Read the Original Story Rumpelstiltskin and the Knight Rumpelstiltskin and the Fox
Like many fairy tales, “Rumpelstiltskin” is a story that is without a character which we can define as pure or innocent. Rather, it’s a story of two obviously wicked characters in the form of the father who lies to and thus ends up getting his daughter in a lot of trouble with the king who is a greedy man who cares about nothing but the gold he can get out of the miller’s daughter. Not all the characters are wicked, of course. The miller’s daughter clearly isn’t evil when she agrees to give a baby to a strange man, just desperate. She has been forced into an inescapable predicament by the two men in her life that she should be able to trust above anyone else, her father and her future husband. Clearly this situation puts her in a space between. She is not yet a fiancé, yet she is no longer free in that regard. She is trapped in a prison but an honored guest. She is between being a member of her father’s house, the executioner, and the king’s household. It is at this moment when she is trapped; pulled by so many worlds that the fairy appears.
In many ways Rumpelstiltskin is the most confusing and intriguing part of this story. For this particular “männlein,” as the German text designates, Rumpelstiltskin, despite outward appearances, is neither clear in his goal nor his motivation. On the cusp of it, it would seem that he wants the girl’s first-born baby. However, most fairies in stories don’t ask for the child they want, instead they simply take it. Rumpelstiltskin, however, despite being clearly able to sneak into a prison, being able to weave magic doesn’t just take the child as he obviously could. He tries to get the girl to accept giving the baby to him. What’s more, even after he comes to collect the child, he decides to give her another chance to escape her agreement with him.
Considering that during the time this story takes place children were left in the forests in droves or orphaned on the streets, Rumpelstiltskin could have taken hundreds of children easily, and taking them would have been an act of kindness as Rumpelstiltskin would have been rescuing them from starvation. He doesn’t just want any baby then. What he wants is this particular baby. Indeed, by his own words, this baby is more precious to him than all the treasures in the world.
We are left then with two questions, the first being, why doesn’t Rumpelstiltskin simply take the baby? Secondly, why does Rumpelstiltskin want the baby in the first place? To answer these questions, we must examine what fairies are as well as a few other fairy tales. Let us begin by placing Rumpelstiltskin into the possible categories of fairy to see where he might fit, or if he even has a place as all fairies don’t necessarily seem to.
Possibility 1 - Rumpelstiltskin is an ancestor spirit or a forgotten god.
At first glance this idea may seem preposterous; however, consider that Merlin was raised by a fairy as was Malagigi the wizard who aided Charlemagne in myth. King Arthur was taken by Merlin who saw his future before he was even born, and Lancelot was taken and raised by fairies as well. This might mean then that Rumpelstiltskin is after the child because he sees the child’s future or at least its potential future. This particular baby is not just that of the girl’s after all but also that of a king, and so is the future king just as King Arthur was. Thus, Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t just want any baby he wants to raise, or have someone else raise a king, while removing the child and future king from what is quite possibly a long line of tyrants or, at the very least, from his currently greedy father. We see something similar happen in a French fairy tale in which a fairy tells the king and queen:
“If I left him (your son) to you to bring up... you would be certain to make him as foolish as yourselves. I do not even intend to let him know that he is your son.”
So at least in one incidence a fairy claims to be removing a child from their parents to help insure that they are raised properly. While one can’t always trust fairies, of course, we must again recall that the fairies don’t have to give any explanation. They can just take the child if they want it and leave. Further, we must also consider that because Rumpelstiltskin may potentially be able to see the future, that he is actually after the child he knows he loves more than “all the treasures in the world.” As an ancestor or deity, he could be the either the child’s grandfather or seeking a way to help his decendents by putting a better king on the throne.
Possibility 2 - Rumpelstiltskin is the spirit of a conquered people or one of their gods. In this possibility, Rumpelstiltskin might be after a mixture of revenge or is attempting to help his people rise up to their former glory by raising the future king of the land. In this he could be a Merlin-like figure of a conquered people who, just as Malagigi the wizard of Charlemagne’s court, was later derided as a devil by later people. Rumpelstiltskin might be a hero to a conquered people still hiding in the woods thus making him an enemy to the kingdom.
Possibility 3 - Rumpelstiltskin is a nature spirit or a simply a unique fairy. It is more challenging to understand the reason a nature spirit or unique fairy would be interested in a specific human child except that perhaps they are aware that they do love the child because of divination. Another possibility comes to us from the story of Powell in Wales in which a human king aids the fairies by slaying an enemy they couldn’t. Thus, it’s conceivable that a nature fairy could desire to take a specific child because it knows that it loves or could help that child.
Possibility 4 - Rumpelstiltskin is a devil/fallen angel or witch. Although I’ve chosen to leave this theory of fairy nature out of this book because it is a much later addition to the fairy theory and so ultimately doesn’t fit within a book explaining the motivations of fairies in more original traditions, it is still conceivable that Rumpelstiltskin is meant by the storytellers to be a devil trying to tempt the girl into the sin of giving away her child. Ultimately, however, while this idea could be workable, after thousands of years of Christianizing the people, telling this story would likely jump on the opportunity to accuse a creature of being a devil if they thought it was so.
