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Annotations for Rapunzel
 

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Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair
by Terri Windling

Rapunzel: a comparison of the versions of 1812 and 1857 by D. L. Ashliman



FAQ

I am frequently asked to identify the following story: Cursed by an evil fairy at her christening, Princess Melisande grows up bald but finds herself facing another set of problems when her wish for golden hair is fulfilled. The story is "Melisande" by E. Nesbit. The text of the story is available on SurLaLune at
Melisande.

Melisande by E. Nesbit
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The annotations for the Rapunzel fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Rapunzel Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Rapunzel to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

I have included the Grimms' notes to the tale as translated by Margaret Hunt followed by SurLaLune's textual annotations.


The Grimms' Notes For the Tale

Fr. Schulz tells this story in his Kleine Romanen (Leipzig, 1790), 5, 269-88, only too diffusely, though undoubtedly from oral tradition. It begins in the following manner: A witch has a young girl with her, to whom she entrusts all her keys, but forbids her to enter one room. When, however, impelled by curiosity, she does enter it, she sees the witch sitting in it with two great horns. The girl is now placed, as a punishment, in a high tower which has no door. When the witch brings her food, the girl has to let down from the window her hair, which is twenty yards in length, and by this, the witch ascends. In these stories it frequently occurs that the father, or more usually the mother, in order to gratify a momentary desire, pledges away her coming child. It is often asked for and given, in veiled or mysterious terms; for instance, the mother is to give what she carries beneath her girdle. In the old Norse Alfskongssage a similar incident is to be found, (chap. i). Othin grants Signy's wish that she may brew the best beer, in return for which she promises him what is between her and the beer-barrel, namely, the child which she is about to bear. Compare the Sagabibliothek of P. B. Muller, ii. 449. In the Danish Volkeslieder, for instance, that of the Wilder Nachtraben, there are promises of the same kind. Salebad, Firdusi (Schack, p. 191) mounts up by the braids of the maiden's hair which she lets down. In Busching's Volkssagen, p. 287, a story begins with some incidents in common with ours. In the Pentamerone it is Petrosinella, ii. 1.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.


SurLaLune's Annotations

1.  High wall:  Note the theme of tall structures in this story. One is a high wall intended to guard the rapunzel plant. The other is the high tower in which Rapunzel is kept hidden to keep her safe from strangers, namely anyone but her guardian, Mother Gothel.
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2.  Witch:  The witch is the only character besides Rapunzel to have a name in some versions of the story, usually Mother Gothel. According to Maria Tatar, Mother Gothel is a generic term in Germany, usually used to designate a godmother (Tatar 2002).

Belief in witches exists in nearly every culture worldwide (Leach 1949). In many, the witch is a personification of evil. In Jungian psychology, the witch symbolizes the destructive power of the unconscious (Luthi 1976).

The Grimms originally described the witch as a "fairy"and then an "enchantress." Many translations of the tale into English choose the term "witch" (Tatar 2002).
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3.  Window:  Note that Rapunzel's mother is watching from a high window during her pregnant confinement which leads to her distress. Rapunzel will later be confined to a room and have access to a high window as her only access to the outside world.
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4.  Rampion:  Rampion is a leafy plant in the same group as spinach and lettuce.

Rampion is an autogamous plant. If it is not fertilized with the help of insects, it can split a column within the plant to fertilize itself. The split column will "curl like braids or coils on a maiden's head, and this will bring the female stigmatic tissue into contact with the male pollen on the exterior surface of the column" (Thompson 1989).
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5. Longed to eat them:  It would not be unusual for a woman in pregnancy to crave fresh foods like rampion that contain the vitamins and nutrients her body needs.

In the past, members of many peasant societies believed it was necessary to fulfill the cravings of a pregnant woman. If they weren't fulfilled, bad luck might occur or even a miscarriage (Zipes 2001).
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6.  I know I shall die:  Although her cravings are natural and understandable, the woman's behavior is selfish and spoiled. She is not willing to satisfy her urges through other means. She is endangering her health and the health of her unborn child with her behavior. She is unwilling to eat anything else to nourish herself in her pregnancy. She cares more about getting what she cannot have than she does about the well-being of her child.
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7.  Man:  In an earlier Italian version of Rapunzel, the mother is responsible for stealing parsley for herself during her pregnancy. See Giambattista Basile's Petrosinella.
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8.  No matter the cost: Little does the father imagine, although the foreshadowing is apparent, the price he will pay for the rampion: his child.
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9. Forbidden food was greater than ever:   The husband, fearful for his wife and unborn child, is eager to do anything for them. He becomes a thief to satisfy his wife's demands. Unfortunately the woman is not satisfied with her husband's efforts. For once, the actual food is just as good as she imagined it would be. This creates more problems for her long-suffering husband as she demands more rampion.
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10.  Old witch:  In some modern interpretations of the tale, the witch has planted the garden with the intention of gaining a child from unwitting parents. For example, Donna Jo Napoli's novel, Zel, explains the witch's endeavors to acquire a child of her own.
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11.  Give me the child:  Unborn children are often required as payment for services in tales, such as in Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. Unlike Rumpelstiltskin, in this tale the debt will be paid as punishment for the birth mother's selfish behavior. Although she is almost grown, Beauty in Beauty and the Beast is also bartered away by her father in return for his own life.

