The story of Rumplestiltskin is one I thought I knew. I used to read it as a child and enjoyed it quite a lot. It had nice shiny gold, a funny little man, and a lingering threat of death hanging over throughout. But what I did not do when I was a child was really understand it, or at least gleam any real meaning from it. I’ve never studied it in a academic sense, but when I heard it read a few months ago my imagination was set loose and my mind wandered the paths of a appreciation for this old but totally timeless genius peep into deepest humanity.
Like the most enduring art, Rumplestiltskin speaks into the soul of multiple generations, offering what feels like a fresh view of the world at each juncture. It is depressing because it shows we never learn. When the same words sound as prophetic in 1812 as they do in 2012 it makes you question what hope we have.
In a nut shell the story (or at least one version) goes like this:
• A miller wants to feel more important so he tells everyone his daughter can spin gold from straw.
• The king hears this and asks to see it, so the miller hands her over and she is locked in a tower with a spinning wheel, some straw, and the threat that if she produces no gold by morning she will be executed.
• She can’t do it and cries a little bit.
• A little imp thing comes along and helps her. He does it all in exchange for her ring, her necklace and then on the third night after the king demands more and more, the promise of her firstborn child (she has run out of things to give him).
• The king loves all the gold and says he will marry her. So they get married and have a child. When the child is born, the imp returns to claim his payment.
• The now queen has changed her mind. She offers him all her wealth but the imp refuses, and so as a compromise gives her three days to guess his name. If she can’t, then he gets the child.
• She can’t guess it until the third night, after her servant hears him singing a song about himself in the woods. He says his name is Rumplestiltskin.
• On the third night she tells him his name. He loses and is so angry that his foot into the ground so hard that it disappears, before grabbing his other foot and tearing himself in two (there are many variations on this, but I personally love the graphically disturbing nature of this one).
What does this mean?
The evolution of humanity is shadowed by perpetual lies. From generation to generation we promise things that will leave our children in trouble. Rumplestiltskin is a story submerged in the lies of the supposedly wiser generation, trying to save or further themselves. The cost is displaced to their children. The Miller makes an outrageous claim that his daughter can spin gold from straw. Not that HE can, but that his daughter can. He knows this is not true, and unless he is really stupid he knows that someone is likely to test this claim. Then when the king asks him to he hands her over without complaint. He doesn’t say, ‘well actually I was lying, she can’t. Punish me if you need to, just don’t hurt her.’ He actually hands her over and basically says, ‘well here she is, if she can’t perform under pressure, it’s not my fault, it’s her problem.’ The Miller wants to further his reputation so that he earns more respect within the society. To do this he makes false claims about his own daughter and leaves her to pick up the pieces, we hear nothing more of him after this. The sad thing is, as the story unfolds and the king believes the gold that Rumplestiltskin is spinning is being produced by his daughter, one can only imagine that the Miller’s reputation is in fact elevated and he earns the plaudits of all his contemporaries, not to mention those of the king himself.
Long-term problem solving
The daughter has no choice about the position she is in and when the offer of help comes in the form of an imp she has little choice but to take it.
However, allowing the imp to spin the gold doesn’t make the problem go away, it just covers her backside for one more day. In fact she has to sell more and more of herself in order to keep alive the illusion of her wealth creation, until she ultimately makes the decision to sell her yet to be born child. Because she wants to live, she doesn’t even think twice about it, the gold is spun for her again and she lives another day. Fortunately for her this is the last time the king demands the gold, and he in fact the following day demands her hand in marriage, which she and I’m sure her father, are thrilled about.
She thinks nothing more of the promise she made to the imp until her child is actually born – Rumplestiltskin returns and demands his payment. She doesn’t want to give him the baby but has little choice because she made the promise. However there is a glimmer of hope when he offers a compromise – a game if you will. She doesn’t adhere fairly to his demands, for she is told to GUESS his name. However, she discovers it through lucky coincidence and, to be fair his own stupidity. She defeats the very thing that saved her life on three occasions, and he tears himself in two. It is a tricky web of blame and responsibility – no one is fully to blame and no one is innocent.
There is a beautiful paradox here, Rumplestiltskin as both the villain and the hero.
Can We See Comparisons Today?
We often treat contemporary wealth creation in this way. For example, when we don’t see or feel the consequences too badly we are happy to let the financial markets produce wealth from speculative means, and we don’t question them as they apparently improve our lives. But we ignore the often underlying deceit and corruption that is happening as we sell more and more of ourselves into their possession – we sell our children, we put them into huge amounts of debt, damage the world so that we can produce and consume more and more, and then when the very system comes back to take what we owe it, we try to beat it again with clever tricks and even more lies.
Will we ever be able to live in harmony with a system that has evolved through false promises, lies and pretend/imaginary prosperity or will we forever be selling more and more of ourselves, our children, their children and lying to ourselves that it can be fixed when we are gone. Do we just continue to live like it doesn’t matter what we do today because our immediate happiness/reputation/safety is what is really important?
Are we like the Miller, sending our children up shit creek without a paddle, are we even already up there, having been sent on our way by our own parents? Do we even have a choice to improve the system, or is this the perpetual state of falsehood (nature) in which mankind will forever find itself? I don’t know, but I really like the story of Rumplestiltskin, especially that bit when he pulls his leg so that he tears in two. That is a great bit of imagery.