A lonely couple, who want a child, live next to a walled garden belonging to an enchantress. The wife, experiencing the cravings associated with the arrival of her long-awaited pregnancy, notices a rapunzel plant (or, in some versions of the story, rampion), growing in the garden and longs for it, desperate to the point of death. On each of two nights, the husband breaks into the garden to gather some for her; on a third night, as he scales the wall to return home, the enchantress, “Dame Gothel,” catches him and accuses him of theft. He begs for mercy, and the old woman agrees to be lenient, on condition that the then-unborn child be surrendered to her at birth. Desperate, the man agrees. When the baby girl is born, the enchantress takes the child to raise as her own, and names the baby Rapunzel. Rapunzel grows up to be the most beautiful child in the world with long golden hair. When Rapunzel reaches her twelfth year, the enchantress shuts her away in a tower in the middle of the woods, with neither stairs nor a door, and only one room and one window. When the witch visits Rapunzel, she stands beneath the tower and calls out:
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb the golden stair.
Upon hearing these words, Rapunzel would wrap her long, fair hair around a hook beside the window, dropping it down to the enchantress, who would then climb up the hair to Rapunzel’s tower room. (A variation on the story also has the enchantress imbued with the power of flight and/or levitation and the young girl unaware of her hair’s length.)
One day, a prince rides through the forest and hears Rapunzel singing from the tower. Entranced by her ethereal voice, he searches for the girl and discovers the tower, but is naturally unable to enter. He returns often, listening to her beautiful singing, and one day sees Dame Gothel visit, and thus learns how to gain access to Rapunzel. When Dame Gothel is gone, he bids Rapunzel let her hair down. When she does so, he climbs up, makes her acquaintance, and eventually asks her to marry him. Rapunzel agrees.
Together they plan a means of escape, wherein he will come each night (thus avoiding the enchantress who visited her by day), and bring her silk, which Rapunzel will gradually weave into aladder. Before the plan can come to fruition, however, Rapunzel foolishly gives the prince away. In the first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Rapunzel innocently says that her dress is getting tight around her belly (indicating pregnancy); in subsequent editions, she asks the witch (in a moment of forgetfulness) why it is easier for her to draw up the prince than her. In anger, Dame Gothel cuts short Rapunzel’s braided hair and casts her out into the wilderness to fend for herself. When the prince calls that night, the enchantress lets the severed braids down to haul him up. To his horror, he finds himself staring at the witch instead of Rapunzel, who is nowhere to be found. When she tells him in anger that he will never see Rapunzel again, he leaps from the tower in despair and is blinded by the thorns below. In another version, the witch pushes him and he falls on the thorns, thus becoming blind.
For months he wanders through the wastelands of the country. One day, as Rapunzel sings while she fetches water, the prince hears Rapunzel’s voice again, and they are reunited. When they fall into each others’ arms, her tears immediately restore his sight. In another variation, it is said that Rapunzel eventually gives birth to twin boys (in some variations, a girl and a boy). The prince leads her to his kingdom, where they live happily ever after.
In another version of the story, the story ends with the revelation that the witch had untied Rapunzel’s braid after the prince leapt from the tower, and the braid slipped from her hands and landed far below, leaving her trapped in the tower.