I have been doing a number of articles on fairy tales. I think that the Grimm Brothers especially are phenomenal story tellers and the two of the originators of the horror genre. Their characters range from witches and anamorphic animals to princes and queens. In my opinion, however, one of their best characters is a little imp who appears when people are desperate and willing to make a trades of various value. This imp is called a manikin in the tale which is basically just an excessively small person with no other noticeable defects. Nevertheless, many interpretations of this character have him as anything from a slightly deformed person to an outright troll. If you haven’t guessed his name by now, you aren’t alone. In fact, that’s kind of an integral part of the story. Rumpelstiltskin is an iconic character and an extremely unheralded villain. The creature’s name itself may be why he is visualized as a troll of goblin. The history of his name comes from the word rumpelstilt which is the name of a type of goblin in German folklore. This particular goblin makes a great deal of noise with bells, rattling pots, and various other items. Over time, the goblin’s name was altered to rumpelgeist which is the etymology of the common term poltergeist which, as I’m sure you all know, is a spirit known for causing a loud ruckus around those it haunts by tossing things around a house and causing loud noises.
Unlike other fairy tales I have covered or revealed, Rumpelstiltskin has not been flowered up and watered downsimply because it has not had a major overhaul by Hollywood, Disney, or any other major media. Yes, there have been variations done and a variety of movies, cartoons and other presentations, but nothing with enough clout to really change the story.
This tale starts with an old miller man who, in an attempt to look good, told he king of the land that his daughter could spin commonplace straw into gold on a spinning wheel. He king calls the miller’s bluff. He takes the daughter and tosses her into a cold room in the castle that is filled with straw. Not only does he expect gold in the morning, but he tells the innocent girl that if she does not do what her father said she can do she “must die.” Some variations go with the king merely threatening life in the dungeon, but the original Grimm penalty is death.
Obviously the miller’s daughter has no idea how to spin straw into gold and begins to weep. Lost in despair, she lifts her head and sees a “little man” open the door and walk into the room from nowhere. This man offers to fulfil her task, but asks what she is willing to trade. The woman takes off her necklace and they reach an accord. In no time, the roomful of straw is transformed into a roomful of gold.
Obviously the king is thrilled with this when he comes in to the room the next morning, but not thrilled enough. The woman is taken into a larger room with more straw and the same command: spin it all into gold or die. Again, the imp enters the room and takes a ring as trade to once again spin the straw into gold. The king is amazed again in the morning and takes the miller’s daughter to yet another room. This time he does not threaten death, but instead sees the financial benefits of keeping this woman around and offers marriage if she succeeds. For a third night, the manikin appears and offers his services.
“What will you give me if I spin the straw for you this time also?”
“I have nothing left that I could give,” answered the girl.
“Then promise me, if you should become queen, to give me your first child.”
Not knowing if she would ever actually have a firstborn, the woman agrees to the terms, the straw is made gold, and she becomes a queen.
In time, a child is born and the imp re-appears demanding the child. Obviously the new queen doesn’t want to give up her child she offers him all the wealth of the kingdom, but to no avail. Fortunately, the little man gives her a chance. “’I will give you three days, time,’ said he, ‘if by that time you find out my name, then shall you keep your child.’”
For the next two days, the queen guesses every name she can think of and even sends messengers out into the kingdom to ask for name ideas…no success. The night before the third day, a messenger stumbles upon a little house where the imp is singing and dancing about how he will take the queen’s baby. Unfortunately for him, in his song he reveals his true name to the hidden observer. Here is where I really like the queen. When he comes back for the third day she toys with him. Knowing her name she feigns ignorance and a little swagger.
“Is your name Conrad?”
“Is your name Harry?”
“Perhaps your name is Rumpelstiltskin?”
I love the sass she has! Especially with little man who saved her life three times, essentially made her a queen, and gave her an opportunity to squelch on her deal. Ungrateful trollop.
Here is a scene I would love to see in film. Rumpelstiltskin does not handle losing well. Some versions have him simply disappearing, others have him flinging himself out of a window, but the true, original tale sees him stomping his foot so hard onto the ground that he creates a crater and gets stuck. Then, grabs hold of his other foot and tears himself in two! Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t handle losing well, but to literally rip yourself in two is pretty fantastic.
I love the terror that these tales must have driven into the children that they were intended for. Thank you, Grimm Brothers, for blazing the trails into horror like macabre pioneers.