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.

Having learned that human hair grows an average of six inches a year, the narrator calculates that the real Rapunzel must have been in her tower for eighteen years, which would make her thirty-one. No doubt because, to a junior high school student, this is an impossible age for romantic adventure, she concludes that Rapunzel did not age in captivity. The lesson is clear: if you remain confined, you cannot grow up. Holmes’s heroine, like the heroines of most young-adult novels, eventually manages to rescue herself by taking responsibility for her own future.

Bruno Bettelheim remarks in his classic analysis of the fairy tale, The Uses of Enchantment, that “Rapunzel” is “the story of a pubertal girl, and of a jealous mother who tries to prevent her from gaining independence—a typical adolescent problem.”2 But it can also be seen as a story about the adoption of a poor and beautiful young girl by a prosperous but overpossessive older woman, who later takes drastic but eventually unsuccessful measures to isolate her daughter from the world and especially from men. Sometimes the child is literally imprisoned in a tower; in other cases, the captivity is more symbolic.

This plot, of course, also appears in classic adult literature. Dickens’s Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations, shuts her ward Estella in a huge, decaying house and tries to teach her to hate all men. In Henry James’s The Bostonians, Olive Chancellor essentially buys Verena Tarrant from her parents with greenbacks rather than green plants, takes her into her Boston mansion, and attempts to possess and control her life. In both cases the heroine eventually escapes, but only with great difficulty and not necessarily into a better life.3

In the traditional tale of “Rapunzel,” the character who trades garden produce for a poor neighbor’s child is an unsympathetic figure. In Grimm she is called Mother Gothel, which at the time was a common designation for a godmother, but she is not the sort of good fairy godmother who grants wishes. She is not actively cruel, however, until her daughter falls in love with a man. Mother Gothel considers this a betrayal, and becomes enraged, but the love affair is presented as innocent and natural, and the story ends with Rapunzel and her prince living happily ever after in his kingdom.

Contemporary versions of “Rapunzel” often have a different emphasis, and perhaps for a contemporary reason. Over the last few decades, more and more well-to-do Americans and Europeans have adopted the children of poor parents, often from third-world countries; and because of local cultural prejudices, most of these infants have been girls. (Between 1971 and 2001 US citizens adopted 265,677 children from abroad; 64 percent of them were girls. The process continues: in 2005, 22,728 children were adopted, again mostly girls.)

Generally, adoptive parents are treated in the press and television and by friends and relatives as good, kind, and generous. Many modern versions of “Rapunzel” take the same attitude. (“The witch was never unkind to Rapunzel. Indeed, she gave her almost everything the child could have wished for,” says perhaps the best of these retellings, by Barbara Rogasky, beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.) The witch’s problem is that she not only wants to protect her child from the dangers of the world outside; she does not want the girl to grow up and leave her—fears and desires that many parents, perhaps particularly adoptive parents of only one child, will recognize. In the traditional story this natural wish takes a pathological form; yet in most versions the witch is not punished. As Bruno Bettelheim points out, her possessive love for Rapunzel is selfish and foolish, but not evil, and “since she acted from too much love for Rapunzel and not out of wickedness, no harm befalls her.”

Several modern adaptations of “Rapunzel” for adolescents seem to function as cautionary tales. They offer not only support to a girl who needs to escape an overpossessive parent, but also sympathy for the mother who has trouble letting her go. They encourage teenagers to seek independence without feeling guilty, and parents to accept the inevitable. Zel (1996), for instance, by the best-selling author Donna Jo Napoli, is a lively, dramatic retelling of “Rapunzel” as a historical novel. It is set in the remote sixteenth-century Swiss Alps, where magic and the almost total isolation of the heroine both seem believable. The story expresses both sympathy for and criticism of the witch, who will give her beloved adopted daughter anything but freedom, and ends up almost driving her mad in near-solitary confinement. “She had to be tied to no one but me,” the witch thinks. “Me, no one but me.”

Of course, Zel eventually meets and falls in love with a young aristocrat. Meanwhile the witch, exhausted by her own possessiveness, by the spells necessary to maintain Zel’s captivity in the tower, and by her own guilt, becomes a powerless ghost, able only to silently witness the traditional happy ending, which incidentally takes place in a warm semitropical country—the sort of country from which many adopted babies come today.

Some contemporary teenage versions of Rapunzel not only sympathize with the witch figure but blame the original mother. Cameron Dokey’s Golden, for instance, splits Rapunzel into two different young girls. One is born totally bald, rejected by her mother, and brought up on a remote farm by the loving, small-time sorceress Melisande. The other, who has yards of golden hair, is Melisande’s real daughter, who has been put into a state of suspended animation and imprisoned in a tower by a magician. The girls are thus more or less the same age, and can become friends and share adventures. Both end up with suitable husbands and remain close to Melisande. This story both excuses the guilt some adoptive parents may feel for depriving a mother of her child and supports the search of grown children for their birth parents.

Adèle Geras’s The Tower Room (1990) is a realistic modern version of Rapunzel, though one that eventually reverses its moral. It is the first volume of an engaging and well-written trilogy set in 1962 in a posh English girls’ school, apparently based on Roedean (the alma mater of both Princess Diana and the sisters in Ian McEwan’s Atonement), where Adèle Geras herself was a student and the exact contemporary of her heroine, Megan. The girls at “Egerton Hall” are cut off from the world, but life there is described affectionately and in fascinating detail. Megan’s parents are dead; and her adoptive mother, Dorothy, a teacher at the school, is cool and distant rather than overpossessive. “In my heart,” Megan writes, “I regard her as only a guardian and never think of her as a real mother…. She did try to be like a mother to me during the holidays, but it was as though she were copying maternal behavior she had seen in other people, and not quite succeeding.”

