At first glance, most famous fairy tales seem so implausible and irrelevant to contemporary life that their survival is hard to understand. The story of “Rapunzel” involves a heroine with hair at least twenty feet long, and “Hansel and Gretel” asks us to believe that two children abandoned by their parents in the forest will find a house made of gingerbread. But these and other tales live on because they are dramatic metaphors of real life. “Hansel and Gretel,” for instance, represents the two greatest fears of children—that they will be abandoned and that they will be imprisoned. Many adults, if they think back, will remember one or both of these fears, though usually in a less extreme version. We occasionally felt neglected, disregarded, unsupported—unloved. Or we felt overprotected, overindulged, intruded upon—loved, but in a very possessive, almost scary way.
The wicked stepmother who has no food for her children and the wicked witch whose house is made of cake and candy are dramatic, exaggerated images of two kinds of bad parent. They reappear symbolically in real life every Halloween, when the traditional warning “Never take candy from a stranger” is revoked: when we send our own children out into a dark world to forage for sweets, and stay home to give handfuls of candy to kids we don’t know.
Different features of a fairy tale may be centrally important to different readers. When I taught children’s literature I discovered that for two of my students “Hansel and Gretel” was essentially about a brave and clever girl who saves her brother from danger. For another, it was about a brave and clever boy who figures out how to find his and his sister’s way home by marking their path through the woods. Later a friend told me that she had always thought of the tale as a warning against a greed for sweets.
Individual fairy tales change in popularity over time. “Rapunzel,” for instance, was once much less widely known than “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” or “Snow White.” Currently, however, it is becoming more popular, with nearly three thousand entries on Amazon alone. Some of the Rapunzel entries, of course, are duplicates, but even the first hundred include fifty-one separate retellings, revisions, and spin-offs, including a pop-up book, a picture book starring Barbie as the heroine, mysteries, thrillers, romance novels, young adult fiction, and a pornographic S&M novel. It is a complex story, which includes many classic themes, including a witch who is serially both kinds of bad parent: first imprisoning and then rejecting her daughter.
The earliest known appearance of the tale in print occurs in the Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, published in Italy in 1637. His “Petrosinella,” like the later and better-known version in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Household Tales, begins with two intense cravings: that of a pregnant woman for a plant that grows in a garden next door, and that of a witch for a girl child.
In Italy, Spain, and France, the plant the expectant mother longs for is parsley; in Grimm it is called rapunzel. According to botanists, this may be Valerianella locusta, called Feldsalat in Germany, and in English corn salad or lamb’s lettuce. Or it may be Campanula rapunculus, known in Germany as rampion or Rapunzel-Glockenblume. There is an ancient and widespread folk belief that the food cravings of a mother-to-be must be satisfied—if they are not, she risks bad luck or a miscarriage. There may be scientific truth behind the superstition: possibly in these cases important nutrients are missing from the diet. A poor woman who is pregnant in the wintertime, for instance, might lack vitamin C, folic acid, and iron; and one characteristic of both parsley and lamb’s lettuce is that they are resistant to frost.
Today, though between 50 and 75 percent of pregnant women in America report food cravings, a wish for salad greens is rare. Expectant mothers are more likely to crave fresh fruit, especially strawberries. A desire for chocolate or sweets is also common, and may suggest that the mother-to-be has previously denied herself sugar in order to remain fashionably thin. (On the Internet today it is easy, if you have $28.99 plus postage, to buy maternity T-shirts that read THE BABY WANTS CHOCOLATE, THE BABY WANTS ICE CREAM, or THE BABY WANTS STRAWBERRIES.) The medical disorder known as “pica,” a hunger for nonfood substances, may occur in pregnancy as a compulsion to eat clay, plaster, toothpaste, or laundry starch; it has sometimes been explained as a need for calcium.
In the Grimms’ tale, the expectant mother grows pale, weak, and sickly; she tells her husband that if she cannot have the rapunzel that grows in the witch’s garden, she will die. Responding to her desperation, he climbs the garden wall and steals the plant she craves. On a second visit the witch catches him; she allows him to take the greens, but only if he promises her the baby when it is born. In the Pentamerone it is the mother-to-be herself who steals parsley from the garden next door and has to give up her child, though not for several years. There is also a variant Italian tale, “Prunella,” that leaves out the pregnancy: instead the child herself steals plums from a witch’s tree, and is caught and imprisoned.
