“There once lived a man and his wife who had long wished for a child, but in vain.”
Why is promising away a child such a big theme in fairy tales? I’m not sure why I’ve never thought of this question before. Young human life is such a commodity to the witches, hags, elves, and other fantastical figures, as well as to some parents, who undervalue their children when making promises and deals with said fantastical beings.
Such is the case in Rapunzel. This tale starts out with “a man and his wife who had long wished for a child, but in vain.” Behind their house there was a high wall which surrounded a grand garden that “belonged to a witch of great might, and of whom all the world was afraid.” Well, except this couple apparently (I will warn you, if plot holes like this, and worse, and faster-than-instant-love fairy tale relationships make you cringe, Rapunzel is not for you).
“One day when the wife was standing at the window, and looking into the garden, she saw a bed filled with the finest rampion; and it looked so fresh and green that she began to wish for some; and at length she longed for it greatly.” She pines and pines after it, admitting to her husband that she will die if she goes any longer without it. Because his love for her outweighed his fear for the witch, he sneaks into the garden and picks some rampion for his wife. If she had been content, the story of Rapunzel may have been very different.
But alas, eating the rampion only makes her want more, so again the husband sneaks back over to the garden to pick some. Except this time, the witch catches him. He explains the situation, to which she replies: “’If it is all as you say, you may have as much rampion as you like, on one condition—the child that will come into the world must be given to me. It should go well with the child, and I will care for it like a mother.’”
This last sentence of dialogue is a little confusing to me. At first I thought the initial “It” was talking about the rampion—as in the rampion would go well with the child. But then I believed “it” refers to the pregnancy and birth—as in the pregnancy and birth will go well. I still think the sentence refers to that, but after finishing the fairy tale, I also think it pertains to the child’s long-term future, too.
“In his distress of mind the man promised everything; and when the time came when the child was born the witch appeared, and, giving the child the name of Rapunzel (which is the same as rampion), she took it away with her.”
First, Rapunzel isn’t actually another name for rampion. However, Rapunzel is a pretty good alteration of the scientific name of this bellflower plant: Campanula rapunculus. The plant has also been speculated to promote a clear complexion, which is supported by the next events of the tale.
It’s not until Rapunzel is twelve years old that the witch puts her in the infamous tower. It seems that the reason for this was because “Rapunzel was the most beautiful child in the world.” Which doesn’t really explain the witch’s reasoning, but it can be inferred that the witch was either jealous or was harboring Rapunzel like a precious gem. Terrible on both accounts, of course. Then comes the infamous chant: “‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!'”
The tale says that this imprisonment lasts for a few years until one day a King’s son takes a ride through the forest near the tower. He hears Rapunzel’s sweet voice singing (she sings to pass the time) – or a sweet voice singing, since he does not yet know who it belongs to – and returns every day to hear it. One day, he watches and listens to the witch go up to the tower, call for Rapunzel, and sees Rapunzel’s long tresses fall from the window at the top of the tower. At dusk the following day, the King’s son goes to the tower and shouts “‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!'” Rapunzel, apparently unable to distinguish the witch’s voice from the King’s son’s voice, lets her hair down and he climbs up.
From then on, the story speeds up and shocks as much as the first part lingered and eased.
Rapunzel was greatly terrified when she saw that a man had come in to her, for she had never seen one before; but the King’s son began speaking so kindly to her, and told how her singing had entered into his heart, so that he could have no peace until he had seen her herself. Then Rapunzel forgot her terror, and when he asked her to take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and beautiful, she thought to herself, “I certainly like him much better than old mother Gothel,” and she put her hand into his hand, saying, “I would willingly go with you, but I do not know how I shall get out. When you come, bring each time a silken rope, and I will make a ladder, and when it is quite ready I will get down by it out of the tower, and you shall take me away on your horse.”
They agreed that he should come to her every evening, as the old woman came in the day-time. So the witch knew nothing of all this until once Rapunzel said to her unwittingly, “Mother Gothel, how is it that you climb up here so slowly, and the King’s son is with me in a moment?”