As it turns out, Dorothy is in love with a young lab instructor called Simon who hardly notices her. Instead he falls for Megan, climbs a convenient builder’s scaffolding to her tower room, and seduces her. When Dorothy discovers the affair she flies into a hysterical rage and orders them both to leave. Soon Megan finds herself living in a squalid studio flat near the Gloucester Road underground station and working in a coffee bar, waiting long hours for Simon to return from a distant ill-paying job. It takes her only a couple of months to decide to leave him and return to Egerton Hall and her two best friends (who are ingenious contemporary versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty), finish the term, and go on to Oxford. In a sequel (Pictures of the Night) she not only manages to accomplish all this, but is happily reunited with Simon. The lesson seems to be that if you are denied real parental affection you should resist the impulse to compensate by quitting school and running off with a young man, even if he is your true love.

The colorful and lavishly illustrated Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel, by Patricia Storace (2007), is intended for children rather than adolescents, but it also includes a partially sympathetic witch figure, a sorceress called Madame Fate. Though everyone on the island fears her, she provides the girl called Sugar Cane with a beautiful garden, a lovable pet monkey, and—an unusual innovation—a first-rate education:

Since Madame Fate was a conjure- woman who could bring people back from the dead, all Sugar Cane’s teachers were special…. Her guitar teacher was a five-hundred-year-old Gypsy from Spain, and her piano teacher a jazz master from New Orleans. An Arabian philosopher tutored her in mathematics. She learned poetry from a Greek epic poet, and storytelling from an African griot.

Sugar Cane, like the Grimms’ version of the story, unites the lovers through music, when a young man hears the heroine singing in the tower. It also alters the traditional ending to include a happy musical reunion with both of Sugar Cane’s original parents.

Not all modern versions of “Rapunzel” show sympathy with the witch, and a few of them penalize her, though not severely, at the end. This is true of Lynn Roberts’s Rapunzel: A Groovy Fairy Tale (2003), which appears to take place in New York in the 1970s. Both text and illustrations are very much of the period—cartoonish, way out, and upbeat. There is no pre-story involving any variety of lettuce: the heroine simply lives on the top floor of an apartment building with her mean Aunt Esme, who rides a motorcycle with the license plate EV1L. When Aunt Esme discovers her niece’s friendship with a high school rock musician, she forces her to climb down a rope made of her own cut-off hair into what looks like a rather scary part of Manhattan. Rapunzel has to spend the night alone in a littered shop doorway, but she and her boyfriend and his band are soon happily united. Aunt Esme’s only punishment is that without Rapunzel’s hair as a kind of magical escalator she has to climb at least five flights of stairs to reach her apartment.

Barbie as Rapunzel (2002), which is based on a short Disney film, also features an unsympathetic adoptive parent. Again there is no prologue: we simply hear that the heroine is kept as a servant by “Gothel, a mean witch.” The text reads as if it were made up by a six-year-old out of bits of fairy tales and Barbie doll promotional material. Rapunzel is a rather blank character, but this may be the result of a deliberate choice on the part of the author or publisher. As a former Mattel Company executive, Ivy Ross, puts it,

[Barbie] isn’t anything in particular, so she become a vehicle for [girls’] dreams, their aspirations, their frustrations—their dress rehearsal for everyday life. Even when she’s in a new movie, Barbie acts Rapunzel.

Barbie/Rapunzel, like most Disney heroines, has some embarrassingly cute animal companions—in this case a bunny rabbit and a fat little dragon with pink wings. Also, like all Barbies, she gets to try on different costumes, which presumably can be bought in the local Toys “R” Us. Eventually she goes to a ball, discovers her long-lost father (he is a king, making her a princess), and marries a prince who resembles Barbie’s boyfriend Ken. The witch ends up imprisoned in her own tower. In the view of some psychologists, the final reunion with only the father (which also occurs in many versions of “Hansel and Gretel”), makes sense, either because it fulfills the daughter’s unconscious desire to have him to herself, or because the witch is really the mother in disguise. (Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, points out that in fairy tales it is often the older women—mothers, stepmothers, godmothers, witches—who have real and sometimes evil power, while fathers “tend to be excused responsibility” and rather weak.)

In the Grimms’ tale of “Rapunzel” (though not in the Pentamerone), the prince is a fairly ineffective figure. After he climbs Rapunzel’s hair into the tower and is confronted by the witch, he jumps from the window in despair and is blinded by thorns. Both he and his beloved then wander about alone in misery for several years, but at last they are reunited and when Rapunzel’s tears fall on his eyes his sight is restored. In many modern versions the hero is a stronger character. These stories usually omit his blinding, or treat it metaphorically: he gets a concussion when he falls from the tower, and cannot remember Rapunzel and his love for her; or his glasses are broken and he can’t see her; or he believes that she has abandoned him rather than been banished to the wilderness by the witch. In the end, however, the lovers are reunited, one way or another. Men may appear to desert or forget you, the moral seems to be, but not forever.

There will surely be more versions of “Rapunzel.” Already a full-length animated Disney film is in production and scheduled to be released in 2009. The director, Glen Keane, has declared that it will be “a story of the need for each person to become who they are supposed to be and for a parent to set them free so they can become that.” Clearly, there are parallels here to recent young-adult versions. But Keane has also said that the movie’s visual style will be based on the painting The Swing, by the French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Since the point of this painting, also known as Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, is that the young man standing below the swinging girl (though not the viewer) can see up her foaming skirts, Disney’s new “Rapunzel” may turn out to have an unexpectedly erotic undertone.

This Issue

May 1, 2008