This Dean & Sons edition of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales might spell the classics its own way, but you can probably guess how this one starts: a woman living next door to a witch with a wicked temper and a spectacular green thumb develops a passionate craving for forbidden vegetables and convinces her husband to raid the witch’s radish patch. He is of course caught. The witch is not inclined to look kindly on intruders, but he pleads his case earnestly and she changes her mind. These are her terms: his wife may have as many radishes as she desires…in exchange for her first-born child.
The man agrees. Everybody is insane.
In time the woman duly gives birth and the witch whisks the baby away, naming her ‘Rapunsel’ for the uncontrollably addictive vegetable that started this whole mess. It sounds considerably prettier than ‘Radish’. When the child is twelve, she is shut up in a tower in the middle of a forest. The tower has no door and no stairs, only a single window at the top. The witch is not into sharing. She’s also not into pixie cuts – the only way for anyone to enter the tower is if Rapunsel lets down her long golden hair like a rope, which must be incredibly painful and also precludes her from ever getting down the same way.
A few years after her imprisonment in the tower, a prince rides by and hears Rapunsel singing. Enraptured, he searches for a way in. When that proves fruitless, he returns every day to hear the mystery girl sing and one day overhears the witch calling down Rapunsel’s hair. After she leaves, the prince tries the same trick, and is pulled inside.
Rapunsel has never seen a man before. Actually, she’s never had another visitor of any gender before, so it’s a bit of a shock. The prince, matching the beautiful voice to an equally enchanting face, switches on the royal charm and before he leaves, asks for her hand in marriage. As that means getting out of the tower, Rapunsel is all for it. She tells him to come back with silk so that she can make herself a ladder.
Project Outtahere is going quite well until Rapunsel gets annoyed with her adoptive mother’s clumsy ascent and thoughtlessly compares her to the more nimble prince. To say the witch is angry does not quite cover it. She signed up for an insular, agoraphobic nun, not a restless teenager with a secret boyfriend. Seizing a handful of her ward’s hair, she hacks it off close to the skull, then drags the girl from the tower and drops her in an empty wasteland to die.
Overreaction much? And she’s not done yet! When the prince arrives that night, the golden braid falls as always, but lying in wait at the top is a livid, obsessive witch. The prince falls. Landing in a patch of thorns, he survives more or less intact. His eyes, however, are ruined.
For years he wanders, lost and blind, until at last he reaches the wasteland where Rapunsel was abandoned. She is not only alive, she’s bringing up twins. Fairy tale princesses might be all sugar and sunshine, but there’s a backbone of steel in there too. When she sees her lost lover, Rapunsel falls on him and her tears miraculously mend his eyes. The prince returns to his kingdom with a fiancee, two kids and a lot of explaining to do. As for the witch, perhaps her revenge made her happy, but more likely it didn’t. An empty tower and a forbidden garden are all she has left.
If you want to know why the Grimm brothers have a bad reputation for the way they treat their female characters, this story would be an excellent example. In an older version of ‘Rapunsel’, the witch works out that her ward is pregnant, which makes considerably more sense than Rapunsel blurting out her secret so bluntly. Even in this version, though, that doesn’t make her an idiot. Suicidally naïve, certainly, but when you remember that the only presence in Rapunsel’s life before the prince was the witch, what experience would she have with keeping so momentous a secret? It’s natural she would feel conflicted, guilty, confused. She’s only stupid if you choose to tell her that way, and I don’t.
Of course, according to my retelling, there’s a very good reason she was locked away. I prefer the sinister to the insulting.