February 15, 2011

What Kind of Fairy Tale Is 'Rumpelstiltskin'?



It falls under the category of "The Name of the Helper," and it has numerous variants. As part of the "Enchanted Conversation rules of the game, writers and poets can choose to examine any variant of a thematic tale. What's more, any aspect of any variant is fair game. Don't get stuck in slavishly close retellings. The merest whiff of an original tale in the theme may be enough. Be inspired by, not beholden to the story of "Rumpelstiltskin."


For inspiration, here's a Slav version:

Kinkach Martinko

Once upon a time there was a poor woman who had an only daughter, named Helen, a very lazy girl. One day when she had refused to do a single thing, her mother took her down to the banks of a stream and began to strike her fingers with a flat stone, just as you do in beating linen to wash it. 

The girl cried a good deal. A prince, Lord of the Red Castle, happened at that moment to pass by, and inquired as to the cause of such treatment, for it horrified him that a mother should so ill-use her child.

"Why should I not punish her?" answered the woman. "The idle girl can do nothing but spin hemp into gold thread." 

"Really?" cried he. "Does she really know how to spin gold thread out of hemp? If that be so, sell her to me." 

"Willingly; how much will you give me for her?" 

"Half a measure of gold." 

"Take her," said the mother; and she gave him her daughter as soon as the money was paid. 

The prince placed the girl behind him on the saddle, put spurs to his horse, and took her home.
On reaching the Red Castle, the prince led Helen into a room filled from floor to ceiling with hemp, and having supplied her with distaff and spinning wheel, said, "When you have spun all this hemp into gold thread I will make you my wife."

Then he went out, locking the door after him. 

On finding herself a prisoner, the poor girl wept as if her heart would break. Suddenly she saw a very odd looking little man seated on the window sill. He wore a red cap, and his boots were made of some strange sort of material. 

"Why do you weep so?" he asked. 

"I cannot help it," she replied, "I am but a miserable slave. I have been ordered to spin all this hemp into gold thread, but it is impossible, I can never do it, and I know not what will become of me." 

I will do it for you in three days, on condition that at the end of that time you guess my right name, and tell me what the boots I am wearing now are made of."

Without for one moment reflecting as to whether she would be able to guess aright she consented. The uncanny little man burst out laughing, and taking her distaff set to work at once.
All day as the distaff moved the hemp grew visibly less, while the skein of gold thread became larger and larger. 

The little man spun all the time, and, without stopping an instant, explained to Helen how to make thread of pure gold. As night drew on he tied up the skein, saying to the girl, "Well, do you know my name yet? Can you tell me what my boots are made of?" 

Helen replied that she could not, upon which he grinned and disappeared through the window. She then sat and looked at the sky, and thought, and thought, and thought, and lost herself in conjecturing as to what the little man's name might be, and in trying to guess what was the stuff his boots were made of. Were they of leather? or perhaps plaited rushes? or straw? or cast iron? No, they did not look like anything of that sort. And as to his name -- that was a still more difficult problem to solve. 

"What shall I call him?" said she to herself -- "John? Or Henry? Who knows? perhaps it is Paul or Joseph." 

These thoughts so filled her mind that she forgot to eat her dinner. Her meditations were interrupted by cries and groans from outside, where she saw an old man with white hair sitting under the castle wall. 

"Miserable old man that I am," cried he; "I die of hunger and thirst, but no one pities my sufferings." Helen hastened to give him her dinner, and told him to come next day, which he promised to do. 

After again thinking for some time what answers she should give the little old man, she fell asleep on the hemp. 

The little old man did not fail to make his appearance the first thing next morning, and remained all day spinning the gold thread. The work progressed before their eyes, and it was only when evening came that he repeated his questions. Not receiving a satisfactory answer, he vanished in a fit of mocking laughter. Helen sat down by the window to think; but think as she might, no answer to these puzzling questions occurred to her. 

While thus wondering the hungry old man again came by, and she gave him her dinner. She was heart-sick and her eyes were full of tears, for she thought she would never guess the spinner's name, nor of what stuff his boots were made, unless perhaps God would help her. 

"Why are you so sad?" asked the old man when he had eaten and drunk; "tell me the cause of you grief, dear lady." 

For a long time she would not tell him, thinking it would be useless; but at last, yielding to his entreaties, she gave a full account of the conditions under which the gold thread was made, explaining that unless she could answer the little old man's questions satisfactorily she feared some great misfortune would befall her.

