You know how people in fairy tales are just a teeny bit crazy about gold? Well, let’s say that a girl could spin straw into gold. Hypothetically speaking, of course. Do you think there might be any kings who’d be interested at all? ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is a strange beast even by fairy tale standards, with so many delicate tints of moral grey. This week I’m taking on four stories of mysterious spinners, and let me put it this way, turning straw into gold isn’t the half of how weird things are going to get.
Version 1: Rumpelstiltskin
Let’s begin with the famous one, a version of which is taken from Dean&Son’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A miller short on both money and common sense becomes so proud of his beautiful daughter that he boasts to the king himself that she is clever enough to spin straw into gold! Yes, a poverty-stricken small businessman apparently has the ear of the monarch, who is not only credulous enough to believe the boast, he also insists the girl turn her powers to the service of the crown. Leading her to a chamber full of straw, he informs her that it must all be spun to gold before morning…if she wants to live. The girl tries to explain that she has no idea how to do such a thing, but it’s a case of talk to the door, sweetheart, no one is listening. She is left locked up alone with a task she has no hope of accomplishing. What’s there left to do except burst into tears?
But perhaps someone was listening, after all, because just then the door opens and a strange-looking little man limps in. The miller’s daughter explains her troubles to him and when the little man hints that perhaps his expertise in this field outweighs her own, she is more than happy to exchange her necklace for his help. By the time king returns, the little man is gone and the straw is a pile of shimmering gold. So, is he satisfied? Stupid question. With the greed for gold worse than ever, he shuts the girl up with more straw and the same threat as before. And once again the little man returns to help her, this time accepting her ring as his reward. Because obviously a man who can sneak around a king’s palace, and for that matter, can spin straw into gold, would need the jewellery of a miller’s daughter. The king is delighted with his new treasure, but he’s not satisfied yet, demanding a third night of spinning. If she succeeds, he promises her, he will make her his queen. A debatable reward, in my opinion, but on balance probably better than dying a horrible death. Only thing is, the girl has no jewellery left to trade for the little man’s help. So he makes a new bargain with her: the king’s gold in exchange for her firstborn child.
Backed into the worst sort of corner, she agrees to his terms. In the morning, the king is given his gold and, finally satisfied with his wealth, fulfils his word by making the girl his queen. Then their first child is born, and her bargain comes back to haunt her. The little man wants the baby he was promised. The panicked young queen offers him anything and everything else in exchange, and his heart is softened enough by her desperation to offer her the smallest of chances. If she can guess his name in three days time, she may keep the child.
She uses all resources available to her new position, collecting all the names to be found in the kingdom, and when the little man comes she lists them all, but not one is right. On the second day she tries nicknames – Bandy-legs, Hunch-back, Crook-shanks – which is actually rude, and also incorrect. On the third day one of her messengers, sent out to seek new names, returns to tell her that there are no more to be found. What he discovered instead was a strange little hut, and a little man dancing before it, singing a most unwise song… That day, when her visitor comes for the third time, the Queen is waiting. Rumpelstiltskin, she names him, and he flees the palace empty-handed, the laughter of the court ringing in his ears.
Version 2: The Three Old Maids
This story comes from the same collection as the first, but this time the girl is the disappointment of a fiercely hard-working woman who one day loses her patience and slaps her daughter hard enough to make her cry. In a case of rather unfortunate timing the queen happens to be passing through the street outside, close enough to hear and kind enough to investigate. The mother, not wanting to admit to her daughter’s laziness (or her own corporal methods of discipline) promptly makes up a lie, saying that the girl will not leave off spinning, and they had not enough flax left for her to work. The queen, who is very fond of spinning herself, immediately offers an invitation to the castle, where there is flax enough for the hardest of workers. Wish fulfilment vs. reality – guess who wins? The mother, swept up with success, packs her daughter off to face the consequences of her lie.
