July 5, 2012

Rumpelstiltskin, By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Editor's note: Poor old Rumpelstiltskin. In my book, he was more sinned against than sinning. He always just seemed like a lonely guy who wanted a child -- and really, how great would the greedy king and thoughtless miller's daughter be as parents? And the miller? A dolt. Everyone knows that you do not, do not, try to gain the attention of the greedy and powerful -- unless you are attempting a palace coup.

The miller was not up to anything like a palace takeover, but in any case, the brag about his daughter's alleged ability to spin straw into gold sets the whole story of "Rumpelstiltskin" motion. 

The king, even for a figure of power in a fairy tale, is notably greedy and cruel. Not only does he want all the gold he can get (which, admittedly, is a pretty common failing), but he threatens her with death if she fails to produce. The miller, meanwhile, is not seen to throw himself at the feet of the kind, begging for mercy for his daughter.

The miller's daughter is pretty vacant, in this version of the tale, and this version is a standard text. All she can do is cry. Then, she ultimately promises away one of the things the king would most want from her: His future child. Granted, she is scared, but surely, a man who would kill a woman who couldn't spin straw into gold would also kill her if she gave away his child -- but he'd probably torture her first. Perhaps she needed to think harder.

Rumpel is the only decent person in the story. He even gives the "heroine" a chance to keep her baby by guessing his name. And she cheats.

But you know that, because you already know the story. The Brothers Grimm version below is from 1922. 

What do you think of my surly take on this story? I say, "Team Rumpel!"

Charles Robinson

There was once a poor Miller who had a beautiful daughter, and one day, having to go to speak with the King, he said, in order to make himself appear of consequence, that he had a daughter who could spin straw into gold. The King was very fond of gold, and thought to himself, "That is an art which would please me very well"; and so he said to the Miller, "If your daughter is so very clever, bring her to the castle in the morning, and I will put her to the proof."

As soon as she arrived the King led her into a chamber which was full of straw; and, giving her a wheel and a reel, he said, "Now set yourself to work, and if you have not spun this straw into gold by an early hour to-morrow, you must die." With these words he shut the room door, and left the maiden alone.

There she sat for a long time, thinking how to save her life; for she understood nothing of the art whereby straw might be spun into gold; and her perplexity increased more and more, till at last she began to weep.

All at once the door opened, and in stepped a little Man, who said, "Good evening, fair maiden; why do you weep so sore?"

"Ah," she replied, "I must spin this straw into gold, and I am sure I do not know how."

Anne Anderson

 The little Man asked, "What will you give me if I spin it for you?"

"My necklace," said the maiden.

The Dwarf took it, placed himself in front of the wheel, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three times round, and the bobbin was full. Then he set up another, and whir, whir, whir, thrice round again, and a second bobbin was full; and so he went all night long, until all the straw was spun, and the bobbins were full of gold. At sunrise the King came, very much astonished to see the gold; the sight of which gladdened him, but did not make his heart less covetous. He caused the maiden to be led into another room, still larger, full of straw; and then he bade her spin it into gold during the night if she valued her life. The maiden was again quite at a loss what to do; but while she cried the door opened suddenly, as before, and the Dwarf appeared and asked her what she would give him in return for his assistance. "The ring off my finger," she replied. The little Man took the ring and began to spin at once, and by morning all the straw was changed to glistening gold. The King was rejoiced above measure at the sight of this, but still he was not satisfied, but, leading the maiden into another still larger room, full of straw as the others, he said, "This you must spin during the night; but if you accomplish it you shall be my bride." "For," thought he to himself, "a richer wife thou canst not have in all the world."

Charles Folkard

When the maiden was left alone, the Dwarf again appeared and asked, for the third time, "What will you give me to do this for you?"

"I have nothing left that I can give you," replied the maiden.

"Then promise me your first-born child if you become Queen," said he.

John Gruelle
The Miller's daughter thought, "Who can tell if that will ever happen?" and, ignorant how else to help herself out of her trouble, she promised the Dwarf what he desired; and he immediately set about and finished the spinning. When morning came, and the King found all he had wished for done, he celebrated his wedding, and the Miller's fair daughter became Queen.

