Sunday, August 12, 2012

Thoughts on Rumpelstiltskin

I've never considered Rumpelstiltskin to be among my top favorite fairy tales, and there isn't all that much written about it compared to other fairy tales. But it seems to be the kind of story that, the more I think about it, the more mysterious I realize it is, and therefore I have a growing attachment to it.

It was Marilyn Singer's poem in Mirror, Mirror (if you missed the hype the first time around...yes it's for young children but I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT. Clever and thought-provoking reversible poetry on fairy tale themes. I think I cry a little each time I read the Beauty and the Beast one...) that first made me realize that, though the whole happy ending is brought about by the Queen's naming of Rumpelstiltskin, she herself is never named. It seems sad to me that this character is lost in anonymity, yet if she gains power over Rumpelstiltskin after learning his name, maybe she somehow retains a certain amount of power over us, for none of us can ever name her (more thoughts on the power of a name in this fairy tale here).

Though Rumpelstiltskin is supposedly the villain, he is actually the least evil of the male characters. In the words of Roger Sale, "It is not the miller who boastingly vaunts his daughter into peril, or the avaricious, cruel king who marries her, but the little man who helps her and wants only a child for himself who is singled out for punishment."

The reason is never given for Rumpelstiltskin's desire for a child-although desiring children is a very prominent theme in fairy tales, although ususally it's women wanting children, and usually their own (with the exeption of the witch in Rapunzel, also a figure who is more sympathetic in some variants.) But even in the Grimms' version, Rumpelstiltskin "feels sorry for" the Queen, and instead of demanding the child which was really his, according to the promise the Queen herself made (although the conditions under which the promise were made were not exactly fair...), he creates a loophole: allowing her the ability to guess his name over three days.

But according to Heidi Anne Heiner's notes on the Surlalune page, the last episode, in which Rumpelstilskin tears himself in two and is swallowed into the ground and therefore seems more evil and ridiculous, was actually an addition by the Grimms-originally the little man flew out of the window on a cooking ladle. 

Pictures can also go a long way in changing how characters are perceived, as these illustrations by Margaret Evans Price show.

So this man, who has at times been called a demon or dwarf, is never defined as anything other than being a little man. But where do his magical powers come from? Why does he ask for the heroine's most prized posessions initially when he clearly has the ability to make valuable things for himself (he initally takes a necklace and a ring, only asking for the child when the woman has nothing left to give)? Why does he want the child? Why does he pity the Queen at all? It is this abundance of unanswered questions that make the tale so fascinating and so open to various explorations and interpretations.


  1. I find it surprising that in Once Upon A Time that instead of doing Rumplestiltskin story they did a Beauty and the Beast one instead with him and then the origins of his powers, I wonder if in Season 2 will they do a version of the original story with the queen and the spinning of gold.

    A very thought provoking article here, interesting how you point out he's not really a villain, which makes sense.

  2. I wonder if Rumplestiltskin's status as a "villain" comes from other stories about mischievous and evil fairies who kidnap children. Perhaps the fact that he wants to take the queen's child was enough to condemn him in the eyes of an earlier audience. It makes me wonder about the origins of this story, if it originally started out that he was an entirely benevolent figure, perhaps someone who taught the lazy, promise-breaking queen a lesson like King Thrushbeard.

  3. March Hare, it wouldn't surprise me if they went back and did a background story on Rum and Cora (Regina's mother) although the weaving in of child/parent relationships are so pivotal to the entire show and Rum's story...

    I have to admit that now when I think about Rumplestiltskin I do think about Once Upon a Time and I see him as more of the sympathetic figure, having lost his own son. I mean, no doubt he has flaws - but even in the 'original' you can't fault a person for wanting a child. I much prefer the cooking ladle ending :-)