I originally wrote this as part of a diversion in the post about wasting my time at university but it was a bit long and I couldn’t think of any reasonable reason why I’d decided to write a crass adaptation of a famous fairy story that everybody already knows. I suppose I did it because I was going to link to someone else’s version but then I remembered that the whole point of my doing this writing thing was to write and I thought I might as well. It’s not just an adaptation, I talk about what I think about it, but mainly, it’s Rumpelstiltskin.
I like fairy stories a lot and it’s a shame that they’ve obviously fallen from favour in the same way that Aesop’s fables did before that. Rumpelstiltskin is one of my favourites, although I hate it a bit too.
My introduction to it was through this edition:
Once upon a time there lived a miller. Some of his flour had ended up at the palace and the King had commented that this bread was the best bread he’d ever tasted and he wanted to meet everyone who played a part, including the cow who ploughed the field that the wheat had been sown in. He was almost ready to order the entire production chain to keep doing exactly what they were doing, and bring him all of the bread, in exactly the same way or he’d have their heads when the miller, during a pregnant pause, blurted out that his daughter could spin straw into gold. You know, on a spinning wheel.
His interest diverted, the King sent the others away and started asking questions: how long had she had this gift? (Since last August) Did her mother have it, too? (No, but she was very good at needlework) Why was he still a lowly miller when his daughter could spin straw into gold? (Continuing fascination with grinding techniques and harnessing the awesome power of nature’s wind) And so on. Eventually, he decided that the miller was a simpleton and that he would have to meet his daughter. He sent the miller home to fetch his daughter.
When he told her what had happened, she wasn’t very impressed because she couldn’t spin straw into gold and wondered what the hell her father had been thinking, telling the King that she could? She was going to look a fool because her father was a blurter.
At the palace, the King asked her if what her father had said was true.
Unwilling to call her father a liar, she nodded demurely to which the King nodded and told her to follow him.
Down a few winding corridors, the miller’s daughter was led to a smallish room, empty but for a spinning wheel, a stool and a large pile of straw.
“If you can spin this straw into gold by first light, your reward shall be wondrous. If you cannot, I shall have your head,” He was pretty unimaginative in a lot of ways, but that’s what happens when all anyone ever says to you is “Yes,” from being a little kid, so maybe we shouldn’t judge the man so much as the system which creates such inevitably dreadful monarchs.
The door slammed shut and the girl waited for the sound of the bolts being scraped home before she sat herself down and began to weep. After a minute or so, she felt self-conscious. She looked around and her eyes fell upon a most peculiar looking fellow. Only a few feet tall with a bulbous nose and preposterous eyebrows, his clothes were outlandish and appealing.
“Er, why are you crying?” He asked.
“Who are you?”
“None of your business – and I’d appreciate if you’d remember that,” he replied. “Anyway, I asked you first. What are you crying for?”
The girl thought she might as well tell him, so she did. The little fellow rubbed his feet, sat on the floor in front of her as she told him her woeful tale.
“Well, that’s you fucked then,” the jolly little fellow laughed, “He’s always lopping some poor bastard’s head off. Looks like you’re next.”
The girl really began to howl at that and, flustered by it, the little fellow patted her and calmed her down. He showed her his tattoo of a monkey that looked like it was doing a poo if he flexed his elbow and she laughed at that a bit.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I’m only arsing about. I can do that.”
“You can do what? Spin straw into gold?”
“Oh aye, yeah. Piece of piss.”
“Will you then?”
The man sneered a bit, like a second hand car dealer fleecing a cripple, “What’s it worth?”
The girl looked at her hands and saw her dead mother’s engagement ring. She removed it and held it up to the curious fellow.
“Hmm?” He inspected it and said, “Yeah, alright then. Stand back, love.”
And he proceeded to work the spinning wheel into a multicoloured blur, into which he threaded straw, out of which spewed a long thread of shining golden rope. It took about a minute.
“Is that it?” the girl asked. “that didn’t take long,”
“Well, yeah. I said, didn’t I? Piece of piss, love. Right, if that’s it, I’ll er, I’ll be off,” and he vanished into thin air.