Through this simple review we can now see that Rumpelstiltskin is after the baby for four possible reasons:
1 - Rumpelstiltskin wants the baby because he knows that he loves him.
2 - He sees the baby’s future and realizes that it can be a good king finally bringing peace to the land of his ancestors.
3 - He seeks revenge or a way to protect his fallen people.
4 - He knows he’ll need the baby’s help at some future date.
To understand which of these answers makes sense, we must find an answer to the second question: Why doesn’t Rumpelstiltskin just take the baby? Again, there are a number of possible answers which present themselves:
1- Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t simply take the baby in order to mock the miller’s daughter. It’s possible, of course, given the capricious nature of fairies that Rumpelstiltskin is simply teasing the girl, mocking her as mischievous fairies often do. However, if this is the case, why not simply take the child even if she is successful in guessing his name?
2- Rumpelstiltskin seeks to lead the miller’s daughter into sin. The girl is the only good character in the story. If Rumpelstiltskin can get her to give her child to a devil, then he has caused her to sin. The problem with this theory, however, is that if his goal is to cause her to sin, why give her any chance to redeem herself? Why not simply take the child as per their first agreement? Further, why would he suspect the devil of telling the girl his name as he accused when she discovered it if doing so would cause him to lose her soul? In general, this answer makes no sense so it further eliminates the possibility that he is a devil or fallen angel.
3- Rumpelstiltskin has a conflict. Rumpelstiltskin knows what he needs to do; he knows that he can make the kingdom better, gain help from the child, have a child of his own, etc., but he has a conflict about his method of doing it. So he doesn’t simply want to take the child from its mother. He wants her to accept the loss. In the end, however, he realizes that this is impossible and so he symbolically tears himself in two, ripping his dual nature in half.
4- Rumpelstiltskin is after something more than the child. In a similar story, that of Tim Tom Tat, a little, hairy creature offers to weave for a girl in return for her child. In a similar vein, it’s possible that Rumpelstiltskin is hoping by giving the girl a second chance to save the baby he’ll be able to make her feel so defeated that she agrees to come with him. In this case, he is after both the future king and the queen.
5-In another similar story, the Scottish Rumpelstiltskin Whuppity Stoorie tells the girl that fairy law requires that she give the girl three days to guess her name. This is a confusing requirement as, again, fairies take babies without asking all the time. So why do they have to give a person the chance to get out of it unless there is something else at play because of the girl or the child’s relationship to the fairy world?
It seems most likely, given all the possibilities, that Rumpelstiltskin gives the girl a chance to get out of giving him the child because he is in a conflict about what he’s doing. Recalling also that fairies can be multi-natured, we must also consider the possibility that part of him is perhaps trying to force the other part of him to allow the girl to keep the child because he feels sorry for her. This makes even more sense considering what Rumpelstiltskin is. The German version of the Rumpelstiltskin’s fairy tale uses the word “männlein” to represent him as opposed to the word Zwerge (dwarf) or some other word it could use.
Männleins in fairy tales have a history of helping girls marry the prince. In the story of “The Three Männlein of the Woods” a young girl is sent by her evil stepmother into the snowy forest to pick strawberries. As she searches for a way to complete her impossible task, she stumbles upon a cottage of three männlein who, in return for her kindness, make gold coins fall from her mouth whenever she speaks, cause her to grow ever more beautiful, and bless her that she’ll marry the king. In other tales, männlein offer advice to princes, or to young men, in order help them rescue a kingdom and save the princesses.
Zwerge, on the other hand, feature promptly in two other stories. These are “Snow White” and the “Snow White and Rose Red.” In one of these stories the Zwerge while helpful are essentially helpless bystanders as a wicked witch descends on the also helpless princess. In other words, the Zwerge are essentially subject to fate as much as anyone else. Their home simply seems to be a safe place to hide out. In the other story, the Zwerge is the villain though he is not that impressive in his abilities as he keeps getting his beard caught in bushes and stumps which means that he requires a young girl to rescue him.
Männleins, on the other hand, tend to appear as knowledgeable. They are the creators of fate. Rumpelstiltskin himself is so good at spinning he can spin straw into gold, spinning ultimately being the activity used to help control fate. Rumpelstiltskin was also showed just when the girl needed him and is also capable of doing the impossible to help her. So he clearly is able to manipulate the future. What we must presume then is that, at least to an extent, Rumpelstiltskin is attempting to create fate. However, neither his ability to tell when someone needs his help nor his ability to do the impossible prevents him from giving the girl the chance to get out of having her baby taken from her. So obviously he’s in a conflict about what he’s doing. So it’s likely that like the other Männlein he is kind and is essentially attempting to make the world a better place. However, in doing so he has stepped outside of his usual role of helping damsels in distress and princes on quests and is now trying to steal a prince from a damsel in distress.
Rumpelstiltskin then is most likely some form of deity or ancestor spirit seeking to help his people by raising a king who will actually be good and a child which he loves. Unfortunately, in order to do this properly he must play the role of a villain, a role at least half of his dual nature is not comfortable with. This is why he tries at first to give the miller’s daughter a chance to keep her baby.