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Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let your hair down!

The Wolf and Seven Kids can be used an example of a relationship between legends and first fairy tales.

Picture of Rapunzel by Anne Anderson

Picture of Rapunzel by Anne Anderson

Rapunzel or Tangled? - Search for the real Rapunzel, the story behind a fairy tale

Rapunzel is a classic fairy tale with astonishing history. This generation of children will know her for sure by another name: Tangled. Tangled is another superb production of Disney Company, but unfortunately in animated version many important details with powerful messages are lost.

If we want to use Rapunzel in its best edition, we should probably read one from the collection of brothers Grimm. But even them published several versions of Rapunzel and this is the place where we can ask ourselves:

Who wrote the first Rapunzel? Did she have children or not? Are the characters and story of Rapunzel based on real people and documented events?

Will you help me in my investigation? Shall we start a quest for the first girl who 'lets her hair down'?

(This illustration is work of Anne Anderson, all images in this lens are Public Domain.)

Image of rapunzel, the herb

Vignette presenting rapunzel

Vignette presenting rapunzel

Why Tangled, not Rapunzel?

- This fairy tale is now popular thanks to Disney, so we have to start here.

- We don't know why Disney changed the title, but some people believe Rapunzel sounds too 'girlish'.

- Tangled is based on Grimm's Rapunzel, so the quest after real Rapunzel should move to Germany.

Rapunzel by Otto Ubbelohde

Rapunzel by Otto Ubbelohde

Short summary of Rapunzel

We'll look at Grimm's fairy tale Rapunzel first

The story starts with a pregnant wife desperately craving for rapunzel (although it is not explicitly known what kind of herb it is, we have a reason this is a sort of salad in English called rampion) growing in the neighbor's garden.

The problem is this neighbor is a witch and when a husband of pregnant lady tries to steal from her garden in the middle of the night she forced him to make a deal. He can take what he wants if he promises his child to her when the baby is born. So she gets a child, beautiful girl with golden hair and call her Rapunzel.

The witch raises her on her own and when the girl is twelve years old, she puts her in a tower without doors. The girl needs food and drink but the witch can bring both to her only if she lets her long hair down the window. This way witch climbs up and down and on one occasion a prince hunting near the tower heard her:

"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let your hair down!"

So he starts visiting Rapunzel by nights until she gives away her secret visitor to the witch. Both are punished: prince becomes blind and Rapunzel is taken into wilderness. After some time they found each other, he gets his sight back and happy ending follows...

Grimm's Rapunzel was based on stories from France and Italy

The presentation of tower with Rapunzel in theme park

The presentation of tower with Rapunzel in theme park

Giambattista Basile published a story titled Petrosinella in his Pentamerone. Petrosinella is latin name for parsley, herb with supposedly magic powers. The name also carries important symbolic meaning, because 'petra' is latin for 'rock', what connects the titled character of the story with the tower she was locked in.

Her jailer wasn't a witch, it was an ogress and it was eaten by a wolf who came to help Petrosinella after using some magic.

Pretty good relation with Grimm's version, but we have found some documents stating Jacob and Wilhelm included their Rapunzel after hearing Friedrich Schulz's translation of Persinette (French for parsley). This fairy tale was written by Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force and she is our first suspect in the search for real Rapunzel.

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Her Persinette was locked too, but she was kept by a fairy, not an ogress.

Brothers Grimm included Schultz's Rapunzel in their first edition without knowing its literary origins. They believed it came from oral folk tradition but someone probably told them the story he (or she) heard (or read) from Schultz's story.

We must note Grimms didn't feel the witch (they opted for a witch instead of an ogress or a fairy) should be punished in the end because in their opinion she didn't do anything wrong. She did her part of the deal (provided the herb) and she was entitled to the child.

All right. So can we believe Persinette was based on real story of Charlotte Rose de la Force? Shall we move our investigation to the France?

Louis XIV portrait

Louis XIV portrait

Suspect: Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force

Madame de la Force was of noble origin. She was very liberal minded. Although she was raised as protestant she converted to catholic religion because in her time all noblemen were rewarded with sort of pension from the king if they did that.

Being relatively rich she didn't have to deal with worries of everyday life, so she could concentrate on literature and poetry. And before we forget: her love life was pretty advanced for 17th century. Among other affairs she secretly married much younger man but his and her family achieved cancellation of this marriage.

Although the king (in the picture on the right) was de la Force's friend, the scandal was to big and he offered her she can keep her rent and live comfortable life, if she withdraw in a convent and there she wrote many works with Persinette being the most popular of all.

Madame de la Force put into a fairy tale about Persinette some important elements related to her own life experience.

First of all she was guarded with a fairy. Her prison was nice, full of light and fairy was probably allusion of Louis XIV. Second, it has happy ending. The couple in love suffered a lot but fairy (angry because of their improper behavior) finally forgave them and in the end they all live happily ever after. And third, parsley was most popular herb growing in convent's garden.

Parsley wasn't very common in 17th century and it was connected with magic powers. Charlotte Rose de la Force on several occasion wrote how much joy she experienced when she was eating it.

Sounds like an obsessed pregnant lady from the beginning of Grimm's fairy tale, right?


Fact No. 1: Persinette was written about one hundred years after Petrosinella.

Fact No. 2: Madame de la Force surely knew the stories from Pentamerone.

Conclusion: De la Force's life has many similarities with Rapunzel but she can't be the model for Rapunzel. We should go to Italy!

Original author of Rapunzel

Original author of Rapunzel

Witness: Giovanni Battista Basile (aka Giambattista Basile)

Basile was poet, writer and fairy tale collector from 16 century. His work on the field of fairy tales wasn't very known for several reasons:

- Being courtier and soldier he was very engaged in other areas. His collection of fairy tales was published posthumously and under pseudonym.

- The book of fairy tales (and don't forget, they were not appropriate for kids by today's standards) now known as Pentamerone, was written in Neapolitan dialect and wasn't translated to other languages more than hundred years (in German 1846, in English 1848 and in Italian only in 1925!).

- Despite the fact Grimms praised Pentamerone as first national collection of fairy tales and folk fables, it is hard to say they really were national, because they were full of foreign words (Arabic, Greek, Persian, Spanish, Turkish...), even the frame of the story, resembling more known Decamerone by Bocaccio, is very similar to Arabian Nights, there are many characters of Oriental origin in tales...

Illustration from Pentamerone, The Story of the Stories, by George Cruikshank (published in 1848) - Note: Petrosinella (most influential source for Rapunzel) is

Images from three tales from Pentamerone, scenes from Petrosinella are in the first line

Images from three tales from Pentamerone, scenes from Petrosinella are in the first line

In top illustrations we see Petrosinella's (Rapunzel's) mother with an ogress and Petrosinella with her signature long hair with a prince.

What Grimms said about Basile's resources?

Brothers Grimm on banknote

Brothers Grimm on banknote