Friday, 13 April 2012

Rumpelstiltskin and the power of names

 by Inbali Iserles

In the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a mill owner boasts to the king of his daughter’s talent for spinning straw into gold. Presumably he utters this fib in a moment of reckless abandon, consumed with ambition and the desire to please. Why the king believes him is another question. Avarice and hubris rub shoulders thickly. So the mill owner’s daughter – beautiful, naturally, but quite lacking such talents, is set to work amid bales of straw. She must spin it into gold by morning, or perish at the king’s command. Men do not emerge well from this tale.

Yet the despairing maiden is visited by an odd little fellow. A dwarfish caliban without much to endear him, he nevertheless possesses the skill she lacks and he agrees to spin the straw into gold in exchange for her necklace. By morning, the man has gone, the room is full of gold, and the maiden is overjoyed. But the king is not satisfied: he wants more.

So the maiden is placed in a room, this time larger and with many more bales. Again she must spin them into gold, on pain of death. The little man returns to save the day, but creepily so – this is no prince on horseback, not the sort of character with whom you wish to do deals. But a deal must be struck, and the maiden offers him her ring. When the man has gone, and the room is full of gold, the king is overjoyed. But still he wants more.

Once last time the maiden is placed in a room, this time vast, with towering bales. As she wallows there, alone in her despair, the little man returns. This time she has nothing to offer him. He asks for her firstborn and the maiden agrees – thoughts of children are far from her mind. All turns out well, then, for a while. The delighted king offers his hand in marriage (the girl is of low birth but she is attractive, and she has made him rich beyond imagining). It is only later, long after the wedding festivities have concluded, that the young queen gives birth to her first child. And the little man returns to claim what is his.

Desperately the queen offers him the fortune of the kingdom, but the man will not be appeased – he longs for something living, not for the trappings of human wealth. Stirred with pity at the queen’s tears, he agrees that the she may keep the child provided that she can guess his name within three days.

The queen tries every name she knows but all to no avail. She despatches messengers across the kingdom to hunt down unusual variations. Only on the third day, moments before the little man is due to appear, a messenger returns with a peculiar tale: on the very outskirts of the kingdom, he saw someone dancing a jig around a bonfire and singing of his unusual name: Rumpelstiltskin. The jubilant queen repels the little man by uttering his name. The man stamps his foot in fury, so hard that it sinks deep within the earth. Stamping his other foot, he rips himself apart. And that is the end of Rumpelstiltskin.

Here is a story where the greedy succeed, the victim is unsympathetic (was it wise of the maiden to promise her first born?) and the villain curiously wretched. What is the message of Rumpelstiltskin if not that cheaters are winners? After all, the little man had fulfilled his side of the bargain. Couldn’t it be that he was merely seeking that human affection that was denied him in his solitary life? He is odious, of course, but tragic too. I know that my interpretation of the story is a controversial one. I was always inclined to identify with the bad guy.

What struck me most on first hearing this fairytale as a child was the power of a name. Rumpelstiltskin’s name was ultimately his undoing. As the bearer of an unusual name: my bête noir, my curse, my identity – I could empathise.

In most cultures names have symbolic meaning. They are not just labels by which we distinguish ourselves but avatars that hold a deep message, whether about our origins (Moses, in Hebrew “Moshe”, meaning “plucked out of water”), our intention for the name-bearer (Linda – “beautiful” in Spanish, Aslan – “lion” in Turkish) or a homage we pay to a deity or a saint for protecting the name-bearer.

Modern fantasy reveals a fascination with names. In The Lord of the Rings, there are names in many tongues, and ancient words hold in them the power of revelation. Most characters have multiple monikers. The shift in a hobbit-like creature to a wasted, tormented obsessive is characterised through a change of name from Smeagle to Gollum. The handsome hero of the epic is known, among other things, as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the Dúnadan, Longshanks, Wingfoot and Strider.

Names may be dangerous and, in the world of books, their expression alone can be folly. Characters in the early Harry Potters are urged not to speak the name Voldemort, due to its perceived power, and in the later books dare not do so because of a trace placed on its utterance (Harry’s foolishness in breaking the taboo almost costs him and his friends their lives). In a world of spells, where language is gateway to untold power, a presence can be called upon by a name alone.

