Tuesday, May 31, 2011

rapunzel is a salad

Among the funny/interesting stats a blog service provides are the word choices that bring readers to your blog. "alice zorn" is obvious. "thousand erasers" more curious. I'm always puzzled by the searches for "rapunzel moral". Is there a moral to the Rapunzel story? Other than the obvious: don't grow long hair or people might want to climb it.
I decided to reread the story to see what I'd missed. My copy of Grimms fairytales is a 1957 German edition. As I've said before, when I was a child, the black pen illustrations scared me more than the stories. Here's the drawing for Rapunzel:

The story begins with a husband and wife who dearly longed to have a child. Finally God fulfilled their wish, aka she became pregnant.
The small window at the back of their house faced a garden filled with flowers and greenery, and surrounded by a high wall. The garden belonged to a sorceress. Of course.
One day the wife looked out the window and noticed a bed of luscious "rapunzel". This translates as lamb's lettuce or corn salad, which doesn't grow in Canada. I've never tasted it.
The wife longed so desperately to eat this rapunzel that she began to waste away. Her husband grew frightened and asked what was wrong. She told him she would die if she couldn't have any rapunzel from the garden behind their house. The good, if gullible husband decided to get some, whatever the cost. He could, for example, have gone to the market. He could have argued that she would not die because she didn't get rapunzel. But gullibility is a common--no doubt necessary--trait in fairy tales.
He waited until dusk to climb the wall and snatch a handful of rapunzel. His wife made a salad she immediately gobbled. It tasted so good that by the next day her yearning had tripled. Again, she threatened to die if she couldn't have rapunzel.
At dusk her husband climbed the wall again, but this time, when he dropped into the garden, the sorceress was waiting. "How dare you climb into my garden to steal my rapunzel?" Terrified, he explained that his wife would die if she couldn't have any rapunzel. He didn't say that she was pregnant, but the sorceress seemed to understand. She told him to take as much rapunzel as he wanted, but once the child was born, they must give it to her. She would care for it like a mother. In his fear, the husband agreed. Not that he seems to have had any choice.
And so it happened. When the wife took to her bed, the sorceress appeared, named the child Rapunzel, and took her away. From here on in, there's no further mention of the husband and wife. Nor rapunzel as a salad.
Rapunzel grew into a beautiful child. When she was twelve years old, the sorceress shut her in a tower deep in a forest. (Is this motherly behaviour? We could do an interesting analysis here.) The tower had no door and no stairs, only a small window at the top. When the sorceress wanted to come up, she called, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
Rapunzel had magnificent hair, fine as spun gold. When she heard the sorceress call, she opened her braids and let them drop twenty yards out the window. As we all know, the sorceress climbed up.
I'm trying to visualize how long twenty yards are. A five-story building? Note, too, that the measurements are in yards, not meters. Germany wasn't metric in the early 1800s when the brothers Grimm were writing. And actually, I should say Hessen, where they lived, since Germany wasn't a nation until 1871.
A few years passed with Rapunzel living isolated in her tower. In her loneliness she sang to herself. One day the king's son was riding through the forest and heard her. Her voice was so lovely that he wanted to climb the tower to get closer. He searched for a door but couldn't find one. When he rode home again, the memory of singing haunted him. He rode into the forest every day to hear it again.
Is he acting like Rapunzel's mother with her lust for rapunzel? Are we supposed to draw a parallel? What is he going to lose in recompense for his appetite for the forbidden?
One day he saw the sorceress arrive and hid behind a tree to watch. He heard how she called for Rapunzel to let down her hair. He decided to try his luck and the next day at dusk he stood at the foot of the tower and called, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
Rapunzel might have sung beautifully but how could she mistake a man's voice for the sorceress? Though I suppose the sorceress could have had a deep voice. In the illustration she's got a few hairs bristling from her chin.
Rapunzel was startled when a man climbed over the windowsill, but as the prince spoke to her in a friendly way and told her how her singing moved him--everyone loves praise, don't they?--she had sex with him.
Okay, that's not how it's written in the story, but on the next page Rapunzel has twins and it's never stated  exactly when God fulfilled that wish.
In the story the prince asked if she would accept him as a husband. Rapunzel saw that he was young and handsome, and decided he would care for her better than the sorceress did.
There's no romance in her rationale. No expression of love. In fact, she's surprisingly opportunistic for someone who's lived isolated from the world.
Rapunzel told the prince to bring a length of silk every time he came so she could braid a ladder.
Note she's the one who comes up with a plan to escape, not him.
The prince came every evening. The sorceress noticed nothing until one day Rapunzel asked why she took so much longer to climb up her hair than the prince did.
What a clumsy plot twist! I don't buy that Rapunzel was so stupid. The sorceress should have noticed some detail--maybe the silk ladder Rapunzel was making. Maybe the prince riding off through the trees.
The sorceress cried, "You godless child! I thought I'd hidden you from the world and now I have to hear how you betrayed me!"
There's room here for some snappy dialogue about towers and motherly behaviour and fidelity, but this is a fairytale. Keep it moving.
The sorceress grabbed Rapunzel by her beautiful hair, hit her a few times--this is pre-Walt Disney--took the  scissors, and "ritsch ratsch" snipped. Then she brought Rapunzel to a desert where she abandoned her to live in suffering and pain.
My problem with this last is that I cannot understand how the sorceress and Rapunzel got out of the tower. Also how the sorceress got back up again to wait for the prince who of course stood at the bottom and called for Rapunzel to let down her hair. The sorceress dropped Rapunzel's braids.
When the prince climbed over the windowsill, she cried, "The pretty bird no longer sits and sings in its nest. The cat snatched it away and now it will scratch out your eyes!" In horror the prince jumped out the window. His fall was broken by thorn trees, which saved his life, but stabbed his eyes.
For years, then, he wandered blind through the woods, eating nothing but roots and berries, lamenting and crying that he'd lost Rapunzel. One day he arrived in the desert where Rapunzel lived in misery with the twins she'd borne him. But she must still have been singing, because he heard her voice and tried to follow it. When she recognized him, she fell about his neck, weeping. Two of her tears dropped into his eyes and cured his blindness. He led her to his kingdom where they were met with great joy and lived for a long time happy and contented. The End.
Now what could be the moral of this story?
Watch out for small windows. There comes temptation.
Yearning satisfied only leads to bigger appetite.
Don't climb walls that don't belong to you.
Motherly love is like being shut away in a tower you have to escape.
Sing beautifully and you will get a husband--or at least babies.
You can become a famous author even if you write clumsy plot twists.


  1. It's certainly a shadowy and mysterious world, Alice. I like your skeptical asides.

  2. Just wanted to add that your version of the story is a later one in the earlier one rapunzel asked the witch why her dresses fit so tight in the middle lately which is how the Witch knew she was pregnant also rapunzel had her hair cut in the tower and tied to something which is how she leaves the tower to her exile in the woods and lastly the witch never left the tower because in her anger she cut the hair free while the prince was still holding himself up with it outside the tower window later the same night there by trapping herself

    1. Where does this earlier version come from? I think I prefer it. Thanks for letting me know.