I first knew the story of Rapunzel from the 1968 Ladybird Books version, Well-Loved Tales series, by Vera Southgate, illustrated by Eric Winter. It is, as we all know, the story of a young woman who escapes from a witch by pulling a prince up to her tower prison on her long tresses. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this tale of letting your hair down seems to have been somewhat buttoned up over time.

The Ladybird story begins with a barren wife longing for “salad” from a neighbouring witch’s garden – the salad in question being clearly lettuce, by the look of the illustration. The husband goes to steal the witch’s lettuce and the witch catches him. The witch and the husband do a deal: the husband’s life in return for the daughter which the witch knows the couple are about to have. The witch gives her foster-daughter the exotic name Rapunzel and she grows to be extraordinarily beautiful. On turning twelve, Rapunzel is shut by the witch in a high tower without doors. After that the witch is her only visitor, climbing up and down the tower on Rapunzel’s long tresses, which she hangs out of the window on request. A prince overhears Rapunzel’s singing and discovers how to get into the tower by watching the witch. After a while, the couple plan to escape together by weaving a silken ladder. But a careless word from Rapunzel alerts the witch, who then banishes Rapunzel, cutting off her tresses and fixing them to the casement of the tower so that everything will appear as normal from the outside. That night, the prince, suspecting nothing, climbs the tresses. The witch confronts him. In despair he leaps from the tower, blinding himself on the thorns below. After long wandering through a desert, the blind prince is drawn once again by Rapunzel’s singing. Rapunzel’s tears restore the prince’s eyesight. They all live happily ever after.

The Ladybird book does not give a source of this story, but “Rapunzel” is, in fact, the twelfth story in Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children and Household Tales) – the famous Grimms’ fairy tales, which appeared in numerous editions between 1812 and 1857. Grimm’s tales were being translated and freely adapted in English from the 1820s onwards, and “Rapunzel” has been a favourite of English readers ever since. The Grimms, however, did not invent the story either; nor, apparently, did they take it directly from traditional oral storytellers. A similar story, “Die Padde,” was published in the same year as the Grimms’ first volume, in Johann Gustav Büsching’s Volks-Sagen, Märchen und Legenden (Folk-Sagas, Tales and Legends) (Leipzig, 1812). The Grimms, however, seem to have taken the story from another German writer, Friedrich Schultz, who had included it twenty years earlier in his collection of Kleine Romane (Little Romances) (1790).

Schultz, however, was not the author either. He was adapting a literary story written in French a century before by a disgraced lady-in-waiting at the French court, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. Marina Warner writes that Mlle de la Force married without the consent of her husband’s family. Her husband’s family broke up the marriage, she ran into other trouble at court for writing poetry that was considered blasphemous, her court pension was stopped, and she had to enter a convent to escape destitution. Here, as an apparently reluctant nun, she wrote Les Fées, Contes des Contes (The Fairies: A Tale of Tales (?)) (1692), a cycle of stories told, Arabian Nights-fashion, within the context of a larger frame-story. One of these tales was “Persinette.” Persinette’s mother craves a forbidden savoury herb in a witch’s garden: not lettuce or salad, however, but parsley (persil). The baby is taken by the witch in exchange for the herb, named after the herb itself, and imprisoned in a tower. Mlle de la Force clearly had personal reasons for interest in a tale like this. Like her heroine, she was kept forcibly from her lover; unlike her heroine, she seems never to have escaped.

However, Mlle de la Force’s story was not the earliest “Rapunzel”-like story either. “Persinette” closely resembles the Italian “Petrosinella,” the first tale on the second day in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (1634 – 6), a tale of tales sixty years older than Mlle de la Force’s. While pregnant, Petrosinella’s mother, Pascadozia, is overcome with craving for parsley from an ogress’ garden. She makes the usual bargain with the ogress. Petrosinella is born with a parsley-shaped birthmark on her breast, which gives the worldly and sardonic Basile scope for plenty of bawdy humour later on in the story, when the heroine as it were serves herself up to her lover already garnished with a sprig of parsley. Basile gives a clue where to look next, in making it clear that the inspiration of his story is oral tradition: the age-old practice of oral storytelling, often by women, especially old working women, which educated readers and writers usually first encountered through listening to their nurses’ and servants’ tales in childhood.

