Allison's Book Bag

The “Maiden in the Tower” Fairy Tale

Posted on: November 27, 2014

My third featured fairy tale, that of Rapunzel, is perhaps a little less familiar than the others I covered this week. A daughter sold by her parents, bought by a witch with a handful of herbs, locked in a tower, and rescued by her true love…. As with the stories of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, there are many “Maiden in the Tower” stories in cultures across the world.

One of the most modern comes from Marissa Meyers as part of The Lunar Chronicles. I reviewed the first title, based on the story of Cinderella, here in 2012. As a prelude, I’ve been sharing some of the origins of the fairy tales which inspired Meyers. Tomorrow I’ll return to review Scarlet and Cress. Save the date: November 28!


St-barbaraThe origin of the tale appears to go back as far as the early years of Christianity in 3rd Century Asia Minor. According to the legend of Saint Barbara, a wealthy pagan merchant who lived in a town in what is known as present day Turkey had an extremely beautiful daughter. To keep his virtuous young daughter from marrying a suitor of which he didn’t approve, the merchant locked her in a tower away from the outside world. At some point, Barbara is believed to have converted to Christianity and tortured to give up her faith. Tolovaj Publishing says she escaped with the help of animals. Other sources such as Kate Forsyth suggest Barbara might have been beheaded by her father. Images of Barbara often show her with long, flowing, blonde hair. In one version, her hair miraculously burst into flame when her father seized hold of it.


rudabaThe motif of the ‘hair ladder’ was used in a 10th century Persian epic tale told by Ferdowsi. Rudaba was a beautiful princess from Kabul associated with astonishing beauty. Her father did everything to seclude her from everybody outside of the closest family. She lived in a beautiful castle, but she really was in prison. While here, she offers to lower her hair to her lover so he can climb up to her. He is afraid he might hurt her and so throws up a rope instead. Tolovaj Publishing describes the epic Shahnameh has the most influential literary work in Persian history, comparable to Bible in Western world.


PetrosinellaLater, in 1634 Italy, Giambattista Basile published a collection of fairy tales known as Pentamerone. According to Tolovaj Publishing, his work on the field of fairy tales wasn’t very known because he was a courtier and a soldier. For that reason, his collection of fairy tales was published posthumously and under pseudonym. Nonetheless, among the stories was the tale of a young maiden held captive in a tower by an ogress, and its influence on later versions of Rapunzel is obvious. John Davis notes the story Petrosinella contains many of the elements of today’s Rapunzel: the mother forced to give up her daughter, the maiden with the long hair, and the handsome prince.


PersinetteSixty years later, the story reappears in France. This version is told in 1698 by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the Louis XIV. Locked away in a cloister, much like Rapunzel is in her tower, Charlotte-Rose was according to Tolovaj Publishing among the first writers to pen a collection of literary fairy tales, Les Contes des contes. Published under a pseudonym, Mademoiselle de la Force, her tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.

John Davis notes some of the changes introduced in this version include: A fairy, not an ogress, raises the girl after taking her from her mother. In addition the story is given a more adult slant when the fairy punishes Persinette and her Prince after discovering that the young woman is pregnant with twins. The result is that the young couple are tormented more than in Basile’s version and it’s the guardian-sprite‘s sudden forgiveness, not her death, that finally frees them.


In the late 1700s, Persinette was translated into German by Friedrich Schulz and is almost identical to La Force’s tale except for changing the heroine’s name to Rapunzel (a type of lettuce). This detail would seem of little importance except that folklorists seem to believe Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm included Schultz’s Rapunzel in the first edition of their fairy tales without knowing its literary origins. The Brothers Grimm believed it came from oral folk tradition, but speculation is that someone probably told them Schultz’s story. It is their tale which is best known today.

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