Origins and Analyzing Rumpelstiltskin

When I first started researching Rumpelstiltskin, I was surprised to find that it is a tale with many different versions, and is known far across Europe. That might sound stupid of me, but of the three fairy tales I’ve adapted before Rumpel, Cinderella is the only story that can be found in most cultures. Beauty and the Beast is purely of French origins, and Wild Swans is mostly Germanic–although similar stories were told in different parts of Europe. Rumpelstiltskin follows Cinderella’s example and is known world-wide. In Scotland he was called Whuppity Stoorie; Ireland, Trit-a-Trot; Amsterdam, Ricdin-Ricdon; and Germany, Rumpelstilzskin.

The Grimm brothers are credited with the oldest version of Rumpelstiltskin as they collected it and recorded it in 1812 in Children’s and Household Tales. However, that’s the oldest version of the traditional Rumpelstiltskin tale–which is where we can trace the roots of the modern tellings. There actually are older versions. Francois Rabelais published a book titled Gargantua, Geshichtkitterung in approximately 1580. It contains a story called Rumpele stilt oder der Poppart. I have no idea what that means, but you can see bits of Rumpelstiltskin’s name, so clearly the tale was in circulation long before the Grimm brothers arrived.

Additionally, there is a very similar fairy tale called The Three Spinners, in which three fairy-like women save the miller’s daughter. Instead of asking for her firstborn the final night of spinning, the women ask that the girl invite them to her wedding as her relatives. The girl (who is obviously much smarter than the heroine of Rumpelstiltskin) complies, and the three women show up to the ceremony with hideous deformities. They explain to the king that their deformities are a result of spinning too much. Horrified, the King forbids his new wife from spinning anymore. I really love this version of the story as the women lay the smackdown on the greedy King.

Next, analyzing Rumpelstiltskin! Most scholars focus on the idea that there are multiple villains in the story (the miller, the King, and Rumpelstiltskin) and they philosophize about Rumpelstiltskin’s motivation. Raven’s Shire has a beautiful blog post where she goes over the various motivations that could have driven Rumpelstiltskin, but to summarize her discussion, she states that Rumpelstiltskin was probably internally divided over the situation given that he gives the queen three days to come up with his name, and that he even makes the offer in the first place instead of stealing the child as 99% of fairies would have. Raven guesses that Rumpelstiltskin wanted to raise the child because he knew the child would be important or great–much the way fairies raised Lancelot and Merlin.

On the left are flax stalks, center are flax fibers, and right is the resulting thread after it has been spun many times.

On the left are flax stalks, center are flax fibers, and right is the resulting thread after it has been spun many times.

While Rumpelstiltskin’s motivation interest me, I used my book to essentially shout what I believe Rumpelstiltskin’s true intent was (love) so instead I’m going to discuss the spinning process. As you know spinning straw into gold is an impossible task. However, it was ultra-impossible, because straw cannot be spun into anything. In August I visited the Landis Vally Village & Farm Museum in Lancaster, PA. (It’s a lovely place, I suggest you visit it if you are ever in the area.) One of their buildings housed sewing, quilting, and embroidery crafts, in which they included a lovely display about the process of preparing and spinning flax fibers into a rough thread. It was there that I first learned that cotton, flax, and wool could be spun into thread, but straw cannot because it lacks the long fibers necessary to form the thread.

This is a spinning wheel from the Landis Valley Museum. The white stuff on the distaff are the flax fibers--what a straw stalk lacks.

This is a spinning wheel from the Landis Valley Museum. The white stuff on the distaff are the flax fibers–what a straw stalk lacks.

So not only was King Crazy demanding some sort of magical transformation from the Miller’s daughter in expecting her to change fibers into a precious metal, but he was also asking for something that isn’t possible from a material goods point of view. He was asking the miller’s daughter to create something out of nothing. The fact that imp-man could make something out of nothing is remarkable, and it is also why I suspect the price was hiked up so high on the last night. It drove home the point that there is a steep price for shortcuts. As much as this idea interested me, I was sadly unable to link it up in my telling because I wanted to focus on Stil’s character. However, I do think this is an example of a story that has been misinterpreted in modern society because we lack what was common knowledge back then.

What do you think, Champions? Am I reading too deeply, or was it important that the specific demand was for straw as opposed to flax or wool to be turned into gold? Let me know below, and as usual, thank you for reading!

7 comments on “Origins and Analyzing Rumpelstiltskin

  1. I agree! I think that they must have asked for specifically straw to make it seem all the more outrageous; because the tale is so old it would have made an even bigger significance to those reading it back then. I still think that he lowered the price quite a bit though; I really do agree with the theory of his crush on the miller’s daughter; Why else would a crazy little man offer to spin straw into gold for a random girl in a jail cell?

      • Interestingly enough, the original fairy tale just says “room.” Most retellings use a tower or make the rooms get progressively bigger and end with a tower, like I did. I think we usually use a tower because if King Crazy was greedy/nuts enough to make demands like he did, you can bet he shoveled tons of straw into the BIGGEST ROOM HE HAD. Pft, King Crazy. I wish the miller’s daughter took the spinning wheel to him instead of marrying him. I wonder if their daughter was Sleeping Beauty, buwahah. 😉

  2. If you haven’t read it yet, Patricia Wrede wrote a bit about Rumplestiltskin in her book “Searching for Dragons.” It is another interesting and entertaining take on the story.

  3. I noticed that you mentioned other scholar’s ideas on the story Rumplestiltskin, I have been searching for scholars opinions on the story but can’t seem to find any, any suggestions of people I should look up or places to search?

    • Hmm scholars is probably the wrong term, when I was doing my searches I found a lot of other bloggers who talked about Rumpelstiltskin. The Rumpelstiltskin Wikipedia page actually gives you a pretty good platform to start at as it looks at his appearances in film, media, etc. Good luck!

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