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The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales: Rapunzel

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

In today's installment of The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales we are covering Rapunzel. We all know the Disney version "Tangled". Rapunzel is trapped in a tower by Mother Gothel and Flynn Rider finds the tower and takes her to the palace. The journey is difficult for rapunzel dealing with the guilt of leaving. Flynn starts to fall for her and when they arrive at the town, she is figured out to be the long lost princess. Eventually Gothel is eradicated and Flynn and Rapunzel end up together. But the actual story is very different. The Brothers Grimm's story is an adaptation of the fairy tale Rapunzel by Friedrich Schulz (1790) that was a translation of Persinette (1698) by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, which was itself influenced by an earlier Italian tale, Petrosinella (1634), by Giambattista Basile.

It is believed that the story is based on a true story.

The true story of Rapunzel is thought to be about a young woman in Italy named Barbara who was so beautiful that her father locked her away in a tower so no men could get to her. Though many asked for her hand in marriage, Barbara dedicated herself to God and a newfound Christian faith, and refused them all. Her father, however, was a pagan, and not pleased about her Christianity. The story goes that when she prayed for help when he drew his sword on her, God created a hole in the tower for her to escape. Unfortunately, she was soon discovered, and eventually beheaded by her father — who was then struck by lightning.


Brothers Grimm Story

A lonely couple, who long for a child, live next to a large, extensive, high-walled garden, belonging to a sorceress. The wife, experiencing the cravings associated with pregnancy, notices some rapunzel growing in the nearby garden and longs for it. She refuses to eat anything else and begins to waste away. Her husband fears for her life and one night he breaks into the garden to get some for her. When he returns, she makes a salad out of it and eats it, but she longs for more so her husband returns to the garden to retrieve more. As he scales the wall to return home, the sorceress catches him and accuses him of theft. He begs for mercy and she agrees to be lenient, allowing him to take all the rapunzel he wants on condition that the baby be given to her when it's born. Desperate, he agrees.

When his wife has a baby girl, the sorceress takes her to raise as her own and names her "Rapunzel" after the plant her mother craved (in one version, the couple move-away before the birth in an attempt to avoid surrendering the baby, only for the sorceress to turn-up at their door upon the baby's birth, un-hampered by their attempt at relocation). Rapunzel grows up to be a beautiful child with long golden hair. When she turns twelve, the sorceress locks her up inside a tower in the middle of the woods, with neither stairs nor a door, and only one room and one window. In order to visit Rapunzel, the sorceress stands beneath the tower and calls out:



Let down your hair

That I may climb thy golden stair!

One day, a prince rides through the forest and hears Rapunzel singing from the tower. Entranced by her ethereal voice, he searches for her and discovers the tower, but is unable to enter it. He returns often, listening to her beautiful singing, and one day sees the sorceress visit and learns how to gain access. When the sorceress leaves, he bids Rapunzel let her hair down. When she does so, he climbs up and they fall in love. He eventually asks her to marry him, which she agrees to.

Together they plan a means of escape, wherein he will come each night (thus avoiding the sorceress who visits her by day) and bring Rapunzel a piece of silk that she will gradually weave into a ladder. Before the plan can come to fruition, however, she foolishly gives him away. In the first edition (1812) of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (German: Children's and Household Tales, most commonly known in English as Grimms' Fairy Tales), she innocently says that her dress is growing tighter around her waist, hinting at pregnancy. In later editions, she asks "Dame Gothel", in a moment of forgetfulness, why it is easier for her to draw up the prince than her. In anger, the sorceress cuts off Rapunzel's hair and casts her out into the wilderness to fend for herself.

When the prince calls that night, the sorceress lets the severed hair down to haul him up. To his horror, he finds himself meeting her instead of Rapunzel, who is nowhere to be found. After she tells him in a rage that he will never see Rapunzel again, he leaps or falls from the tower, landing in a thorn bush. Although the thorn bush breaks his fall and saves his life, it scratches his eyes and blinds him.

For years, he wanders through the wastelands of the country and eventually comes to the wilderness where Rapunzel now lives with the twins to whom she has given birth, a boy and a girl. One day, as she sings, he hears her voice again, and they are reunited. When they fall into each other's arms her tears immediately restore his sight. He leads her and their twins to his kingdom where they live happily ever after.

Another version of the story ends with the revelation that her foster mother had untied Rapunzel's hair after the prince leapt from the tower, and it slipped from her hands and landed far below, leaving her trapped in the tower.


You can also see Rapunzel in the Disney movie Into The Woods.


Hope you enjoyed today's post and I will see you next time.


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