Monday, July 23, 2012

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

Hey there! Longer post today, but to be fair, I was essentially reviewing six stories! Sorry for the delay, and enjoy!

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: The story of Rumpelstiltskin has long bothered author Vivian Vande Velde. And so she set off to do what every bothered author does – write until she’s fixed the problem.

Type of Adaptation: Retellings

So, this review will be a bit different than those that have come before, because this book is not one adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin, but six. Vande Velde has written an anthology of six short stories. So we’ll look at each one individually, then the anthology as a whole.

The book starts off with a foreword by Vande Velde, and that foreword immediately got me on board with this book. Basically, Vande Velde explains why she has such a problem with Rumpelstiltskin as a story, and it helps that her issues with it are very similar to my issues. She compares the version of the story with which we’re all familiar to the final result of a game of “Telephone” – somewhere along the way, the original message got incredibly tangled. The story makes no sense.

She includes a “Rumpelstiltskin According to Vivian” in this foreword, every bit as snarky as I am in mine, so of course, I approve. She has her own list of questions: if the daughter can spin straw into gold, why is the miller so poor? Why doesn’t the daughter stop to wonder why Rumpel would need a gold ring if he can spin straw into gold? How is the poor miller able to give his child this much jewelry? Why does Rumpel constantly agree to such horrible bargains? And the big one – why was this guy singing his name to high heaven around a campfire when he’s engaged in a battle of wits about the secrecy of his name?

Vande Velde puts it best:
“What do you think your teacher would say if you handed in a story like that? I think you’d be lucky to get a D-. And that’s assuming your spelling was good. It was by asking myself these questions that I came to write these stories.”

So let’s to the stories, shall we? And we’ll look at how Vande Velde used each one to answer her own questions and address the issues she had with the original tale of Rumeplstiltskin.

“A Fairy Tale in Bad Taste”

So, first of all, each of these stories starts off with a quirky “Once upon a time” phrase – this one is “Once upon a time, before pizzerias or Taco Bells.” I love this little edition because it’s snark all over the place. This is a collection born out of snark. Do I really need to tell you that I automatically approve?

Anyway, in this short story, Rumpel is a troll who really, really wants to eat a baby. This desire is what drives his every move. He desperately wants to taste baby human. Trouble is, human babies are a bit hard to come by, so he hatches this plan. And then every bit of the story, from the miller claiming his daughter can spin straw into gold to the king locking her in a room for three nights to the girl letting Rumpel spin the straw for her, is all born out of this convoluted game of Telephone that Rumpel is orchestrating.

Because he’s going to each of the three and spinning a different story. He tells the miller that maybe the king will give him some money if the miller can make the king laugh. So Rumpel suggests telling him a ridiculous story about how his daughter can spin straw into gold, because who would ever believe that? The miller agrees because Rumpel appeals to his desire to give his daughter everything she needs.

Rumpel tells the king, then, that this miller is poor and desperate, and so he’s going to tell him this crazy story, and the king should just play along, and bring the girl to the castle to “spin straw into gold,” and then the king should just give her a few pieces of gold and send her on her way. The king agrees because Rumpel appeals to his generous nature and his desire to help this poor family.

And then Rumpel tells the girl that the king has demanded she spin the straw into gold, or he’ll have her killed, and it’s no use trying to talk to him about it, because he’s really in a temper. And even though Rumpel’s account goes against the little that Siobhan knows of the king, this is a matter of life and death, so why take chances?

In the end, here, what does Rumpel in is twofold. First, earlier in the tale, we learn that Rumpel probably ate his sister-in-law at one point, and didn’t think his brother would have a problem with that. And second, he never stopped to consider that the king and Siobhan might fall in love and get married, and then one day have a conversation about exactly what happened to bring them together. Once they realize Rumpel’s game (and once his brother has come to settle his score), they’re able to trick him right back.

An improvement on the original? Absolutely. Firstly, the characters are miles better. Rumpel gets a motivation, the king isn’t a bastard, and Siobhan has a personality. By making the tale into this elaborate plan of Rumpel’s, we understand why the characters act the way they do, and yet, Rumpel still gets his comeuppance in the end.

“Straw Into Gold”

In this tale, the mill has just burned down, leaving the miller and his daughter Della destitute and desperate. (Yay, alliteration!) They have no money, and without a mill, no way to earn any. So the miller comes up with a plan. They’ll find a rich passerby and tell him that Della can spin straw into gold, and if they give the miller and Della just three gold pieces as a fee, she’ll spin as much as they like. Then, they’ll take the gold, claim that the magic has to be worked by moonlight, and run away in the night. It’s not a very good plan and it’s not a very honest plan, but Della trusts her father, so she agrees to it.

