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Fairy Tale of the Month: Dec 2010 Rapunzel

Walter Crane

Rapunzel the plant

            Rampion, a salad green craved by Rapunzel’s mother that led to the inciting incident of our tale, is little known to modern audiences. It is a bitter green with edible roots popular at the time of the Grimms, but now fallen out of favor in an age dominated by high fructose corn syrup.


            The Rampion is key toward understanding this tale. An alternate name for Rampion is Rapunzel. The 19th century listener would have gotten the pun. The Rampion plant puts out a stalk (tower), which, because the Rampion is self-fertilizing, may split, causing tendrils (hair) to curl down toward its base.


            I am not going to take up space here to substantiate this next claim, but will leave it to your imagination how many times modern re-tellers of this tale have edited out the unfamiliar Rampion, and replaced it with a common head of lettuce, which begs the question, “How many times has this sort of thing happen?”, which I am also not going to delve into, largely because I really don’t want to speculate on what has been lost, and, besides, this sentence has gone on far too long.


Another, somewhat unsettling, comparison can be made between Rapunzel and the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary appears as a character in a number of the Grimm tales such as “the Virgin Mary’s Child” and “The Blessed Virgin’s Little Glass”. In the Rapunzel tale, given the Rampion connection, she appears again, indirectly.


The Virgin Mary is engaged to Joseph, but before the marriage can be concluded she is with child through the agency of the Holy Spirit. In our tale, the prince vowed to marry Rapunzel, but before they are wed she bares two children, a boy and a girl, through, by implication, self-fertilization—without sin. Both women bore their children in poor and dire circumstances. What this parallel achieves is harder to define, other than to put Rapunzel in favorable company.


What is easier to see is that this story is about procreation/propagation and seasonal repetition. Rapunzel’s mother is looking from a high small window into a walled garden. Rapunzel’s father has to climb up the high garden wall to get the Rampion (Rapunzel). Rapunzel finds herself standing at a small window looking out. The Prince has to climb a high wall to get his Rapunzel. Near the start of the story is the birth of Rapunzel. Near the end of the story is the birth of Rapunzel’s children. When I tell this tale I stress the passing cycles of the year.


The Grimm Brothers ultimately missed these points, or were willing to abandon them for modesty’s sake. The Grimms issued numerous editions of their fairy tale collection, and with each one they dropped questionable elements. After the first edition they changed Rapunzel complaining that her clothing were getting tight with remarking how Dame Gothel was harder to pull up than the prince. By the last edition the birth of Rapunzel’s children is gone. Rampion would have been next.

Your thoughts?