A curious introduction to a classic fairy story
How old do you think the story of Rumpelstiltskin is? It was famously included in the 1812 volume Children’s and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm (a book that’s better known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales), but many of the tales written down by the German siblings were of a considerable vintage by then. The surprising thing is that the story of Rumpelstiltskin – albeit under a different name – is thought to be some 4,000 years old. To put that in perspective, that’s over a thousand years before Homer, and roughly contemporaneous with the earliest surviving versions of the tales that comprise the Epic of Gilgamesh, widely regarded as the oldest epic. Rumpelstiltskin, in summary, is one of the earliest known narratives in Western literature.
The plot of the fairy tale can be summarised in a couple of paragraphs. A miller has a beautiful daughter, of whom he is immensely proud. One day, the miller makes an empty boast to the king of the land that his daughter can spin gold out of straw; the king, taking the miller at his word, has the miller’s daughter taken to a chamber and told to spin all of the straw in the room into gold, if she values her life. Just as the poor girl is beginning to despair, the door opens and a little man enters the chamber. She explains her predicament to him, and he says he will spin the straw into gold for her, if she gives him a gift. She takes off her necklace and the little man takes it, and, true to his word, spins all of the straw in the chamber into gold, and then leaves. The king is delighted to see this, but because he is greedy, he locks the miller’s daughter up again with more straw. Once again the little man appears, and agrees to do the same as before, but in exchange for a new gift. The miller’s daughter gives him the ring on her finger, and he starts spinning the straw for her. Once more, the king is delighted, but, growing greedier still, locks her up again, this time in a bigger room. Once again, the mysterious dwarf-like man appears, and agrees to help her out in exchange for another gift. But the miller’s daughter, having nothing left to offer, agrees to give the little man her first-born child when she is queen. Knowing she cannot succeed without his help, she reluctantly agrees.
The king is so pleased with all of the gold that he marries the miller’s daughter. When she gives birth to her first child, she forgets her promise to the little man, who appears in her chamber and reminds her of it. She begs him to release her from her promise, but he refuses. Instead, he says that if she can guess his name in the next three days, he will let her keep her child. The queen sends out her messengers to see if anyone knows the little man’s name, but after the first day, they return unsuccessful. The same occurs on the second day. But on the third day, one of her messengers reports that he overheard a funny-looking little man dancing with glee around a fire, and in his song he let slip that his name is Rumpel-stilts-kin. When the little man returns to the queen on the third night, she tells him his name, and in his rage at being thwarted, he puts his foot through the floor and promptly splits in two. Everyone lives happily ever after (except Rumpelstiltskin, who was divided over the issue).
This is a pretty full summary of the plot of this curious fairy tale, which is doubtless familiar to most of us. But where did the story come from? As we’ve already established, it predated the Grimms by centuries – whole millennia, in fact. (If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does.) The literal meaning of the name ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ (Rumpelstilzchen in the Grimms’ German version) is ‘little rattle stilt’, from rumpelstilt, a goblin that was rumoured to make noises by rattling posts (or stilts), like a sort of poltergeist. But the central story of Rumpelstiltskin predates the German tale, and its goblin-like figure, by many centuries, and is found in various cultures around the world: it seems that through a sort of convergent evolution of cultural thought and storytelling, different nations have come up with strikingly similar versions of the same basic narrative. Rumpelstiltskin goes under the name Tom Tit Tot in England, the wonderfully named Whuppity Stoorie in Scotland, Gilitrutt in Iceland, Joaidane جعيدان in Arabic, Martinko Klingáč in Slovakia, Ruidoquedito in South America. Other versions are found in Israel, Serbia, and Japan, among others. Although individual plot details inevitably differ, the core of the story is the same as the one we know as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’.
Why is the story of Rumpelstiltskin found across the globe, and why can it be traced so far back in our cultural history? The story obviously has its roots deep in the most primal and basic drives and emotions which are commonly shared throughout humanity. But are those roots within us (i.e. through psychoanalysis of Jungian archetypes) or within the world around us (i.e. is the story related to our struggles to establish societies and communities)? Or is it, perhaps, a bit of both?
