Making Sense of “Rapunzel”

Posted By Stacey on January 3, 2010

rapunzel4Of all the fairy tales I heard in my childhood, the Grimms’ “Rapunzel” irritated me most. Fairy tales are not known for being logical, but this one, for a modern reader, doesn’t even approach good sense. Why would a father give his child away for salad fixings? Why does the witch insist on climbing the young lady’s hair instead of getting a ladder? Isn’t that painful? And why doesn’t Rapunzel try to escape? Yet was the tale logical at one time? Did its images, of the domineering witch, the maiden with impossible tresses locked away in a tower, carry a different meaning for the people of another period than the literal meaning they depict for the modern audience? Delving deeper into the story behind the story reveals historical, contextual, and literary logic buried in the maiden in the tower tale.

The Rapunzel story most people are familiar with is the Grimms’ version published in the early 1800s (Folk and Fairy Tales 154), but the tale can be traced back to “Petrosinella,” a similar story written by Giambattista Basile in 1634 in The Story of Stories. This earlier version is really more logical than the transmuted version the Grimm brothers set down two hundred years later. In Basile’s version, the pregnant mother herself steals the herbage, in this case parsley, from her neighbor, who is an ogress, not a witch. There is no mention of a father; the mother herself promises to give her baby to the witch. She raises the girl, Petrosinella, until she is seven, when she hands her over to the ogress to fulfill her pledge. The ogress locks her up in a tower with no stairs or doors. The girl is actually unable to escape because the ogress has put a spell over her. In the course of the story, Petrosinella finds out how to break the spell herself, makes a rope ladder with the help of her prince, and the two of them run away together. Rapunzel3

Not only is “Petrosinella” much more plausible than the later “Rapunzel,” but the heroine also takes charge of her own fate. She is not trapped in the tower because she simple-mindedly cannot think of a way to escape. Her escape is prevented by outside forces, which she surmounts basically through her own initiative.

The next version of the tale, “Persinette,” written by Madame de La Force of France in 1697, becomes even more logical. The heroine, Persinette, was placed in the tower to keep her safe from the lustful eyes of men, but she “was raised in luxurious but protected isolation, cloistered in the manner of aristocratic females in medieval and early modern Europe. The sorceress was not truly wicked, so much as blindly old-fashioned. She believed…virginity could be combined with utterly ignorant innocence” (“Rapunzel-Analysis”). Even the circumstances by which Persinette is placed in the power of the witch make more sense. In La Force’s version, the gate of the witch’s garden “stands temptingly open, implying the fairy knows very well what will happen—and may, indeed, have magically caused the [mother’s] craving that sets the tale in motion. Fairies are well known, after all, for their penchant for stealing infants” (Windling 2). Rapunzel2

Yet Persinette still breaks out to pursue true love. La Force emphasizes the free-mindedness of the young woman more strongly than Basile. According to the article “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair” by Terri Windling, the independently-minded French noblewoman championed consensual marriage and the right of a woman to follow her heart. This was in scandalous opposition to the social practices of the time: “Young girls could find themselves married off to men many years their senior…disobedient daughters could be shut away in convents… Little wonder, then, that French fairy tales are filled with girls handed over to various wicked creatures by cruel or feckless parents, or locked up in enchanted towers where only true love can save them” (1). La Force herself was eventually locked up in a convent for her outcry against the practices of the time—and in the convent, she penned her book of fairy tales (2). “Persinette” bears striking similarities.

The Grimms’ “Rapunzel” that eventually emerges is thought to come from a translation of “Persinette” into German by J.C.F. Schulz, for it was he who changed the recurring parsley into rapunzel (Heiner). Thus, some of the logical incongruities may date back to the embellishments La Force made, or to a more socially correct translator’s attempt to soften them. In “Persinette,” the heroine’s trysts with her lover are found out when she begins to show signs of pregnancy. Furious, the fairy hacks off Persinette’s braids, banishes her to a desert place, and hangs the braids out the window to lure the prince into the tower. When he arrives, the fairy hurls him out of the tower into a thorn patch. This is not too irrational, especially considering La Force’s enmity with the social forces the controlling fairy represents.