Invocation of this kind does not appear in Rumpelstiltskin, but another theme familiar to fantasy does. If someone knows your name – your true name – they can defeat or even rule over you. Take, for instance, the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin. As the Master Namer explains: “A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly.” A name, then, is the very essence of a thing. It is not simply a useful appellation by which is it known – it is the actual knowledge. Symbolically, Rumplestiskin’s name is his sacred identity. Revealing it cleaves him to his very core, taking his identity away from him.

It is probably imprudent to stray into the realm of souls, a thing’s essence, or whatever we may call it, and yet I suspect that the longing to communicate this is at the heart of creativity: the desire to be understood. If the wicked would seek to enslave us by possession of our true names, could that knowledge, shared with those we love, dismantle the barriers between human minds? Where could such insights take us, should we seek to do good? How else might poor Rumpelstiltskin have responded, had his name been invoked with love?

Inbali Iserles was born in Israel, but came to London with her family at the age of three when her father took up a post at London University. When she was eleven the family spent a year in Tucson, Arizona – she claims to have arrived a tomboy and departed well-groomed and tidy! – before returning to England, where she eventually studied at the Universities of Sussex and Cambridge before becoming a lawyer. She lives in Islington, London, with four degus - exotic rodents rescued from the RSPCA. 
Inbali has been an animal-lover all her life. And from childhood she has loved to write. Aged eight, she wrote a poem called ‘Rich Cat/Poor Cat’, which won a prize (I’m not allowed to reproduce it here!) – but it would take years of secret scribbling before she revisited feline themes in her first book, ‘The Tygrine Cat’ and its sequel, 'The Tygrine Cat on the Run'.

In her spare time she's a committed globetrotter, a passion that has taken her to the depths of the Amazon Rainforest and the bubbling geysers of Iceland.  In addition to her two books about the Tygrine Cat, she has written another children’s book called ‘The Bloodstone Bird’.

Picture credits: Rumpelstiltskin, Walter Crane
Rumpelstilskin, artist unknown
Rumpelstiltskin, Arthur Rackham


  1. Thanks, Inbali, for a fascinating post. You reminded me also of the character Chihiro in the wonderful film "Spirited Away", whose name is taken from her by a witch- if she ever forgets it she will be trapped in the witch's world forever. It's such a powerful theme.

  2. What a beautiful post! Names in fantasy and folklore are so powerful. I often tell children a Scottish tale about a farmer’s wife who accepts help from a witch to cure a sick pig (“I’d give anything…” she says, foolishly) then finds that she will have to give up her child unless she can guess the woman’s name in three days’ time. But the farmer’s wife hears the witch singing about her coming success in the forest, and discovers her name that way.
    When I tell kids the story, they often ask if it’s a Scots version of Rumpelstiltskin, which will set off a discussion about how the stories might be related, and whether similar stories sprang up in lots of places, or whether one story travelled and was adapted. However we resolve that question (has anyone completely resolved it?) I try to get the kids to recognise that all versions of a story are valid. But personally I prefer the Scots one, because it’s more domestic: an ill pig rather than a desire for gold; and the woman solves the problem herself by hearing the witch boast rather than by sending out messengers.
    But whichever story we tell, the power of names is undeniable. (As a writer of fiction, the hat I wear when I’m not retelling old tales, I can never get to grips with a character until I know their true name. But that’s another story…)

  3. I agree with Valerie: of all the stories I've read, heard and watched, "Spirited away" is the one that better explores the power of names. I belive that, when I first saw the movie, this theme reminded me of "Alice in Wonderland", somehow. "Howl's Moving Castle" also deals with that.

    I suppose the power of names in stories is related to what naming means. When you give someone (or something) a name, you cut them out of the realm of commonness. As in Exupery: if you name a star, it's no longer an ordinary star, it's your star.

    "Naming" is also the mind trick that founded language itself. It's what allows us make what's absent become present. This is the closest thing to magic that I can imagine.

  4. What lovely comments! I'd forgotten that Chihiro needs to keep her name - and agree it's a wondeful film.

    And yes, Marcos, naming must be essential to the origins of language. (Actually it always amazes me that my dog understands a word as her own name - can it truly be a concept that crosses species boundaries?)