Ah, the magic of fairy tales: instant love/lust/convenient connections and the inevitable, easily-avoidable mishaps. Those things aside, this is the first time the witch, or Mother Gothel, is named. Mother Gothel is said to be a term for “godmother” in Germany,* so this interpretation of a godmother is certainly a dark one.
Okay, at this point in my analysis of Rapunzel, I started thinking about the godmother present in modern (Disney) interpretations of Cinderella. I have added my thoughts about that in my Cinderella post, which, if you’re interested, you can read here.
Since Rapunzel carelessly told Mother Gothel about the King’s son, Mother Gothel slaps Rapunzel a few times, cuts off her hair, then somehow transports Rapunzel to “a waste and desert place, where she lived in great woe and misery.” Getting Rapunzel and herself out of the tower with Rapunzel’s hair is not explained, naturally.
The witch/Gothel then waits for the King’s son to return, which he does, and she let down Rapunzel’s now-detached hair for him. When he clambers into the tower, he is confronted by the witch:
“Aha!” cried she, mocking him, “you came for your darling, but the sweet bird sits no longer in the nest, and sings no more; the cat has got her, and will scratch out your eyes as well! Rapunzel is lost to you; you will see her no more.”
The King’s son, so overcome with grief, jumps from the tower before the witch can get to him, and although he survives, the thorns he lands on scratch his eyes and turn him blind. He then wanders for years until he reaches the desert where our dear Rapunzel was abandoned. And surprise! She has given birth to twins – a boy and girl. The King’s son is led to her because she is singing, and once Rapunzel recognizes him, she starts to cry with joy. The tears fall into the King’s son’s eyes, and make them clearer and clearer until he regains his vision. They return to his kingdom and live happily ever after.
So, this ending. And by that I mean: children? Their existence proves that Rapunzel and the King’s son traditionally consummated their marriage in the tower, and although their entrance into this tale seems abrupt and unnecessary, it really isn’t. This story starts with Rapunzel’s parents struggling to have a child. The rampion is what helps fill that missing part in their lives – the rampion planted and grown by a witch. Is it too much of a stretch to believe that the natural, presumably magical properties of that plant is what gave Rapunzel her beauty, and perhaps her potential to conceive?
And since I love analyzing a true villain, I’m daring to wonder if somehow the witch’s existence and choices led to this particular happily ever after. I keep returning to the witch’s promise at the beginning: “’If it is all as you say, you may have as much rampion as you like, on one condition—the child that will come into the world must be given to me. It should go well with the child, and I will care for it like a mother.’” It’s definitely arguable that it did not go well with the child (imprisonment, brought to a desert to live out the rest of her days alone), and that the witch did not care for the child like an “ideal” mother (non-imprisonment, healthy love and communication, support); but the witch does not approve of strange men visiting Rapunzel in her tower (protection, although severe and terrible in its nature), and ultimately Rapunzel gives birth to two children and falls in love to live happily ever after, so it cannot be denied that things did not go well with her in the end.
Now I will admit that my arm hurts from all that reaching, but I’ve certainly begun to think about the themes in this story – as they are present in others – in a more multiple-sided way. Sort of up to this point, I’ve been coming at these more well-known fairy tales with my modern adaptation biases, but I think I am finally crossing the territory into initially looking at these fairy tales as they are in the Grimm form, in this edition of their Complete Fairy Tales. This means I am not overlooking as many details and can make these posts more about what I want them to be: raw discussion, analysis, impressions; rather than what I’ve felt like most have been: ways the fairy tale is changed for pop culture.
- ATU classification – 310: Supernatural Adversaries (TALES OF MAGIC, Supernatural or Enchanted Wife/Husband or Other Relative)
- *I’m hesitant to call this solid evidence, because I myself am currently unable to verify the sources. But I do believe these resources are reliable, so here is one testament to the interpretation of Mother Brothel, and here is the other.
- University of Pittsburgh did a side by side comparison of the 1812 and 1857 versions of Grimm’s Rapunzel. One of the notable differences has to do with the sorceress: in the 1857 version (the one I read) she’s far more sinister. You can read both texts and the rest of the analysis here.
- Learn more about rampion, or Campanula rapunculus here.