Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

10
Straw into Gold
FAIRY-TALE PHILOLOGY

When I was four, my father would lull me to sleep with Rumpelstiltskin. Each night he would begin with the fair miller's daughter who could, so her father bragged, spin straw into gold. He would go on to tell me of the way in which the king heard about her gift, and about how he coerced her into spinning for him. One night, when she sat fearful of being found out, a little man appeared out of nowhere. He spun the straw into gold and, as repayment, asked for her necklace; the next night for her ring; the third night for her firstborn child. She agreed, and the king soon married her. Years later, when her son was born, the little man came to claim the child. This time he made another deal with the distraught queen: if she could guess his name, he would relent. She made guesses, and so did we. Each night we'd go through scores of names, from the familiar to the mad: Charles, James, John; and then names of friends and relatives—Sam, Sid, Norman, Sy; and then the Yiddish names, like incantations from a distant magic—Chaim, Lebbel, Mendel, Menasha, Velvel. The queen kept guessing, too, until one night she sent a messenger in search of the little man. This messenger came upon a campfire with a ring of little men. And in the middle, there was the imp, dancing in the fire and singing, “Rumpelstiltskin is my name!” So when the little man came back and asked, “What's my name?” she said, “Rumpelstiltskin.” And he stamped his foot so hard he drove it into the ground, and then he picked himself up by his other leg and tore himself in half.

The end. Just why this was my favorite bedtime story is a mystery to me. And yet it stands as an exemplar of the fairy-tale tradition. All the familiar forms are there: the father and the daughter, the strange creature,

-209-

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