Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Evolution of Rumplestiltskin

In a recent post I discussed the significance of names as a topic of interest in the tale Rumplestiltskin, but Jack Zipes sees the main connecting point in Rumplestiltskin tales to be its connection to spinning. Not all versions even have the famous name guessing scene, but all reveal common attitudes towards spinning. A good spinner could gain a reputation that would result in a better marriage, so spinning was very important to many women; however, the tales also reveal that the spinners may long to end their monotonous task if possible. Many of the stories "were probably originally told by women in spinning rooms [and] reveal how the spinners would actually like not to spin anymore, but use their spinning to entangle a man and to weave the threads and narrative strands of their own lives."

Basile's story "The Seven Pieces of Bacon Rind" from 1634 feature a girl who is lazy and a glutton. Her mother gave her seven pieces of bacon to make into soup, but the hungry girl ate all the bacon, and put old shoe leather in the soup to cover up what she had done. Her mother was furious when she found out and was beating her when a merchant walked by and demanded to know what would cause a mother to beat her daughter. The mother claimed that her daughter was so industrious, she had filled seven spindles, despite the fact that it was harmful to her health. The merchant offered to take the daughter home as his wife, where he would be happy to allow her to spin so enthusiastically.

The merchant bought twenty rolls of flax for his wife, expecting twenty rolls of spun flax from his wife when he returned from the fair in twenty days. His wife did no work whatsoever, but ate the merchant's food. Finally she realized she had nothing to show for the time her husband had been gone, so she squirted water onto passersby until a group of fairies were so amused they did her work for her. When her husband returned, she feigned illness because of her hard work, and her husband declared he would rather have a healthy wife than a sick and industrious one and told her not to do anything to exhaust herself.

In this version, though the main character is lazy, she can be at least credited with being clever. This may not have resonated with the Victorian values of hard work and industry, but modern audiences are probably more sympathetic towards someone who can figure out a more efficient way to get the job done by thinking outside of the box. Also, the husband is very kind compared to the future cruel King who threatens his new bride with death.

L'Heritier's "Ricdin-Ricdon" of 1705 is bogged down by descriptions of how beautiful and perfect the heroine, Rosanie, is, and how everyone else at the palace is jealous of her. Rosanie is not lazy and a glutton like her Italian predecessor, but simply a slow spinner with an abusive mother. Later it turns out there was a whole switched-at-birth thing and Rosanie is actually royalty although she was raised by simple folk, much like Villeneuve's backstory for Beauty in her 1740 version of Beauty and the Beast. But here Rosanie is granted a magic wand that will spin for her, and if after three months she can remember the name which Ricdin-Ricdon told her, she would be free and out of his power. She forgets, and is all distressed until the prince reveals that he overheard a demon disguised as an old man telling him how he traps women who don't know that he is Ricdin-Ricdon. She safely returns the wand and has a "perfect union" with the prince and "extreme happiness."

The Grimms have multiple versions of the spinning tale in their collection. Most people are familiar with "Rumplestiltskin," which lays the blame on the father who claims his daughter can spin gold, and the King who demands gold or death from the maiden.
"The Three Spinners" is closer to the earlier French and Italian stories-a mother tells the queen her lazy daughter can't stop spinning, and she is expected to turn out more spun yarn than she can possibly manage. Three odd women offer to do her work for her, as long as they are invited to her wedding (she will win the Prince for her work). As they arrive, the groom is horrified by the girl's "ghastly looking friends," and asks how they came to have such a flat foot, drooping lip, and immense thumb; the three women reply it was from treading, licking, and twisting thread. The Prince declares his bride shall never spin again.


"The Lazy Spinner" departs a little more from the Rumplestiltskin story, as it shows a wife trying to trick her husband into getting out of spinning, first by scaring him (becoming a voice in the woods who calls, "He who chops wood for reels shall die in strife. She who winds yarn shall be ruined all her life") and then by substituting the skein of wool with a clump of tow, and allowing her husband to think it was his fault because he had done something wrong, so he doesn't mention it again.

I think "The Three Spinners" is my favorite, which is yours?

Illustrations by Charles Folkard, Warwick Goble, and John B. Gruelle. Information from Jack Zipes' The Great Fairy Tale Tradition

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