Basic Plot Summary: A king hears a miller bragging that his daughter can spin straw into gold so he locks her in a tower with piles of straw and commands her to turn it to gold for him or she will have to die. A strange little man shows up and spins the straw into gold for her in exchange for her necklace. When the king gives her more straw, she offers the little man her ring and when the king gives her even more, she has nothing left to offer so he asks her to promise him her firstborn child. The king marries her and later, when she has a baby, the little man comes to collect and she doesn’t want to give up her child, so he makes another deal. He gives her three days to guess his name and if she does, he will forfeit his claim on her baby. She secretly learns his name is Rumpelstiltskin and when she tells it to him, he gets angry and leaves, never to be seen again.
There are tons of variations on this story, which made it a little challenging to write the generalized summary above. For example, there are lots of different ways in which the girl learns his name. Sometimes she sends a servant to find it out, sometimes she overhears it herself and sometimes the king overhears it and tells her, without realizing he’s helping her. And the little man goes by a wide variety of names, usually based on where the story is told and his fate at the end of the story ranges from the mild ‘flying away through the nearest window’ to the macabre ‘tearing himself in two.’ The Brothers Grimm were the first to publish it in 1812 (and they revised it in subsequent publications), but the original story goes back thousands of years. As a character, Rumpelstiltskin shows up in lots of other places, such as the Shrek movies and the TV series Once Upon a Time, and he is always a villain. But when you step back and consider the original story, he is not that much worse than the miller who brags on his daughter and gets her caught up in all this, the king who locks her in the tower for his own greed (and threatens her life) or the daughter who passes off Rumpelstiltskin’s work as her own and sometimes connives to cheat him by learning his name. It’s basically a story full of folks on the lower end of the decency scale.
Rumpelstiltskin – This is pretty much a spot on version of the story as it was published in 1819, in its second publishing. Author/illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky includes a two page note on the story’s text in the back of the book, sharing some of the story’s history. But what makes this version special (and won it a Caldecott Honor) is the artwork, which is absolutely gorgeous. Each illustration is an oil painting that would easily look at home on a museum wall. Rumpelstiltskin himself is pictured as more playful than menacing, with wide eyes and a wide brimmed hat. The illustrations make this version stand out as more than just a child’s fairy tale. (Dutton Children’s Books, 1986)
Rumpelstiltskin – In adapting this story, author Christopher Noel delves a little deeper into the thought processes of the characters, showing us the real greed of the king who keeps asking for more and more straw and only offering her a crust of bread to eat. We also see that the miller’s daughter assumes that the little man will forget about her promise of her firstborn child, since she is young and that day is far off. Illustrator Peter Sis presents Rumpelstiltskin as a strange and sinister looking imp in a red suit with a harlequin cap. I like that he also draws the king as villainous, too, because it’s about time someone acknowledged his bad role in the story. (Abdo Publishing, 2005)
The Girl Who Spun Gold – Author Virginia Hamilton uses a West Indian version of the story, in which Queen Quashiba has to guess the name of Lit’Mahn Bittyun. It’s written in a gentle dialect that is enjoyable to read, even when the phrasing feels unusual or formal. Because of the emphasis on gold in the story, Leo and Diane Dillon used metallic gold in their artwork and gold leaf in the borders. Lit’Mahn is truly frightening in the illustrations, with razor sharp teeth and menacing eyes. I love that, at the end, Queen Quashiba is furious at the king for locking her up and making her spin gold and he apologizes for his greed and his treatment of her. (The Blue Sky Press, 2000)
Rumpelstiltkin’s Daughter – In this delightfully different book, the miller’s daughter (who see the king for the greedy so-and-so he is) runs away with Rumpelstiltskin instead, marries him and lives a contented life with him and their daughter on a farm. The daughter tricks the king into spending some of his vast fortune on improving the lives of his subjects and by the end of the story, his people love him and life is better for everyone. The king is so grateful that he wants to marry her, but she asks him to make her prime minister instead. Author/illustrator Diane Stanley puts a lot of fun details in this story, which is sure to be a hit with anyone looking for strong female characters. The gouache, colored pencil and collage illustrations are fantastic. I was so happily surprised by this one and highly recommend it. (HarperCollins, 1997)
And what did we learn? What I take away from Rumpelstiltskin is that once you start making deals with shady characters, everything in your life becomes subject to negotiation.