Variations of Rapunzel (Part Two of Four)

Fairy Tales

One of the most intriguing aspects of fairy tales is the way they change across time and culture, yet still remain identifiable as the same story. In Rapunzel, the core element marking the story involves a maiden in confinement, but the rest of the tale undergoes a number of variations.

The stories almost always begin with a pregnant mother craving an item growing in the garden of a supernatural being (ogress, fairy, witch, enchantress). Consumed with longing, the mother determines she must have the coveted item, no matter the cost. She might crave parsley, rapunzel (a form of lettuce), or rampion, but no matter what she desires, it’s forbidden or out of reach. Sometimes she goes herself to claim the the object she craves (Petrosinella), other times she sends her husband (Persinette, Grimms’ Rapunzel). Whether the mother or father goes to fetch it, they willingly give up their child to keep their own lives–though in some tales, the husband condemns the wife, saying her gluttony caused this painful loss (Prezzemolina). In certain tales, the parents get to keep their daughter for several years (Petrosinella, The Fair Angiola, Prezzemolina), in others the supernatural being immediately claims her (Grimms’ Rapunzel, Reptensil).

In an alternate beginning, sometimes the supernatural being grants the desire of the parents for a child, with the stipulation the child will belong to her after a period of time (Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa). The parents, thinking it better to have a child for some time than none at all, agree to the demand, again sacrificing their child to an unknown danger to satisfy their own desires.

Regardless of how the tale begins, it always develops with the maiden finding herself in some sort of confinement. On occasion, the maiden isn’t literally locked in the tower, but is merely captive to the supernatural beings, who force her to do impossible tasks under threat of death (Prezzemolina, Prunella). In these tales, Rapunzel’s love helps her with her impossible tasks, becoming the means of sparing her death and his repeated care and aid to her result in her falling in love with him and agreeing to become his bride.

In the stories where the supernatural being locks Rapunzel in a doorless tower, she spends years there before being discovered by the man who will become her husband (usually a prince). Sometimes her beautiful voice draws him (Grimms’ Rapunzel) or the loveliness of her flowing hair captivates him (Petrosinella), other times the prince is under a curse of his own compelling him to seek a beautiful maiden locked in the woods (Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa). Whatever draws him, the prince only gains entrance when Rapunzel lets down her hair and pulls him up.

Once the prince enters the tower and meets the maiden, he falls in love with her and becomes a repeated visitor, but they can share no real future until she escapes her confinement. In Petrosinella, Rapunzel herself strategizes a means of escape from the ogress, and they gain their freedom through her cunning, which results in the ogress’s death. In other tales, the couple undergo years of suffering before they can be reunited, as the supernatural being discovers their intentions and banishes Rapunzel to a wilderness. Then the enchantress waits in hiding for the prince, who either jumps from the tower to escape or is pushed by the enchantress (Grimms’ Rapunzel, La Force’s Rapunzel). Either way, he falls upon thorns which blind him and wanders the world sightless until he finds Rapunzel (and in some cases, their children). Her tears fall upon his eyes and restore his sight (Grimms’ Rapunzel, Persinette, Schultz Rapunzel). Together they return to his kingdom and live happily ever after.

Whatever the nature of the trials endured or mistakes made, the Rapunzel stories share in common a happy ending (which doesn’t always occur in fairy tales, contrary to popular belief).

I’ve covered the origins and major variants of the tale, so I’ll discuss some of the themes next Friday.


  • Maria Tatham
    February 5, 2012 - 1:34 pm · Reply

    Sarah, it seems that there are many more variants of this tale than of other. Is this correct? This series is very interesting.

    Book recommendation: Have you read Alessandro Manzotti’s The Betrothed? It’s an historical novel about 17th century Italy. One of its subplots is the story of a young woman who suffers acutely because she is forced by her parents to enter a convent. To me it is another Rapunzel, but most unhappy. It is deeply affecting.

    Recently I watched a film about Hildegaard of Bingen’s life. In it there was a young woman given to the convent as a tithe to the Church. Wow. For some women in this situation, this may have meant greater freedom; but for many, this may have meant terrible unhappiness.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 6, 2012 - 12:56 pm · Reply

      I don’t know that it has more variants than every other fairy tale, but it certainly has quite a few–and there are a number of distinct differences between them. It’s intriguing to see the changes made across time and culture.

      I haven’t read The Betrothed, but I’ll add it to my list to check out. How interesting that it has a subplot that mimics the Rapunzel story.

      It’s sad to think that women were forced into convents, rather than making that choice because they wanted to dedicate their lives to God. Yet it happened regularly.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      March 7, 2012 - 12:40 pm · Reply

      You’re right–I took care of it. Usually the filter blocks them, but occasionally one pops through. Thanks for mentioning it!

  • Ann
    May 8, 2012 - 9:44 am · Reply

    I’m trying to write a story based on this tale, casting Rapunzel as agoraphobic in a sad sort of way, but there are so many variants! It’s hard to tell when it actually originated from, and in addition to that, the German version is my favorite version but least favorite name…Thanks for the info though!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      May 15, 2012 - 3:09 pm · Reply

      Ann, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m a fan of retold fairy tales, and Rapunzel certainly has room for further interpretation. From what you’ve said here, your version certainly sounds original.

      I’m glad the information helped! I delve a little more into origins here, if you’re interested.

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