This retelling of Rapunzel from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"
A retelling by J. Kearns
A tale that recalls the Old Testament Samson, a sun hero who, his locks shorn, is devested of his strength and blinded. Only here, it is a girl who is locked in a high tower, and has the golden ladder of her hair shorn.
People like to joke about how when women become pregnant they often crave peculiar things to eat, such as pickles and ice cream. People joke about how pregnant women will be struck with such intense cravings for strange combinations of certain foods that even in the middle of the night, when most people are asleep, pregnant women will insist that their husbands go to the store right then and get them that food. They can't wait until morning. Obsessed, they must have the food they crave right then. Maybe they want corn chips and salsa or bean dip. Maybe they must have pickles and ice cream with chocolate syrup. Whatever, they have to have that particular food right then, and the joke always seems to be that they make their sleepy husbands go and get it for them. I can't especially argue with that because sometimes pregnant women don't feel very good and people who love them understand that and don't mind doing what they can to make them feel better.
That's how this tale begins, with a woman craving a particular kind of food. She and her husband had for a long time wanted to have a child, and now, after a long time waiting, they were soon to have the child for whom they'd longed. The man and the woman were very happy. That is, they were very happy except for this mysterious craving the woman had developed.
They had a nice house and they were happy about that. There was a small window at the rear of their nice house, and it must have been a special window because it's mentioned especially. The window had a very special view. It looked out over a splendid garden which was surrounded by a high wall. The wall was so high that no one outside could see in to know what a beautiful garden was behind it, what wonderful, exotic flowers there were in the garden, flowers of every type and color you can imagine, and exotic herbs good for cooking and medicines. But the woman knew the garden was there, because the special small window at the back of her house looked out over it.
This woman had developed a craving for something in the garden. One day, standing by the window, gazing down at the garden, she had seen a bed planted with the most beautiful rampion.
I can remember the first time I heard of rampion. It was the first time I heard this tale, when I was a little girl, and I knew immediately it must taste wonderful. Its name is wonderful. Rampion. Plants and herbs have special botanical names in a language that is no longer spoken and so is considered dead. That language is Latin. The Latin word for Rampion is Campanulu rapunculus. It means something like "bell radish," and so rampion is also called harebell radish. In Italian, Rampion is ramponzolo. Another word for it is Rapunzel.
The radish of the rampion is sweetish; its stalks are covered with stiff, white hairs; its leaves may be eaten in a salad as a substitute for spinach. And though it might seem odd that the woman would be filled with longing for a radish which has leaves that can be prepared like a spinach salad, it's said that the rampion the woman saw in the garden looked so fresh and green she was seized with the most intense desire to taste it. Every day she went to the small window and looked down into the garden where the rampion was, and every day her desire to taste it increased, but she knew she couldn't have any because this was a garden into which no one dared to go. The garden with the high wall belonged to a lady who was also a powerful and evil sorceress. Her name was Dame Gothel.
Every day the woman went to her window to look at the rampion, and each day that she spent longing for the rampion was another day that her strength diminished, that's how badly she desired the rampion. The woman began to look so pale and miserable that it was alarming.
"If I can't eat some of the rampion which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die," she told her husband. "The rampion must be from that garden and no other," she said to her husband, even though she knew the garden belonged to an evil sorceress.
The husband loved his wife and began to be afraid that she really might die if he didn't bring her the rampion she wanted. He knew that if he asked the evil sorceress if he could buy some of her rampion, that she wouldn't sell it to him. Because of this, he felt he had no other choice than to steal the rampion from her.
That day, he waited until twilight had fallen, then scaled the wall surrounding the garden. Once inside the wall, though the garden was beautiful, we can be sure he was eager to be out as quickly as possible, so the evil sorceress wouldn't find him there. Hastily, he grabbed a handful of the rampion and fled the garden by the same means he'd gotten in.