The gay times she had at the King's Court caused her to forget that she had made a very foolish promise.
About a year after the marriage, when she had ceased to think about the little Dwarf, she brought a fine child into the world; and, suddenly, soon after its birth, the very man appeared and demanded what she had promised. The frightened Queen offered him all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her her child; but the Dwarf answered, "No; something human is dearer to me than all the wealth of the world."

The Queen began to weep and groan so much that the Dwarf pitied her, and said, "I will leave you three days to consider; if you in that time discover my name you shall keep your child."

AH Watson

All night long the Queen racked her brains for all the names she could think of, and sent a messenger through the country to collect far and wide any new names. The following morning came the Dwarf, and she began with "Caspar," "Melchior," "Balthassar," and all the odd names she knew; but at each the little Man exclaimed, "That is not my name." The second day the Queen inquired of all her people for uncommon and curious names, and called the Dwarf "Ribs-of-Beef," "Sheep-shank," "Whalebone," but at each he said, "This is not my name." The third day the messenger came back and said, "I have not found a single name; but as I came to a high mountain near the edge of a forest, where foxes and hares say good night to each other, I saw there a little house, and before the door a fire was burning, and round this fire a very curious little Man was dancing on one leg, and shouting:

Warwick Goble
"'To-day I stew, and then I'll bake,
To-morrow I shall the Queen's child take;
Ah! how famous it is that nobody knows
That my name is Rumpelstiltskin.'"

When the Queen heard this she was very glad, for now she knew the name; and soon after came the Dwarf, and asked, "Now, my lady Queen, what is my name?"

First she said, "Are you called Conrade?" "No."

"Are you called Hal?" "No."

"Are you called Rumpelstiltskin?"

"A witch has told you! a witch has told you!" shrieked the little Man, and stamped his right foot so hard in the ground with rage that he could not draw it out again. Then he took hold of his left leg with both his hands, and pulled away so hard that his right came off in the struggle, and he hopped away howling terribly. And from that day to this the Queen has heard no more of her troublesome visitor.

Kay Nielsen

18 comments

  1. I TOTALLY agree. Team Rumpel!

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  2. I have a soft spot for this tale. I'm not sure if I would call it my favorite, but it's definitely one of the tales I know best. It seems to me that Rumpelstiltskin raises more questions than other fairy tales. There are so many details missing, so many things that can be questioned. And, as you said, the good and bad in this tale are slightly mixed up.

    I do pretty much agree with you that Rumpel is hardly the bad guy here. The father and the king win that title hands down. But I'm not so sure about your assumption of the girl. She didn't freely offer her child- she agreed only after Rumpel named the price. She didn't really have much of a choice- either promise the unborn child or die the next morning and never have the chance to give birth to the child anyway. I don't exactly see what other choice she had.
    As for her taking advantage of Rumpel at the end by cheating in his game [and enjoying it, by the looks of it], I think I can understand that too.
    We are talking about a girl who has been taken advantage of so far by everyone- her father, the king, and also Rumpel himself, who came to her at her most vulnerable moment and used it to trick a child out of her. I can hardly find fault in her for wanting to win just once, when she actually has the chance to fight back. Richard Doyle made a very interesting picture of Rumpelstiltskin in which both the girl and Rumpel are dressed in the same colors, pointing out that they are pretty much alike. Both switch between taking advantage of another and being taken advantage of. Both will do everything and anything in their power to get/keep the child. And neither can really be marked the villain because of this.

    There's one thing about the tale that really confuses me. Most the missing details can be filled in by a creative imagination. But what about the king's greed? Where does it disappear to after he marries the girl? He married the millers daughter because she could spin straw into gold- why on earth does he never ask that of her after they are married? I find it immensely hard to believe that his lust for gold suddenly vanished into thin air the moment he married. How did the girl manage to hide the fact that she couldn't actually spin straw into gold from her husband?
    I have yet to find a answer to this that satisfies me.