Unfortunately, predictably, things go rather badly wrong. Because the rich person the miller speaks to first is actually the king, who does many things the miller hadn’t expected: he asks questions, he promises payment only after the deed is done, he takes the girl to his palace to spin, and a horrible punishment awaits if it turns out they’ve tried to swindle the king. Needless to say, the plan is in complete disarray after this, and Della needs to think on her feet.

Unfortunately, locked in a tower room full of straw, there aren’t a whole lot of options, so it’s looking like she’s gonna get her head chopped off. But what Della doesn’t know is that her world lies adjacent to another world, and if you step sideways in a certain way, you can travel between the two. Rumpel, who is a creature from this other world, does just that when he hears Della crying.

In this tale, Rumpel is a kind-hearted creature who wants to help. So he and Della hatch a plan. While she throws all the straw out the window, he’ll bring gold back from his world. Of course, what he is able to bring is gold cups and plates and jewelry, but Della guesses (rightly so) that the king is so greedy for gold, he won’t question what form it’s in. For helping her, Della offers Rumpel her ring. The second night, she gives him the payment of gold that the king gave her for spinning the first night.

By the third night, Rumpel’s starting to get a little peeved with Della. Not because she keeps asking him to help her out, but because she’s starting to defend the king, and even after everything he’s done, she’s still planning on marrying him. But, because he is kind hearted and likes Della, when she says she has nothing to offer him for his help, he agrees to help her for nothing, but he tells her that once she marries the king, she will see him no more.

Della desperately wants to believe that the king loves her in some small measure, but as their marriage goes on, that looks less and less likely. And when her first child is a girl rather than a boy, the king wants nothing to do with the baby, which breaks Della’s heart. Her tears once more summon Rumpel, who can’t stay away from Della’s sadness. She believes that if the king thought his daughter was in danger, he’d come to love her. Rumpel doesn’t agree, but he helps Della come up with another plan.

She tells the king then that she wasn’t the one who spun the gold – a nasty little elf did, and he’s demanded her firstborn child as payment, unless they can guess his name (which Della totally knows, by the way). The king isn’t terribly troubled, sending others to compile his list for him. Della and Rumpel arrange for a messenger to “stumble across” Rumpel in the woods, singing his name for all to hear. The messenger, hilariously, gets it wrong. But when Della tells the king that they think they’ve found the name, and he doesn’t even blink or care at all, she makes her decision. She asks Rumpel to take her and her daughter with him through to his world, and there, they will live happily ever after.

An improvement on the original? Definitely. What I love about this version is that Della grows. She wants to love the king, and she wants him to love her, but when it becomes clear that he doesn’t and never will, she learns to see truly the love that was always there, and that’s what she follows. The king is still a bastard in this version, but Della is wonderful, and Rumpelstiltskin is probably my favorite version of him in this collection.

“The Domovoi”

So far, we’ve had Rumpel as the negative character and the king as the negative character, but here we head in a different direction: the daughter as the negative character. This story plays on Russian folklore of brownies or kobolds who watch over and protect households. Rumpel is one of these, a domovoi who watches over the royal household and makes sure everyone is happy.  So when he hears wailing and sobbing coming from one of the rooms, he goes to fix it.

That’s where he meets Katya, the miller’s daughter, a spoiled, selfish girl who doesn’t listen or think about anyone other than herself. Now, true enough, her father is the one who landed her here. He spent a night drinking with the king, and when they were both fall-down drunk, the miller said his daughter could spin straw into gold, and the king said, then send her to me to do just that. Katya is convinced that he will kill her if she doesn’t. Rumpel thinks once the king’s had some tea for his hangover, he’ll let her go, but Katya insists on her version of things.

So, in an effort to make her happy, Rumpel offers to spin the straw for her. Instead of being grateful, though, Katya’s annoyed that he didn’t mention it before now. She gives him a gold ring (which Rumpel didn’t ask for and doesn’t want), but says he won’t get any more out of her. But she’s finally happy, so his job is done.

Until he hears her cries the next night. She forces her necklace on him and demands that he spin. And on the third night, she wails because he’s “taken” everything she has of value, so what can she use to buy her life from him this time? Not listening to his protestations that he’ll do it for no charge, she says she’ll give him her firstborn. Rumpel trusts that by the time she’s actually married and has a kid, she’ll have forgotten this promise.

And it would have worked, except that the nursemaid set out a bowl of cream for the domovoi once the prince is born, and then Katya remembers, and she tells the king the story we all know so well. The king says that if they know his name, they can cast him out. Katya should know his name, but she wasn’t paying attention, so Rumpel knows he’ll have to help. He starts using the cream to write his name on the floor, but Katya insists he’s come to steal the baby, so they start shouting names, and eventually, Rumpel just pretends they got it right, burrows into the ground, and leaves, exasperated, finally coming to the conclusion that some people just aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy.

