Rapunzel is the character and the title of a story collected by the Brothers Grimm for their 1812 work Children’s and Household Tales. It is a classic fairytale of what is believed to be German origin, though there are some other European folks tales that bear some resemblance to Rapunzel. Like many fairytales, it features plenty of excitement and some cautionary notes.
The basic plot of this story is that a childless couple finally is blessed by the wife becoming pregnant. During her pregnancy the wife craves lettuce (rampion, cabbage or sometimes a Rapunzel-plant) growing in the next-door neighbor’s garden. Unfortunately the next-door neighbor is a witch who catches the husband on his nightly run to obtain this food for his wife, and only agrees to let him go if he will promise to surrender his child after it is born.
The baby is given over to the witch who calls the girl Rapunzel. When the girl is in her early teens, the witch becomes incredibly jealous of her attention and locks her up in a tower. The only way the witch can gain access to this tower is by asking Rapunzel to lower her thick golden hair down to use as a ladder.
Enter the prince, who hears the witch, and calls to Rapunzel to let down her hair. The two fall in love. The witch unfortunately discovers this, and cuts Rapunzel’s hair off, setting a trap for the prince. Thinking he’s joining his fair love, the prince instead is dismayed by the witch, and leaps down from the high tower, blinding himself on thorn bushes below.
In some versions, Rapunzel has been exiled to the forest and bears two children. She eventually is able to find her prince and rescue him. Her kiss or sometimes her tears heal him completely and the two live together happily in the prince’s kingdom.
There are quite a few elements to interpret in this fairy tale. Pregnancy cravings may be viewed as a potentially dangerous thing, though there’s some suggestion that German folk medicine and wisdom supported making sure pregnant women got whatever they desired. There is also the classic element of the prince needing to win his fair lady, but in this case an interesting turn of events takes place. It’s Rapunzel who saves the prince, and not the other way around.
People are often surprised by how vicious, violent, and explicit many fairytales are, and this one is no exception. Rapunzel conceives a child out of wedlock, and the prince’s fate is truly horrible. There’s some anxiety expressed in how you control teenagers and also a common theme of having to abandon children, which may be connected to high infant mortality rates. Cleaned up versions of the story are often available in children’s books, but reading the original version, at least as presented by the Grimms, can really make you aware of the complexity of fairy tales from long ago.