In the castle, the queen fills a room with the finest flax and leaves it for the girl to spin. There are no death threats, but she does make one very tantalising offer: if the girl is as industrious as her mother implied, she has a worthy talent and may be rewarded by the queen’s favourite son for her husband. The only difficulty is, the girl can’t spin for love or money, and the only way she prevents herself getting kicked out of the castle straight away is by showing as innate an ability to lie as her mother. On the third night of her stay, the girl is crying herself to sleep when she looks up and finds three extraordinary old women standing before her. One has a right foot so broad it is almost square; another has an underlip dropping to her chin; and the third has a thumb like a spade. They ask the girl what troubles her, and who CARES what these people look like, they are the first sympathetic ear the girl has had in a long time. She tells them all.
They offer her a bargain. If they spin all the flax for her, she must invite them to her wedding and introduce them to her bridegroom as her aunts. To this she agrees without a moment’s thought. As soon as the queen is heard upon the stair, they disappear into the closet, leaving the girl to be praised for their magnificent work – and as soon as the queen is gone, they return to their spinning. When all the flax is gone, the queen keeps her word about the wedding, and the girl keeps hers. The three old women are invited, as they were promised. And the bridegroom…his name is not Prince Tact, let’s put it that way. He asks each woman about her deformity, and each calmly explains it is the inevitable result of so much spinning. Appalled, the prince insists his wife never spin again. To which I say, awesome aunts.
Version 3: Tom Tit Tot
This third story comes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales – a selection, published in 1987 by Chivers Press. It, too, has a mother instead of a miller. Having overcooked five pies, she orders her daughter put them in the larder to ‘come again’, or soften. Only the girl, who is more than slightly scatterbrained, interprets this as meaning that the pies will magically reappear and eats the lot. Wrong fairytale, my friend, you’ll be wanting ‘The Magic Table, the Golden Donkey and the Club in the Sack’. When her mother finds out what she’s done, she angrily calls her a dardledumdue – a most fearsome and incomprehensible insult – and starts spinning on the doorstep to soothe her mood. As she spins, she sings. Because as we all know, no one is ever ever listening. Except, it would seem, the king, who wanders over to see what’s up.
The woman is too embarassed to admit her song was ‘My daughter’s ate five pies today’. For one thing, it’s a stupid thing to sing about! She changes the words to ‘My daughter’s spun five skeins today’ and the king is very impressed. He takes a look at the girl, who is sweet and pretty even if she is completely clueless about cooking, and decides on the spot to marry her. For eleven months, he tells her mother, she can eat as much as she chooses and buy all the clothes she likes, but during the twelfth month she either spins five skeins a day or he cuts off her head.
Fair enough, says her mum. Surely a year is enough time for the king to forget his own terms! So off the girl goes with the king, and for eleven months of their marriage everything is as wonderful as he promised. But the last month of the year rolls around at last, and he most certainly hasn’t forgotten their agreement. He leads her to a room she’s never seen before, with nothing in it but a spinning wheel, a stool and ridiculous amounts of flax. Five skeins tomorrow, the king tells her, or the chop. Night night!
The girl is sixteen years old, far from home, and very scared. She hasn’t been locked in yet, it’s true – the month of spinning starts tomorrow – but if she ran away, where would she go for help? So she does the only thing she really knows how to do in this kind of situation, retreating to the palace kitchens and crying her heart out. Which turns out to be a good move. Something knocks on the door beside her, and when she opens it she sees a strange little black creature standing outside, twirling its long tail and regarding her curiously. It wants to know why she’s crying. The girl is not inclined to talk about it, but the little creature wheedles it out of her in the end, and at the end of her story magnanimously offers to do the whole thing for her. “What will it cost me?” she asked suspiciously. Not entirely clueless, then. The creature looks at her slyly from the corners of its eyes and tells her, “Every night I’ll give you three guesses at my name. And if you haven’t guessed it before the month’s up, you shall be mine.”
Well, not a good deal, all things considered, but an axe to the neck looks worse, so the girl agrees. Three guesses a night for a month – the odds are in her favour, right? The next day the king locks her away, and he has scarcely left the room when there’s a knocking at her window and she finds the little black creature with the long tail sitting there on the sill. It whisks away the flax. Come evening, another knock, and there are five skeins, as promised. The girl takes them and makes her three guesses, and each one is wrong. Later that night, the king comes in for his skeins. “I see I shan’t have to kill you tonight, my dear,” says the old softie, and off he goes to do whatever the hell it is he intends to do with all that yarn.
