Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Rumpelstiltskin | Summary

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Summary

A poor miller has a beautiful daughter. By chance, the miller is granted an audience with the king. Hoping to impress the king, the miller boasts, "I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold."

"Now there's a talent worth having," the king replies. He tells the miller to bring his daughter to the palace, so he can witness this feat.

On the next day the miller's daughter duly reports to the palace, where the king shows her to a room filled with straw. He points to a spinning wheel and announces that if the girl doesn't spin the straw into gold by the next morning, she'll be put to death. Then he leaves, locking the door.

Weeping, the girl sits alone and wonders what to do. Suddenly the locked door opens, and in walks a gnome. "Why are you in tears?" he asks. The girl points helplessly at the straw and explains her problem.

"What will you give me if I spin the straw into gold for you?" asks the gnome. The girl promises him her necklace. The gnome gets to work—"whirr, whirr, whirr," goes the spindle—and by dawn the straw has all been spun into gold.

The king is delighted, but also greedy. He orders the girl into a bigger straw-filled room and repeats the same threat as the day before. Again the gnome appears as soon as the girl is alone; this time, she promises him her ring if he can accomplish the magical task. The gnome gets to work, and by dawn the room is full of gold.

The king still isn't satisfied. He brings the girl to an even larger room filled with straw. "If you succeed," he tells the girl, "you will become my wife."

The gnome turns up for a third time, but now the girl has nothing to offer him in exchange for his work. "Promise me to give me your first child after you become queen," says the gnome, and the desperate girl agrees. When the king sees the gold, he marries the girl and makes her his queen.

A year after the wedding, the queen has her first child. By now she's forgotten the gnome, so she's horrified when he turns up and demands the baby. The queen bursts into such agonized tears that the gnome pities her. Like the king, he offers her a three-day challenge. If she can guess his name, she'll get to keep her baby.

The queen lies awake all night, "thinking of all the names she had ever heard." When the gnome arrives next morning, she suggests every name she can think of—but none of her guesses is right. The next day, she dispatches a messenger to find out any names she might have forgotten. With the gnome, she tries the strangest names she can imagine. Is the gnome's name Ribfiend? Muttonchops? Spindleshanks? No, no, and no, replies the gnome.

On the third day, the queen's messenger comes back. He couldn't find any new names, but he does bring the queen a strange story. "At the foot of a huge mountain," he begins, "a place so remote that the foxes and hares bid each other goodnight, I came across a little hut." In front of the hut was a fire, and dancing around the fire was a strange little man who was hopping on one foot and singing this song:

Tomorrow I brew, today I bake,

Soon the child is mine to take.

Oh, what luck to win this game,

Rumpelstiltskin is my name.

The queen is delighted at the news. When the gnome arrives, she suggests two wrong names. For her third guess, she asks, "Could your name possibly be Rumpelstiltskin?"

The little man is so angry that stamps through the floor and he tears himself in two.

Analysis

In the Grimms' first version of this story, the miller's daughter's problem is that everything she spins turns to gold and she can't produce useful flaxen thread. That seems less problematic than what she must undergo in this story. She's at the mercy of two men and a goblin, and the goblin is the nicest of the three.

Because the miller lies about his daughter, he must turn her over to the king. The king is so uninterested in anything but her gold-spinning ability that he promises to kill her unless she produces the gold. He won't notice when she's gone, and her death will punish the miller for lying. Then, since the king has plenty of straw, he ups the ante twice more. Finally he marries the miller's daughter, but not because he loves her. He's never even noticed that she's beautiful. His reason for the marriage is greed: "I could never find a richer wife if I were to search for one the world over." The new queen must hope he never decides he needs more gold.

By contrast, Rumpelstiltskin seems almost likable in a pitiful way. He helps the miller's daughter three times. When he comes to collect her baby and she offers him riches, Rumpelstiltskin replies poignantly, "I prefer a living creature to all the treasures in the world." (Maybe it's lonely being a gnome.)

When she was still unmarried, the miller's daughter couldn't know how much she would love her baby. Still, the fact remains that she did promise the child to Rumpelstiltskin. But he's moved by her tears and grants a three-day extension before he'll take the child. He behaves more honorably than either her father or her husband.

It's hard not to feel sorry for Rumpelstiltskin at the story's end. On the third night, the queen's first perfunctory guesses are a pretense; she's toying with him by drawing out the suspense. This doesn't seem honorable, especially because she's not "guessing" Rumpelstiltskin's name. She knows it already, and only because someone else has found it for her.

It isn't fair for Rumpelstiltskin to make a bet involving a baby, but no one comes off too well in this story.

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