In his chapter on "Rumpelstiltskin and the Decline of Female Productivity" in Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale, Professor Zipes writes
Rumpelstiltskin is a disturbing fairy tale, not because we never really know the identity of the tiny mysterious creature who spins so miraculously, even when he is named by the queen, the former miller's daughter.
This is a puzzling statement. I frequent blogs and fairy tale forums enough to know that the funny little man, his outlandish ability, and his absurd request for a necklace, then a ring, and last a child, are what intrigue readers and make the fairy tale stand out among its literary brethren. The fact that the tale ends with so many unanswered questions* is the premise of Vivian Vande Velde's delightful collection of stories, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem.
He writes further
It is disturbing because the focus of folklorists, psychoanalysts, and literary critics has centered on Rumpelstiltskin's name and his role in the tale despite the fact that the name is meaningless.
This also puzzles me, though I will try to avoid the amateurish desire to brood on the fact that only scholars and academics' opinions should determine why a fairy tale is memorable or important. In fairness, Professor Zipes is probably directing his book to an audience of folklorists, psychoanalysts, and literary critics, of which (I assume) you and I are not one.
I am more puzzled by the fact that the absence of meaning behind Rumpelstiltskin and his name is cause for his dismissal.
In any good tale or movie, the presence of an antagonist or conflict is crucial for its existence. Without a conflict, there would be no story.
The fact that Rumpelstiltskin's motivation, his nature, and the meaning behind his name is never revealed does not diminish the very real problem put to the miller's daughter. It could be said Rumpelstiltskin is disturbing because these unknowns are never disclosed, and not because we waste time wondering about the nondisclosure.
I believe the unknowns present a very real challenge to hearers and readers; that of knowing the nature of their sufferingss and difficulties. Of helplessness in the face of hardships. The inability to name a fear, to shed light on it, and with knowledge, to banish it into darkness.
Zipes says the mannikin's name
reveals nothing about Rumpelstiltskin's essence or identity. The naming simply banishes the threatening creature from interfering with the queen's life. Moreover, his role has always been presented in a misleading way. According to the Aarne-Thompson tale type 500, Rumpelstiltskin is categorized as a helper, though he is obviously a blackmailer and oppressor. (emphasis mine)
Yet naming one's enemy** is an ancient tradition that gives a person power over the one who has been named. Finally, I am puzzled as to why, if it is so obvious that Rumpelstiltskin is a blackmailer and oppressor, gifted storytellers have successfully depicted him as a sympathetic antagonist, or even anti-hero?
"In short," the paragraph concludes, "the categorization has strangely resulted in concern for a villain whose name is just as meaningless as the scholarship that has been absorbed in naming him."
The lack of knowledge about the identity and motivations of Rumpelstiltskin can be very significant to those who have ever faced an obstacle they did not know how to overcome. And, as is the way with myth and fairy tales--and poetry--it is in the not-telling, the leaving-blank, the things-left-unsaid that their meanings and power take shape and form, that the tales become the subject of discussion, that folklorists, psychoanalysts, and literary critics are still pondering their significance today.
* Even what are called "answers" by a fairy tale standard, which can sometimes be more obtuse than revealing. As in Bluebeard: we know the other wives died because they opened the door--but what did the first one do to deserve death?
** Or even one's ally. I am by no means a Jewish scholar, but I understand that in their tradition, knowing the name of the Hebrew God is a sacred privilege.