Fairy Tale Misfits - Rumpelstiltskin

Current Theme Song (aka what's playing on my ipod right now): Pictures of You by The Last Goodnight.

Rumpelstiltskin is the most aggravating fairy tale in the world (that I've found - so far). Don't believe me? I'll show you.

But I'm going to be cheating a little. I'm going to start by quoting Vivian Vande Velde, an awesome YA author with an even awesomer last name. She says it so much better than I ever could. The excerpts come from her author's notes from her book The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, a collection of stories all based on Rumpelstiltskin. (You should all definitely read it. Some are touching, some are hilarious. My favorite by far is the second story in the collection, Straw into Gold).

She begins talking about a famous game she knew as Gossip, but has other variants such as Telephone, Whisper Down the Lane, and Chinese Whispers. It is where one person whispers something in someone's ear and it goes around until it gets to the last person and they finally say it and it is almost always vastly (and usually hilariously) different from what it was originally.

That's how I feel about the story of Rumpelstiltskin - it makes no sense.

The story starts with a poor miller telling the king "My daughter can spin straw into gold." ...

Now, no matter the reason the miller said what he did, you'd think that in reality he would have noticed that his daughter doesn't actually know how to spin straw into gold. (Unless she's lied to him. In which case you'd think that now would be a the time for her to set things straight). But still hr brings her to the castle to show off a talent she doesn't have - which doesn't sound to me like responsible parenting.

At the castle the king locks the girl into a room and tells her, "Spin this straw into gold, or tomorrow you shall die."

Not my idea of a promising first date.

The girl seems smarter than her father. She knows that she can't spin straw into gold, so she's worried. But what does she do? She starts crying. Not a very productive plan. Still, along comes a little man who, by happy coincidence, knows how to do what everyone wants. "What will you give me to spin this straw into gold for you?" he asks her, and she offers him her gold ring.

Now think about this.

Here's someone who can spin an entire roomful of straw into gold. Why does he need her tiny gold ring? Sounds like a bad bargain to me. But the little man agree and spins the straw into gold. Is the king satisfied? Of course not.

The next night he locks her in an even bigger room with even more straw and offers her the same deal: "Spin this straw into gold, or tomorrow you shall die." Again the little man comes, again he gets her butt out of trouble (this time in exchange for a necklace - apparently the poor miller has a secret stash to keep his daughter in all this jewelry), and yet again the king makes his demand: "Straw for gold."

At this point the girl has run out of jewelry, but the little man says he'll spin one more time if she'll promise him the firstborn child. Why he wants this child he never says, and she never asks. Obviously the miller's daughter is no more a responsible parent than her father is, for she agrees to the bargain.

Fortunately for everyone, the next morning the king is finally satisfied with the amount of gold the girl has spin for him, and he asks her to marry him.

Swept off her feet because he's such a sweet talker ("Spin or die"), she accepts the king's proposal.

Eventually the happy couple has a child, and the little man suddently shows up to demand what has been promised to him. Again the girl cried, perhaps hoping that yet another little man will step forward to get out of trouble.

She goes on to point out numerous other discrepancies, like why Rumpelstiltskin is singing his name loud enough to wake the dead, or why, after how forthright and kind and patient this guy has been, the queen still feels it necessary to put up a charade of goading him with false names before finally giving him his real one. Talk about thankless. And let's not even touch him stamping his foot hard enough it cracks the ground (wasn't he described as little?) and then tearing himself in two?

What do you think your teacher would say if you handed in a story like that?

I think you'd be lucky to get a D-.

And that's assuming your spelling was good.

It was by asking myself all these questions that I came to write these stories.

-Author's Notes to The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

What she doesn't point out (and something I read from another argument, but I can no longer remember where) is how unfairly treated Rumpelstiltskin is throughout all of this. He came to help her, he fulfilled every end of his bargain to the letter. There were no deceptions or trickery from him (something of a precedent in a story like this), and then when he comes to fulfill his end of the bargain to take what was rightfully offered him, she throws a fit and makes him seem like the bad guy. What's up with that? And because he is a "child stealer", we automatically sympathize with her. Something's whacked here. And then, even though he has no obligation to, he offers her a way out of the bargain! Dude, this is the most misrepresented villain in fairy tale-dom. And then at the end, he gets the most unfair treatment by having to rip himself in half. Now that's a messed up fairy tale.

