Authors: Vivian Vande Velde
Houghton Mifflin Company
This book is dedicated to hospice caregiversâ
especially to those angels disguised as nurses
and volunteers at Journey Home
Copyright Â© 2000 by Vande Velde, Vivian
"Straw into Gold" from
Tales from the Brothers Grimm and
the Sisters Weird,
copyright Â© 1995 by Vivian Vande Velde,
reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin
Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The text of this book is set in 11.5-point Dante.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Vande Velde, Vivian.
The Rumpelstiltskin problem / Vivian Vande Velde.
Summary: A collection of variations on the familiar story of a
boastful miller and the daughter he claims can spin straw into gold.
1. Fairy tales. [1. Fairy tales. 2. Folklore.]
I. Rumpelstiltskin (Folk Tale). English. II. Title.
PZ8.V55 Ru 2000 398.2'0943'01âdc21 00-027607
Manufactured in the United States of America
MV 10 9 8 7 6 5
I A fairy Tale in Bad Taste
II Straw into Gold
III The Domovoi
IV Papa Rumpelstiltskin
V Ms. Rumpelstiltskin
VI As Good as Gold
There's a game we used to play when I was in school that kids still play, though it has various names. We called it Gossip. Somebody would whisper something to one person, who was supposed to whisper the same thing to the next person, who whispered it to the next, and so on until the last person said it out loud, at which point everyone would laugh because little by little along the way bits and pieces had been left out or misheard, other words had been added, details were lost, the sense changedâand the final message was usually totally different from the original.
That's the way it is with fairy tales. In the beginning they were told, not written down. And over time, as the stories were repeated by different people in different situations, they constantly shifted and changedâthe way
story might shift and change, for example, if you were caught putting shaving cream on your cat. How you justified the situation to your parents might differ sharply from what you told your friends, which would probably be different from any explanation you might offer to the cat.
That's why we sometimes have completely different versions of the same story. But in some cases, so many details have been lost that the story stops making sense.
That's how I feel about the story of Rumpelstiltskinâit makes no sense.
The story starts with a poor miller telling the king, "My daughter can spin straw into gold."
We are not told how the miller has come to be talking with the king in the first place, or why the miller chooses to say such a thing. In any case, to my mind the reasonable answer for the king to come back with would be: "If your daughter can spin straw into gold, why are you a poor miller?" But the king doesn't say that; he says, "Then she shall come to my castle and spin straw into gold for me, and if she does, I'll make her my queen."
Now, no matter the reason the miller said what he did, you'd think that in reality he would have noticed that his daughter doesn't actually know how to spin straw into gold. (Unless she's lied to him. In which case you'd think that now would be the time for her to set things straight.)
But still he brings her to the castle to show off a talent he knows she doesn't haveâwhich doesn't sound to me like responsible parenting.
At the castle the king locks the girl into a room and tells her, "Spin this straw into gold, or tomorrow you shall die."
Not my idea of a promising first date.
The girl seems smarter than her father.
knows that she can't spin straw into gold, so she's worried. But what does she do? She starts crying. Not a very productive plan.
Still, along comes a little man who, by happy coincidence, knows how to do what everyone wants. "What will you give me to spin this straw into gold for you?" he asks her, and she offers him her gold ring.
Now think about this.
Here's someone who can spin an entire roomful of straw into gold. Why does he need her tiny gold ring? Sounds like a bad bargain to me.
But the little man agrees and spins the straw into gold.
Is the king satisfied?
Of course not.
The next night he locks her into an even bigger room with even more straw and offers her the same deal: "Spin this straw into gold, or tomorrow you shall die."
Again the little man comes, again he gets her butt out of trouble (this time in exchange for a necklaceâapparently the poor miller has a secret stash somewhere, to keep his daughter in all this jewelry), and yet again the king makes his demand: "Straw for gold."
At this point the girl has run out of jewelry, but the little man says he'll spin one more time if she'll promise him her firstborn child. Why he wants this child he never says, and she never asks. Obviously the miller's daughter is no more a responsible parent than her father is, for she agrees to the bargain.
Fortunately for everyone, the next morning the king is finally satisfied with the amount of gold the girl has spun for him, and he asks her to marry him.
Swept off her feet because he's such a sweet talker ("Spin or die"), she accepts the king's proposal.
Eventually the happy couple has a child, and the little man suddenly shows up to demand what has been promised to him.
Again the girl cries, perhaps hoping that yet another little man will step forward to get her out of trouble.
Although the deal clearly was "firstborn child for a roomful of straw spun into gold," the little man now offers the queen a way out: "Guess my name," he says, "and you may keep the child."
And if she doesn't guess his name, what does
get, besides the child she has already promised him? Nothing. I told you: This guy doesn't know how to bargain. You wouldn't want to go to a garage sale with him; he'd talk the prices
Now, the queen should be able to guess the little guy's name is Rumpelstiltskin by noticing that that's the name of the story, andâsince nobody else in the kingdom has a nameâshe might go with that first. But nobody in this kingdom is very smart, so instead the queen sends the servants out into the countryside to look for likely names.
Luckily for her, at the last moment, one of the servants spots the little man dancing around a campfire singing a bad poem that ends with the line, "Rumpelstiltskin is my name."
is he doing this? Because if he was singing "Kumbaya," the story would go on even longer than it already does.
Being from this kingdom of the mentally challenged, the servant doesn't recognize the importance of what he has observed. "I couldn't find any names," he tells her. "All I found was this little guy dancing around a campfire singing 'Rumpelstiltskin is my name."' You wouldn't want to put this guy in charge of sophisticated international negotiations.