The man took the handful of rampion to his wife, who immediately made a salad of it and ate it greedily. The taste was wonderful to her. As wonderful as a cool sip of water must seem to a person parched with thirst, who has been wandering in the desert a long time. The handful of rampion was enough to satisfy the wife's desire for a night, but then the next day came and the woman was hungry for the rampion again. In fact, she was three times as hungry for it as she had been before. "I must have rampion from the garden behind our house, or I shall die," she told her husband. "Now that I've tasted the rampion, I want it three times as much as I did before."
Maybe because the husband had been able to get that first handful of rampion without being caught he was not as afraid when he decided to scale the garden's wall a second time. Or maybe he was even more afraid, worried that this time he might be seen. Just as before, at twilight, he clambered the wall and let himself down on the other side. He had barely set foot on the ground when, oh, what a shock, for there was the sorceress standing before him!
"You dare to descend into my garden and steal my rampion like a thief?! You will suffer for this," the sorceress said to the man.
"Let mercy take the place of justice," the man pleaded with her. "It's out of necessity that I've acted as I have. My wife saw your rampion from our window. She felt such a longing for it that she said she would die if she didn't have some to eat."
"Take away with you then as much rampion as you will, but on one condition," the sorceress replied.
"Anything," the husband readily agreed, for he was both terrified, and eager to save his wife's life. He feared what would become of her if he didn't bring her the rampion she desired.
"You must give me the child which your wife will bring into the world," the sorceress demanded.
So it was that when the woman who had so fiercely desired the rampion gave birth to a daughter, the sorceress appeared at once to lay her claim on the child. "This child, who I will call Rapunzel, is mine, for you promised her to me in exchange for the rampion in my garden." The sorceress promised to care for Rapunzel as though she were her own child, and she Rapunzel's true mother, and took the baby away behind the garden wall.
Here, the parents of Rapunzel disappear into history. No one knows what happened to them. We are only able to know the life of their daughter.
If the sorceress cared for the child as she did her garden, then Rapunzel was treated well, and indeed she grew to be a beautiful girl. The day came when Rapunzel was twelve years old. The sorceress saw how much she had grown and knew that it was only a matter of a few years before Rapunzel would be ready to leave her. This was unbearable to the sorceress.
Intent upon keeping Rapunzel forever, the sorceress shut her up in a high, high tower in a forest. She shut Rapunzel up in it so there was no way for her to get out. The sorceress left neither stairs nor a door. There was only a small window high at the top of the tower. When the sorceress wanted to go in, she would stand at the bottom of the tower and cry,
Let down your hair to me!
Rapunzel's hair had never been cut. When she was a little girl it had grown so it had reached her feet, and still it hadn't been cut. It grew so that it stretched long across the ground, and seemed as gold sunlight trailing behind her as she walked. It grew fast as summer vines, so fast that even as you watched you could swear you saw her hair growing longer and longer, just like summer vines seem in a day to reach several feet up a tree or trellis, and several more feet the next day.
Rapunzel had magnificent long hair, the color of gold, which was just long enough to reach from the window of the high, high tower all the way to the ground. When she heard the sorceress call to her, she would unfasten her braided tresses, wind them round one of the hooks of the window above, and then let her hair cascade out the window to the ground below, and the sorceress would climb it. Some say her hair was 20 ells long. An ell was a measurement they used a long time ago. An ell was 45 inches. Rapunzel's hair was 900 inches long. That's 75 feet! You would have to stand 12 or so men on top of each other in order to reach the tower's window. That's about how high the window was up in the tower.
Several years went by, then one day a man riding through the forest chanced to pass nearby the tower, and as he passed, thinking he heard singing, he stopped his horse and listened. Yes, he had heard someone singing, a woman, and her voice was so beautiful that he was certain the woman to whom it belonged must be just as beautiful. The voice seemed to come from the high tower--but how could that be so? The tower had no door, no stairs. Who could be living in such a tower? For a while, he rested at its base and listened to the sweet song drift down to him from high above, then he went home. He could not, however, forget that voice, that song. He had to find a way to reach the woman to whom that wonderful voice belonged.
Of course, the man returned to the tower in the forest where he'd heard the lovely song. As luck would have it, he came near the tower just in time to see the sorceress, at its base, cry out,
Let down your hair
That I may climb the golden stair.
