I’m sure most people are familiar with the Grimms’ version of Rumplestiltskin. A miller boasts that he has a beautiful daughter who can spin straw into gold. A passing noble hears this, tells the king and the girl is taken away and told to get spinning.
Fortunately she's helped by a little man who shows up and offers to help in exchange for a small trinket. This goes on for three nights, and by the third night the girl is promising the little man her first born child in return for his help. On the third morning, the king decides to marry this pretty girl who can produce gold out of straw.
They eventually have a son, and the little man shows up demanding his due. Naturally the queen doesn’t want to give up her child so they strike a new bargain. If she can guess his name, she gets to keep her child. The little man gives her three days. She tries everything but comes up short, until a passing woodsman overhears the little man bragging about how he's so clever no one will guess his name. He immediately tells the queen, who repeats it to the little man. Rumplestiltskin is so angry he stamps his foot hard enough to get it stuck in the floor. He pulls so hard to get himself free that he ends up tearing himself in half.
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The story of Rumpelstiltskin is classified by Aarne and Thompson as folklore type 500 (The Name of the Helper). If you’d like to have a look at their full index, click HERE. You can also find it categorized as an Impossible Task, a Hard Bargain, the Changeling Child, and, above all, the Secret Name.
As with the other fairy tales we’ve explored, variations of Rumplestiltskin can be found in almost every culture that depended on spinning for clothing, although the name and some of the details vary.
In the English version, ''Tom Tit Tot'', a girl eats five pies and the king overhears her mother scolding her. The woman lies and said she had been talking of the five skeins her daughter had spun, and that speed of spinning was what interested him.
A Swedish tale tells of a woman whose daughter was beautiful but lazy. In an effort to try and cure her, the woman sends her up to the roof of their cottage to spin so that everyone can see how lazy she is. When a king’s son happens by and asks what’s going on, the woman tells him her daughter is “so clever that she can spin gold out of clay and long straw”. He doesn’t realize the woman is being sarcastic, and takes the girl away to spin gold out of clay and straw.
In the Three Spinners it is three women who assist the girl. However, they do not demand her first born, only an invitation to her wedding and to say that they’re her relatives. She complies, and is freed from her hated spinning when they tell the king that their hideous looks spring from their endless spinning.
Rumpelstiltskin is most commonly described as a cautionary tale against bragging even though it’s not the miller but his daughter that is punished for the lies. Tales such as these were used to stop children from playing outside without care, and mothers from leaving their children in danger.
In a more modern interpretation, Rumpelstiltskin Syndrome is used to describe the practice in middle-management to impose unreasonable work demands on subordinates. Upon completion of the task or tasks in question, equal or higher work demands are then imposed; moreover, no credit, acknowledgement, or overt appreciation is demonstrated by way of recognition.
Though not as dark as the previous fairy tales in this series, Rumplestiltskin holds a subliminal message for women. The act of spinning straw into gold can be seen as a metaphor for the value of household skills. The king in this tale seems more interested in the girl’s ability to spin than her beauty, showing that it's the industrious woman who makes the good marriage.