Why geeks don’t write fairy tales

It was inevitable…

Rapunzel, illustration by Johnny GruelleOne of the primary goals of Photos to Space is to inspire kids to learn about space. Today, the concept of space travel is increasingly commonplace.

However, it wasn’t always the case. Joe and I were talking about the things kids have access to now that we didn’t have 30 years or so ago. It wouldn’t surprise us if kids today weren’t even familiar with old-fashioned children’s stories.

Herein lay the problem. We both, though we’re now adults, remember the basic themes of the stories, the difference is that now we look at them from the viewpoint of scientists, of a sort.

Consider, as we did, the story of Rapunzel.

The damsel in distress, she lets down her hair for the Brave Knight to climb in order to effect a rescue.

Let’s think about this for a bit.

First off, how far off the ground is the window? Human hair grows at approximately 1/2″ per month, or about 6 inches per year. Given this, assuming the window is only 20′ off the ground, Rapunzel’s hair would have to be, at a bare minimum, 15′ long, as the hair would only have to be close enough to the ground to allow for a safe distance from which to both drop from and grab the end.

We’re going to ignore here that a 20′ vertical jump is not only survivable, but can even be accomplished without injury if the person knows how to land.

This would mean that Rapunzel is at least 30.

But maybe not. Nothing says that the Brave Knight has to start climbing from the ground. Horses were a common means of transport in the era during which the the story takes place, so he could conceivably begin the climb from while mounted. This would take the requisite hair length down to roughly 11′, bringing Rapunzel’s age to 22.

However, this leads to another problem.

A typical set of knight’s armor would weigh somewhere between 40 – 60 lbs. Allowing the benefit of the doubt, if the Brave Knight alone weighed in at only 150 lbs., the Brave Knight in armor would weight somewhere around 200 lbs.

Imagine a 200 lb. weight hanging from the end of your hair. And this doesn’t even take the jerking motion of a vertical, hand-over-hand climb into account. The odds are good that Rapunzel would become rapidly and painfully bald, and that the Brave Knight would end up back where he started, buried under her golden locks.

But have no fear! All is not lost for our beautiful maiden!

Let’s again give the story the benefit of the doubt. Rapunzel herself most likely weighs less than the knight, as she’s been locked up in the tower for at least enough time for it to become known that she’s in need of rescue. It’s entirely possible that food is at least somewhat scarce.

Suppose for a moment that either Rapunzel or the Brave Knight takes this into account. Rapunzel now has the option of tying the end of her hair to something solid inside the tower, lowering the hair between the knot and the roots out the window, and climbing down her own hair to the waiting Brave Knight. Yes, her hair would have to be at least 20′ long for that to work, raising her age back to 40, but that’s ok. She would also find that, upon reaching a position nearing the ground, that the far end of her hair was still tied off, requiring the Brave Knight to draw his trusty sword and sever the “rope”. In other words, she has a choice between losing all of her hair or only some of it.

On the other hand, unless I’m wrong, it’s never clearly stated how long she’s been in the tower. If she’s screaming for rescue after only one day, that may indicate other issues. But let’s assume she’s been up there since the age of 15, for the sake of math. That would mean, assuming again that the Brave Knight begins to climb from the back of the horse, that she’s had 7 years to figure out how to escape on her own, and if 7 years isn’t enough time to do that, I’d question her intellect were I the one trying to rescue her, and if that’s the case, I’d probably not want to mount a rescue in the first place.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t she just leave the way she most likely got there to begin with? Why not wait until the door is open and make a run for it? Well, if the door can withstand 7 years of plotting (again, assuming she’s not a complete idiot here) before the Brave Knight arrived, it’s probably going to withstand his efforts as well.

The point?

Maybe she needs a locksmith.

The end.



  • You forget some crucial elements here. Magic. Hormones. The witch. Imagination. They all play a role so anything could happen.

    Rapunzel is probably 20 or under, so is the knight. Raging hormones (not to mention PEA – the chemical cocktail we associate with falling in love) can make otherwise sane individuals do crazy things like overlook character flaws.

    The witch most likely put a spell on several parts like the hair & the tower.

    Is this story a metaphor for anything?

    I bet it could work on a low gravity planet!


    Pam Hoffman

    • Thanks! The only variable that came to mind when writing this and knowingly overlooked was the linear elasticity of hair, but your points would all figure into it also.

      But is it a metaphor? No, this was just the result of runaway brains during Joe’s visit to Colorado, combined with a lot of exasperated head-shaking and sighing from Vicky.

      And we’ve only just started looking at the Three Little Pigs…

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.