Improvement on the original? Yes. It’s not my favorite of the six, but I do love the way it’s narrated. Rumpel’s inner monologue is hilarious in this one. He’s really the only likeable character, but I do enjoy the spin put on the miller’s daughter here.

“Papa Rumpelstiltskin”

The character of Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t appear in this short story at all, and that’s one of the things that makes it my favorite – not because I don’t like Rumpel, but because the way that he was written out and written around in this version is absolutely brilliant.

Otto is the miller, and he is ridiculously proud of his daughter. Constantly exaggerating, he brags to everyone he meets about the things that Christina can do, how clever she is, how talented. Now, most people have gotten used to this, and smile and nod and know to take what he says for the hyperbole it is, but one day, he brags to the wrong person. He tells the king that his daughter is so talented a spinner that she could spin straw into gold.

Well, the king doesn’t quite hear the claim for what it is, and he orders Christina to be brought to him, and it’s not until she’s dragged before the king that she realizes what her father has done, and rather than admit his tendency to brag to the king (who either wouldn’t listen or would have Otto killed for lying), she formulates another plan. She tells her father to take her mother’s gold necklace to the blacksmith, to have it melted down and formed into gold wire. This, he is to smuggle in to her with her spinning wheel. That night, she throws all the straw out the window, where her father collects it in his wagon and carts it away.

The next morning, she presents the king with a single spool of gold wire, and when he protests that she had a room full of straw, she points out that wool always shrinks when spun, and the same is true for gold. Needless to say, the king is upset at being robbed of his gold, and to protect his daughter, the miller blurts out that his daughter can do much better given more material.

Desperate to make amends, Otto sells all their clothing and furniture, until he has enough gold to make two spools of wire. Again, he smuggles this in to Christina, and she throws the straw out the window once more. The next morning, she hands over the two spools, but tells the king that she really would like to go home. He says one more night, and then he’ll marry her. Otto, showing remarkable foresight, thought the king might want more gold, and so when he sold all their belongings, he also sold the mill, and has three more spools of wire for Christina.

Unfortunately, Christina knows that unless she comes up with a new plan, this cycle will never end until she fails to come up with gold, and the king kills her. So, in the morning, when the doors are open, Christina begins to sob. She says that a little man came to her in the night, the man who taught her to spin gold, that he is demanded the future royal child now that she is to marry the king. The king vows this will never happen, schedules the wedding, and takes Christina away. Otto doesn’t know if Christina has a plan, so he does his best to come up with one.

His plan is this: to roll about in the ashes of his mill, show up at the palace, pretend to be Christina’s rumored little man, demand the child, and get Christina away. There are many holes in this plan, and Otto trips through all of them. First of all, he’s easily recognizable as Christina’s father. Second of all, he can’t demand a child that doesn’t exist yet. Third of all, he’s not the best actor in the world. Luckily, his hijinks do serve to distract the king long enough for him and Christina to jump out the window into a waiting boat on the river and get away. Christina deals her father a helpful lesson in avoiding exaggeration, and they head out to a new kingdom.

Improvement on the original? Like I said, this one’s my favorite. Writing out Rumpel gives us a truly badass heroine. I love Christina, her cleverness, her quick-thinking, her love and exasperation for her father. I like Otto, too, dumb as he is. He loves his daughter, and he means well, and he learns his lesson in the end. This one’s brilliant.

“Ms. Rumpelstiltskin”

In this story, Rumpel is actually a female, a girl who was plain as a child, homely as a teenage, and just plain ugly as an adult. She desperately wants a child, but no man would have her, and gradually, she grew too old to have a baby of her own. Now she lives alone and lonely, thought a witch by those who live around her.

Well, one day, Rumpel happens to see her next door neighbor, the miller’s daughter, get taken away by the king’s soldiers. Determined to see if she can help, she follows the carriage, and climbs the tower to where Luella is being kept. When she appears through the window, Luella mistakes Rumpel for a little man, but eventually explains how she came to be locked in a tower room full of straw. Rumpel recognizes Luella for what she is – a beautiful girl who has always gotten her own way, but she decides to help the girl. For payment.

The next night, Rumpel has a feeling the king will have Luella in a tower again, and sure enough, the lights are on in the room, and when Rumpel climbs to the tower room, she finds Luella just sitting and waiting for Rumpel to appear. Again, Rumpel spins. And the third night, same deal. By then Luella is so confident that Rumpel will appear to get her out of trouble that she doesn’t even worry. Rumpel, fed up with this nonsense, demands Luella’s firstborn as payment. She wants a child, and Luella needs to be taught a lesson. Luella consents, saying that first children are always brats anyway.

And when by-then Queen Luella has her first child, Rumpel is there to demand it. However, her heart is softened when the king offers anything, even his life, in place of his child. She decides to ask the couple a riddle. Thinking of something they couldn’t possibly know, she finally settles on asking them to give her name, figuring that since they can’t even look closely enough at her to realize she’s not a man, they certainly won’t look close enough to recognize her.

