I thought I’d talk about the much-maligned character of Rumpelstiltskin (other spellings are available). He doesn’t come off very well in any version of the story I’ve ever read. Not even the Ladybird books try to hide his essentially grubby, baby-stealing nature, but is that entirely fair? I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for him.
For those who may not adequately recall, the eponymous Rumpelstiltskin comes to the aid of a poor miller’s daughter – and let’s remember that the entire problem of the story is created by the miller bragging to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. It’s never fully explained how he came to mention it to the king. We’ll have to assume he blabbed it at the local tavern and word soon spread.
The king duly sets the girl to work. She has a night to spin as much gold from straw as she can. The greedy king believes the miller’s foolish boasts about his daughter, but it’s no surprise to discover that she can’t actually spin straw into gold. Each night the girl despairs and each night the infamous Rumpelstiltskin appears and offers to help, duly spinning straw into gold without a moment’s hesitation.
Rumpelstiltskin appears every night to spin straw into gold, but the service comes at a high price.
On the third night the king promises he will marry the girl if she can spin yet more straw into gold – he’s probably having a lift installed at the palace – but like any self-respecting patriarchal despot he says he’ll have her killed if she doesn’t pull it off. By now the miller’s daughter has run out of things to pay Rumpelstiltskin with – she’s already given him a necklace and a ring.
Apparently he’s happy with the promise of the first-born baby instead.
So far, so fairytale. The king gets his gold. The miller’s daughter marries the king, forgets the promise and is apparently very happy with the man who would have killed her as soon as marry her, although she might be relieved to be away from her bragging miller father. I’m guessing it wasn’t the first time he’d blabbed her into trouble with his outlandish claims and in a feudal autocracy you have to grasp your opportunities as they present themselves.
However, Rumpelstiltskin – true to his word – returns after a year for the first- born baby. Even then he is fairly reasonable, allowing the queen to guess at his name three nights in a row. She gets many guesses. She also cheats by sending a man out to scour the land and find out the strange man’s name. That is how she wins their little game and gets to keep the child.
It’s not surprising then that Rumpelstiltskin gets cross – all those favours, and still no baby. There are various versions of his reaction to this. In one he tears himself in half, in another he stomps his foot right into the floor and in a third he stamps his way right down to hell (my favourite).
So who then is Rumpelstiltskin? Some kind of demon, tempting the miller’s daughter with riches and then wanting to take an innocent soul in return? Perhaps, but there are easier ways to go about that. He might even be the devil himself, but why go to all that trouble when you’re already the Prince of Darkness with more than one gold-spinning trick up your sleeve? Then again, this does make sense in the light of the many superstitions around not knowing the devil’s name, not being able to remember it or not recognising him in the first place. And, in common with many other devil myths, he is ultimately outsmarted by a clever mortal.
I’ve cooked up a little theory of my own about Rumpelstiltskin. Now before you go looking for citations I’ll tell you for sure it’s not backed up by any expert opinion, psychological, literary or otherwise. These are the personal views of the writing cat.
But try thinking of Rumpelstiltskin as a Freudian projection of the girl’s personality where her Superego, Ego and Id are out of kilter.
Bear with me.
If you look at it this way then the conversation between the miller’s daughter, later queen, and Rumpelstiltskin is basically a dialogue between the Ego and the Id in an attempt to balance out their needs with the Superego’s demand for the ideal self. Any canny woman kept her Superego well-polished back in the day, for fear of transgressing any of the rigorous strictures that society imposed and being burnt as a witch.
Medieval societies were a tough gig.
Meanwhile, privately, the queen still has an Ego, reasonable and reasoning, which must work hard to mediate with the Id. And yes, you’ve guessed it, Rumpelstiltskin is rampant Id, the primitive part of personality that wants things now and has no connection to the real world. Newborn babies are all about Id and we all have an inner Rumpelstiltskin, rampaging around, making demands and out of touch with reality, tempered, as our personalities develop, with the other two parts.
Superego, Ego and Id. The eternal conversation.
Ipso facto: the woman is talking to herself in an attempt to get a grip on things.
Whilst we’re at it, the king clearly has a narcissistic personality disorder and the miller is a drunken fantasist who probably snorts his own freshly milled flour in an attempt to escape from the dreary grind of the daily bread.
Then again, maybe Rumpelstiltskin is a woodland sprite/goblin/creature with preternatural powers intent on making mischief in a story where kings marry commoners after hearing some small talk from the local tavern, straw can be spun into gold and nobody ever knows the little guy’s name.
Sometimes, even in fairytales, it is what it is.