Like Vivian Vande Velde's very worthy collection, there have been attempts to figure out this tangle of a story. A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce is the most recent example I can think of, and looking at Sur La Lune, there seems to be quite a few. I have never read A Curse as Dark as Gold, but I dearly want to, if only to see how she dealt with this fairy tale. For me, this is the Holy Grail of fairy tales, because if I write it, and get this one right (and can have it make sense), well, that's just cool.

What are your thoughts? Had you ever thought of Rumpelstiltskin this way? Or is there another fairy tale that bugs you as much as this one does for me? :)

(Photos courtesy of Photia on Deviant Art, and concept art from Happily Never After)


Jazz said...

Let's say you are walking down the street when you come across a man holding a woman at gunpoint. He tells the woman she must perform a backflip or he will kill her. The woman has never down a backflip in her life and would not know where to begin.

You happen to be a gymnast who can perform backflips easily. Will you perform a backflip in the woman's place to save her life or will you offer to do a backflip for her if she gives you a thousand dollars?

I'm sad to see the "blame the victim" mentality you have here. Rumeplstiltskin is not a good person. The little man did not come to help her, he came to offer her a way out of a life or death situation just so he could help himself. He did not deserve what he asked for because his intentions are not pure. Would you give your child to a little man with a temper, who you know nothing about, because you promised to when you thought you would die if you did not?

This young woman has been put in a desperate situation by her father's pride. The king is greedy, and informs the young woman that she will be his queen. I have no idea where Vivian Vande Velde read a version of the story where the king asks her to be his bride and she accepts. Even if he did offer, the choice would have been life in the palace or death.

When she finally guesses his name he says that the devil told her that. So he hangs out with the devil, does he? Not the best guy, the devil.

Fairy tales were written as cautionary tales or tales of instruction. When we interpret them, we have to keep the time period of origin in mind. What was life like for a woman in the 1800s and prior? Was this tale meant to make people better parents, or to discourage lying and bragging? Fairy tales are extended metaphors that will not make sense if you take everything literally.

Heather Zundel said...

Touche. (I wish I could add the cool little accent mark. Does anyone know how to do that with comments?). This is exactly the kind of discussion I love to see on here. I love thinking in new ways and new ideas. Thank you for your comments Jazz.

Though I must say that every version of the story I've read, the king did ask her to marry him (but that doesn't discount your comments about marriage or death. I agree, especially taken in an historical context).

And while I agree that if we take an historical interpretation, it is easily a cautionary tale, and Rumpelstiltskin is up to no good. But one of the beautiful things of fairy tales is that (like their oral origins) they can evolve with time, and the lessons changed for each new audience. That is what so fascinates me about all these retellings. Nowadays, you will hardly see a weak or frail princess among the lot. They have evolved as our perceptions have changed. And so the stories change to fill this new need because we do need these fictional metaphors just as much today as they did then.

Besides much stronger female characters, we also have seemed to developed a fascination with the "other side" stories. I think of the the Broadway musical Wicked as one example. Donna Jo Napoli's work also frequently tells such "other side" stories.

So I can see both sides of this coin. I can see how Rumpelstiltskin is a a vindictive man with his own cruel and twisted agenda, but I can just as easily see him as misrepresented and honest. It is all from the viewpoint you want to take. No one sees the same story the exact same way and I think these retellings show just how much this is true.

Thank you so much for your comments Jazz. I'm so glad you brought those points up. (And I would like to think I would do the back flip just for the sake of helping the woman. But that is just me). :)

Jazz said...

I do love retellings. I think they play an important part of keeping the original stories alive while having the freedom to explore new themes. If you'd like to read old tales with awesome women I suggest Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters. The editor has chosen stories with strong heroines from all around the world, and at the end of each story gives an explanation of the cultural context. You probably won't need all of the explanations but it came in handy for me when I read a tale from Japan that I thought portrayed the heroine as evil until I understood the class system it spoke to. (Well, the class system does suck so maybe she was an evil snob after all.)

Anyway, I can certainly see both sides of the coin. But for me, I can only see Rumpelstiltskin's side if it is a retelling and not an interpretation of the original tale.

Thanks for your response! And have you read Wicked? It's better than the musical!