The heroine of all these stories has the same name as the plant, though sometimes in the diminutive form: Basile’s heroine is called Petrosinella, and in French she is Persinette. Symbolically, the child replaces and becomes what has been stolen and eaten. (There is an echo here of the still current folk belief that whatever a woman craves during her pregnancy will later become her child’s favorite food, for which there may also be a scientific explanation: an infant who has not received enough vitamin C before birth, for instance, might want more afterward.) Popular experts on diet and cooking claim that we are what we eat, and it is not unusual for people to be called “Candy,” “Carrots,” “Honey,” “Sugar,” or “Peaches,” both in real life and in fiction. (Though Judy Blume says that the names of her famous character Fudge and his little sister Tootsie were not consciously chosen for this reason, chocolate was for a long time her favorite food.) More darkly, there is the implication that a child is a consumable commodity. As Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” (who were, he has said, based on his own aunts and uncles) put it: “We’ll eat you up, we love you so!”
To many readers, the most memorable feature of “Rapunzel” is the incantation “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” with its accompanying image of a beautiful young girl standing in the window of a tower with her magically long golden hair hanging down outside. At first, the witch who has adopted her will climb up the hair to visit her, then a wandering prince will do so, with far-reaching consequences. Finally, the witch will hang Rapunzel’s chopped-off tresses from the window, and the prince, deceived, will climb them. If Rapunzel’s hair had been of a normal length, none of this could have happened. Of course, for centuries almost all women in Europe and North America had what we would now consider very long hair, though it was not always visible. As Marina Warner points out in From the Beast to the Blonde,1 for many years loose hair was the sign of a virgin or an unwedded girl, and thus stood for youth and innocence. After a woman married she usually pinned her hair up and/or concealed it under some sort of cap or wrapping, except in private.
Long, thick hair has always been thought beautiful and erotically alluring: artists and writers have celebrated it as the sign of a lush, intensified womanliness. In nineteenth-century America it was a source of pride if you could actually sit on your hair, and to lose it was a disaster: when Jo in Little Women sells her thick chestnut mane it is treated by her family as a kind of minor tragedy. Similarly, in “Rapunzel” and its variants the witch often begins her revenge by violently chopping off the heroine’s long hair.
The witch’s and later the prince’s demand that Rapunzel let down her hair echoes a colloquial phrase first recorded in print in the mid-nineteenth century, though it may be much older. To “let down one’s hair” (or “let down one’s back hair”) still means to relax and drop one’s reserve, to act or speak freely and unguardedly. This is what Rapunzel does, first when she accepts the prince as her lover, and then when she asks the witch why she is so much heavier to pull up than he is. (In the first and less bowdlerized edition of the Grimms’ Household Tales, Rapunzel asks why her dress is getting so tight, alerting the witch to a pregnancy that later results in twins.)
But though long, thick hair was often referred to as “woman’s glory,” it was also her burden. Washing it, drying it, combing out the tangles, brushing it (fifty to a hundred strokes a day were recommended in ladies’ magazines), plaiting it, pinning it up, and taking it down took a lot of effort. The gifted children’s writer E. Nesbit dramatized this problem in a 1908 fairy tale called “Melisande: or, Long and Short Division,” where the princess’s golden hair grows so fast that she is almost immobilized. The date is significant, since in the early twentieth century many women could and did decide to wear their hair short. This choice, which now seems more or less inconsequential, was seen at the time as a serious, even dangerous sign of sexual freedom and independence—and often criticized as unattractive and unfeminine. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is a famous exploration of these issues.
In several modern versions of “Rapunzel” the heroine is oppressed by her magically elongated braid, which is so heavy and bulky that she can hardly move about her tower room. In the young-adult novel Golden by Cameron Dokey (2006), she exclaims, “You think this is beautiful?… You try living with it for a while. I trip over it when I walk. Get tangled up in it when I sleep. I can’t cut it.”
A recent teenage novel, Letters from Rapunzel, by Sara Lewis Holmes (2007), takes a scientific approach to the problem of Rapunzel’s hair. Here the first-person heroine is not really named after a German plant; she adopts the pseudonym because she has to spend hours every day in study hall supervised by a teacher she calls the Homework Witch. Though she feels helpless and imprisoned, her essential problem is one of parental abandonment. Her father is also confined—hospitalized with depression (which she calls the Evil Spell)—and her mother works long hours to support the family and spends most of her free time visiting her sick husband.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.↩
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.↩