This sets up the pattern for the rest of the month. All day, every day, with nothing else to do, the girl thinks of names – but not one of them is ever right. Every time she makes a guess, the little black creature twirls its tail faster, looking wickeder and wickeder, until the second last day of the month arrives. The girl makes her three guesses, and has as much success with them as before. The look the creature gives her is so frightening that when the king comes to collect his five skeins that night, and decides to stay for supper, it’s actually a welcome distraction. And, as if this is some normal meal of their married life, he tells her a funny story from his day. He was lost out hunting when he saw the strangest little creature spinning in the woods, singing as it spun: Nimmy nimmy not, my name’s Tom Tit Tot…
Finally, the king has been useful! Not that he knows it. The girl carefully hides her excitement. In the morning she gives the little black creature its flax as usual, and come nightfall there’s the knocking at her window. It’s sitting on the sill, grinning, twirling its tail faster than ever. She takes her skeins, and makes her guesses. Solomon? Zebedee? With each wrong guess the creature dances forward, twirling its tail so fast you can barely see it, stretching out its hands to take her – then the girl starts to laugh. Nimmy nimmy not, she sings, you name’s Tom Tit Tot. The creature shrieks its rages and flies away into the dark, never to be seen again, leaving the triumphant young queen with…her crazy husband. Who will now hopefully come out about his knitting fetish and get psychological help.
Version 4: Spin, Weave, Wear
The last story comes from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s anthology of Scottish tales, Thistle and Thyme. Its heroine is a girl who is both pretty and, wonder of wonders, good at spinning. So good, in fact, that when her father is out with his friends – all of whom are doing the usual thing of boasting about their brilliant offspring – he tells them that his daughter can spin in the morning, weave in the afternoon, and have a fully made garment sewn for you that night. She’s a little cross with him when he gets home and tells her about it, but a little pleased too, because how could you stay angry at someone so proud of you?
Only the story doesn’t stay within the farmer’s circle of friends. It spreads like the plague, actually, and eventually it reaches the ear of the king, who is bored enough to take one stupid man’s boast and turn it into a full-on spinning tournament. Yes, you heard me. All the ambitious girls of the land are summoned together to his castle to try their hand against this champion of the spinning wheel! The obvious thing to do at this point would be to sit down somewhere near an open window and cry loudly, but this girl’s not in for that. She doesn’t even tell her father, so she could have someone to yell at. She thinks through her options carefully, then sighs to herself in dejection at how dangerous they look. Her cat, sitting on the other side of the hearth, disagrees.
The girl is definitely taken aback by her Tom suddenly deciding to talk, but he’s pretty laid back about it all, and as she sensibly reasons, if he can talk, he might also have a solution to her situation. He does: become a witch. When she turns that one down flat, he regretfully agrees to come up with an alternative, heading off into the night to meet with his contacts. Two mornings later he comes back, grinning through his whiskers and being mysterious. This new plan involves going out on the moor at night, walking into a dark glen, to where a pair of old crones are huddled around a small fire. Tom gets straight down to business. How much for a spell? The witches consult each other, then the girl, and a deal is struck. Two brooms that have never touched the ground, they want, two flasks of water that have never been touched by the sun, two bits of silver out of gypsy lad’s pocket, and two rings of gold that were never mined or minted.
Well, the first three are achievable. The fourth is just weird. But before the girl can stop him, Tom has agreed to all terms. He steals the silver then sleeps the rest of the day away while the girl makes the brooms and fetches the water. Night is falling, it is almost time to return to the moor for the spell…but she still doesn’t have the rings. Then, as she’s brushing her hair, she sees its golden colour shining in the firelight and realises what it is the witches want. With everything now ready, she makes supper and sends her oblivious father off to bed, before setting out back into the night with her cat. They hand over the brooms and water, silver and rings, and get – no spell. It’s not ready yet. Not only that, the witches need ingredients, a lot of ingredients. Which involves sending the girl and Tom off to steal other people’s straw, fetch thistledown in the dark, and break three black thorns on the stroke of midnight. I wonder who this deal favoured…?