The girl inspected the golden rope and slept the sleep of the recently relieved.
As dawn’s light drew across the room, the girl was awoken by the jarring whine of metal bolts protesting against movement. The door opened and the King plus a small retinue entered. A servant picked up the golden rope, which was heavier than it looked, and presented it to the King, who was delighted and told the miller’s daughter that she would be rewarded amply.
So, she spent the day having her nails done and being given a bath and fancy cakes to eat and it was nice. She had a good time, but she felt a bit uneasy about the whole thing.
At the end of the day, after a huge meal with the King that involved someone getting their head chopped off as the entertainment, he led her to a different, substantially larger room, with at least ten times as much straw as was in the last one. The girl’s mouth fell open. She was brought back to reality as the King spoke through the bolted door, “Same deal, girl. Chop, chop, eh?”
The girl sat down again and wept. This time, she was so enraptured by her own sorrow that the little fellow who had made the effort of appearing with a somersault had to tap her on the shoulder and pretend he didn’t know what was happening.
“What do you think the matter is? Eh?” she pointed at the straw and shook her head, secretly pleased at the unexpected opportunity to shift her mood from devastated to enormously irritated.
“Yeah, alright. I was only making conversation. I take it you’re in the market for, er, you know…” He nodded at the spinning wheel and the straw.
“No,” she announced, enjoying the security of the annoyance, “No, I like it like that and I’m looking forward to seeing what life’s like after he’s chopped my fucking head off. Of course I fucking want you to spin the bastard stuff into gold. What is wrong with you?”
“Alright,” the nattily dressed little fellow said, “What have you got this time?”
“Well,” she said, still sounding pissed off, but with the possibility that he might make amends and she could move away from the sarcasm and disdain, “I thought that my mother’s engagement ring probably still had quite a lot left in it. I mean, it didn’t take you very long, did it? You said it was easy, didn’t you? So, I thought…”
“Oh yeah,” he nodded facetiously, “I know exactly what you thought. You thought that unless I’m sweating my bollocks off, you shouldn’t have to pay, didn’t you? Yeah, you did. Well, you can fuck off and get your head chopped off for me, love. If I just did this for everyone for free, I’d never get anything done, would I? And the price of gold would plummet, making my, er, gift not as special. So no. If you want me to…” he gestured vaguely at the huge pile of straw, “You’d better get a move on because that’s a lot of fucking straw, man,”
The girl held her hands up and said, “That’s it. I don’t have anything else.”
“What about that necklace?”
“What? Oh, yeah. I forgot.” She handed it to him and he got the wheel churning rainbows and the straw materialised into a thick, braided rope that coiled around itself until it stood taller than he did. There was perhaps an hour until dawn. The spinning wheel rattled to a halt, smoke spilling from charred cracks all over its surface. He turned to the girl, who was asleep.
“Typical,” he said to himself and inelegantly through fatigue, vanished into the air.
The King was really thrilled this time and announced that he wanted the girl to be his wife. He took her shopping and she came away with cartloads of the finest silks and shoes. She was relieved that her ordeal was over and she could settle into being the Queen and bossing people about. Sighing happily, she noticed a caravan of carts laden with straw and smiled to think that she would no longer have to deal with straw ever again.
As the day went on, she began to notice a slight cooling on the part of the King, whose advisors had been whispering in his ear all afternoon, glancing furtively at her and then away when she caught their eye.
At dinner, the King announced that once she had passed the final trial, he would tomorrow make her his wife, and if she didn’t, he’d chop her head off. Which wasn’t the deal that he’d implied earlier, but the girl felt she couldn’t really protest.
The room, no, this wasn’t a room, this made barns look cosy. And the quantity of straw, brought in on carts from all over the kingdom was more than had been amassed in one place until that point. There was a new spinning wheel and a padded stool. The huge doors clanged shut and were locked. The sound echoed around the vast hall for several seconds.
The girl looked around and tapped her foot. After a couple of minutes, the little chap quietly tripped through the air into the room.
“You took your time,” she said, immediately on the attack.
“Fuck off,” he replied genially, then looked at the straw and at the girl, then back at the straw, at which he maintained his gaze as he continued, “Fuck me, that is one fuck of a lot of straw, that, man. Jesus.”