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  3. I have a soft spot for this tale. I'm not sure if I would call it my favorite, but it's definitely one of the tales I know best. It seems to me that Rumpelstiltskin raises more questions than other fairy tales. There are so many details missing, so many things that can be questioned. And, as you said, the good and bad in this tale are slightly mixed up.

    I do pretty much agree with you that Rumpel is hardly the bad guy here. The father and the king win that title hands down. But I'm not so sure about your assumption of the girl. She didn't freely offer her child- she agreed only after Rumpel named the price. She didn't really have much of a choice- either promise the unborn child or die the next morning and never have the chance to give birth to the child anyway. I don't exactly see what other choice she had.
    As for her taking advantage of Rumpel at the end by cheating in his game [and enjoying it, by the looks of it], I think I can understand that too.
    We are talking about a girl who has been taken advantage of so far by everyone- her father, the king, and also Rumpel himself, who came to her at her most vulnerable moment and used it to trick a child out of her. I can hardly find fault in her for wanting to win just once, when she actually has the chance to fight back. Richard Doyle made a very interesting picture of Rumpelstiltskin in which both the girl and Rumpel are dressed in the same colors, pointing out that they are pretty much alike. Both switch between taking advantage of another and being taken advantage of. Both will do everything and anything in their power to get/keep the child. And neither can really be marked the villain because of this.

    There's one thing about the tale that really confuses me. Most the missing details can be filled in by a creative imagination. But what about the king's greed? Where does it disappear to after he marries the girl? He married the millers daughter because she could spin straw into gold- why on earth does he never ask that of her after they are married? I find it immensely hard to believe that his lust for gold suddenly vanished into thin air the moment he married. How did the girl manage to hide the fact that she couldn't actually spin straw into gold from her husband?
    I have yet to find a answer to this that satisfies me.

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  4. I, too, find this a troubling story. The only character who I can sympathize with at all is cast as the villain. The King and miller are both fairly despicable. The miller's daughter can come off as a victim who is making the best of a bad situation. Everyone is making unreasonable demands of her--even Rumpelstiltskin (come on, who says, "Sure, I'll do that--I'll only charge you a baby."?) However, it really rankles me that she agrees to give him the child, and then changes her mind when it's time to pay up, thinking her tears will soften him up--which they do. I feel I'm supposed to be glad for her at the end, but I can't somehow.

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  5. Yeah team Rumpel! He's always been one of my favorite characters. I HIGHLY recommend The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, by Vivian Vande Velde, where she takes six short story versions of the story to explore the different questions raised by the original tale.

    My favorites are always the ones where Rumpelstiltskin runs off with the Miller's Daughter and the greedy king gets left on his own. :)

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  6. There's definitely no definitive good guy-bad guy delineations in this story. I don't have more to add to your, and the other commenters', analyses because I agree completely.

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  7. After reading the Brothers Grimm version of Rumpelstiltskin, I feel that it is a story of greed and unfairness. The only innocent character in this story is Rumpelstiltskin. The king was obviously materialistic, selfish and wicked. Even though we did not know why the miller was so eager to speak with the king, it could not have been that serious of an issue to put his own daughter’s life at risk. In fact, a father should never even fathom such an idea. As far as we know, he did not even beg for the king’s mercy on his daughter. I had mixed feelings about the Queen, the miller’s daughter, until I gave it a little more thought. In my opinion, one should never give someone their word unless they plan on keeping it. Furthermore, what would make a mother agree to giveaway her first born child? What would make her want to marry a man that threatened to kill her in exchange for gold? The Queen seemed like a very dull and foolish character. Lauren D.

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  8. Rumpelstiltskin is a fairy tale that does not disappoint. It has all of elements you would expect to find in any of the classis fairy tales. I believe this tale shows how people often make decisions based out of fear and without thinking about the long-term effects. The miller’s daughter was only thinking about currently saving her life, she did not think ahead about what might happen if her and the king were to actually have a child. Although Rumpelstiltskin left her no other choice, the miller’s daughter could have explored other options such as telling the king. I realize that in order to tell the king she might have to reveal it was not her that was spinning the straw into gold, but I think she could have lied and surely the king would take her word over that of a common dwarf. I believe Rumpelstiltskin is a good depiction of the evil that exists in everyday life. Although he is not violent, nor does he take anything without permission, he is a swindler and a cruel being for leveraging other people’s unfortunate situations for his own advantages.

