“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down thy hair to me.”
Most Westerners are familiar, at least in passing, with this quote from the beloved Grimm’s* fairytale. A lovely girl with absurdly long hair is imprisoned in a tower by an evil enchantress. Her captor comes and leaves the poor girl’s prison by the only means available, by getting her to lower her hair out of the tower when she calls out, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down thy hair to me.” Eventually a prince happens by, does a little eavesdropping, says the famous phrase, and the poor girl let’s down her hair. But that’s far from the entire story.
First of all, Rapunzel hails from the grand fairytale tradition of terrible parents. Now, to be fair, they were a childless couple who wanted children. However, Rapunzel’s mother noticed some rampion, also known as rapunzel, growing in her neighbor’s garden. She wanted it so badly, she told her husband to steal her some for a salad or she would die. Not wanting to be a widower, hubs complied, but she enjoyed her salad so much she bugged him to go steal more. Unfortunately, this time he got caught by their neighbor, the enchantress. She agreed that if they gave her their child, she’d let him go and treat the child kindly like a mother. Obviously, they agreed. So far, the enchantress seems like a better parent. Well, except for the part where she names the kid after a salad.
But then, when her adopted daughter turns out to be an absolutely stunning twelve-year old, she locks the girl in a tower! You know the drill: No doors, no windows, except for the window in the top of the tower. Every day the enchantress visits her and leaves via Rapunzel’s golden locks, which she wraps around a hook and uses to bring the enchantress up and down the tower.
If she was wrapping her hair around a hook, why couldn’t she cut her own hair and lower herself down? She’s twelve when she’s first put in solitary, so it’s understandable that she would be afraid to leave the only mother she’s ever known. But later, why not? Is it fear? Is it vanity? Can’t she find a pair of scissors?
Eventually, the prince does hear Rapunzel singing to herself. Unable to figure out how to get in, he leaves, but he can’t stop thinking about her. He returns, lured by her beautiful song – like Odysseus lured by the sirens. By spying on the exchange between mother and daughter, he learns how to reach his dream girl. When mom – aka Mother Gothel – leaves her darling daughter, the prince calls out, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down thy hair to me.”
Now, by this time she spent quite a bit of time by herself with only her adopted mother to visit her. She’s not tone-deaf, otherwise the prince wouldn’t have been attracted by her song. Somehow though, she doesn’t recognize that it’s not Mother Gothel calling to her. She lets down her hair, the prince climbs up, and she’s frightened. She’s never seen anyone like him, but he talks nicely to her, asks her to marry him, and – noticing how easy on the eyes the prince is – she accepts. But does he rescue her? Ah, nope. They do make plans to escape though. Every night he’s to bring her a skein of silk, so she can weave a ladder for her escape.
Every day Mother Gothel visits, and every night the prince visits. They never meet. Then one day, Rapunzel asks her adopted mother – obviously before the ladder is done (according to Grimm’s), “Tell me, Dame Gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young King’s son–he is with me in a moment.”
Her mother calls her a “wicked child” and rants about how she had separated her from the world but Rapunzel still deceived her. She cuts off her beautiful hair and takes the girl – it’s not specified how – to a desert “to live in great grief and misery.” Yet that same day, Mother Gothel sets a trap for the prince by fastening the hair to the hook and letting him ascend the tower. She tells him that Rapunzel is lost to him, and he leaps from the tower in his grief. It seems that he must have really cared for the girl.
He lives, but lands with thorns in his eyes and is blinded. He wanders around the forest, crying over the loss of his “dearest wife.” Given Rapunzel’s history, you can’t help but wonder how they got married; it’s hard to visualize a vicar climbing her braids to perform the ceremony.
The blind prince roams around for years “in misery”, but eventually he finds Rapunzel once again when he hears her voice. She is living miserably as well – in the desert with her twin children. When she recognizes him, her tears fall into his eyes and cure his blindness. He takes her back to his kingdom where they live for “a long time afterwards, happy and contented.”
However, there other versions of Rapunzel that read a bit differently.
Though the origin of Rapunzel is unknown, the Grimm’s version is remarkably absent of the sexual overtones of the other similar, older tales such as “Petrosinella (yr. 1634)” and “Persinette (yr. 1697).”. Other than the fact that she mysteriously had twins, there are no references to the prince and her having sex. Yet in Petrosinella, the craving of the girl’s mother is due to pregnancy, and after the girl meets the prince, she drugs the “ogress”, and she and the prince make “a little meal out of the parsley sauce of love.”
Persinette’s author, Charlotte-Rose de La Force, was a member of a group that brought adult fairytales into vogue, writing tales of marriages based on love and compassion in a time when daughters were property and marriage was a business arrangement between the parents of the bride and groom. La Force herself fell in love with a man she was forbidden to wed. He was locked away, but she snuck in and they eloped. Her own love story did not have a happy ending though; eventually they were caught and their marriage annulled.
Sigmund Freud isn’t the only psychoanalyst to have something to say about Rapunzel and her ‘tower’. There’s even an psychological illness named Rapunzel syndrome, gastric distress as a result of a hairball in the stomach from eating hair. However, there are less unattractive ways to look at this classic story.
Rapunzel’s birth parents, the prince and Rapunzel herself are punished for indulging in forbidden fruit. Rapunzel’s parents lose their daughter for stealing and indulging in the forbidden salad, while Rapunzel and the prince are punished for premarital sex.** The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales, by Sheldon Cashdan, notes that in earlier versions, the witch is tipped off by Rapunzel’s growing belly – not necessarily by her loose lips. However, in the Grimm’s version, Mother Gothel isn’t all bad. She’s overprotective, sure, by locking the girl up just as she’s hitting puberty, but her motivations are good. It’s worth pointing out that the prince and Rapunzel are punished in the extreme, but they still get their happy ending.
I still wouldn’t recommend Mother Gothel for Mother of the Year though.
Contemporary versions of the tale tend to downplay the grisly bits and attempt to empower Rapunzel herself. In Disney’s Tangled, Rapunzel is a lost princess whose hair has magical powers, and the prince isn’t a prince at all but a rogue who falls in love with her. Cress by Marissa Meyer, book three of the Lunar Chronicles, features a Lunar girl who lives in a satellite and hacks Earth’s surveillance systems. Her prince is a similar rogue character, and despite her extreme isolation, her character grows as she interacts with other people. Even books aimed specifically at young audiences toy with the story. Really, Rapunzel Needed a Haircut! is a picture book telling the fairy tale from Dame Gothel’s point of view, namely her wish to protect Rapunzel. In the script for Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, there isn’t even a tower, just Rapunzel as a modern princess, annoyed by her long hair, who rebels against tradition.
Like so many other fairtytales, once you read between the lines, the subtext is usually more tangled*** than what you would get from an initial reading.
*This links to the translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (published 1812) I read and will refer to throughout the post.
**This idea was based largely on reading this article.
***See what I did there? Sorry, but the temptation was just too great.
****image courtesy of BigFoto.com