This wonderful, complex fairy tale has multiple versions including, among others, two by the Brothers Grimm, an Italian version called Petrosinella (Parsley) by Giovambattiste Basile published in 1634 and a 10th century Persian version called Rudaba. The Grimms’ version is, according to Wikipedia, an adaptation of PersinetteCharlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force originally published in 1698. Good modern translations are available at three of my favorite websites: D. L. Ashliman’s fairy tale site at U. Pittsburgh, SurLaLune Fairy Tales and Project Gutenberg. The Edward Lang version from The Red Fairy Book is generally considered the standard modern text, though I prefer the Brothers Grimm.

It’s well worth reading Zel, Donna Jo Napoli’s retelling of the tale. I also recommend the oddly recursive Fractured Fairy Tales version (narrated by Edward Everett Horton) that was done on the first ever episode of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.

All versions of the story have common elements . . . we’ll look at that more with the discussion . . . but here’s a synopsis.

A pregnant woman looks out her window longingly at the rampion (also called rapunzel, and other vegetables are cited in other versions) in the high-walled garden of the neighbor, who is variously a witch or an ogress. She tells her husband she must have some or she will surely die. The husband climbs into the witch’s garden (one or more times) to get the rampion and is caught. The witch threatens him, but he explains the situation and the witch allows him to live and take the rampion on condition that he gives her the child. In many versions the witch says she will look after the child like a mother, and in some versions she does not take the child until she turns seven or eight years old.

Illustration by Johnny Gruelle from Project Gutenberg/Wikipedia

The child is born and turned over to the witch who names her Rapunzel and raises her, placing her in the famous tower–with no doors or stairs and only a small window–when she turns twelve. They live in the tower for some years, with the witch coming and going by calling out, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair!” I haven’t seen it in print, but I learned “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair that I may climb the golden stair.” Jan learned something similar, but also learned a second verse. If anyone has info on that, let me know.

Eventually a prince riding through the woods hears Rapunzel singing and is fascinated by her voice. He watches and finds out how the witch gets into the tower, then calls out to Rapunzel with the same words after the witch has gone. Rapunzel lets down her hair and the prince climbs up. Initially Rapunzel is terrified, but the prince’s protestations of love convince her. In some versions he asks her to marry him and she thinks, “For I will certainly be happier with the handsome young prince than with the old Witch.” This strikes me as odd, and in the second Grimm version it’s turned around: “He would rather have me than would old Frau Gothel (the witch).” But I think the reason this all sounds odd is that it’s a later expurgation. The talk of marriage is present in the Grimms 1857 book and the Lang version, but in the 1812 version it read differently:

At first Rapunzel was frightened, but soon she came to like the young king so well that she arranged for him to come every day and be pulled up. Thus they lived in joy and pleasure for a long time.

In the later versions, though, there had to be a reason for Rapunzel to stay in the tower and the prince to come visiting often, and it was to deliver to Rapunzel a skein of silk each visit, so she could make a ladder to climb down herself. Things continued in this manner until one day Rapunzel thoughtlessly asked Mother Gothel why she was so much harder to pull up than the prince. Again, this seems odd. Compare it with the 1812 story, in which she asks why her dress is getting so tight . . .

Either way, the old witch is furious at (what she perceives as) this betrayal, wraps Rapunzel’s hair around her left hand and cuts it off.  She banishes Rapunzel to a wilderness or a desert, where she suffered. When the prince came back and called to Rapunzel to lower her hair the Witch tied the cut-off hair to a hook and let it down. When the prince climbed up the witch confronted him and told him he’d lost Rapunzel forever. He threw himself from the tower but lost his eyesight in the fall, perhaps from thorns which pierced his eyes. He wandered lost and bereft for “some years” until he came to the place where Rapunzel and her children were living. (In the Lang version the children aren’t mentioned, but they are present in both of the Grimm versions, even though the 1857 story dropped the question about why Rapunzel’s dress wasn’t fitting). He heard Rapunzel’s voice, found her and the tears she wept fell into his eyes and healed them. He led her to his kingdom and they lived happily ever after.

Next time, some discussion . . . I am interested in the big picture, but that’s not altogether a hidden meaning, and I’m interested in some little things, like why the pierced eyes and why twins. I’m not sure I can really answer those, but I’ll try. And maybe I’ll get to the movie Tangled, as well.


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