Go Forth & Nerd! Ep. 36 - Rumpelstiltskin
a new spin on a toxic fairy tale
Welcome back to Go Forth and Nerd! This is Jesse Bray, also know as Mr. Bray, and I am your resident nerd!
In this episode we're going to talk about a super old folktale.
Disclaimer, we're gonna get real, like more real than we've ever been on Go Forth and Nerd. So fair warning! We're sailing toward some rough seas ahead.
Rumplestiltskin - is a story about a girl that is forced upon pain of death, to spin straw into gold. However through her bargaining with a magical creature she was able to complete this impossible task.
Now to give a little background before we dive into this myth:
Rumplestiltskin like I previously said is quite old. Some scholars have argued that this tale is a few thousand years old. This story also has many differing cultural renditions from Arabic to Asian countries to the more prevailing versions in the West which originated from the Eastern European traditions.
Side note, I’m often fascinated at the reasons behind a story that causes it to endure. Why do we keep telling and retelling certain stories? Is there something particularly significant that keeps them alive? Keeping that in mind I believe that this story is both a tragedy and a reflection of very real toxic behavior. Which you'll see when we dig into this tale in a moment. Last thing, just another reminder before we begin since we’re usually pretty lighthearted on Go Forth and Nerd I want to point out the power of storytelling and how just like in the real world life is not always rainbows and unicorns. So without further delay…
There once was a Miller that desperately desired the favorability of the Prince. He loved telling elaborate stories attempting to capture the Prince's attention. Until one day the Miller said to the Prince, “My daughter is so talented she can spin straw into gold.” This immediately arrested the Prince's attention so he quickly replied to the Miller, "I demand to have your daughter brought to my palace this evening.” The Miller now both overjoyed for gaining an audience with the Prince also mingled with dread as he realized he had sold his daughter to the Prince on false pretense. The Miller raced home and enthusiastically told his daughter he had spoken to the Prince and that he would like to see her at his palace this evening, of course omitting the details that the Prince will be expecting her to spin straw into gold. The Miller's daughter excited and eager at the chance to prove her quality she wholeheartedly hurried to the palace summons.
However once she arrived the Prince ushered her to a small room filled with straw and a spinning wheel and said to her, “Spin all this straw into gold by morning or I will cut your head off!” He then quickly parted and locked the door behind him leaving the Miller’s daughter trapped inside. The poor Miller’s daughter didn’t have a clue what to do. As the minutes bled into hours her anxiety of the impending doom turned her into a weeping mess. Not long after she had broken down into tears a strange impish looking creature appeared before the Miller’s daughter. The creature approaching the girl said, “Miss Miller, why are you crying?” The girl looked up at the creature and replied, “I was told to spin all this straw into gold by morning or I will be killed! And I have no hope of what to do.” The impish man replied, “What will you give me to spin all this straw into gold?” The girl now puzzled, yet with a new found hope said, “My necklace.” The creature nodded his head in agreement as she handed him the necklace. In a flash of lightning the ugly creature began to magically spin the straw into gold. The next morning the Prince opening the door was temporarily blinded by the light of the reflection of sunlight bouncing off all the freshly spun gold. The Miller’s daughter, exhausted, was asleep in the golden threads while the impish creature had clearly disappeared somewhere into the shadows. The Prince, now thoroughly pleased, ordered the Miller’s daughter to be given a glass of water and a crust of bread. Then quickly she was forced into an even larger room piled high with straw and a spinning wheel positioned in the midst. Cracking a greedy smile the Prince said to the girl, “Spin all this straw into gold by morning or I’ll cut your head off!” Then he slammed the door behind her locking it again from the outside. The Miller’s daughter this time frantically tried to recall the technique of the impish creature to see if there was any way she could replicate his magical skills. Again, like before, her anxieties slowly crushed her to tears as the hours passed and longer shadows were cast across the room. Also like before, the impish creature appeared and asked, “Miss Miller, why are you crying?” The Miller’s daughter replied, “I have to spin all this straw into gold by morning or the Prince will cut my head off!” The creature in response said, “What will you give me to spin this into gold?” The Miller’s daughter said, “You may have my ring.” The impish man snatched the ring from her grasp and wildly began spinning all the straw in the room into gold. Morning arrived and like before, the Miller’s daughter had fallen asleep a midst the golden threads, the impish man now gone, as the Prince burst open the door. Now the Prince's greed being in full control he ushered her into an enormous acre-sized room filled wall to wall and touching the ceiling with hay. The Prince barked at the Miller's daughter, “Now you must spin all this straw into gold by morning or I will cut your head off! However, if you do this I’ll marry you and make you my Queen.” Again like the previous night, the Miller's daughter lost hope and began to weep. And like the previous evenings the strange impish creature appeared saying, “Why are you crying Miss Miller?" This time the Miller's daughter replied, "I have to spin all this straw into gold or I will be killed. However I have nothing left to give you!" Then the creature replied to her, “Give me your firstborn child and I'll perform this task for you!" The Miller's daughter was conflicted but reluctantly agreed to save herself from this present turmoil also thinking that the time when she'd have this supposed child would be long and far off. The impish creature took off