Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Grimms' Spinner's Tales: First Edition vs. Last

Taking another look at how the Grimms altered their tales between the first edition and the last almost 50 years later; this time, with some tales that focus on the chore of spinning. First up, the classic "Rumpelstiltskin".

Rumpelstiltskin Stratton Illustration
For some reason I had it in my head that the Grimms had altered the miller's daughter in later versions of Rumpelstiltskin, making her lazy, and therefore possibly implying that she deserved part of the trauma she underwent. Turns out that the daughter remains pretty much an innocent victim throughout the Grimms' first and last retellings, although I'm not the only one to have been under this impression (see this post). Does anyone know of later versions that make the daughter out to be lazy? I was in a children's theater play once where I played the miller's wife (ironic, I now realize, because that character is completely absent from the fairy tale), so maybe the daughter in the play version was lazy.

The Grimms, in typical fashion, added extra details and embellishments to Rumpelstiltskin, so by the seventh edition the story is much longer than the first edition in 1812. Aside from filling out the plot a bit, there are two main changes made in the story:

Rumpelstiltskin Stratton Illustration
1. In the seventh edition, the Queen sends out a messenger to search for Rumpelstiltskin's true name, and he eventually comes across him in the forest. In the first, it's actually the King who just happens to come across him, and happened to mention what he overheard to the Queen. In this instance I like the changes the Grimms made better. The King is a pretty negative character in this fairy tale-so greedy he needs three rooms filled with gold, all larger than the last (despite Rumpelstitskin's unfair demand, if the King had never threatened death for gold -three times- the heroine would never have had to make such an awful bargain-Rumpel was initially content to receive jewelry for helping). It seems unnatural for the King to aid the happy ending. Plus, by the Queen sending  out a messenger, she's really engineering her own help, and is a more proactive character.

2. In the first edition, Rumpel gets upset, yells "the devil told you that!" and runs away. By the final, the unfortunate man had a much more violent end, tearing himself in two out of fury. This change I don't like as much. Besides being unnecessarily violent, as I mentioned earlier, Rumpelstiltskin isn't really a true villain. He even gives the Queen a way out (and then prances around the forest singing his name...almost like he wanted to be found out?). Rumpel is clearly the helper, although a bit rough around the edges, not greedy and murderous like the King, who goes unpunished.

Rumpelstiltskin Stratton IllustrationBut even more stark in contrast is one of the Grimms' lesser known tales about spinning, The Three Spinners. This is, maybe, where I got the lazy daughter idea in my head (Or maybe from Basile's spinning story). The 1857 tale begins,

"There was a girl who was lazy and would not spin. Her mother could not make her do so, whatever she said to her. Finally anger and impatience so overcame the mother that she beat her, upon which the girl began to cry loudly.
Now the queen was just driving by, and when she heard the crying she ordered her carriage to stop, went into the house, and asked the mother why she was beating her daughter so that her cries could be heard out on the road.
The woman was ashamed to reveal her daughter's laziness and said, "I cannot make her stop spinning. She wants to spin on and on forever, and I am poor, and cannot get the flax."
Then the queen answered, "There is nothing that I like better to hear than spinning. I am never happier than when the wheels are humming. Let your daughter come with me to the palace. I have flax enough. There she can spin to her heart's content."
The mother was completely satisfied with this, and the queen took the girl with her. Arriving at the palace, she took her upstairs to three rooms which were filled from the bottom to the top with the finest flax.
"Now spin this flax for me," she said, "and when you are finished, you shall have my oldest son for a husband. I do not mind if you are poor. Your untiring industry will do for a dowry.""

The girl ends up cleverly hiring three ugly women she sees passing by to spin for her, and later they tell her groom to be and mother in law the Queen that their unusual features (broad flat foot, large tongue, and broad thumb) came from spinning too much (peddling, licking, and twisting thread), and seeing the consequences, the young bride gets out of spinning forever. It's a humorous ending, and as it was a tale probably told by women as they spun, a chore clearly very boring and uncomfortable, it makes even more sense. Yet the original story is much more sympathetic to the spinner and villainizes those who demand it:

"In olden times there lived a King who loves flax spinning more than anything else, and his daughters had to spin the enitre day. If he didn't hear the wheels humming, he became angry. One time he had to take a trip, and before he said his farewell, he gave a large casket of flax to the Queen and said: 'All this must be spun by the time I return.'

