, or even cotton would be a much better material to work with.  Granted, Rapunzel also could have cut off her own hair and climbed down the tower herself.  I don't know the reason for Rapunzel's instructions, but I like to imagine that she is testing her prince.  Silk would be expensive and rare so she was measuring how much her freedom was worth to the prince, and by instructing him to come every day she was testing his devotion to her.  Rather than just run off with him, he needed to prove himself worthy of her first.

Of course, before the prince's love and determination are witnessed, Rapunzel makes a big blunder.  She reveals her relationship with the prince to the witch.  The witch cuts off Rapunzel's hair and casts her into exile.  Waiting in the tower for the prince, the witch fools him with the hair into climbing the tower before revealing that Rapunzel is gone.  And then the prince throws himself out the window.  I'm not sure why he was so easily upset by the witch.  I would have preferred for him to fight for Rapunzel or demand to know her whereabouts.  I can only assume - or at least hope - that there was some magic involved in the prince's instant turn toward despair.  Though he survives the fall from the tower, he is blinded by thorns which prick out his eyes.

One might expect a Brothers Grimm story to end here.  Rapunzel is cast out, the prince is blind, and the witch is seemingly triumphant.  However, there is something better in store for the ending of this tale.  The prince wanders far and wide, until,

"...he came to the desert place where Rapunzel was living. Of a sudden he heard a voice which seemed strangely familiar to him. He walked eagerly in the direction of the sound, and when he was quite close, Rapunzel recognized him and fell on his neck and wept. But two of her tears touched his eyes, and in a moment they became quite clear again, and he saw as well as he had ever done. Then he led her to his kingdom, where they were received and welcomed with great joy, and they lived happily ever after."
I love that this one ends with the classical last three words.   As much as I enjoy when tales take darker turns, I always appreciate it when things finish on a positive note. 

This post is part of my 2011 Fairy Tale Challenge (6 out of 12) inspired by Tif of Tif Talks Books.  What do you think about the original version of Rapunzel?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section here or link up with your own post about this tale or any fairy tale you feel like reading this month!

6 Response to "Rapunzel (Fairy Tale Fridays)"

  1. biblioholic29 says:
    July 22, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    This review just caused half the soundtrack of "Into the Woods" to float through my head. (This also happens when I read Rapunzel.) Fun stuff!

  2. Sam says:
    July 22, 2011 at 2:09 PM

    In school we had a storyteller visit and he did such an amazing version of Rapunzel. It was very similar to the original, and he had the children eating out of the palm of his hand.

    Good stories are magical :)

  3. StephanieD says:
    July 23, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    I think of Anne Sexton's poem in Transformations where the witch and Rapunzel play "mother-me-do" and a dark retelling by Gregory Frost called "The Root of the Matter" - both rather sexual interpretations.

  4. Becky Banks says:
    July 25, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    Thank you for posting this! I hadn't realized there was so much more to this story - or that it was so old. It reminds me of a bit of research I did on "Lord Baker" a song written by Susan McKeown based off a children's fairy tale. In that one Lord Baker goes to Turkey is imprisoned, meets a beautiful woman who sets him free only on the promise that in 7 years that they meet up and marry. Lord Baker goes back to his palace and in 7 years his Turkish beauty comes to find him, and does in the nick of time... Turns out the story Lord Baker is a variation of Young Beichan, of which I'm not sure how old it is, but here's the wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Beichan. If you get a chance though, download Susan McKeown's song of Lord Baker, it's really moving and the end surprising.

  5. lisa :) says:
    July 28, 2011 at 1:08 PM

    bib - I love, love, love Into the Woods!

    Sam - Couldn't have said it better myself and reading aloud magical stories makes them even more delightful!

    Stephanie - There are definitely plenty of ...ummm... adult interpretations of Rapunzel. I think in one translation of the original the prince gets her pregnant on their first meeting and the witch is alerted to their relationship when Rapunzel ponders her expanding waistline. I've always appreciated the more innocent versions, but there are definitely analogies and insinuations that are hard to overlook.

    Becky - I'm always surprised at how far back many of these tales can be traced to as well. I'll have to check out "Lord Baker"!

  6. Tif says:
    August 1, 2011 at 10:00 PM

    I was thinking that in the original tale Rapunzel gave birth to twins while she was exiled. Why am I thinking that?!? I need to go back and read the original again!

    BTW, have you ever read Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale? It is one of my favorite modern retellings of this story!

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