“Look, I don’t have anything now. Nothing at all. So you needn’t worry about it. I’m getting my head chopped off tomorrow, so don’t you worry about that either, will you?”
“What are you being like that for?” he asked, “look, do you think I’ve been doing it for the money? That necklace was cheap gawld, love. What I make out of straw’s better than that. So let’s not start making out I’m mister fucking breadhead around here, alright?”
“Well, you won’t do it for free, will you?”
“No. I love to work, but when I work, I must get paid,” He said it in a Jamaican accent, which was a bit odd because Jamaica doesn’t exist in this fairy story.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter anyway, because I don’t have anything. You’ve had it all. You’ve cleaned me out. I hope you’re satisfied.”
“What is wrong with you?” he asked, “All I’ve done is help you out and all I get in return is complaining. Why don’t you get someone else to do your, your fucking spinning wheel work? Eh? See how you get on?”
The girl sat down and wept again, melting the little man’s heart.
“Oh look, don’t be like that,” he said, rubbing her shoulder inexpertly, “We could make a deal, me and you. What’s he offering you this time?”
“Marriage.” she sobbed.
“Oh,” said the little man, who bit his lip and thought. “Tell you what. If you and the King have a baby, you give it to me.”
“Oh yeah, alright,” she said.
“Right. Best get on with it,” he said, hopping onto the stool.
“Hey,” she shouted over the rainbow, “What are you playing at?”
“What? I’m building a kite, aren’t I? What the fucking hell do you think I’m doing? We made a deal,”
“I was fucking joking, you dick,” she screamed as the wheel whined to a slow rattle and the rainbow sucked itself back into the wooden wheel. “I’m not giving you my baby, that’s mental. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Well, despite my sartorial elegance,” he said and the girl grudgingly nodded, “Nobody’s going to have it off with me, are they? So I’ll never get to experience the wonder of fatherhood, which is my number one dream and ambition. I’m not going to eat it or anything.”
The girl looked doubtful. She didn’t really have a hand to play and anyway, maybe they wouldn’t have kids. Maybe they couldn’t have kids. Whatever, it gave her some thinking time. She wasn’t even pregnant yet and wouldn’t be married unless this lot got shipped quickly.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay,”
“Make your fucking mind up, love,” he said, cranking the wheel again and began to ravel a rope like a ship’s anchor rope. “Hey, this stool’s alright,” he said approvingly to the girl. The floor began to crack after a couple of hours’ work and there was still a lot of straw left. “This isn’t going to be very practical, you know,” the little man muttered to himself. “It’s just ostentatious, really,”
The first flecks of dust were suddenly becoming visible when the last length of straw flew into the wheel. The end of the rope flickered around its zenith, at least fifty feet in the air and the same in diameter. The little man was soaked in his own sweat and filth and he toppled from the stool into thin air as the door was unlocked and opened.
The King was as good as his word and they were married the same day. Unfortunately, the baker burned the bread and had his head chopped off midway through the speeches.
The girl enjoyed being the Queen, making people move furniture about and then back again. Pointing at things and getting people to dismantle them and build them somewhere else. It was all she’d ever dreamed of.
After a year or so, she found herself pregnant and, having given birth, that very night in her room, the little man appeared once again.
“Oh, you’re looking well. Considering,” he said.
“What do you want?” she said, curtly.
“What do you mean, what do I want? You know what I want. You made a deal. I saved your neck and now it’s time to cough up,”
“Oh come off it, you can’t take my baby!”
“‘Course I can,” he said. “You made a deal,”
“Oh please,” she said and started to cry.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” he muttered to himself. “Look, alright, don’t cry about it. How about I make you another deal? As I suggested when we first met, I’ve not mentioned my name. If you can guess it, I’ll let you off and you can keep your baby. How’s that grab you?”
With a stifling of her sniffles, the girl said, “Alright,”
“Go on then,”
“Yeah, now. I’ll give you tonight and the next two after this one and if you can guess my name you can keep your baby. If you don’t – I take it,”
“Oh, whatever,” he said.
“Alright then,” began the Queen, “Is it Barry?”