A child-stealing witch is a common motif in many cultures. Some tales involve witches or demons waiting around pregnant women, waiting to steal a newborn at birth (Tatar 2002).
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12.  Like a mother: In modern terms, the witch is Rapunzel's mother by adoption, taken from her birth parents before she can remember them.  
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13.  In his terror agreed:  The man at this point has few choices and wants to protect himself and his wife. Perhaps his ability to barter child can also be slightly explained since he has not met the child and cannot imagine the child living. He has not created a personal bond with the baby yet.
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14.  Rapunzel:  Rapunzel is another name for rampion and is thus a suitable name for the child. The name is ironical.
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15.  The most beautiful child:  As in most romantic fairy tales, the heroine is physically beautiful. Beauty often represents goodness, worthiness, privilege, and wealth in fairy tales. Princesses are especially expected to be beautiful. Physical beauty is often considered to represent inner beauty in folklore. Hyperbole is frequently used to describe beauty in fairy tales. Each beautiful woman has "no equal" or is "the most beautiful" or similar.
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16.  Twelve years old:  This age is commonly the age when puberty begins and many parents begin to fear for their daughters' well-being and safety. Menustration begins and emotional and sexual urges become a strong force in a young woman's growth. The witch knows that her adopted daughter is no longer a child, but a young women preparing to enter the adult world.
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17.  Shut her up in a tower:  Trying to delay the inevitable life cycle of adulthood and parental separation, the witch locks Rapunzel up in the tower in an attempt to stifle her increasing maturity and protect her from sexual predators.

Many scholars have noted the phallic symbolism provided by the tower. Rapunzel is essentially locked up in a large phallus which in itself shows the futility of the witch's attempts to squash Rapunzel's ripening sexuality.

Some scholars believe the Maiden in the Tower stories have their roots in the story of Saint Barbara. Saint Barbara was locked in a tower by her father when she disobeys him and refuses marriage offers from eligible suitors. You can read more about Barbara on the following webpage:
http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintb01.htm
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18.  The middle of a great wood:  As with many of the German tales from the Grimms, a forest plays a role in the story. The woods in this tale present a natural barrier between Rapunzel and the rest of humanity, presenting another barricade between Rapunzel and her ripening maturity.
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19.  Neither stairs nor doors:  A tall structure without stairs nor doors is eerie and unnatural in its construction, not apparently intended for human habitation.
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20.  A small window:  Once again we have a woman looking out into the world from a small world. Another well-known figure in a tower with a window is the Lady of Shalott from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson based on Arthurian legends.
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21.  Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your golden hair:  This well-known refrain is still recognized in modern popular culture.

By coincidence and with a touch of irony, the phrase "let down your hair" is defined as dropping one's reserve or inhibitions. Rapunzel is sheltered by her guardian in a tower in hopes of preserving her reserve and inhibitions, but still asks her to "let down her hair."
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22.  Long hair:  The name Rapunzel has become equivalent with long hair in cultures familiar with the tale.
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23.  Spun gold:  Rapunzel has golden hair in most variants of the story around the world whether or not blonde hair is a common color in the tale's culture. Tom Davenport's film version of the tale is one of the few to use a dark haired Rapunzel.

Golden hair has magical qualities in some cultures while it also represents the illuminated beauty of those it graces. Blonde hair often symbolizes ethical goodness as well as aesthethic appeal (Tatar 2002).

Gold represents virtue, intelligence, superiority, heaven, worldly wealth, idolatry, revealed truth, marriage, and fruitfulness (Olderr 1986).
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24.  Plaits:  Plaits, also known as braids, can be created in various styles. The most common interweaves three sections of hair into a thicker, stronger rope of hair. Plaiting is also used for creating rope out of various materials, albeit not usually human hair.
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25.  Twenty yards:  Twenty yards is the equivalent of 60 feet or 18.29 meters. This height equals about five to six stories in an average building. Sixty feet is roughly twelve times Rapunzel's height based on average height statistics for twelve-year-old girls by the National Center for Health Statistics (USA).