Now, we aren't told whether the queen is really, really stupidâwhich would be my first choiceâor whether she's playing a cruel game with the little man who, after all, three times spun gold for her and then offered her a last-minute chance to get out of her ill-chosen bargain. But when he shows up and asks if she's found out his name, she says first, "Is it George? Is it Harry?" and only then asks, "Is it Rumpelstiltskin?"
Justifiably annoyed, the little guy stamps his foot, which cracks the castle floor. (The kingâwho, by the way, has disappeared from the storyâshould have asked her to spin that straw into something useful instead of all that gold, like maybe a floor covering that wouldn't crack when a man consistently described as "little" stamped his foot.) But anyway, there's Rumpelstiltskin with his foot caught in the floor, and in a really resourceful case of well-I'll-show-them, he gets so mad he tears himself in two.
What do you think your teacher would say if you handed in a story like that?
I think you'd be lucky to get a Dâ.
And that's assuming your spelling was good.
It was by asking myself all these questions that I came to write these stories.
Once upon a time, before pizzerias or Taco Bells, there was a troll named Rumpelstiltskin who began to wonder what a human baby would taste like. Now, Rumpelstiltskin had dined on sheep and snake; he had sampled catfish whiskers and spider toes; he had nibbled on vulture and on things at which vultures had turned up their noses. He had even (according to rumor) eaten trollâthough no one had proof of this. But, on the other hand, no one had seen his sister-in-law Myrna in a good long time, even though the last anyone had heard of her, she was setting off to visit Rumpelstiltskin's cave. Then again, Myrna was a rather disagreeable troll, and no one had looked very hard for her.
Whatever the truth of that, suddenly Rumpelstiltskin decided that what he
wanted to try was human baby.
"That will be difficult to arrange," the other trolls warned Rumpelstiltskin. "Usually human parents object to their babies being eaten."
"Besides," said Rumpelstiltskin's brother, the one who had misplaced Myrna, "babies probably just taste like chicken, anyway."
Still, Rumpelstiltskin would not be talked out of it, and he went to the St. Bartholomew's Day Faire where, it was said, you could buy anything.
But this saying proved to be wrong: Rumpelstiltskin could not find a single merchant selling baby. The closest he came was a woman who countered by volunteering to sell him her teenager, but even then Rumpelstiltskin doubted it was an entirely serious offer.
Rumpelstiltskin said to himself,
if I cannot BUY a baby for lunch, perhaps I can STEAL one.
But he had no better luck at this than at the other. He stood very, very still so that he lookedâas most trolls willâlike a huge harmless rock as he waited patiently in the middle of the fairgrounds. Even so, nobody left a baby untended near him. The younger a human baby was, the more its parents seemed to be careful of it, and Rumpelstiltskin was determined to have a very young human baby so that its flesh would be tender and sweet.
Finally, Rumpelstiltskin said to himself,
Well, I cannot buy a baby, and I cannot steal one. Maybe I can get one by trickery.
So he continued to stand very still and quiet and he watched the humans and listened to their talk, until finally a plan came to him. It wasn't the best plan, because it required a lot of waiting, but trolls generally live for hundreds of years, so they tend to be patient.
Rumpelstiltskin had been watching a miller and his daughter who looked a little bit shabbyâthough they were both cleanâand who seemed gullible. Rumpelstiltskin tried to rearrange the crags of his face into a friendly expression, then he went up to them, moving like a mountain to a prophet, and said, "I know how you can earn a coin or two. Do you see the king sitting there in his royal carriage enjoying the street performers? I have been watching him throw coins to the puppeteers and the jugglers. I'm certain if you could make him laugh, he would throw a gold coin your way, too."
"But I don't juggle," the miller said. "And I have no puppets."
"But you could tell him a joke," Rumpelstiltskin suggested.
"If I knew a good one," the miller agreed, trying to think of a funny story.
"How about," the daughter started, "the one about the chicken? No, wait, it was a hedgehogâwasn't it?âand it was going ... Where was it going now? I think..."
This was going to be even easier than Rumpelstiltskin had thought. "I know what would make the king laugh," he told the miller. "Tell him your daughter can spin straw into gold."
The miller and his daughter looked at each other.
funny," the miller pointed out.
"The king has a very well-developed sense of humor," Rumpelstiltskin assured them. "Let me go before you to prepare the way."
Rumpelstiltskin made his way through the crowd like a rolling boulder until he came up to the window of the king's carriage. "Sire," Rumpelstiltskin said, bowing low like a small mountain collapsing, "I have a very sad story to tell you about a desperate man and his poor daughter."
The king, who was young and softhearted, looked where Rumpelstiltskin pointed: to the miller and his daughter, waving shyly.
"Those people," Rumpelstiltskin said, "have no money at all. They haven't eaten in days. But they are too proud to accept charity. And now the father's wits are addled from hunger, and he is going around telling people his daughter can spin straw into gold. It's enough to break a troll's heart."
Actually, there's very little that can break a troll's heart, but the king didn't know this and so he said, "That
sad. What can be done?"
"Perhaps," Rumpelstiltskin said, "you could pay the father to let the girl come spin straw into gold for you. Then he would have money to buy food for himself and the rest of his family. And, with the girl in your palace, you could see to it that she had a decent meal or two before you sent her home. The whole thing hinges on making them believe that you believe their story."