Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Puzzles in and about Rumpelstiltskin

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.



  1. As much as Zipes is an admired scholar, to me his comments and criticisms, especially, often seem to overlook large cultural aspects of storytelling. I suppose if your only desire is to dive into the true depths of ultimate scholarly worth, he has a lot to say, but sometimes I just want to enjoy things, or be intrigued by a mystery, or some other aspect of story that isn't solely about literary merit. I've learned to take most of his commentary in that light -- good scholarship but not speaking much to society at large.

    1. Still, even as a scholar, I can't help but feel he's off-base in completely dismissing Rumpelstiltskin.

      Later on in the chapter, he goes on to talk about how it is a tale about the social and economic roles of women and spinning. While I can see how that fed a great deal into Rumpelstiltskin, I feel like it's oversimplification to say that's ALL it's about. You know?

    2. Off the top of my head, I know wheat weavers ( who lay claim to the story. I think your point -- that the very fact that we don't KNOW what R wants leads to speculation and interest -- proves that there is more value to the story.

      From what I've seen, Zipes tends to boil a story down to its essence, to trim the fat if you will, and while he can light on aspects of stories that other people might overlook, it also seems to take out a lot of the richness that one can gain from considering aspects that he is dismissive of. I don't know that for sure -- I suppose it's possible that he's considered all the aspects that you discussed and that we've touched on in the comments, but his comments and articles have seemed to be pretty consistently dismissive of anything that he does not, for one reason or another, find worthy.

      Now I say all this with a grain of salt: Rumpelstiltskin is one of my favorite stories, for all its problems; I have only read some of his articles and haven't made it through any of his books; and I've got to admit the title "Rumpelstiltskin and the Decline of Female Productivity" touches a nerve for me.

      So take that as you will! :)

    3. That picture is fascinating. Is there a website you know of that goes into more detail about this art?

      " I think your point -- that the very fact that we don't KNOW what R wants leads to speculation and interest -- proves that there is more value to the story."

      Thank you, that's kind of you to say!

      Rumpelstiltskin is my absolute favorite story. I've never perceived it as being just about the miller's daughter's inability to produce. Not that it's any argument to say, "Haha, other people agree with me!" but it certainly makes one wonder how correct he could be since so many others DO focus on the mystery of the little man and why he is important.

      I've enjoyed this chat with you, thank you for your insightful comments.

    4. My favorite versions are always the ones where the miller's daughter runs off with R -- in fact I think that might be how I got so into and obsessed with fairy tales in the first place. I read a mashup of a bunch of fairy tales but one of the main stories in the plot was Rumpelstiltskin, except the heroine escaped with him. I mean that king is deranged... and here's this sweet little guy, just trying to help out. :)

      As for the wheat weaving, I've never been able to find much online. I live in Kansas though and we have wheat... and I met a really great weaver -- she made my wedding bouquet, actually. I've been a bit in awe of the skill ever since then. But I will put my innate librarian skill to work to deliver these links to you:

      And this one is really spectacular, and fairy-tale-esque:

      (And I always love a good fairy tale conversation!)


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