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world record holder for long hair belongs to Hoo Saetow. "On November 21, 1997, Hoo Sateow's lengthy locks were unraveled and officially measured at a hair-raising 5.15 m (16 ft 11 in) long" (Guinness World Records 2003).
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26.  A few years:  Since Rapunzel is imprisoned at age 12, the passage of a few years is marked to insure her sexual growth and maturity when the prince arrives.
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27.  Prince:  The fact that Rapunzel's suitor is a prince adds romance to the tale. The prince doesn't have a name in the traditional versions of the tale, although various modern interpretations have provided names. Donna Jo Napoli names the prince Konrad in her novel, Zel.
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28.  Singing:   Singing is one of the few talents accorded to Rapunzel besides her physical beauty. Before the age of recorded sound, entertaining live music often required the presence of a beautiful voice. Singing was a normal part of an evening's entertainment. People with beautiful singing voices are usually held in high esteem.
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29.  Returned every day:  The prince's romantic devotion to Rapunzel is apparent in his daily return to hear her sing even before he meets her. 
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30.  Prince climbed up:  Ultimately, the witch has created her own downfall by giving Rapuznel the means and teaching her how to bring anyone into her tower.
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31.  Terribly frightened:  Considering she hasn't seen another human being besides the witch in years, if not her entire memory, Rapunzel is understandably frightened by the appearance of a strange man in her tower.
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32.  Kindly: Not surprisingly, Rapunzel is wooed out of her terror by kindness.
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33.  He asked her to marry him:  On one level, this story is entirely about procreation and life cycles. The tale begins with one couple, man and wife, and ends by bringing another couple together to marry and have more children. In earlier versions of the tale, the prince doesn't always ask for Rapunzel's hand in marriage although a sexual relationship is implied when Rapunzel gives birth to twins near the end of the story.
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34.  Consented at once:  Rapunzel's rapid acceptance of the marriage proposal is curious. Is she in love? Does she return the prince's passion? Or is she simply eager to escape her prison by any means possible?
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35.  The old witch:   Youth wins out over age in this tale as Rapunzel chooses the "young and handsome" prince, a complete stranger, over the "old witch," the only nurturing character she has ever known.
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36.  I will climb down by it:  Some readers are frustrated with Rapunzel's plan to escape. The plan will take days, if not weeks, and allows more room for error or exposure. The most immediate solution would be to cut off her own hair but this is not considered.

In some modern interpretations, such as Napoli's Zel, the hair is enchanted and cannot be cut as a rational explanation for not using this method of escape. In Emma Donoghue's short story, "The Tale of the Hair," Rapunzel does cut her hair and uses it to escape from the tower.
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37.  Not thinking:  At this point in the story, the German Rapunzel tale diverges completely from the earlier Italian Petrosinella. Petrosinella engineers her own successful escape with her prince from the witch, despite the betrayal of her plans by a third party. Rapunzel, on the other hand, unwittingly betrays herself and suffers serious consequences, including exile and the loss of her prince.
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38.  How is it, good mother, that you are so much harder to pull up than the young Prince?:  In earlier versions of the story, before the Grimms' edits, Rapunzel instead asks in innocence, "Why is my dress getting tighter around my middle?" She is pregnant and ignorant as to the results of her encounters with the prince thanks to the sheltered life she has led.
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39.  Wicked child:  There is heavy irony in these words. Rapunzel is no longer a child and not naturally wicked. She has only been overprotected and sheltered, and thus rendered incapable of making wise decisions in adult matters.
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40.  Hidden you safely from the world:  The tale works as a cautionary tale to parents. Children will grow up and cannot be safely sheltered from the world forever. They will find a means to escape one way or another.
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41.  Deceived me:  Considering her naivete in the Grimms' version of the tale, it is amazing Rapunzel was able to deceive the witch for as long as she did.
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42.  Left hand:  The left hand is the less favored hand, the "sinister" hand. To be on the left hand of God is to be less favored, a sinner. Rapunzel is handled by the left hand, not the right. The description of the witch's hands portrays her as right-handed since she cuts with her right hand.
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43.  Lonely desert place:  Rapunzel is exiled to a desert land, a place essentially the exact opposite from the lush forest which she has known as home all her life. She has been completely banished from her home and the familiar in her life.
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44.  Loneliness and misery:  In the earlier versions of the tale, Rapunzel gives birth to twins during her exile.
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45.  Evil:  The witch is not portrayed as evil in all versions of the tale, although she always loses Rapunzel through her betrayal.
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46.  Pretty bird:  The image of Rapunzel as young and vapid, birdlike, is continued in this metaphor.
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47.  Cat:  The witch becomes the cunning and vicious animal, easily the master of the birdlike Rapunzel, in the continuation of this metaphor.
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48.  Jumped:  The prince jumps from the tower--he is not pushed--in his attempts to escape the witch's wrath. He remains an active, not passive, character.
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49.  Pierced his eyes out:  The loss of sight is a horrible punishment, considerably worse than Rapunzel's exile. The prince receives a worse punishment perhaps as the instigator of the transgression and possessor of more worldly knowledge.
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50.  Lovely bride:  In the translations of the Grimms' tale which include the birth of the twins, Rapunzel is referred to as a wife to imply her children are not illegitimate.
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51.  Some years:  The exile and punishment is not short. It lasts years and increases the pathos of the story.
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52.  Her tears touched his eyes:  Since their union is natural and part of the life cycle, Rapunzel and her prince are not permanently punished for their transgressions. They are reunited to continue their marital relationship and parent the next generation.
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53.  Saw:  The prince's sight is restored so he can behold his bride and return to the business of inheriting a kingdom without the handicap he has born for the past few years.
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54.  Lived happily ever after:  The expected and perfect ending to a romantic fairy tale. It is as familiar and comforting as the opening, "Once upon a time..."
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