All these stories, from Petrosinella to Rapunzel, are literary renditions of the oral folktale-type known to folklorists as The Maiden in the Tower. Once the story is traced back beyond Basile to oral tradition, it becomes quite impossible to keep track of the chain of transmission; The Maiden in the Tower is known in Lithuanian, Irish, French, Catalan, Flemish, German, Italian, Sicilian, Serbocroatian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean variants. The individual motifs or segments of the story are more widespread still in the worlds’ narrative traditions: one version of it, of course, is the nineteenth-century Irish folktale of the birth of Lugh Lamfhada to the captive maiden Eithlinn – a personal favourite story of mine.

I’d always assumed that the name Rapunzel was just a meaningless fairytale-princess sort of a name. In fact, in the German, rapunzel is the name of the stolen herb which starts the story off, and the implication is that the herb has something directly to do with the gestation and birth of the heroine who bears its name. The Grimms’ 1837 story, for example, begins with the wife not barren, as in the Ladybird book, but already pregnant:


Es war einmal ein Mann und eine Frau, die wünschten sich schon lange vergeblich ein Kind, endlich machte sich die Frau Hoffnung der liebe Gott werde ihren Wunsch erfüllen.


Once upon a time there was a husband and wife who for quite some time had been wishing in vain for a child. Finally, the dear Lord gave the wife a sign of hope that their wish would be fulfilled.


In context, then, the husband’s theft seems to be prompted by his wife’s pregnancy cravings, and the theft happens exactly because of the impending birth of a child. This adds point to the angry witch’s insistence on the child as the price of the husband’s life:


»verhält es sich so, wie du sagst, so will ich dir gestatten Rapunzeln mitzunehmen so viel du willst, allein ich mache eine Bedingung: du muβt mir das Kind geben, das deine Frau zur Welt bringen wird … « … und als die Frau in Wochen kam, so erschien gleich die Zauberin, gab dem Kind den Namen R a p u n z e l, und nahm es sich mit fort.


“If it’s truly as you say, then I shall permit you to take as many rapunzel as you like, but only under one condition: when your wife gives birth, I must have the child … “ … and when his wife had the baby, the sorceress appeared at once. She gave the child the name Rapunzel and took her away.


Later on, in the Grimms’ 1837 text, the prince proposes marriage to Rapunzel on first sight, and Rapuzel’s reaction is hardly dithering:


und als … sie sah daβ er jung and schön war, so dachte sie »der wird mich lieber haben als die alte Frau Gothel«, und sagte ja, und reichte ihm ihre Hand.


and when … she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, He’ll certainly love me better than old Mother Gothel. So she said yes and placed her hand in his.


By contrast, the courtship is a very cautious and decorous affair in the Ladybird book:


So, for many months, the Prince visited Rapunzel every evening and they grew to love each other. After a while the Prince asked Rapunzel to marry him and she replied, “I will gladly do so.”


Much of the point of the Grimms’ 1812 version revolves around an erotic pun: in the German, there is a double meaning in the Prince being “pulled up” every evening by his beloved Rapunzel, and, perhaps inevitably, the Grimms’ Rapunzel is already pregnant by the time she leaves the tower. In the 1812 version, her giveaway remark to the witch involves asking why her clothes no longer fit her, and by the time the lovers are reuinted in the desert at the end of the story, she already has twin children in tow. In the Ladybird book, of course, there is none of this. On the eve of her escape, the very chaste Rapunzel only gives the game away by asking why the witch feels heavier on her famous tresses than the Prince, and in the final scene there are, accordingly, no twins. The Grimms’ 1837 text of “Rapunzel” is much closer than the Ladybird book to Basile’s erotic story of Petrosinella, and even the Grimms’ 1837 text was much more cautious in this regard than their own earlier texts of the same story. The whole story was originally erotic, and it’s worth bearing in mind that disguising this fact removes a whole layer of symbolic meaning, relating to the herb which the expectant mother craves and which, in the earlier versions, gives the heroine her name.