like a whirlwind as he wildly spun the monumental mounds of straw into fine threads of gold, like a spider constructing a delicate web. The next morning the creature was gone, the girl again asleep in the golden fibers and the Prince's greed at last satisfied at the cavernous room of new treasure. So the Prince, true to his word, married the Miller's daughter and made her his Queen. Sometime later the Miller's daughter, now the Queen, conceived a child, a boy. Now it happened while she was alone with her infant child the strange impish creature reappeared saying, “The time has come for me to collect what you owe me. Now give me your child!" The Queen, filled with dread, begged and pleaded to give the ugly man anything else in the kingdom. The creature only replied, “Nothing to me is as valuable as a life!" However, the Queen's persistent tears and begging wore the man down and he relented to give her one last chance keep her baby. Saying, “If you can guess my name correctly in three days you may keep your child! However if after the end of the third day you haven’t guessed my name then the child is mine to keep!” So the first day she compiled a massive list of obscure names and read them aloud to the creature, after which he replied, “No, that is not my name!" The second day arrived and having scoured the countryside, she listed off even more peculiar and strange-sounding names. After reading them the impish man replied, “No that is not my name!” The evening of the second day the Queen was in complete distress so she decided to dress herself up in peasant clothing and went door to door requesting names she could add to her list and final attempt at guessing the creature’s name. Feeling defeated, she began to walk home and came across a odd-looking cottage with an enormous fire. As she approached the cottage she saw the impish man laughing and dancing around the fire singing, "I spun straw to gold and bargained for the soul, the Queen’s own son, who never will know that my name is Rumplestiltskin!" Hearing this, the Queen hurriedly snuck out and back to the palace. The next day the impish man presented himself to the Queen, this time in a irritatingly smug tone. "It is the third day and you haven't guess my name so now give me what you owe me! Give me your child!" "Wait, just a moment,” the Queen replied, "I'm still allowed to guess today being the third day.” The Queen looking sheepish said, "Is your name Rumplestiltskin?" The impish man’s smug little grin quickly melted away to rage! "What!!! The devil told you! The devil told you!” Rumpelstiltskin in a rage stomped his foot violently into the ground then in a supernatural strength of chaos he attempted to pull his leg free as he ripped himself in two. The scattered remains of Rumplestiltskin then faded to dust as the Queen was left alone with her child. Finally free to enjoy her life with her child the Queen and her child lived happily ever after.
So let’s break down some of these pictures within pictures here:
Firstly, Rumplestiltskin is the only character in this story that has a name. Now this is a quite universal theme you see in magical stories. Fairies, or magical creatures often have a special power in their name. To know someone’s name has a power to it. This is something that Bilbo Baggins is aware of in the Hobbit when he’s talking to Smaug the Dragon. A name has power and while this is central to this story it is also important to point out that the Miller’s daughter, an almost non-character, does not have a name, just a title.
Secondly there is the necklace that the Miller’s daughter gives as her first payment to Rumplestiltskin - a necklace has a symbolic meaning, this could potentially have been a locket. It is highly likely that this necklace offered a sentimentality to it, or possibly an heirloom. So here we have this girl selling her past to Rumplestiltskin.
Thirdly we have the girl selling her ring to Rumplestiltskin - a ring depending on the exact timing and demographic has a very specific significance. Her ring would be a sign of her identity, status, often there was an anagram on rings that people would use to seal letters with wax. Her ring was tied to her just like her necklace. By giving up her ring she was giving up her present.
Lastly the Miller’s daughter has to sell her child to this creature for her own comfort. In many versions of this story they depict her child as a baby boy, the boy would be the royal heir to the throne. The point here is the Miller’s daughter is now giving up her future to Rumplestiltskin.
Her past, the necklace, her sentimentality! Her present the ring, her signature and identity! Her future, her first born child!
I have more I want to share but let’s take a quick rabbit trail to a parallel idea in Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale The Ugly Duckling. The Ugly Duckling is about inner beauty and the abused. A quick synopsis of the story: a poor, little duckling is regarded as so ugly and undesirable that he is despised and tortured by everyone, even his own mother, who pecks at him, until eventually he runs away. However, the duckling’s luck eventually turns when he grows up to become a beautiful swan. Unfortunately he was treated so poorly that he has immense trouble recognizing that he is now a beautiful swan. I have many particular thoughts about this story. My prevailing point is that true beauty in this tale is not external but internal and the duckling was treated cruel so much that it gave him a complex so strong that he mistook his own beauty. Just like the poor Miller’s daughter, she was most likely mistreated by her father’s sycophantic tendencies - which lead to her codependent behavior, such as being eager to please the greedy prince. Which in turn the Prince being a monster pays her miraculous ability to spin straw into gold with a crust of bread after the first night. Oh and let’s be real if homegirl could spin straw into gold she wouldn’t be making gold for this tyrant! She’d be lining her own pockets with this gold! There’s an excellent Jewish proverb that says, “Truly competent workers won’t work for common people but kings and rulers,” which here means if she really had the said skills she’d be making the terms not taking demands from some monstrous dictator.