But at last everything is assembled and the witches work their spell. The enchanted thistledown is to be spun, they tell the girl, the wheat straw – now bullied into the shape of yarn – is to be used for weaving, and the black thorns are turned to needles for her sewing. All this is hers for the competition, under one condition. If she speaks one word between the time she enters the king’s castle and returns to her father’s house, the spell will be broken.
With that, the witches fly off on their new brooms, and the girl and her cat go home. Presumably at some point she’s seen fit to explain about the competition to her father, because he’s giving her a lift to the king’s castle, but all she tells him about her own plans is that she has decided not to speak while she’s there and will he be kind enough to do the talking for her? On the day appointed, they arrive, the first contestants to do so. Only three other girls have accepted the king’s challenge, and they’re late. The court rather takes to the farmer’s daughter, and it’s fortunate she’s there to keep her father in check, because all the attention is rather going to his head. Nor is he the only one determined to talk. A young lord falls for the girl and follows her around chatting away, not at all deterred by her lack of reply. On the second day of her being there, he actually asks her to marry him, but all he gets is a smile and a shake of the head. He sulks, then tries again, and gets exactly the same response. He almost leaves after that, but the other girls have at last arrived and the competition is about to start – so he stays.
You’d think after all that hype, it would at least be an exhibition. Instead, the three girls are each taken to a different tower where the tools for their work are waiting. The farmer’s daughter ignores these. She has her own things. The moment the thistledown touches the wheel, it begins to spin on its own; by noon, all the thread is spun. She has a calm lunch, scatters her crumbs for the birds, and begins her afternoon’s labour at the loom, setting the thistledown thread to weave with the enchanted yarn. By evening, she has three webs of beautiful cloth. She enjoys her supper, puts the plates neatly outside the door for the servants, lights a candle, and starts cutting her cloth. No sooner has she threaded the needles than they stitch away by themselves at the outlines she’s cut. At the stroke of midnight, they are done, and the outfit of a proper Scottish king is lying complete on the table, kilt and all. Then the girl blows out her candle and enjoys the sleep of the truly competent.
So, the king is thrilled. He has a champion! But at this point, when she should be celebrating – and is, in her own way, alone in the great hall with a nice bowl of porridge – the infatuated young lord comes storming in for a final and not especially prepossessing proposal. The girl sees something in him that she likes, though, and impetuously agrees. Of course, that breaks the spell and she has to explain the situation to her new fiance. He proves he’s actually worth marrying by being okay with it all. He wouldn’t want his wife to spend all her time spinning and weaving and sewing and stuff, he tells her, and besides, he gets all his clothes from a tailor. They don’t have the heart to tell the king, though. The other girls go home with a nice present for their trouble, the farmer sells his land to come live at court and entertain the king with his stories, and the girl and her lord get married, riding off to live in his castle together…taking her beloved cat Tom with them. That, my friends, is what I call a very happy ending.
Let’s get this clear, first of all: Rumpelstiltskin is not a villain in my house. No, not even the one from TV in Once Upon a Time, who is admittedly a bit more psycho than the original. As for Tom Tit Tot, he frankly sounds a lot better than a homicidal husband obsessed with yarn, and the tail is cute. The three aunts are very excellent, and I do like that girl for not second-guessing about her bargain with them, but you just can’t beat the Scottish girl who hired a pair of witches and paid them in homemade brooms. My favourite thing about this story – apart from the tough talking, problem solving cat, of course – is how the girl puts her crumbs out for the birds during the competition at the king’s palace. And nothing happens. It is a kindness for kindness’s sake. You know, if she’d met Rumpelstiltskin, I don’t think she’d have taunted him. More likely, she would have quizzed him on his parenting plans and got him in touch with a local orphanage.
Common sense is, after all, worth its weight in gold.
(If you’re curious about what kind of parent he might have made, try tracking down Diane Stanley’s brilliant picture book retelling, Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter, published by Morrow Junior Books in 1997. You will be on my side of this one by the time you’ve finished reading, believe me.)