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Rumpelstilksin is an elf character in a fairy tale of the same name that originated in Germany (where he is known as Rumpelstilzchen). The tale was collected by the Brothers Grimm, who first published it in the 1812 edition of Children's and HouseholdTales. It was subsequently revised in later editions until the final version was published in 1857.
Plot synopsisIn order to make himself appear more important, a miller lied to the king that his daughter could spin straw into gold. The king called for the girl, shut her in a tower room with straw and a spinning wheel, and demanded that she spin the straw into gold by morning, for three nights, or be executed. Some versions say that if she failed, she would be skewered and then fricasseed like a pig, while others take a less graphic approach and say that the girl is locked in the dungeon forever. She had given up all hope, when a dwarf appeared in the room and spun straw into gold for her in return for her necklace; then again the following night for her ring. On the third night, when she had nothing with which to reward him, the strange creature spun straw into gold for a promise that the girl's first-born child would become his.
The king was so impressed that he letmarried the miller's daughter marry his son, the prince,daughter, but when their first child was born, the dwarf returned to claim his payment: "Now give me what you promised". The queen was frightened and offered him all the wealth she had if she could keep the child. The dwarf refused but finally agreed to give up his claim to the child if the queen could guess his name in three days. At first she failed, but before the second night, her messenger overheard the dwarf hopping about his fire and singing. While there are many variations in this song, the 1886 translation by Lucy Crane reads
"To-day do I bake, to-morrow I brew,
The day after that the queen's child comes in;
And oh! I am glad that nobody knew
That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!"
When the dwarf came to the queen on the third day and she revealed his name, Rumpelstiltskin lost his bargain. In the 1812 edition of the Brothers Grimm tales, Rumpelstiltskin then "ran away angrily, and never came back". The ending was revised in a final 1857 edition to a more gruesome version where 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." Other versions have Rumpelstiltskin driving his right foot so far into the ground that he creates a chasm and falls into it, never to be seen again. In the oral version originally collected by the brothers Grimm, Rumpelstiltskin flies out of the window on a cooking ladle (Heidi Anne Heiner).
The name Rumpelstilzchen in German means literally "little rattle stilt". (A stilt is a post or pole which provides support for a structure.) A rumpelstilt or rumpelstilz was the name of a type of goblin, also called a pophart or poppart that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks. The meaning is similar to rumpelgeist ("rattle ghost") or poltergeist ("noisy ghost"), a mischievous spirit that clatters and moves household objects. (Other related concepts are mummarts or boggarts and hobs that are mischievous household spirits that disguise themselves.)
The earliest known mention of Rumpelstiltskin occurs in Johann Fischart's Geschichtklitterung, or Gargantua of 1577 (a loose adaptation of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel) which refers to an "amusement" for children named "Rumpele stilt or the Poppart".
The story of Rumpelstiltskin is an example of Aarne and Thompson's folklore type 500 (The Name of the Helper; see links below). Other fairy tale themes in the story include the Impossible Task, the Hard Bargain, the Changeling Child, and, above all, the Secret Name.
Rumpelstiltskin is most commonly interpreted as a cautionary tale against bragging (compare with the concept of hubris in Greek mythology), but in this case not the miller himself but rather his daughter is punished for his lies. An alternative explanation is that the tale could have been meant to teach women the importance of performing a supporting role in their later marriage. The gift of spinning straw into gold is seen here as a metaphor for the value of household skills. Indeed, the king in this tale does not seem to be interested in the girl besides her alleged magical capabilities — even though her beauty is mentioned in passing — and she exists only to bring him riches and bear his children.
The dwarf's demand for the girl's first-born child probably has remnants of older legends which held that malignant sprites and goblins would steal unattended babies and replace them with a child (or "changeling") of their own. (Similar tales exist about trolls as well, though their motives were generally seen as selfish rather than unpleasant, in that they supposedly found some of their own children too humanoid to exist among them.) However, tales like these in themselves were intended to stop children from playing outside without care, or mothers from leaving their children in danger, and the miller, famously, puts his own child in the power of a greedy king, while she in turn agrees to hand over her child to a virtual stranger.
Another tale revolves about a girl trapped by false claims about her spinning abilities: The Three Spinners. However, the three women who assist that girl do not demand her first born, but that she invite them to her wedding and say that they are relatives of hers. With this more reasonable request, she complies, and is freed from her hated spinning when they tell the king that their hideous looks spring from their endless spinning. In one Italian variant, she must discover their names, as with Rumpelstiltskin, but not for the same reason: she must use their names to invite them, and she has forgotten them.