Some Thoughts on Rumpelstiltskin

Mom,

A few weeks ago, you were talking about Liesl Shurtliff’s new novel Rump and you made some comments about “Rumpelstiltskin” that I wanted to comment on, but I had planned on reading Rump first to make my comments more relevant. Now, with my to-read pile getting precariously high, I find that I’m abandoning the idea of reading Rump, but I still want to address the fairy tale, so, since this is our blog and we can talk about whatever we want, here are some thoughts on not a new novel, but a very old story.

First, here’s what you had to say:

I think the thing that makes Rumpelstiltskin ripe for retelling is that the supposed protagonist of the tale, the miller’s daughter, is such an unappealing character. She’s a whiner, she’s lazy, she’s entitled, and–for crying out loud–she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold! So it’s very easy, and intriguing, to do as Shurtliff does, and turn Rumpelstiltskin into the hero instead of the villain.

And on a similar note, Michael Gruber, whose The Witch’s Boy you mentioned as among the recent adaptations of the tale, said this:

“Rumpelstiltskin” is the only major fairy tale in the canon that does not have a “good” protagonist, a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces. The king in the tale is a cruel miser, the miller is a venal con man, the miller’s daughter is an airhead and a liar, and the eponymous little man is the villain of the piece.

Obviously you and Gruber have picked up on something similar, so there must be something there, but I have to say that I find this interpretation exceedingly strange. Let’s look at the charges you and Gruber make against the Miller’s Daughter:

  • she’s a whiner
  • she’s lazy
  • she’s entitled
  • she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold
  • she’s an airhead
  • she’s a liar

A number of these are simply incorrect. The Miller’s Daughter is not “a liar” in any traditional sense. She never claims to be able to spin straw into gold–that’s her father.  And if Gruber had in mind that she goes back on her word to Rumpelstiltskin, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. I also see no evidence that she is “an airhead”, or “entitled.” If you see something I’m not, let me know.

I’m having trouble with her being “a whiner” as well.  Here’s the crucial piece, in the 1857 Grimm version:

When the girl was brought to him he led her into a room that was entirely filled with straw. Giving her a spinning wheel and a reel, he said, “Get to work now. Spin all night, and if by morning you have not spun this straw into gold, then you will have to die.” Then he himself locked the room, and she was there all alone.

The poor miller’s daughter sat there, and for her life she did not know what to do. She had no idea how to spin straw into gold. She became more and more afraid, and finally began to cry.

Um – who wouldn’t cry in this situation? Or beg anyone who came along to help.

Which brings us to the next point.  I would argue that she does not “agree[] to give away her child for the sake of some gold”–she agrees to give away her child in exchange for her life.  It is true that on the third night the king omits the threat of death, but I would argue that the death threat is still implied. My evidence is in the original 1812 edition of Grimm–when Rumpelstiltskin makes his bargain, the narrator says “In her distress she made the promise”.  What is “her distress” if not fear for her life? Certainly, it is not her lust for gold or the king that causes her to make the deal.  If it makes a difference, the classic 1857 version is similar: “‘Who knows what will happen,’ thought the miller’s daughter, and not knowing what else to do, she promised the little man what he demanded.” I grant that “who knows what will happen” is a little glib, but “not knowing what else to do” is pretty clear that she is in desperate straits.

My main argument in this first half of the tale is that the situation for the Miller’s Daughter is impossible–she is passed off like a piece of property from one man (her father) to another (the king), and then threatened with death for something that she cannot possibly do.  So she makes a series of promises to Rumpelstiltskin to save her life.  I would say that qualifies as “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.”

Then we get to the second half of the tale, in which Rumpelstiltskin returns to collect his half of the deal.  Here, the Miller’s Daughter shows even more gumption. Gruber might think going back on her word makes her a liar, but I would say 1) her word was given under duress, and 2) being a liar is better than being a monster.  And again we see that she is not greedy or entitled in the least. Confronted with the idea of giving up her child, she is horrified and “beg[s] him to let her keep the child, offering him great riches in its place” (in the 1812 version), or even more poignantly in the 1857, “The queen took fright and offered the little man all the wealth of the kingdom if he would let her keep the child.” Finally, though she doesn’t do it herself, she certainly initiates the intense, kingdom-wide search for the man’s name, rather than meekly allowing him to take her child.

So, again, we have a character confronted with an impossible situation who convinces the antagonist to take pity on her, then uses that small advantage to win the day.

I know this is all very academic, but I find it worth going over precisely because the interpretation(s) of fairy tales are so important to so much contemporary literature. Frankly, as much as I love The Witch’s Boy, I find Gruber’s attitude towards the Miller’s Daughter (which shows up in the novel as well) to mar the story and give far too much sympathy to a character who is in fact preying on a helpless girl in a terrible situation. As I said, I very much doubt I’ll be getting to Rump any time soon, so I don’t know if this post has any relevance for that novel, but let me know what you think of my interpretation.

– Mark

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Some Thoughts on Rumpelstiltskin

  1. Also, consider that the translation may be influencing things. “Who knows what will happen” feels like idiomatic English to me. I’d like to know what the original German phrase was, and whether the glib undertone is really there.

    • Mark Flowers

      Indeed. My German is rusty to non-existent, but Google translates the relevant line as “Who knows how that will ever happen,” which seems substantially less glib and more generous towards the miller’s daughter.

  2. Thank you very much, Mark Flowers. You are exactly right.

  3. Pingback: Responses | crossreferencing

  4. Pingback: Grimm tales | crossreferencing

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