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    1. We don't know why he wanted the baby, so we can't make the judgement of saying that he was selfish in his motives. If you take the baby (the obscure variable) out of the picture, Rumpelstiltskin gave the miller's daughter much more than he got in return. He gave her wealth, prestige, and her very life; he got some jewelry that he would never need. And then you have to remember that he can make gold. He can live a larger life than the king, but, instead, he appears to live a humble life in which he spends time helping poor people like the miller's daughter get out of bad situations.
      What she really should have done was challenged Rumpelstiltskin on the third night. He made a vital mistake that she (being foolish and emotional) never caught on to. It was a contradiction that, if pointed out, could have saved everything that happened afterwards. Of course, I'm referring to the line that is arguably the most beautiful in all of folk literature. After she offers him riches and the luxuries that her new status as queen could give him as long as he does not take the baby, he replies by saying, "a living thing is more valuable to me than all the riches in the world." Well what about her life? If she refuses to give him the baby and says that she will just sit there and wait for the king to come and kill her, then the poor little man will have to give in before the night is done or else break his conviction by letting a living thing die. In sum, to save her life AND the baby, she would have to be clever enough to actually choose death.

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  9. It seems that fairytales always begin with parental figures getting their child into precarious situations. In the story of “Rumpelstiltskin”, the Miller places his daughter in a bad situation by bragging to the King that she could spin gold from straw, when in fact she could not. The King demands that she be brought to him and that she spin gold from straw or she will die the next day. This forces the Miller’s daughter to make three deals with Rumpelstiltskin. The Miller’s daughter never would have been placed in this situation if the Miller had thought of her before himself. Likewise, in the story of “Hansel and Gretel”, the parents leave the children in the woods and this leads the children to almost being eaten by the evil witch. Also, in the story of “Cinderella”, the lack of protection shown by the father leads to Cinderella growing up under miserable circumstances. The story of “Beauty and the Beast” has a father who is willing to put his child in danger just to save his own skin. Most fairytales show parents as neglectful and the neglect on the part of the parents puts their children in very precarious spots throughout these tails.

    Abbey Ward

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  10. This tale is very interesting in every way you could think of. It has betrayer, King that desires only gold for his personal needs, a beautiful young lady got caught into her father’s lies and more interesting twist to watch out for. How can one crazy parent get carry away by making promises to a king, that his only daughter has the ability to make straw out of gold, when he knew very well that she didn’t had the power to. Even though she was in need, to save her neck, lucky for her, a dwarf came to help her out, as a result to the help he give her, she betrayed him, and help destroyed him. This tale talks about betrayer, and lies, and I strongly believe that Rumpelstiltskin does not teach any good morals, and I also believe that lies are not very ethical. I love the Grimm style of writing, but this tale had me wondering how society is going to look at the world around us.

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  11. Rumpelstiltskin, By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

    The fairy tale of “Rumpelstiltskin” makes me feel bad for poor Rumpel. I feel like he is always given the short hand to every situation. The king in this story seems to be greedy and only worried about his wealth and success, which is unfortunate for the Miller’s daughter. Rumpelstiltskin helps the Miller’s daughter turn the straw into gold on three separate occasions all for favors by the daughter. She gives him a necklace, a ring, and then a promise that he can have her first-born child. I believe Rumpelstiltskin only wants attention and love from anyone and a child would fulfill this need. When the Miller’s daughter turns into a Queen and has her first child I believe she should have handed over the child to Rumpel for the good deeds he did for her because without his good deeds she would have been dead. In the end I feel even worse for Rumpel because the child is never given to him and he is left alone and unloved in his eyes.
    -Tiffany P.

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    1. Add to that that in the Grimms version, he commits suicide, making his death the only successful suicide in all of the fairy tales (to clear a common misconception, the little mermaid's death cannot be classified as a suicide).

