- The Dwarf Inside Us:A Reading of "Rumpelstiltskin"
Rumpelstiltskin is one of the most uniquely enigmatic and unforgettable figures to emerge from German folklore. In the many variants of the tale (known through England, Scandanavia, the Baltic region, the British Isles, Spain and Italy),1 the principal traits are constant: a small magical creature performs some task to save a young woman from death at a king's hands; the creature demands either her child or her hand in marriage; and he is eventually destroyed by her discovery of his name. But the magical figure at the center varies from tale to tale. In "Tom Tit Tot," the best known of the variants, for example, it is a devilish elf-like creature with a long tail who saves the young woman. This variant is lighter and funnier, but less interesting than "Rumpelstiltskin," mostly because the character of Tom Tit Tot lacks Rumpelstiltskin's complexities—he is referred to as "the little black thing" or "that," has little emotional response to the young woman, and is simply an annoying imp who disappears at the end of the tale. He does not carry the symbolic weight of the fascinating male dwarf.
Most interpreters of Rumpelstiltskin see him as a typical troll, helpful but mischievous, who, in accordance with troll lore, has power over humans until his name is discovered.2 Or he is over-simplified by critics of folklore as a demon or evil spirit.3 In a recent psychological study, he is seen as a projection of the young woman's father—her superego—which must be repressed if she is to become "the ideal mother."4 This reduces Rumpelstiltskin's symbolic richness to a Freudian construct. Certainly something more is needed to account for his fascination to both children and adults, who intuit a special meaning in his character.
Rumpelstiltskin is by far the most interesting character in the tale. The miller, the king, and the miller's daughter pale beside him. And although the main problem in the tale is the fate of the miller's daughter, her destiny is inextricably tied up with this male dwarf. He seems to have all the power. He alone can perform the magical task that saves the miller's [End Page 71] daughter from death. But his dwarfishness suggests that he is sexless and impotent. In fact, when she guesses his name, he ceases to exist. Essentially, then, he is an extension of her, a kind of double, active and powerful only to the extent that she remains passive and helpless. As Anne Sexton wrote in her poem, "Rumpelstiltskin":
Inside many of usis a small old manwho wants to get out . . .It is your Dopplegangertrying to get out.Beware . . . Beware . . .5
What, then, is the threatening force in us which we keep locked up, which often we, like the miller's daughter, are unaware of?
"Rumpelstiltskin" is a tale about the power of creative energy, what happens when it is not recognized, and why people fear it. Rumpelstiltskin himself represents the artist; he is the force that can spin straw into gold. Straw is homely; gold is noble. The artist is the one who points out the connection between what is ordinary and what is special and transforms one into the other. The dwarf's act mirrors this task. The act of spinning itself suggests a special connection, the creation of a kind of order from fragmentary threads.
The tale dramatizes the process by which the heroine learns to use her own creative powers. Her one creation, her baby, is jeopardized by the dwarf. The only way she can gain power over the dwarf and retain her child is to guess his name. What is the magic attached to the discovery of his name?6 The tale suggests that growth comes from the process of naming. We know from early childhood that naming is one of our chief ways of locating a feeling and learning to control, thus lessening our sense of inner chaos. The insight that we gain from this process allows us to create. Again this suggests the function of the artist—to make free...