Shakespeare's fairies aren't all sprites, rainbow-winged and dainty; they can take the form of monstrous imps and sinister monsters, as in Mercutio's frenzied harangue in Romeo and Juliet about Queen Mab, "the fairies' midwife," who "gallops night by night / Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love." As the speech builds, his imagery becomes ever more explicitly sexual, evoking a nightmare incubus:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear.
The underworld of such fairy lore maps onto the imaginary universe that the later, modern collecting of fairy tales discovered when the genre's power to illuminate secret aspects of experience - unspoken, disavowed desires and deeds - turned them into primary material for psychologists as well as prime inspiration for writers of fiction and artists. The stories are not only fantastical, though their appeal arises from their enchantments and fancifulness; they also encode a great deal of experience and knowledge from among the usually unnoticed and the voiceless groups - women, children, the poor. Their "charm'd magic casements" open onto realities - often harsh and cruel - onto nightmares as well as dreams. In the introduction to her first anthology of fairy tales, The Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book, Angela Carter emphasises the origins of the stories in oral culture, long before mass literacy. She reminds us that for most of human history, literature, both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written - heard, not read. So through fairy tales and folklore, we can establish the most vital connection available to us through the imaginations of the ordinary men and women "whose labour created our world," in her fine phrase. The stories can be read for their secrets, for the dead know many things we are always in danger of forgetting.
The fairy tale of "Rapunzel" is best known in the version the Grimm Brothers collected and published in their famous book Children's and Household Tales, which first appeared in 1812 and then went through many revisions, afterthoughts, and much buffing and shining to push it into an acceptable shape for Victorian nursery fare.
The most popular version of the story opens with a woman and her husband who long to have a child but have had no success; it then describes how the sad woman looks into the garden of the witch who lives next door and, noticing some herb or green stuff growing there, conceives a craving for it: it is rampion, known in German as rapunzel, a kind of lettuce or spinach. Her cravings become so intense that she appears to be dying of want, so her husband decides to steal into the garden and take some for her. The first time he succeeds, but eating it only makes his wife want more, so she begs him to go back, and this time he's caught in the act by the witch, who makes him swear that he will give her the child who will be born. "It will have a good life," she says. "I will take care of it like a mother."
When the little girl is born, the witch appears, calls her Rapunzel after the herb her mother had craved, and takes her as her own. The girl is beautiful, we are told, and when she reaches the age of twelve, the old woman locks her up in a tower with no door and no stairs and only a single window at the very top of the tower. Every day, when her witch mother calls up to her, the girl winds her long hair round a hook by the window (the story is clear about this important practicality) and hauls up her "old mother" to bring her provisions - and company.
The Grimms then created one of the most memorable, weird, fairy-tale refrains:
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair."
One day a prince riding by hears the young woman singing in her room at the top of the tower; he waits and watches; later he repeats the witch's refrain and copies her actions and ascends into the tower. …