How, moreover, should we analyse or interpret the intriguing title character? Rumpelstiltskin is, as commentators have often noted, and as our plot summary above suggests, unclear in his motivation: we don’t know why he miraculously turns up just at the right moment (and, happily, bearing the right skills set), to get the miller’s daughter out of her fix. He may be motivated by greed (thus forming a sort of mirror of the king, whose greed for gold grows with each new success), and that’s why he works for her: but someone who can spin gold from straw probably doesn’t need to lower himself by working for the odd necklace or ring. (His supernatural abilities suggest that he might almost be perceived as a kind of god – or, alternatively, as a demon.)
The child, though, is different. Yet why he might want the child is never revealed or explained. Given his powers (breaking and entering into the chamber where the king, no less, has managed to imprison the miller’s daughter), his magical abilities, and his mysteriousness (nobody seems to know his name, and it’s only discovered because of his own big mouth), why didn’t he just come in and snatch the child? Not only does he not do so, but he even gives the queen another opportunity to wriggle out of their deal, by guessing his name. Is this hubris? Certainly the three male characters in the story – the miller, the king, and Rumpelstiltskin himself – are too cocky for their own good, in many ways. The miller is so proud of his daughter that he exaggerates her abilities; the king, being the monarch, thinks he can command anyone to perform his oddest whim; and the little goblin scuppers his own scheme by cockily dancing about yelling his own name within earshot of the queen’s servants. (The patterning of three is very important in many fairy tales: there are three bears, three bowls of porridge, and three beds in the ‘Goldilocks’ story, for instance. In ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the miller’s daughter is locked up and commanded to spin straw into gold three times before she marries the king; once she is queen, she has three days to guess the name of her odd little helper. This is a good narrative technique, of course, and repetition is very important in primal stories such as fairy tales.)
So the story may in part be about something that preoccupied the ancient Greeks in their greatest tragedies: man’s hubris, or the dangers of overconfidence, of over-reaching yourself. But equally, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ may have its roots in our early agricultural development. The central motif of the story, of course, is the idea of being able to spin straw into gold. Straw is useless as food for humans, but gold can buy food – or, indeed, can be viewed as a symbol for food, specifically grain. Is the fairy tale of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ fundamentally about something that has concerned human beings throughout much of our history: namely, the desire for a good harvest? Both the miller and his daughter are prepared to sacrifice their child for it: thus three generations of the same family, spanning both the relatively lowly and the highest in the land (the miller’s daughter being but one of many upward-climbers seen in the pages of classic fairy tales), are all implicated in this drive for individual sacrifice in order to bring forth gold from straw. Here, the miller’s occupation (someone who works with grain) takes on new significance. Given Rumpelstiltskin’s supernatural qualities, the fairy tale becomes a kind of variation on the notion of making a sacrifice to the gods in return for the promise of a good harvest. In this analysis, it is significant that he is both defied and destroyed by the mortal queen at the end of the narrative: it’s as if humanity is outgrowing its reliance on the gods, although this may be too optimistic, or fanciful, an interpretation of such an ancient tale.
Many mysteries about ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ remain, defying analysis or explication. In summary, it’s a fairy tale whose central character has no clear motive, and a story which withholds its own meaning from us. It just exists – but it exists as a record of some lost and half-forgotten primitive need within us, as well as of that more enduring and familiar need: the need to weave stories, to spin the gold of great narrative.
Delve more into the history of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and other much-loved fairy tales with Iona and Peter Opie’s indispensable The Classic Fairy Tales. It contains the full texts of 24 great tales along with a detailed introduction to each of them – it is, in effect, the bible of classic fairy tales. Or you can continue to explore the stories behind classic fairy tales with this summary and analysis of ‘The Frog Prince’, our summary of the story of Jack and the beanstalk, and our analysis of the Snow White fairy story.
Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
Image: Illustration of Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson (1874-1930), via Wikimedia Commons.