The old man listened attentively, then, nodding his head, he said: "In coming through the forest today I passed close to a large pile of burning wood, round which were placed nine iron pots. A little man in a red cap was running round and jumping over them, singing these words:
My sweet friend, fair Helen, at the Red Castle near,
Two days and two nights seeks my name to divine,
She'll never find out, so the third night 'tis clear
My sweet friend, fair Helen, can't fail to be mine.
Hurrah! for my name is Kinkach Martinko,
Hurrah! for my boots are of doggies' skin O!
"Now that is exactly what you want to know, my dear girl; so do not forget, and you are saved."
And with these words the old man vanished. 

Helen was greatly astonished, but she took care to fix in her memory all that the good fellow had told her, and then went to sleep, feeling that she could face tomorrow without fear. 

One the third day, very early in the morning, the little old man appeared and set busily to work, for he knew that all the hemp must be spun before sunset, and that then he should be able to claim his rights. When evening came all the hemp was gone, and the room shone with the brightness of the golden thread. 

As soon as his work was done, the queer little old man with the red cap drew himself up with a great deal of assurance, and with his hand in his pockets strutted up and down before Helen, ordering her to tell him his right name and to say of what stuff the boots were made; but he felt certain that she would not be able to answer aright.

"Your name is Kinkach Martinko, and your boots are made of dogskin," she replied without the slightest hesitation. 

At these words he spun round on the floor like a bobbin, tore out his hair and beat his breast with rage, roaring so that the very walls trembled. 

"It is lucky for you that you have guessed. If you had not, I should have torn you to pieces on this very spot:" so saying he rushed out of the window like a whirlwind. 

Helen felt deeply grateful towards the old man who had told her the answers, and hoped to be able to thank him in person. But he never appeared again. 

The Prince of the Red Castle was very pleased with her for having accomplished her task so punctually and perfectly, and he married her as he had promised.

Helen was truly thankful to have escaped the dangers that had threatened her, and her happiness as a princess was greater than she had dared hope. She had, too, such a good stock of gold thread that she never had occasion to spin any more all her life long.

6 comments

  1. While this is definitely a helpful example, I was really hoping to read a few more variants on The Name of the Accomplice by way of research for a possible submission. Unfortunately, your link to pitt.edu doesn't seem to work for me, and my own searches have so far been unhelpful.

    Would you be willing and able to point me to some other resources (online or off) or post an updated version of that link?

    I'm really enjoying what I've read of the magazine so far - keep up the great work!

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  2. Here is a useful link from Surlalunefairtales.com -- an always useful site:
    http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/rumpelstiltskin/other.html

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  3. Thanks, that's exactly what I was looking for!

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  4. Slav version of Rumpelstiltskin
    Kinkach Martinko
    The Slavic version of Rumpelstiltskin,Kinach Martinko, is very similar to the version I remember from my youth, but with notable differences. In the version that I am familiar with I don’t believe the young girl has a name, and it is her father, not her mother that gambles with the girl’s life. Of course there is the obvious name change of the “little man”, and although he ultimately does the same deed, of spinning an organic substance into gold, the stakes are much higher in Rumpelstiltskin, although that is debatable. I’m not sure if I would rather give up my first born son, or be ripped to shreds and eaten. Kinach Martinko seems to be a very callous person, and obviously a cannibal. Whereas Rumpelstiltskin , it appears, just wants company. Maybe that is why he asks for the unborn child, we have no evidence that he has anything malicious planned. The prince/king in both stories continues to stay ruthless; it is safe to say that the two do not have a very healthy relationship, and that the patriarchal figure ultimately views the young woman as an object. It appears that even in fairytales; women are often objectified, by men and even women themselves.
    Serena W.
    September 22, 2012

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  5. So other than changing the name, this story seems to be the way that I remember it? I do like the aspect of the old man helping her. She helped him, so he helped her, so that “Rumple” would help her. It’s a chain of trust. Although, I would like to know how the old man knew what to tell her. Was he just rambling? We haven’t really talked about this story in class and I hope that we do because I really enjoy the tale. Some tales shouldn’t be tampered with. I do think that this was ok.

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  6. I find this story disturbing. Not a single character in it is worthy of sympathy. The girl is described as lazy. The mother is not happy with having sold thread, is abusive and is also willing to sell her daughter to complete strangers. The Prince is greedy and only wants her for a wife because she can supposedly spin gold from hemp. Kinkach Martinko is an odd little fellow who either wants to eat the girl, or has lustfull intent on her.

    Perhaps the story would be better if the girl at the beginning wasn't being beaten because of her laziness. Being hit with a stone on her fingers is a harsh punishment even if she was lazy. However, if she was a normal girl, and the mother was merely abusive then this story would have someone to admire in it.

    The ONLY redeeming factor for Helen is that she takes pity on the poor old man outside. Has Helen turned the corner and become someone worthwhile? Has she earned a good life as a princess? Is being a princess all that great of a thing, considering she has to marry a prince who only wanted her because she could make him richer?

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