January 16, 2011

Sinfully Helpful?

Sin in fairy tales is one of the themes I hit pretty hard when I talk to students about messages and subtext in fairy stories. Greed, wrath, envy, lust -- they're all there. Sin, is, of course, deeply unfashionable, and  by "unfashionable," I don't mean to suggest that greed and lust and their five troublesome friends no longer beset we frail humans; after all the seven deadlies will always be with us. It's just that the concept of "sinfulness' is not accepted. We use the concepts of psychology and the legal system instead.

Yet belief in human sinfulness was very much alive when stories such as "Rumpelstiltskin" were being told at firesides, or even written down by early collectors such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. As in most fairy tales, greed has a starring role in "Rumpelstiltskin." There's the greedy, bragging  father, the greed of the king, the greed of Rumpelstiltskin for a child. The miller's daughter, who receives the dubious benefits of Rumpel's help is by no means admirable. Is she greedy? Yes, probably. But in the sense that many people would be in her case. Beyond her beauty, however, she is a cipher.

"Rumpelstiltskin" is one of the relatively rare fairy tales where men are more at the center of action than women.  But by focusing on greed, it fits in with its sister tales, including numerous variants of the story.

6 comments

  1. This is very encouraging to hear, as it's in line with the way my ideas have been going for the upcoming themes. (Particularly for Snow White, but for Rumpelstiltskin as well.)

    I have to say too that I was very excited to find this place. The fairy tale "conversation" is proving to be an excellent writing exercise, besides all the excellent stories in their own right. Very helpful all around!

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  2. A further thought: I'm not sure greed is actually the primary sin in Rumpelstiltskin.

    The king is censured as greedy, but he's rewarded for it. He gets a wife, a child, and a bunch of gold. The miller could be greedy, hoping for, say, a royal marriage for his daughter, but he is also hoping to make himself seem important as the father of a remarkable daughter.

    Rumpelstiltskin barters for the girl's jewelry, and keeps it...but he pities her and *doesn't* claim the child at first opportunity. Instead he proposes the riddle of his name. Then he is so supremely confident no one can outwit him that he gives himself away, and comes to a ridiculous end, due to his pride rather than his greed.

    It still ties in with the main point, that the characters' sins are at the heart of the tale and still worthy of examination, even though the terminology is no longer popular. Food for thought!

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  3. Sadly, when I attempted to follow your link to pitt.edu, I got a 'page not found' error.

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  4. I, too, am happy to have found this site! I have been in love with fairy tails since childhood (and I am now 61!) They never get old.
    I rather agree with AnnieColleen about Rumpel's greed. As there are levels of "purity", so, too are there levels of "sin". Which makes me think that Rumpel's level of sin is less "pure," let's say, than either the King's or the miller's, thus makes Rumpel the most dimensional character in the story.

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  5. Rumpelstiltskin might be a story of greed, but the titular character also seems to exhibit a bit of pride in his mercy, as AnnieColleen mentioned. Although it may have been much simpler to proclaim a deal is a deal and then take the child, he gives her a chance to guess his name. His pride lies in his unfaltering confidence that he has bested the girl; and in fact it’s also reminiscent of one of the eight original “evil thoughts” as listed by monk Evagrius Ponticus in the fourth century, that sin being hubris (Wikipedia). Hubris is typically associated with prideful actions that shame or humiliate the victim, the way that Rumpelstiltskin toys with the woman by giving her what he believes to be false hope – in his anger at losing, it could be argued that he never believed her capable of discovering his name. Whether or not pride/hubris was an intentional theme woven into the story, it’s clear that when one sin is present in a story it is often accompanied by others somehow.

    --Dylan Richardson

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