Spinning Stories from Straw

I think Vivian Vande Velde and I have similar feelings about fairy tales–wonderful stories, except for all those parts that don’t make sense.  She explores all those weird bits of “Rumpelstiltskin” in The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, and to very funny effect.

This book excellently shows the versatility of fairy tales.  This is a book of six short stories, all retellings of “Rumpelstiltskin,” and all very different.  Sometimes Rumpelstiltskin is well-meaning–sometimes the villian–once even a woman.  We meet a host of different miller’s daughters, clever and stupid and greedy.  Some kings are nice and some are cruel.  Some stories have magic, some don’t.  But all the stories follow the basic premise of “Rumpelstiltskin,” and all are funny.

I think my favorite part of the book is actually the introduction, when Velde discusses the inspiration behind the book–and analyzes all those parts of “Rumpelstiltskin” that don’t really add up.  Why does the miller tell the king his daughter can spin straw into gold when she can’t?  Why does Rumpelstiltskin want a baby?  Why does the miller’s daughter want to marry the king, after he kept threatening to cut her head off?  Why did Rumpelstiltskin agree to the name-guessing contest when, according to their original agreement, he’s already won, and has nothing more to gain?

I love fairy tales.  But they often don’t make sense, and I enjoyed Vivian Vande Velde’s discussion, and then retelling, of one I haven’t thought as much about.

I do believe that classic fairy tales, especially the best known ones, must have something in them that makes us keep telling them.  Some core truth, or spark of an idea that appeals.  What do you think it is for “Rumpelstiltskin”?  In a way it’s a “deal with the devil” story, so perhaps it’s that story of being pushed to desperation, making a questionable deal, and then the forces of good still triumphing in the end.  Well, assuming you consider the miller’s daughter and the king to be on the good side.

And that depends how you interpret the story–or which of Vivian Vande Velde’s retellings you’re reading.

Author’s Site: http://www.vivianvandevelde.com/

4 thoughts on “Spinning Stories from Straw

  1. Diane

    I think it’s interesting how universal this and other fairy tales are. They appeal to people because of the broad themes and commonality of experience that all people share, regardless of their culture. The same stories appear in slightly different tellings in cultures that vary widely. The book you describe sounds like a good one, especially if you want to dissect the parts of the stories that don’t add up!

  2. Dennis

    I think you’re right that Rumplestiltkin is a “deal with the devil” story, in the tradition of Faust, The Devil & Daniel Webster, and Damn Yankees. But to say that this is where its kernel of appeal lies leads us immediately to the follow-up question: why is there an appeal to “deal with the devil stories,” especially ones (like the three aforementioned) where the progatonist prevails over the devil? Because we all have things we want badly and can’t seem to get by playing it straight. It is tempting to think that we could take a detour without hurting outselves or anyone else. Thus, Joe knows that he’ll never live his dream of being a great baseball player through conventional means, so he signs on with Applegate in the hope that he can outwit him in the end. Or translated to real life: the exhileration that we’d like to feel doesn’t seem to be happening, so we turn to alcohol or drugs in the delusion that we can break the habit before any real harm comes to us. Or on a grand scale: Churchill deals with Stalin to achieve the worthy goal of defeating Hitler, but in the end, Stalin demands East Europe just as Rumplestiltskin demands the baby. It is easy to see how the miller’s daughter could be taken in by her personal devil.

    1. Wow, that’s wonderful analysis! Great comparisons between Rumpelstiltskin and other stories and history! I’ve always thought working with Stalin against Hitler was like making a deal with Lucifer to defeat Satan. I believe there’s a quote from Churchill…something along the lines of, if Hitler elected to invade Hell, he’d find something good to say about Satan on the floor of Parliament. Mine enemy’s enemy is my friend, but better watch out whether that “friend” will turn on you.

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