Unfortunately, the plan is thwarted when, after four of five guesses have been used, the miller walks in, takes one look at her, and says, “Say, isn’t that our old neighbor Rumpelstiltskin?” Hee. Anyway, they guess her name, and she leaves in disgust, and a few years down the road, we’re told, eventually becomes the witch from Rapunzel.

Improvement on the original? Yup. Again, I like the playing with the idea that the miller’s daughter isn’t all goodness and light, but here I like that she can be spoiled and self-absorbed without being unpleasant. Same for the king. And I like that this story is really from Rumpel’s perspective. Plus, having her also serve as Mother Gothel in the future? Brilliant.

“As Good As Gold”

Another retelling without a Rumpelstiltskin, this final story focuses on the as-of-yet neglected character – the king. King Gregory is a good sort, invested and interested in his subjects, and every so often, he likes to go among them and appreciate the work they do and the lives they lead. On one such day, he is praising a local smith when the miller butts in, clamoring for attention. The king is polite and encouraging, but a bit too much so, because somehow, by the end of the conversation, he’s told the boasting miller that he’d love to meet his daughter someday.

And so, who should turn up at the palace that evening but the miller’s daughter Carleen, spinning wheel in tow, because she was ordered there by King Gregory to show how she could spin straw into gold. The King is shocked at this, because he knows he ordered no such thing. But he can’t very well turn her out in the middle of the night, so reluctantly, he invites her to stay.

The next morning, he is greatly surprised to be summoned to her room, so she can show him the result of her night of forced work – a golden handle she “spun” that suspiciously matches similar handles on the dresser in her room. The king is very confused by this, but not wanting to be a poor host, congratulates her on her achievement. The weather prohibits him from sending her home, so he is forced to invite her to stay another night.

But the next morning, the same thing happens. This time, she presents him with a golden doorknob, and by now, there is a suspicious amount of straw peeking out of various places in the room. Again, massively confused by the girl’s behavior, Gregory thanks her for her spinning, but she doesn’t let him get out that she needn’t continue.

The next morning, she presents him with golden buttons and the news that they must be married immediately, on instructions from the little man who came to her room the past three nights to spin the straw to save her. If they don’t marry, his anger will be horrible.

Gregory has begun to realize that without drastic measures, he’s never going to get rid of this girl. So he hatches an ingenious plan – he plays along. He starts asking her questions about the little man, and tells her not to worry – he knows how to get her out of the man’s trap. All they have to do is discover the man’s secret name. So he goes to the window, where he has just seen the creature, and starts shouting at him, guessing names. In reality, he’s talking to his captain of the guard, a Captain Rumpelstiltskin, who is very confused by the conversation he’s having with his king.

That taken care of, Gregory consents to marry Carleen, careful to drop lots of hints about inviting the single and far, far wealthier King Norvin from a neighboring country. His plot works like a charm, and Carleen soon escapes to woo and wed King Norvin with her schemes of spinning gold.

Improvement on the original? Yes. This one made me laugh a lot, at its sheer ridiculousness, but also at the cleverness of the king. I like turning him into the protagonist, especially when he’s so often just a bastard.

So! Now that we’ve looked at all six stories, let’s look at the anthology as a whole, with our checklist.

A point? Oh, definitely, and outlined so very beautifully in Vande Valde’s forward. She wanted to explore Rumpelstiltskin and answer all those pesky questions and plotholes and other things that never made sense. And she does so beautifully. Six lovely little stories, all improvements on the original, all quirky and funny and wonderfully done. Her point came across beautifully.

Backstory for Rumpel and Likeable Characters I’m rolling into one here, and as we’ve already discussed, yes. My biggest appreciation with this anthology is that Vande Velde gives each of the four main players a story in which to shine. But she also plays with the different possible sides of each character. We have boasting millers and good-hearted millers and unimportant millers. We have generous kings, kind kings, and bastardly kings. We have clever daughters and idiotic daughters and conniving daughters. And we have kindly Rumpels, dastardly Rumpels, and non-existent Rumpels. I love it. I love the variety, I love the dimension, and I love the sheer range of possibilities Vande Velde explored.

A definite recommendation, and I really hope Vande Velde takes it upon her to do several of these anthologies with many other fairy tales, because you can be sure that I will read them all.


  1. I remember reading this book and loving it. It addressed so many of the issues I had with the original fairy tale, especially about how I found the supposed villain Rumpelstiltskin to be more interesting sympathetic than the idiotic miller, his daughter, and the king who would be the villain in any halfway logical tale. Glad to know I'm not the only one who read it!

  2. She has another in a similar vein called Cloaked in Red that focuses on Little Red Riding Hood. It is equally wonderful.

  3. I love this book! But I can't for the life of me remember what Rumple named the baby in Straw to Gold. Help?