Friday, January 01, 2016


My nephew (2¾) is going through a Rapunzel phase at the moment. I think it originated with Tangled, but it takes in every version of the story he can get, not to mention every tower, and every ribbon or rope he can make believe is Rapunzel’s hair. Visiting over Christmas, I read several versions of the story, and found some interesting differences. There is some censorship going on, I think, but also some Chinese whispers. At the beginning of the story, a woman looks from a window at her neighbour’s garden, and is overcome with a desire to eat something she sees growing there: either salad, lettuce, or rampion, depending on the version. The word ‘rampion’ is related to ‘rapunzel’, so it would make sense for that to be the right one. My dictionary traces both words back to ‘rapum’ (turnip) in Latin, and defines it as ‘A kind of bellflower, Campanula rapunculus, of which the white tuberous roots are sometimes used as a salad.’ has this:
The larger roots are reserved for boiling, sometimes the young roots are eaten raw with vinegar and pepper, and occasionally the leaves, as well as the roots, are eaten as a winter salad.
If the leaves of the plant are only occasionally used, it could be that there has been a misunderstanding of ‘salad’ with some of the translations and re-tellings, equating it with lettuce. The version of the story S. remembers has radishes as the tempting vegetable, which opens an intriguing link to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, another of my nephew’s favourites, also about stealing produce from a garden.

The husband steals the salad leaves, lettuce or rampion, and when he goes back for more the next day, gets caught by the owner of the garden, a witch. She demands his wife’s baby – if she has one – in payment for the stolen goods. In the old Ladybird version, there is no hint that the wife is pregnant at this point (she is described as thin), so the husband’s agreement to these terms comes over as a gamble that she will not conceive. This version makes little sense: if she’s starving, lettuce won’t help much, and in all the other versions it is the pregnancy which explains the unusual craving. To have the husband give up a baby he knows is coming makes for a better story, and makes clear the strength of the desire behind the craving. A different Ladybird version (two pages of which are available online) removes another of the story’s edges, having the witch steal the baby, rather than the parents handing her over.

Rapunzel meets a prince, who visits her by night, climbing up her hair as the witch does during the day, bringing her material from which to make a rope (he couldn’t just bring her a ready-made rope?) All versions agree that she gives the game away by telling the witch in an unguarded moment that she is heavier than the prince. None of them mention that she gets pregnant herself during one of the prince’s visits until later, and the more modern versions leave this out completely. When the witch surprises the prince and he falls and blinds himself in a thorn bush, I think of Rochester in Jane Eyre; in fact, that kind of symbolic event works much better in a fairy tale than a realist novel. Symbolic of what, though? The mystery and power of the story (and of many fairy tales) lies partly in the fact that it is not an allegory, I think. There is a point being made about the danger of desire – for rapunzel the plant, Rapunzel the baby, Rapunzel the woman, and (from her perspective) for the prince. It’s not exactly a warning, more an actuating force, driving events through contortions that only really come to make sense through repeated readings, when they become inevitable, but never quite lose their weird fascination. ‘No door,’ my nephew will explain, given half a chance. ‘Long, long hair’.


‘Rapunzel’ at Adelaide Ebooks.
More illustrations.

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