This month: fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Reading Rumpelstiltskin


Rumpelstiltskin is an odd fellow. Sharing traits of both wild man and witch, he is indeed a rare breed of fairytale figure. It might be said that he represents two opposing attitudes toward paganism: on the one hand, paganism can be thought of as a virtuous and more natural way of life. On the other hand, it may also be associated with a demonic or unnatural lifestyle, one that should be shunned. Rumpelstiltskin does not fit neatly into the typical template for a fairytale fiend. He is a diligent worker, honest and true to his word. He is compassionate for he shows mercy to the queen and allows her to win back her child. We can only laud his priorities and agree with him when he says: “A living thing is more dear to me than all the treasures of the earth.”This is contrasted with the ignoble king, who loves gold above all else and only marries the miller’s daughter to enrich himself. He admits “Even if she is only a miller’s daughter, I will not find a richer woman in the whole world.”
And the queen might be quick-witted but is not necessarily a principled character. She relinquishes her first-born child because it is expedient and makes sense to her at the time.

The wild man of ancient mythology often appeared on German heraldic shields with uprooted tree in hand. He is wild, rough and crude like a satyr or faun and is associated with plants, trees and wild animals. But Rumpelstiltskin bakes and brews and this also connects him to witches, who frequently performed such tasks in fairy tales. Baking and brewing were essential tasks for survival in ancient cultures. It is very unusual to encounter a male witch in a German fairy tale and so it is worthwhile to read this story very carefully.

Another theme in Rumpelstiltskin is the power of language and naming things. But what exactly does the name Rumpelstiltskin mean? I have read several explanations, including one that interprets Rumpel as the sound made by little stilts (stiltzchen) or little legs of this diminutive character. It is impossible to ascribe a precise meaning to the name, but it does evoke the idea of a person of small stature and unknown magical properties. See commentary on The White Snake or Taboo for more on the topic of language and naming things.
There are several versions of the story. In the one printed here, Rumpelstiltskin is seized by such a powerful rage that he tears himself in two, an apt metaphor for two worldviews colliding and ripping apart the very essence of his being. In another version, he merely flies out the window on a spoon (reminiscent of a witch on a broomstick). His wretched lament at the end that “the devil told you” brings to mind a person indicting a world he doesn’t really understand or expect fair treatment from. He remains illusive but in the end, the story is still very entertaining.

To read the Brother Grimm's Version of Rumpelstiltskin, hit the link:
Rumpelstiltskin



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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very deeper meaning , even I couldnot think this way! I hated Rumpelstiltschen, but your explaination that to him living things matter most ,really shows soft nature of Rumpel......

Similarily the king and the girl both are engulfed in selfishness and greed and I think, Rumpel....is far much better than both the king and the girl!


.....................Vandana:)

Anonymous said...

Besides running around in the forest and dancing around the fire, Rumpelstilzchen doesn't have much in common with the Germanic Wild Man. He is much more like a witch or warlock.

elena said...

Thanks for this post! I am an adult person, but yesterday was the first time I have read this fairy tale :)