The curious meaning of a classic story – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
One central feature of the story of ‘Rapunzel’ is well-known: the beautiful blonde woman, imprisoned in a tower, who lets down her long hair for her lover. But what does the story of ‘Rapunzel’ mean? And how does the meaning of the very name ‘Rapunzel’ offer a clue? In this post, the latest in our occasional series discussing the meanings and origins of classic fairy stories, we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘Rapunzel’. Although the version told by the Brothers Grimm was first published in 1812, it was based on a seventeenth-century story, and the actual tale may be older still. It’s still with us: the 2010 Disney film Tangled is based on the Rapunzel story.
First, a quick summary of the plot of ‘Rapunzel’. A married couple are childless, but long for a child. They live in a house which overlooks a beautiful garden in which rampion (a wildflower which used to be grown as an edible vegetable) grows in abundance. However, the man and his wife are not allowed to go into the garden, which belongs to a wicked witch. One day, however, the wife is overcome by her desire for some rampion, so her husband sneaks into the garden and steals some, which his wife eagerly eats. The husband goes to fetch some more, but is caught red-handed by the witch, who threatens to punish him. The husband pleads for mercy, so the witch says that if he promises to give his first-born child to her, she will let them eat as much rampion from her garden as they wish. The husband reluctantly agrees. One day, the married couple become parents, and the witch shows up and takes the child, in keeping with their agreement. The witch calls the child Rapunzel (an alternative name for rampion), and locks away the girl in a tower in the forest. The tower has no door and only a window at the top; whenever the witch wishes to enter the tower, she stands at the bottom and says, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!’ Rapunzel then lets her long golden hair fall out of the window and down to the ground, acting as a ‘ladder’ which the witch can use to climb up into the tower.
A few years later, a prince is riding through the forest when he hears Rapunzel singing a beautiful song, to help her pass the time all along in her prison. He tries to find the door into the tower, but obviously has no luck, so he rides off. But Rapunzel’s sweet song is so enchanting that he keeps returning to the forest every day to hear it. One day, he spies the witch shouting, ‘O, Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!’ and realises that this is how he can climb the tower and meet the singer of those beautiful songs. So the next day he returns, shouts up at the tower, ‘O, Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!’, and sure enough, Rapunzel lets down her hair. He climbs up it and enters the tower. Rapunzel is shocked to find that it’s a man (she’s never seen one before) rather than the witch, whose name is Gothel. But the prince is handsome and when he asks her to marry him, she agrees. She also hatches her escape plan: every time the prince comes he should bring a silken rope, and she will fashion a long ladder which she can use to climb down from her prison. So, every evening the prince visits her, each time bringing a bit of rope.
But one day, Rapunzel lets slip about the prince coming to visit her, when she asks the witch why it takes her so long to climb up her hair when the king’s son is so fast. The witch, realising that Rapunzel has been found by someone else, cuts off the girl’s long golden hair in spite, and banishes her into the wilderness. When the prince comes to the tower that evening, and says, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!’, the witch throws down Rapunzel’s severed locks and the prince duly climbs up into the tower – only to be met by the ugly witch rather than his beautiful bride-to-be. Seeing that his beloved has been taken from him, the prince hurls himself from the tower in his grief. He survives the fall, but lands on some thorns which blind him. He then wanders the land blindly until one day, he comes across the place where Rapunzel, now a mother to twin children she conceived with the prince during one of their evening trysts, is living. She weeps to see her lover without eyes, but when her tears fall on his face, his sight is magically restored. He takes Rapunzel and their children to his kingdom, where they proceeded to live happily ever after, as is often the way with these things.
The story of ‘Rapunzel’ is among the most famous fairy tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm. Yet the version we’ve summarised above is very much the child-friendly version which the Brothers Grimm published in 1857, rather than the original 1812, although even the sanitised version contains signs of the more adult content contained in the original tale. (In the original version, the witch discovers Rapunzel’s nightly trysts with the prince when she notices that Rapunzel has fallen pregnant.) Even if we buy the Grimms’ reference to Rapunzel as the prince’s ‘wife’ in the bowdlerised version, and assume that they got married while she was still imprisoned in the tower, it probably wasn’t very wise to fall pregnant while trapped in a tower. For another, the mother’s craving for rampion (or ‘rapunzel’) in the witch’s garden is ripe with sexual symbolism, suggesting a woman who is unable to control her lustful desires: her ‘appetite’ for the stuff leads her to nag her husband into agreeing to trespass into the forbidden garden, in a none-too-subtle echo of the Adam and Eve story (it’s all there: the garden, the man and woman, the forbidden zone, the inexplicable hankering for fresh produce), and it is this inability to control her desires that leads to her husband agreeing to forfeit their as-yet-unborn child to an evil witch. It appears to have been considered unlucky to deny a pregnant woman any food that she craved, so if the mother of Rapunzel is already pregnant when she develops her taste for the forbidden rampion, one can understand the husband’s readiness to commit burglary in order to secure some of the food for his wife.
Everyone ends up punished for their lust: not just Rapunzel’s mother and father, but Rapunzel herself (who loses her beautiful hair and finds herself a single mother with twins to look after in a barren wasteland) and the prince (whose eyes had lusted after Rapunzel, so he ends up losing them for his trouble; Sigmund Freud would no doubt say that this blinding, like Rochester’s in Jane Eyre, is a form of symbolic castration). The only cure for Rapunzel and her beau is contrition and repentance, which comes in the form of her tears, which then restore his sight to him. Everyone learns a valuable lesson – one supposes.
As with another Grimm fairy story, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, which we’ve analysed and discussed here, Rapunzel’s story has striking similarities to other tales from around the world: in the 10th-century Persian tale of Rudāba, included in Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, Rudāba is in a tower and offers to let down her hair so her lover Zāl can climb up to her. There are also parallels with the story of Saint Barbara, whose father imprisoned her in a tower according to one account. What makes the story so memorable is its embodiment of many of the motifs and features we most commonly associate with fairy tales: the damsel in distress, the wicked witch or evil stepmother, the handsome prince, the child being given up in a weird bargain. Yet many of its features are surprising ones to find in children’s fairy tales, and raise questions about how far back in our cultural ancestry, and our development of the notion of ‘the child’, the story of ‘Rapunzel’ actually has its roots.
Continue to explore the world of fairy tales with these classic Victorian fairy stories, the history behind the ‘Puss in Boots’ fairy tale, the story of the frog prince, and the origins of Beauty and the Beast.
Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Johnny Gruelle illustration of Rapunzel from Project Gutenberg (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.