Rapunzel has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and like most people the version I’m most familiar with comes from the brothers Grimm. Rather than take up an entire post with the synopsis, you can go HERE to read this version if you’re unfamiliar with it.
The origin of the tale is thought to go back as far as the early years of Christianity in 3rd Century Asia Minor with the legend of Saint Barbara. Barbara was the beautiful daughter of a pagan merchant. Afraid that she might become attracted to an unworthy suitor, he locked her in a tower away from the outside world.
While her father was away on an extended trip, Barbara converted to Christianity. This enraged him so much he took her before the Roman pro-consul. The judge ordered that the girl be tortured until she denounced her beliefs. When Barbara refused to recant, the judge ordered her to be beheaded – a sentence which was carried out by her father. Afterwards, he was struck by lightening and consumed by fire. Revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Barbara is now the patron saint of firefighters, artillerymen and anyone who is in danger of sudden death.
The first literary traces of the tale come from Italy, with Giambattista Basile's “Petrosinella” (1637), the name derived from “petrosine” for parsley. This tells a tale of a pregnant woman desiring some parsley from the garden of an ogress, getting caught, and having to promise the ogress her baby.
“Petrosinella” contains many of the elements of today’s Rapunzel -- the mother forced to give up her daughter, the maiden with the long hair, and the handsome prince. The main difference is that the maiden and the Prince spend many nights together before they are caught and suffer little after escaping. They use magic acorns to stay ahead of the ogress and she is finally devoured by a wolf.
Sixty years later in 1697, a French version, by Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force, appeared. Her story is "Persinette", taken from “persille” which again means parsley. In this version it is a fairy who raises the girl after taking her from her mother. The fairy punishes Persinette and her Prince after discovering that the young woman is pregnant with twins. Persinette is banished to the wilderness and the prince’s eyes are pierced by thorns. Even after the couple and their children are reunited the fairy punishes them until she is finally moved by their love and forgives them.
The Grimms’ first version, in 1812, almost completely follows the earlier plots. The enchantress who keeps Rapunzel in the tower was initially a fairy, however the Grimms often edited fairies out of their stories, because they considered them to be too French. In this version, Rapunzel wonders why her clothes are getting tight alluding that her daily meetings with the prince in the tower have resulted in pregnancy.
At first the Grimms believed their folk tales would only be of interest to scholars, but soon they realized they had a large readership among children and their parents. In later versions of the story they made the sexual references more ambiguous and by the last edition (1857) had eliminated them altogether. Instead they created a chaste young woman who was referred to as the “wife” of the prince to rule out any suspicion that the children (who seemed to magically appear) were born out of wedlock.
The themes of Rapunzel's story are universal and timeless. Who hasn’t craved something that comes at too high a price, or felt imprisoned by someone else’s demands? We’ve all been swept away by love only to end up lost and broken, desperately hoping for that happy ending to our suffering. The story may be even more significant for anyone given up by a birth parent or raised by controlling, over-protective parents.
No matter which version you choose, from Saint Barbara to the Grimms, the story of Rapunzel is more than just that of another passive princess waiting for her prince to come. Initially the story is about a young woman whose life is completely controlled by the adults around her, but when she disobeys she is able to choose her own fate. Rapunzel tells us we can’t stay in our towers forever. We must either weave ourselves a ladder or leap into the thorns. Childhood must be left behind; the adult world is just beyond that forest.