Much to his amazement, the man witnessed a cascade of gold hair let down the wall of the tower, by which the sorceress climbed to the high window and through it.
The next day, at twilight, the man went to the tower. His voice disguised so that he might sound like the sorceress, he cried,
Let down your hair
That I may climb the golden stair.
Immediately the hair fell down in a cascade of gold, and the man climbed up.
Rapunzel, at first, was terrified, but soon lost her fear of this man who told her how he had heard her song, and how his heart had been so stirred by it that he'd had no rest since that moment when he first heard her voice. When he asked Rapunzel if she would have him for a husband, Rapunzel said that she would.
Devising a manner by which to escape her tower, Rapunzel told the man he must from then on bring a skein of silk each time he came to visit her, her plan being to weave a ladder with the silk, and when the ladder was finished then they would descend it and she would go away with him.
Rapunzel was, in fact, a little uncertain about leaving the tower and Dame Gothel, who had cared for her while she was growing up. But she knew she must leave.
The man came to see his love every night when he was certain the sorceress would be gone, and each time brought with him a skein of silk, and eventually the day arrived when Rapunzel finished weaving the silken ladder by which she had promised the man she would descend from the tower so that they might go away together. The sorceress, however, when she visited Rapunzel that day, recognized that something was amiss. Even as Rapunzel had been weaving the ladder, her body had also changed so that her dress didn't fit her as it had once had, which is the way it is when a woman is expecting a child.
"Ah, you wicked girl," cried the sorceress in a rage that was horrible to witness. "I thought I had separated you from all the world, and yet, though I don't know how, you have deceived me! Tell me how this has happened."
Rapunzel told her. Then, Rapunzel cowering in fear, Dame Gothel, in her anger, clutched Rapunzel's remarkable tresses, wrapped them twice around her left hand, seized a pair of scissors with the other, and Snip, Snap, they were cut off. The lovely braids lay on the ground. Thus was severed Rapunzel from Dame Gothel.
So pitiless was Dame Gothel in her rage, that she then took Rapunzel into a desert. The girl, who had spent her youth in the beautiful garden, was surrounded by bone dry dust and thorns as far as the eye could see. "You will regret your treachery. From now on, all you will know is grief and misery," the sorceress vowed, and left Rapunzel there.
Returning to the tower, the sorceress fastened the braids of hair, which she had cut off, to the hook of the window, and waited. When Rapunzel's lover came and cried,
Let down your hair
That I may climb the golden stair,
the sorceress let the hair down.
The man ascended, but instead of finding Rapunzel at the other end of the braids, well, the light which streams from sun to earth might well as been cut off at its root, for there was the sorceress towering in dark rage.
"Aha," she mocked, "you would fetch your dearest, but the beautiful bird sits no longer in the nest. The cat has got it, and will scratch out your eyes as well. Rapunzel is lost to you. You will never see her again!"
Desperate, the man leapt from the tower. He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell pierced his eyes.
Rapunzel and the splendor of day's sun and night's stars lost to him, blinded, the man wandered the forest. He ate nothing but roots and grass, grieving the loss of Rapunzel. Days passed into weeks into years, and still the man wandered. Then one day the man came to a desert, and hearing a voice which seemed very familiar, he thought it must be a deception caused by the desert's winds, for he knew Rapunzel was lost to him. Still, he wandered toward the sound, not minding that it was only a mirage of sorts if in it he could be surrounded by his beloved's song just one more time. But the song in the desert was real, for this was the desert into which Rapunzel had been cast by Dame Gothel, where she'd lived all this time with the twins to which she'd given birth. Recognizing her lover, Rapunzel hugged him and wept. The darkness that had for so long surrounded the man began to clear, two of Rapunzel's tears having wet his eyes.
He saw again, and Dame Gothel's promise of ever-lasting misery and grief died there, proving powerless to restrain the celebration that followed.
Retelling by j. m. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm version of the tale.
© Copyright 1999 j m Kearns