“John? Do you think I’d be getting you to guess my name if I was called fucking John?”
“Is that a no, then?”
“Yes, it’s a fucking no,”
“You’ve said Barry,”
And so it went on. And on. After a couple of hours, she’d exhausted her knowledge of names and told the little chap that he should come back tomorrow and she would try again once she’d rested.
As soon as he’d gone, the Queen summoned her servants. she told them to ride to the far reaches of the kingdom in order to find out as many names as they could and return them to her by sunset. They set off.
By sunset, they’d all returned with sheaves of paper, names scribbled all over them. The Queen sat down and began to memorise them.
When the little fellow arrived that night, she said, “Shall we just get on with it?” And he nodded.
“Is it Alejandro?”
“You made that up,”
“So I’m not likely to be called something you’ve just made up, am I?”
The Queen shrugged.
And so it went on until the Queen had used up all of the names her servants had found. She told him she had a headache now, thank you very much, so he’d have to come back tomorrow.
“If you can’t guess it by this time tomorrow, that baby’s mine,”
“He’s a he,” the Queen said.
“Yadda, yadda,” said the little chap, leaving by the window for a change.
Frantic now, the Queen sent for her servants again and told they’d have to go further than they had today in their search for names.
“Why do you want to find out a load of names?” asked one of the servants.
“Well, so I can give the baby a special name,”
“You want to stick with the classics. “Charles”, “William”, stuff like that,” the servant said. “People know where they stand with a Charles,”
“I want something original,” the Queen said.
The servant said nothing in reply but harboured secret doubts about whether bringing a commoner into the royal family might not result in a baby “Chesney” or “Corey”, or something equally common.
Off they went and, as the day rolled on, they al returned with the news that they had not found a single new name.
The Queen was beginning to think about how she could break the news to the King that their baby had gone. Baby? Did we have a baby? Noooo! I don’t remember having a baby… are you sure it wasn’t a cat? I’m sure I remember something about a cat…
Finally, the last servant staggered through the doors and the Queen wrung her hands as she approached him.
“Well?” she said, tilting her head, “Any joy?”
“Well, not really.” He began. “Look, I’ve been riding all day, can I have a cup of water please?”
“No,” she said, “I’m your Queen, not you cup bearer. Now, tell me what you learned before I have you flogged.”
“Right, well I was lost in this forest, right on the edge of the kingdom and I saw a plume of smoke rising through the trees, so I went and had a look. Anyhow, there was this peculiar little fella dancing around this fire outside his little house and he was dancing and clapping and singing this song. Can I just have a sip from that jug, please? I feel ever so unwell.”
“No, you can’t. What song?”
“I don’t know. Can’t remember. Something about brewing and baking. I don’t know. At the end of it, he said, something like, “My name’s Rumpelstiltskin” Then he was sick on the floor.
“Thank you. Now go and get your water, then take yourself off and find someone to flog you.”
The Queen now could hardly wait for the little man to arrive and she excitedly paced her room, wondering how she should go about telling him.
When the little chap turned up, he was twitching with anticipation and couldn’t stop looking at the baby.
“Hello, let’s get on with it then,” he said.
“Alright. Is it Twiddly-Bot-thwack?”
“Is it Flumpingdonwhelbrake?”
Is it, er, Rumpelstiltskin?”
“Whaaaaaatttttttt!!!” the little man howled. “Cheat! Charlatan! Fraud! Fiddler! You’ve cheated me, you’ve cheated me,” and he stamped his foot so hard it went through the floor. Embarrassed further, he grabbed his stuck leg and wrenched it upwards as hard as he could manage, which turned out to be a bit further than was desirable – possibly through over exerting himself on the spinning wheel and developing abnormal muscles – and ripped himself in half.
The Queen was delighted and called some servants to clean up the horrible mess on the floor and to repair it.
“I think I shall call you ‘Subramendilamb’,” she said to her baby.
And they all lived happily ever after.
But they didn’t, did they? At least Rumpelstiltskin didn’t. And I have my doubts about the rest of them too because, without exception, every main character in the story of Rumpelstiltskin is a dreadful, dreadful person. Except Rumpelstiltskin himself who, if you ask kids – and adults too – tends to be viewed as the villain of the piece.