"The princesses became distressed and wept. 'If we are to spin all of that flax, we'll have to sit the entire day, and we won't be able to get up at all.'"

The story ends similarly, but this time it is the Queen who thought of the clever plan, and sought out the three ugly women (rather than conveniently seeing them pass by) and told them what to say. So in this case, the women in the first edition are more proactive and clever, and not at all lazy.

Also very telling is the original title of this tale-it was changed from "Nasty Flax Spinning" to the much less evokative "The Three Spinners." Some of the changes didn't come just from the Grimms' opinions, but pressure from parents who wanted the tales to be more child appropriate; maybe the parents didn't like the idea of fairy tales encouraging children to shirk their chores?

For more texts of the Grimms' first editions of tales, check out The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Illustrations by Helen Stratton


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  2. I don't remember any version that makes the miller's daughter lazy. Most versions for children, I'm familiar with make the story more about the father and center around the lesson that lying is wrong. Sometimes a chancellor or advisor of the king is introduced as an "Evil vizier" type of villain that pushes the king to test the miller's daughter again and again to make the King seem more sympathtic. Also the great majority of fairytales make the daughter tell the King about the bargain with Rumpelstilskin once Rumpelstilskin threatens to take away the baby and the King forgiving her (once again stressing the message that being honest is the best option). Unfortunately many of those versions take away agency from the miller's daughter by having the King send out messengers instead, but in some they come up with the plan together. These version are so prevalent that I was convinced there was a part about the Queen confessing to the King in the original tale, but I was mistaken.

    I was also surprised that there was no throwaway sentence along the lines "But as time went on the King began to love his wife", like the Grimm's are known to insert in tales where the female protagonist is married of to a clearly unsympathetic character.

    I was kind of disappointed that you did not include the story "The Lazy Spinstress", which in my opinion is hilarious, but maybe it wasn't in the first edition?

    Basically it is abouta woman finding far fechtched ways to get out of spinning by getting the better of her stupid husband. The Grimm's left the story pretty much intact, but decided to end it with "But you have to admit she was quite the nasty woman", which has to be their laziest attempt of censorship.

    In case you're looking for suggestions on what other fairy tales to compare, The Girl Without Hands is imho really worth looking into

    1. Well, unlike many didactic edits to fairy tales, I feel like I could be on board with using Rumpelstiltskin as an honesty-themed story, as long as the King and Queen work together to outwit Rumpelstiltskin. But there's still the issue that the King is greedy and would kill someone for not miraculously giving him even more gold...

      You know what, "The Lazy Spinner" is in the first edition. I considered including it too but I thought comparing and contrasting two versions of two tales was already a full post. Maybe in the future! And thanks for the suggestion of Girl Without Hands!

    2. I did read "The Lazy Spinner" once, but I don't remember what it was about.

      I remember the very first time I read the version of "Rumpelstiltskin" from the first edition, and I got to the ending. "Rumpelstiltskin ran away angrily, and never came back." I laughed so hard! I know it's not really funny, but when you know the ending that was in later editions, it's kind of funny reading an ending where he just runs away!

      Some kids' versions have Rumpelstiltskin just run away the end too, while other versions have him free his leg from the floor safely and run away. Still other versions say that he stomped on the ground so hard that a bottomless pit opened up which he fell into, never to be seen again!

      I know there's a variant of the beginning of the story where when the miller says his daughter can turn straw into gold, he's using a figure of speech, and actually referring to her hair. But I don't really see how this is necessary.

      Here's a little fun fact: There's an early manuscript by the Grimms that was written before any edition was published. In that version, the people who make the girl spin actually desire FLAX, but whenever she spins, the flax automatically transforms into gold, which the people don't want. So Rumpelstiltskin agrees to spin flax for her in exchange for her firstborn son. The king comes along to rescue her from the people who are making her spin, rather than being the one who makes her spin in the first place. And at the end, Rumpelstiltskin flys away on a giant spoon rather than running away.

      It's interesting how much a fairy tale can change over time!