What exactly is rapunzel? It’s a herb, all right, but there seem to be several possibilities as to which species of herb is meant. English-language authors such as Marina Warner tend to think of Rapunzel as rampion. This is not unreasonable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rampion – not the round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare) or the spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum), but the closely related rampion bellflower (Campanula rapunculus) – has white tuberous roots which can be used as salad. Moreover, rampion seems to bear the English version of the name Rapunzel, which appears in French as raiponce, in Spanish as reponche, and most tellingly in Italian as ramponzolo – all words of unknown origin, but which have been connected with the Latin rapum. So far, so good: Rapunzel sounds like, and appears to taste like, rampion. There are, however, problems with this identification. The fact that Rapunzel and rampion are historically the same word does not guarantee that they all refer to the same thing: words don’t behave like that, especially not as they jump from language to language. In fact, German-language editors and translators of Grimms’ tales seem never to translate Rapunzel as rampion. In his 1985 edition of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Heinz Rölleke derived Rapunzel from the Latin Radix puntia (“Pointed root”(?)), and paraphrased it in standard German as Baldrianwurzel (“valerian-root”).

The edible rampion is not related to valerian. But there is another wild or garden salad herb which is. This is the common cornsalad or lamb’s lettuce (Valerianella locusta), whose tiny bluish flowers, encased in large green bracts, can be seen from April to June on “cultivated, waste and disturbed land, sparsely grassy places, rocky areas, wall-tops and sand dunes” throughout the British Isles, France and Germany. Like sorrel, cornsalad has edible leaves. It flowers earlier than rampion and is a well-known ingredient in winter and spring salads. The German texts seem therefore to suggest persuasively that Rapunzel is cornsalad, not rampion.

So, to sum up: Rapunzel’s own name is a reference to the wild salad – probably cornsalad – which her pregnant mother craved, and this is just one illustration of the fact that the story is about sex, pregnancy and childbirth, and not just lettuce, witches and towers. English writers often disregard the first fact and modern editors from the Grimms onwards have tended to disguise the second. If these two points are considered together, we can begin to tell the story as perhaps it ought to be told.

A pregnant (not a barren) wife craves a wild herb which is shut up in a witch’s garden. This may be another reason to regard Rapunzel as cornsalad rather than rampion, because cornsalad is a winter and spring salad whose “value … is its earliness,” and the wife’s longing might be more acute in winter and early spring, when food in agrarian societies would be rather more monotonous than at other times, and also perhaps in relatively short supply. The husband risks everything to provide for his pregnant wife, but the witch catches the husband, and spares his life in return for the unborn daughter who prompted the theft. The daughter proves to be extraordinarily beautiful, and is named after the herb. Rapunzel the heroine is shut up by the possessive witch, like rapunzel the wild herb before her. (It is fun to note in this respect that Rapunzel the heroine, like cornsalad the herb, can be found growing at the top of a high wall.) However, just as Rapunzel’s father had planned to steal the wild rapunzel, so a prince plans to steal the human Rapunzel – or, at least, help her escape. Rapunzel meanwhile conceives twins. But the plan goes wrong, the lovers are separated, banished, and wounded, and after long wandering, the prince is drawn once again by Rapunzel’s singing and once again takes his bride and their two children.

In this way, as we can see, the story falls into two halves, each of which echoes the other. In each half, the witch tries selfishly to hoard Rapunzel (first the herb, then the heroine); but, in both cases, Rapunzel (first the herb, then the heroine) proves too much for her, irresistibly attracting a husband in from outside. On both occasions, the witch is robbed, and on both occasions, the result is renewed life and a new generation of the family. It is, moreover, interesting to note that the story treats Rapunzel’s family matrilineally – that is, it follows the fortunes of the family from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son.

Unlike my Ladybird book, then, the older stories are not simply interested in Rapunzel as an ideal of passive female beauty. Generally, they prefer to show how the women of successive generations guarantee the survival of a family against the enduring outside threat personified by the witch. If you want my own guess as to the story’s underlying meaning, it’s this: a story of a child, trafficked to a predatory stranger and locked alone in a room for years on end without even a haircut, was not meant as a polite story of a beautiful princess. It’s a story of the kind of abuse that still goes on today, in families and communities, and probably always has.