What is up with Rumpelstiltskin?

Rumpelstiltskin is an odd and enduring tale, weird at so many levels that it has to make you wonder, “What’s up with that?”

Firstly, the bragging father whose big mouth leads to his daughter being locked in a tower and forced to spin straw into gold upon threat of death if she fails.  Spineless woodcutters are bad enough (leaving Hansel and Gretel to die in the forest), but dad as virtual pimp, OMG.

Next we have the “little man” whose name we do not know, but who gets a necklace (something close to the girls heart and bosom), ring (symbolic marriage vow) and finally promise of her firstborn child (how personal is that?).

With firstborn kid deals we’re in the realm of Rapunzel, but at least the ravenous-for-rocket preggers mom is above the age of consent when she makes the deal to trade her unborn child for arugula (alas, poor Rapunzel ends up locked in a tower over a salad).  With Rumpelstiltskin the unnamed girl (and this is interesting to me, after so much is ultimately made of the name of the little man) comes into unsavory contact in the tower that is not meant to protect her purity, but keep her from leaving if she doesn’t give up the gold.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts (The Gold is in the Poop), straw is a euphemism for shit, thus the unnamed girl sort of has to stare at the ceiling and think of England while the little old man spins away, turning something yucky into something good (she gets to be queen… Maybe Leona Helmsley, Imelda Marcos and Ivana Trump came to know their little sweeties real names too?).

And the king?  He sounds awful too—give me gold or I’ll kill you.  What a depressing story.  Pimp daddy, greedy materialist king and creepy goblin.

Now the whole story would make just as much sense if the little man’s name was just give at the outset with no beating around the bush, winks and nods.  Penis is his name, make no mistake about it (in German the name Rumpelstilzchen literally means “little rumble stilt” but the Anglicized version adds a little “skin”—a shaking or rattling skin-pole… hmm?).  So of course that player Rumpelstiltskin might want the first born kid—he’s the “father.”  A girl and a Penis roll in the hay all night and they make “gold” (a good time, a baby?).  I guess Rumpelstiltskin wants to be that absurdly old guy driving his kid to preschool—but is he really the worst one in the story compared to the dad?

While other fairy tales seem to suggest a type of instructional morality play (i.e. Little Red Riding Hood is pretty obviously getting sexed up when she goes red, and then she gets in trouble with the horny wolf—and this could warn girls to stay “good”), what is the message of Rumpelstiltskin?

For one it seems to suggest that the power to name things is the power to prevail.  I imagine that “good” girls didn’t go around saying “penis” in the middle ages through those Grimm gathering days and perhaps they spoke of sex in more stilted terms.  Thus maybe the story is a forewarning about what married life was going to be like after a family married off a young lass—that once the girl knew what to call that thing, the horny future husband couldn’t just get what he wanted when he wanted it.  Just a thought.

Another take on this might be the symbolic meaning of Rumpelstiltskin as a shadow animus—a variation on Bluebeard as Marie Von Franz speaks of him trapping the girl until she can become a woman by rebelling (For more on animus see: Vampires: chick magnet, mirror or animus?)—the shadow animus is thus the male aspect that imprisons the feminine until she learns to use cunning and grit to defeat, escape and nullify his threat (inner or outer).  As a tale of feminine development, it serves women (particularly those who have had bad “luck” with men, from dad on down, and particularly where abandonment or cruelty have been part of the picture) to think about both the “dicks” in their lives, and also the harder to recognize “dick” within one’s own psyche.

I write on this in the hope that if we can come right out and call a Rumpelstiltskin a dick, whether it seeks to claim that divine child within—one’s own soul, one’s sense of empowerment, presence and completion—or is bossy and abusive without, making relationships painful, that maybe greater consciousness might lead to decreased fear and increased freedom and empowerment.

Still, this story has a deeper level that we cannot just throw away in favor of women in “happy-land” weaving joy without any stinkin’ Rumpelstiltskins; the story does show that you can’t make the magic without the “dark” force of the trickster (whether it lives in one’s pants or in one’s heart).  Just as Dionysus throws a great party, but there is blood and guts at the end… at least before he runs off and throws himself in the sea once more, the integrating nature of individuation suggests that naming and labeling may give dominion once the baby has been made, but if we block access to the shadow completely we end up missing the spark of inspiration.

The trick (that tricky dick) is to neither be a dick nor marry one, but rather to integrate that shape-shifting little big man trickster into our psyches, thinking well beyond the confines of masculine and feminine identity, even beyond the conventional ideas of good and bad, toward a more integrated view of human identity.  Ultimately it is the denial and projection of the shadow that leads to the most destructive conflicts.  Just as Dorothy melts the wicked witch with water (a symbol of feeling, feminine energy), the unnamed girl causes Rumpelstiltskin’s demise by speaking his name (naming as a symbol of masculine knowledge to complement feminine wisdom).

So, here’s to honoring the chiaroscuro of the human psyche, playfully and creatively—and in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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2 Responses to “What is up with Rumpelstiltskin?”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    “Dad as virtual pimp” reminded me of the fathers of Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Simpson, who seem to talk about their daughters and their physical attributes with the same charm as the father from the fairy tale.

    And the idea of the power of naming reminded me of the contemporary fairy tale, Harry Potter, in which only the mighty Dumbledore calls Voldemort by his name, recognizing, as he does, the way in which calling something or someone by its name can move it from the sphere of myth to the sphere of the real.

    Interesting to reflect on these decidedly adult tales created for children. Thanks for this collection of insights, Bruce.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, whoever he or she that must not be named might really be, if not named in some way, not to mention acknowledged as our own Shadow, it has a nasty way of materializing right in front of us.

      As far as fairy tale wisdom goes, if nothing else we need to be nice to animals and beggars. I have to run and tend to my dragon eggs or Hagrid will be disappointed in me.

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