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Behind the Folk Tale – Rumpelstiltskin

Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin in Once Upon A Time Photo: ABC
Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin in Once Upon A Time
Photo: ABC

Today I am choosing to focus on another major character in Once Upon a Time, that of Rumpelstiltskin. The tale most of us are familiar with of the magical being who helped a poor young maiden turn straw into gold…for a price, comes from the Brothers Grimm’s collection of folk tales, Children’s and Household Tales, published in 1812.

The Story of Rumpelstiltskin 

Just in case anyone’s memory is a bit foggy, I’ll give you the short version. The story begins with a miller claiming that his daughter can spin straw into gold to his king, an obvious lie. So, the king has her locked in his tower, ordering her to spin all of the straw in the room into gold by morning or she will be put to death.  This is where our helpful little imp comes in and offers to turn the straw into gold for her in return for her necklace.

This happens a few more times, with the king growing greedier and forcing the girl to turn more and more straw into gold each night. On the third and final night the girl has no more jewelry to offer him, and so he claims her firstborn child as his payment. After this third night, the king agrees to marry the miller’s daughter. However, when they have their first child, the imp returns to collect his payment.

The next part of the story I am sure you are all very familiar with. The imp makes a deal with the miller’s daughter that if she can guess his name within three days he won’t take her child. The woman then devises a plan to discover the imp’s name and when she proclaims on the third day that it is Rumpelstiltskin, he runs away angrily.

Interestingly, the Grimm brothers actually changed the ending in one of their revised editions to make it more gruesome. Instead of simply running away Rumpelstiltskin, “in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion, he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.”

The Message

So, what does all of this mean? Part of the message clearly relates to the pitfalls of greed and the lust for power. We have two greedy characters in the story, the miller and the king. The miller is power hungry, while the king exhibits the element of greed. We also see the king demonstrating ultimate power over the girl by threatening to kill her the next day if she does not turn the straw into gold. Unfortunately, it is not the villains who suffer for these vices, but the daughter, who is forced to handle the situation and it’s consequences on her own. We see the ultimate power men hold over women in this society, and the absolute helplessness of the female figure.

However, I would like to point out that it is the woman in the story who outsmarts all of the men and saves herself in the end. With the turning of straw into gold we see the symbolism of the rags to riches folk tale trope. While the men may benefit, it is the woman who drags herself up from being the poor miller’s daughter to eventually being queen. She is also the one with the cunning to devise a plan to discover Rumpelstiltskin’s name.

An important detail I would like to add is that The Grimm Brothers collected most of their stories from the women in their lives; sisters, friends, family, etc.. Some of these women were from the upper classes as well. I would suggest that the message being conveyed through this story is that even in a world where women’s lives are controlled by men, women can have some power over their lives by being smart and using their brains.

Once Upon a Time

The changes made to the story in season two of Once Upon a Time take this idea even further. Instead of the miller boasting of his daughter’s ability, it is the daughter herself making claims that she can spin straw into gold, and giving in to the allure of possible power. This rags to riches story has most of the same details, but without the male domination. Cora may start out slightly helpless, but she is accosted by a female rather than a male, making this a completely female centric version of the story. It is the women vying for power now rather than the men.

Rather than simply being satisfied to be rescued by Rumpelstiltskin, Cora demands that he teach her how to spin straw into gold. She happily signs away her first-born child in order to gain the power of magic. She also demonstrates this power in front of the entire court rather than having everything takes place behind closed doors. In this version, the woman is in complete control.

Cora also manages to outwit Rumpelstiltskin, and get out of their bargain, but it is not by guessing his name. Rather, she gets him to change their original deal by stipulating that he would take their first born child, thinking that she is going to run away with him rather than stay and be queen. In the end, however, Cora’s greed and hunger for power are too much for her to resist; and in the end she suffers for it. She has to rip out her own heart to keep from going with Rumpelstiltskin. So, while we see a very strong female heroine in this version, she ends up paying the price for her greed, unlike the original heroine. That said, both versions caution against greed and the hunger for power.

So the moral of the story today is: Don’t Be Greedy! That’s all for this week! Tune into next week’s episode of Behind the Folk Tale. Till next time!

Did you notice any interesting detail you would like to share? Sound off below…



Be sure to check back every Tuesday for a look at more folk tales!

Make sure to read Autumn’s Top 20 Fairy Tale Films

Check out my  Top 20 Folk Tale Adaptations

Also take a look at Highlighting Folk Tales on TV – Once Upon a Time…

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By on October 8th, 2013

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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