About Rapunzel

Rapunzel is a traditional fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, an allegory of a young girl’s sexual awakening that is often told to children, in spite of its barely covert eroticism.

An influence for Grimm’s Rapunzel was Petrosinella, written by Giambattista Basile in his collection of fairy tales in 1634, Lo cunto de li cunti (The Story of Stories), or Il Pentamerone. This tells a similar tale of a pregnant woman desiring some parsley from the garden of an ogress, getting caught and having to promise the ogress her baby.

Like many fairy tales of village and forest, the tale of Rapunzel is essentially a village tale, for it is set in motion when a wife, pregnant with a long desired child, gazed from her chamber window into the high walled garden of the sorceress next door, where a bed of rapunzel was flourishing among the wise herb-woman’s finest flowers and herbs.

It is difficult to be certain which plant species the Brothers Grimm meant by the word Rapunzel, but it is probably Campanula rapunculus , known as Rapunzel-Glockenblume in German, and with the common name of Rampion. Some English translations of Rapunzel used the word Rampion. Its roots are extremely tasty and can be used for salad. The tender basal leaves are also edible. It has Blue bell-flowers in summer.

The wife’s husband was convinced by her piteous complaints to scale the wall and garner some rapunzel, but a taste of salad only whetted her craving, and on his second nighttime raid, the husband was confronted by the sorceress herself.

Eating otherworldly food always puts you in the otherworldly power (compare Persephone and the pomegranate seeds, the tale of Circe, and many Celtic legends), and in exchange for as much of the rapunzel as his wife demanded, the husband found himself bound to deliver up the child, when it came into the world. When the wife came to term, the witch duly appeared and took away the girl-child, whom she named Rapunzel.

The sorceress was not truly wicked, so much as blindly old-fashioned. She believed, as many still do, that the virtues of virginity could be combined with utterly ignorant innocence. (Compare Prospero and his daughter Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)

Rapunzel grew into a beautiful child, the most beautiful girl in this particular tale, and was raised in luxurious but protected isolation, cloistered in the manner of aristocratic females in medieval and early modern Europe; peasant girls and tradesmen’s daughters had more independence. When Rapunzel came to be twelve, (and so at the moment of her first flows of puberty) she was locked at the top of a lonely tower deep in the forest, which had neither stairs nor door.

Instead, when the herbal sorceress wished to see her, she stood below in the glade and called:

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.”

Down braid, up witch! she climbed the golden braid of hair.

In a year or two, a Prince was riding in the forest and heard an enchanting song. Drawn by the sound he approached a lonely tower and beheld Rapunzel in her high window, combing her tresses and singing like a melusine. As he watched unseen, the sorceress arrived and called:

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.”

Down braid, up witch!

But seeing the chaste tower was breached by so lovely a scaling ladder, the Prince resolved to try his luck. The next twilight it was he at the base of the tower, calling:

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.”

Down hair, up Prince!

Rapunzel’s reaction at seeing a man was not unlike Miranda’s: “Oh brave new world! that has such people in it!” Nevertheless, before very many further visits Rapunzel conceived a plan to escape by a silken ladder that she would weave, if the prince would only bring a skein of silk at every visit. Alas, just before the silken ladder was ready, Rapunzel na├»vely let the game away, by blurting to the sorceress, “How very slow you are at climing my braid! The King’s son is up in a flash!”

In cultures where women cut their hair when they marry (as still in Islam and among Orthodox Jews today), long hair was an emblem of virginity. In the myth of Lady Godiva, Godivas’s long hair, is an emblem of her chastity. Thus the sorceress grabbed a pair of shears and cut Rapunzel’s tresses. Leaving Rapunzel shamefully cropped, she braided the hair and waited. At evening, the Prince called from below:

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.”

This time, the braid was attached to a window hook, and when the Prince was almost at the window ledge, the sorceress let him fall into a thorn bush that scratched him blind.

Rapunzel was banished to the desert, while the Prince wandered blinded in the wilderness. After many heartaches, Rapunzel recognized a dusty roadworn tramp as the Prince. Her tears of joy and love restored his sight.

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