It's the story of a poor man's daughter who, after her father tells the king she can spin straw into gold, falls into tears because she will be killed when she fails to complete the impossible task; a strange little man appears and helps her but ultimately asks for her first child in payment, a cost which she is only able to avoid after discovering that his name is Rumpelstiltskin.
So what is it about this story that made it one of my favorite fairy tales, and what might it mean?
Going off of the Grimm versions, while some fairy tales are several pages, this one is quite short. I think that length gets your imagination going, filling in the blanks that the story doesn't go into. Why was such a poor man even in conversation with the king? Why did he tell him such a ridiculous fib when all it could accomplish was to get his daughter into trouble? Was she happy about marrying the king? Who is Rumpelstiltskin and where did he come from? Was it good that she accepted help from him? What does it mean that she beat him in the end by saying his name?
Back in middle school, I imagined how fairy tales could make great reads as novels--and I obviously wasn't the only one to have that thought. For Rumpelstiltskin, I imagined that the poor man's daughter would already love the king, and that's why she would be glad about marrying him. I could never reconcile that part of the story if I thought that she didn't love him. But the truth of the matter is, the king is just the ultimate good marriage. From a traditional or patriarchal point of view, she gains everything there is for a woman to gain by marrying him.
But Rumpelstiltskin threatens the other traditional feminine role, motherhood. By asking for her child, he is threatening the traditional idea of a family. But why does he want the child? I always wondered that. From her point of view, it is the ultimate threat, but what does he have to gain from taking a baby?
This brings us back to the question of who Rumpelstiltskin is. At the end of the story, he stomps his foot in anger, it becomes cloven in two, and he disappears into oblivion. Maybe he didn't die; maybe he just went somewhere else. Because cloven feet, well, that's satanic imagery right there. Taking Rumpelstiltskin as a demon would explain why he wants to steal away someone's child: he wants to ruin souls, spread evil, and that sort of thing. If the woman achieves a certain victory over him by discovering his name, it is because she is rebuking him with the power of words. If Jesus's name has power, then it makes sense for a story to also give some sort of power to demon's names. When the woman reveals Rumpelstiltskin's name, she is pointing out who he is and sending him back to where he came from.
But if you go with the idea of Rumpelstiltskin being a demon, it becomes unsettling that the heroine of the story (if that's what you think she is) accepts his help and owes her entire position as queen to him. Is the story, then, endorsing a little flirtation with the dark side as long as you don't let it go too far? And I can't ignore the fact that it is three times that Rumpelstiltskin helps her; three is an important number in religion. Rumpelstiltskin saved this woman's life; what if all he wants is to save her child's life, too? Is he a demon, or something else?
Either way, she makes deals with him, and deals are dangerous if you don't understand all the details. But if he hadn't helped her and if her father hadn't put her in a position to need help from Rumpelstiltskin, she and her father would both be lost. Which makes me wonder, did her father know about Rumpelstiltskin? What if Rumpelstiltskin is her father, or her grandfather, or at least her father's friend? It may be a fairy tale, but this male version of the Blue Fairy turning up just as needed is quite the coincidence.
Is Rumpelstiltskin good, bad, or crazy? Did he use the poor man's daughter, or did she use him?