Rumpelstiltskin has been the victim of a smear campaign that has lasted millennia.
Let’s take them, like Hollywood sometimes does, in order of appearance:
- The Miller: tells ludicrous lies to the King – possibly out of tension – dropping his daughter in it. At best, the Miller is just an idiot.
- The King: there can be no doubt that the King is interested in gold and chopping people’s heads off for minor infringements. He has no redeeming features.
- The Miller’s daughter/The Queen: At first, we feel sympathy for the poor girl because her idiot father has dropped her right in it. As the story unfolds, we find that actually, she lies to the King about her ability to spin straw into gold, when Rumpelstiltskin spins the straw into gold, she doesn’t tell the truth about that to the king. When he cuts a deal with her about guessing her name, she cheats straight away by sending people to find out names. When she finds out his name from her servants, she doesn’t come right out and say she knows it, she teases him with some made up names.
- Rumpelstiltskin: the only character with any moral fibre whatsoever in the entire story. He helps the Miller’s daughter for only token payments; he makes a deal about something that may never happen anyway – the Queen giving birth – and, when she’s upset about it, he lets her off and gives her the chance to get out of the deal she made to save her own skin. The Queen cheats and, in his frustration, he kills himself because he’s pissed off and everyone’s glad he’s dead, despite being, in effect, the good samaritan of the story. Also, naturally he’s a misshapen dwarf because people with physical defects are always evil. Not like the handsome ones…
Still it persists, the unthinking acceptance that the weirdo must be the bad guy because, well, look at him!
In psychology, this is called the reverse halo effect; the evil twin brother of the halo effect.
The halo effect states, in a very simple way, that one characteristic of a person may override all the other characteristics of that person and make people think of them in positive terms. For instance, if you show people photographs of two children, one attractive and the other rather less so and say to them that one of these children tortures bunny rabbits, which one do you think it is? The participant tends to go with the less physically blessed child. Because good looking people can’t be horrible, can they? Look at Ted Bundy.
The reverse halo effect is what happens to the unfortunate people who look a bit furtive. Or are hunchbacked, for instance.
Rumpelstiltskin can’t do right for doing wrong. Yeah, he wanted a baby, but he wasn’t going to steal one. He was prepared to make a deal and honour it, even give the other person a bit more leeway, even though he put his own wants and needs behind someone else’s.
And that’s what I find most of the time: we often like to have decided what we think about something and fresh evidence, possibly in contrast to our previously held opinions about it, means you were wrong before. Which is bad because…
We don’t like being wrong. We like being right, which is why learning is a double edged sword a lot of the time. To learn, we have to accept that either we don’t know something about a topic, or we thought we knew about a topic, but the evidence suggests that we don’t.
Most of the time, we will already have come up with an idea about most things we come into contact with and the fear of learning makes scapegoats out of the innocent.
I used to think that the pop charts had a different objective than they actually had: I thought the idea was like gambling: you picked the record you thought would be number one and bought that one so that you could be proved right.
The problem with Rumpelstiltskin is the same, in that people like to be right, even when – no especially when – they’re not. Being wrong is embarrassing. Humiliating. Not having any opinions about anything suggests a dull mind. If someone laughs at your record collection, at least you won’t be on your own if you just buy whatever’s number one every week.
It’s so easy to be lazy too – in terms of working at all, in terms of deciding that first idea is always the best one, in terms of thinking, ‘Well, I already know about that.’
We need to be resilient and poor old Rumpelstiltskin just wasn’t. He had a lot of good features, but when his generosity led him to blowing his prize, he lost it and fell apart. Oh, and maybe it would have been better had he not decided to dance around a fire in the open air, shouting what his name was. He was naive. Not nasty.
But it’s just easier to paint people as black and white, isn’t it? And the more different they are from us, the blacker.
Life’s hard. Keep your mouth shut around the rich and powerful is what I’ve learned from Rumpelstiltskin. That, and don’t be funny looking. And the reward for being skilled at something is often that people might decide that you’re a resource to be used up, worn out and replaced.