Presumably the Grimms could not allow any mention of pregnancy in an adaptation meant for children, so Rapunzel is instead found out through what might seem to be her own stupidity. One day she naively says, “‘Tell me, Godmother, how is it that you’re so much harder to pull up than the young prince?’” (Grimm 155). Whereupon the witch cuts off her hair, and so on. Schulz’s translation seems to have added another stumbling block for the modern reader: “[The fairy] doesn’t throw the prince from the tower—he leaps himself, in a fit of despair” (Windling 2); this instead of simply going to search for the girl. But these implausibilities did not exist in the original versions. They are the result of writers and translators mellowing the old story to suit a different purpose. Rather than trying to read meaning into the prince’s irrational despair, the audience can accept that it is a historical flaw brought about by several transmutations. A reader should never mistake an author’s means to an end for literary symbolism.

Yet the story’s most striking oddity cannot be blamed on what was lost in translation: her hair. It is fantastic, obviously exaggerated, a nettling impossibility for anyone trying to make sense of the Rapunzel story. It appears in every abovementioned version of the tale, and there is an overtone in all that Rapunzel’s hair is the source of some pride of ownership for the wicked witch or fairy. In “Petrosinella,” the ogress seizes the girl by the hair when her mother relinquishes her, and drags her off to the tower (Basile). In all the stories, the heroine is trapped in a tower without a door or stairs, and rather than finding some other means of entrance, the witch uses her hair. It is not convenience; she is demonstrating possession. She is Rapunzel’s keeper, the guardian of her virtue, and as her guardian she is the only one allowed to use her hair to enter the tower that both protects and traps her womanhood. The symbolism explains why Rapunzel cannot simply cut off her own hair and use it to climb down and escape. Rapunzel’s hair stands as the symbol of her guardian’s trust: her maidenhood. But as the witch calls day by day, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” her hair becomes, not only the emblem of her womanhood, but the mark of her captivity.

rapunzel1It is also her hair that draws the prince. In “Petrosinella,” the prince sees the heroine’s hair hanging out the window of the tower like a golden banner in the sun, and he falls in love at once. In the Grimms’ “Rapunzel,” the prince sees the witch climbing Rapunzel’s hair. “‘Aha,’ he thought, ‘if that’s the ladder that goes up to her, then I’ll try my luck too’” (Grimm 155). He climbs into the tower by the mechanism only the witch has been able to use, claiming possession of Rapunzel’s sacred trust. By welcoming him into her tower, Rapunzel loses the symbol of her womanhood; the prince breaches the tower, and Rapunzel loses her hair—snip, snip. Exemplifying the age-old rivalry between her guardian and her man, Rapunzel also loses her cloister. The witch banishes her to the desert, casting her out of the walls of guardianship, leaving her exposed to the perils of her own free will.

Yet “Rapunzel” is a cautionary tale to all protective parents. Selfishly, the witch banishes Rapunzel so that if she cannot have her, neither shall the man she chooses. But everything turns out alright for the couple, where the witch is never mentioned again. Rapunzel traded her hair for true love, but in seeking to keep her locked away, the witch lost her daughter figure and gained nothing. While it should not be taken at face value, on a deeper look, “Rapunzel” paints a very expressive picture of a child’s need to make her own decisions, and of a parent’s struggle between the desire to protect her child and the want to see them grow into adult freedom. The story proves that ignorance is no substitute for instilling common sense. Parents should take warning, lest the restricted daughter seek her freedom with the first man who rides by.

Works Cited
Basile, Giambattista. “Petrosinella.” The Pentamerone, or
The Story of Stories.
John Edward Taylor, translator. London: David Bogue, 1850. Tales Similar to Rapunzel. SurLaLune Fairy Tales. 16 March 2009.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Rapunzel.” Folk and Fairy Tales. Ed. Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Broadview Press, 2009.
Heiner, Heidi Anne. “History of Rapunzel.” SurLaLune Fairy Tales. 16 March 2009.
“Rapunzel-Origins.” Global Oneness. 16 March 2009.
“Rapunzel-Analysis.” Global Oneness. 16 March 2009.
Windling, Terri. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair.” Journal of Mythic Arts. Spring 2007: Endicott Studio. 16 March 2009.

  • Share

About The Author



Comments are closed.