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  12. Is Rumpelstiltskin really a bad guy? If I had to answer either yes or no, I would have to say no. At first glance he may just seem like a guy who is trying to steal a newborn baby away from his mother, but I believe there is much more to it than that. He is a man who can turn straw into gold, so he shouldn’t have much to worry about. This is where the classic cliché; “Money can’t buy happiness” comes into play. Rumpelstiltskin is just a man who wants a child to feel like he has a family, the one thing he doesn’t have. He was very upfront with the women in the story that she would be trading her future child. It is not as though he tricked her. If he really was evil he would have never given the lady three days to figure out his name and keep her child. I think one could even make the argument that Rumpelstiltskin purposely sang his name so somebody would overhear him. When it came time to actually take the kid away from the mother he simply couldn’t do it.

    -Thomas L

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  13. When I hear the name Rumplestilsken (or however it's spelled) I instantly think "gross" and I cringe. A few years ago I watched a horror movie with that title so I kept picturing the character from the movie as I was reading this. In the movie he was a miniature ugly monster, worse looking than a gremlin. Anyway, this fairy tale was kind of like a ha ha that's what you get for being stupid. He was dumb enough to dance and sing a little song about the situation and put his own name in it. What an idiot. I understand how the maiden would make a barter such as giving away her first child when she didn't think she would ever even have any children in the first place to save her own life. At the same time now that I'm older I realize making promises you don't intend to keep are foolish. Or statements in any case. When I was younger, my much older sister decided to have a yard sale and get rid of all of my toys including my doll house, play kitchen, barbies, you name it. I thought at the time that I didn't care because I never intended to have children of my own. Now that I do have children of my own I wish that I had saved some of those things so that I could have passed them down.

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  14. I rather enjoyed reading this article because I am unfamiliar with the tale of Rumpelstiltskin. It is nice to go into one of these stories without prior knowledge because you can then take an unbiased look at the content of the story. Now onto the important question is Rumpelstiltskin that bad of a character? I don’t think he’s that bad of a guy. He obviously wants a child very badly and was willing to help the miller’s daughter to make it happen. But unfortunately for him the daughter later turned queen did not hold up her end of the bargain. She had no desire to give up her baby and was willing to pay a lot to get Rumpel to go away. I feel that Rumpelstilstkin was actually being really generous when he gave her three days to guess his name. Of course he was probably thinking that she would never actually guess it but still there was the chance that she could. And after she did just that Rumpel got very upset and went in a rage. I feel that if Rumpelstiltskin wants a child so badly he should just pay someone for a child (like an adoption) and not make promises with desperate people. This story has a great moral attached to it which is to not keep promises you can’t keep and sadly for Rumpel he got the short end of that deal.

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  15. I was also told the story of Rumpelstiltskin as a young child. My great grandmother was very big on introducing me to all the famous fairytales, this one being included. I even remember watching the movie directed by David Irving, which was one of my favorites growing up. It’s always interesting how people make him out to be a hideous creature that nobody likes, when he’s really just a dwarf who is trying to keep up his end of the bargain. He is doing this great deed for someone who he doesn’t even know, just to spare her life, and when he is promised something in return then he surely wants it when the job is said and done. I found it quite humorous that the King said when she was finished that she could take the pleasure of being his wife, and the Queen. I mean, I’m sure most girls would love to be treated like a queen, but after being locked up for three days with such an impossible task, what makes him think that she would even want to marry such an awful person.

    Taylor B.

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  16. I have hear the story Rumpelstiltskin a few times and to me it always seemed that he was clearly the antagonist. After our class discussion today I have realized that the case could be made that he is in fact the least evil character in this story. The story begins with the miller lying to the king about his daughter that can spin straw into gold. Her father basically takes his innocent child and bargains her away just to win a small favor with the king. Yet the miller knows his daughter cannot do what he says; how does he expect to win the king’s favor when the king finds out he lied to him. The king also is a cruel man in this story and takes this poor girl and says spin this straw or I shall kill you. The king is placing the burden of the father’s promise on his innocent daughter with the penalty of death. Rumpelstiltskin comes and helps the girl, and in the end asks for his first child. In reality the king and the miller are both far worse characters than Rumpelstiltskin.
    Jake M.

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