Back to the Prince, the third time she was able to complete this impossible task he gives her this sadistic offer - “if you do this I’ll marry you and make you my Queen.” Which come on! What a horrible reality for this girl, lose your life or lose your soul, do the impossible and live to marry your captor. Then finally we have Rumplestiltskin, the covert antagonist. This dude, perhaps he knew all along that the Prince was in financial trouble, or that he could overthrow the Prince’s rule by raising the heir, his son that he’d bargained away from the Miller’s daughter, adding my own subtext here. Either way Rumplestiltskin is no hero. The story ends with Rumplestiltskin dead and the Miller’s daughter now the Queen holding her child in her arms safe to live happily ever after, sorta. Some heavy stuff!
I want to bring this story home a bit with a personal story:
When I was 19yrs old I was homeless. I had enlisted in the military because I wanted to go to college and that was the only door available to me at the time. Then 9/11 happened and my recruiter pushed out my departure date. So I had to wait another two months to leave for my military training. Well being a kid of 19 I hadn't saved much money beyond my date that I was to leave. So my father said I could do some grunt work at his company, to pay for rent while they let me stay at his house for the two months they pushed out my military date. However, about a month into working for my Dad I ended up slipping off a ladder and breaking my arm. That day my dad fired me to avoid having me file a worker’s comp claim, then he booted me from his house since I couldn't work to pay rent. The military getting news of my broken arm un-enlisted me. So having nowhere else to go I went to my grandparent’s and they gave me an old van and some bedding and sent me on my way. So here I was homeless, with a broken arm and I had to live in my van. Eventually a "friend of mine" let me park my van outside his parent’s house and they would allow me to occasionally share a meal with them and even borrow an outlet for an extension cord so I could power a tiny space heater in my van at night because by now it was entering late fall/early winter time. Since I had no money and I couldn't get any work until my arm healed up I was living off animal crackers and dry top ramen. I soon got walking pneumonia and a chronic cough - even to the point where I was coughing blood. Eventually my arm healed but I was still very sick and it wasn't until I received my tax return that I had money to purchase some antibiotics. It was only at this point when the people that let me park my van outside their house they now decided they would let me sleep in their spare room while I healed up via my antibiotics, but it was back into my van after morning. This was one of the saddest times on my life. However, for many years after these people tried to pretend that they were my surrogate family because of the experience and even nicknamed me their number 2 child. Obviously this an uncomfortable story to hear. But it happened and it was my reality. It took me several more years to realize this idea that this "surrogate family" was toxic - they were cruel to me and I was being forced to be grateful for their crust of bread and glass of water so to speak. This is where even though I'm a seemingly privileged white man I can passionately and emphatically relate to the poor Miller’s daughter in the Rumplestiltskin story. There are cruel people out there; some passively cruel like the Millers. Some like the Prince that mistreated you but demand respect, and some covert villains like Rumplestiltskin. Now obviously I've grown and evolved far beyond these incredibly unfortunate and humbling circumstances and I have lots of room in my heart to love people, I've even forgiven my father, and even many other people that have wronged me but the truth is, stories like this happen all the time. And story is at the cornerstone of who we are as people. Stories have meaning!
Stories can give us the power to relate and relay strength, change, courage, heart ache, loss, joy and a plethora of other emotional or personal truths. Stories are so much more than a way for us to be entertained and escape reality- so this week I wanna drop a heavy question on you today: Who is your Rumplestiltskin? Who is the person or thing that's got you down? I don't want to call people out or make anyone feel uncomfortable but just to dial up the real-o-meter, would you like to chat about that with a fellow friend? I may not know the details of what you're going through but I am able to understand your pain. Feel free to send me an email - let me be an ear for you. You're not alone. Sometimes we need to get real! The truth is if you've read the Hobbit (I’ve been a huge fan of the films and I just recently read the Hobbit, not going to lie I infinitely enjoyed the book much much more), the truth is there's dragons in our life sometimes. And even though it's beyond us to imagine how we're going to deal with this impossible monster, that creature is laying on top of an incomprehensible treasure. So let's slay these dragons together and enjoy the treasures of being truly who we are! Thank you all so very much for listening and I hope this particular episode let’s you know you're not alone, take courage and care and remember to go forth and nerd!