Rumpelstiltskin has been gathering many fans in recent days, with his role in Once Upon a Time, so I thought I’d talk about that story this week. The original fairy tale is in the Brothers Grimm, and like many fairy tales, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
The story is about a strange little man who spins straw into gold for a miller’s daughter, so that she can marry the king (who has shown himself to be a real catch by threatening to kill her if she doesn’t spin straw into gold). The little man demands the girl’s first-born child in payment, but when he comes to collect he agrees to a second bargain, to relinquish his claim if the girl can guess his name. Exactly why anyone is doing most of what they do in this story…well, that’s mostly a mystery. And that makes it a good one for retellings.
In the Once Upon a Time TV show, Rumpelstiltskin has been one of the most fascinating and complex characters. He spins straw into gold, but he also has other fantastic magical powers. He appears as a kind of devil figure, who will grant your dearest wish…for a price. A series of episodes have also delved into his past. What we haven’t seen, actually, is a direct retelling of his original story! Maybe next season.
Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen casts Rumpelstiltskin as an ordinary man who crippled himself at a spinning wheel, trying to win the girl he loves. The girl instead marries the miller, and has a daughter who proves to be a master spinner. And one day she catches the eye of the king… I loved the way this novel explored the characters, giving them greater depth and motivations. I really liked it…up until the end, and then I was disappointed. I don’t want to give it all away, but I will say I was hoping for a happier ending than I ended up getting.
Straw Into Gold by Gary D. Schmidt is set ten years after the usual story of Rumpelstiltskin ended, but with a twist–the Queen didn’t guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name, and lost her child to him. The protagonist is Tousle, who has been raised by a mysterious little man who spins. Tousle may or may not be the missing prince. I love the concept of this, but I think it would have been better if it had more clearly told the original Rumpelstiltskin story, before getting to the results. There are a lot of complicated conspiracy things going on, and some of the characters make questionable choices which are supposed to be secretly good…but I didn’t know the characters well enough to quite believe that.
The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivan Vande Velde casts Rumpelstiltskin as the villain–and the hero–and maybe he’s just an invention of the miller’s daughter. Vivian Vande Velde looks at fairy tales the same way I do. She asks why people are doing what they’re doing, and points out the parts that don’t even remotely add up, and wants to know what the logic of it all is. This book has a wonderful introduction analyzing “Rumpelstiltskin,” and then she wrote six short stories taking the story in all different ways. It’s a wonderful collection of similar-but-oh-so-different stories, and shows in a single volume how much you can do with a fairy tale.