Ever since reading Women Who Run with the Wolves, I’ve been fascinated by the depth of meaning I often find in fairy tales. Recently, Rumpelstiltskin has really come alive for me as a metaphor.
On some levels, it’s a coming of age story. The main character doesn’t have an identity of her own at first. She is the miller’s daughter. She is known by her relationship to her father. Her tasks are assigned to her by the miller’s boasting and the king’s greed, which both land her with an impossible task—spinning straw into gold.
We all start out being the “daughter” or “son” of someone else, struggling to forge our own identities. And whether it be in a relationship, job, or school, we eventually face something over which it feels impossible to succeed.
We don’t live in a society that prepares us to say “no” to unreasonable demands. We don’t live in a society that respects those who do. Like the miller’s daughter, we often feel trapped in trying to meet other’s expectations…but not just other’s expectations. We internalize those same expectations until they become our own.
And the consequences aren’t negligible. In the story, the miller’s daughter is threatened with death if she fails. In life, when an employer exhibits the same greedy attitude as the king, a job can be at stake. Or maybe it’s a grade for school…or a relationship. And with those on the line, it can often feel like being threatened with death. If we fail, we might lose our ability to provide for ourselves or our career options or our love—in short, the future.
At some point, Rumpelstiltskin shows up. He can spin straw into gold. He can save the miller’s daughter…for a price. The miller’s daughter doesn’t think twice before giving up her necklace. Sure it’s valuable. It might even be an heirloom. But it’s seems like a small sacrifice in the moment.
How many of us get sucked into a similar deal? It might be sleep, time with friends, a principle, a boundary, but it’s something that seems small at the time. Sacrificing it gets us through. Makes us successful. Puts off that dreaded something that we would lose.
But it’s a setup.
In the morning, when the king comes and sees the impossible accomplished, he wants more. The miller’s daughter is given more straw to spin into gold and locked up for another night. Again, Rumpelstiltskin shows up offering to help, and the miller’s daughter is quick to hand over her ring now too.
In the story, the miller’s daughter does this twice before Rumpelstiltskin ups the ante. But in life, this could go on any number of times. Some of us have more little valuables to bargain with than others. However, the specific number of times isn’t as important as the fact that it becomes habitual—so habitual that the sacrifice no longer even crosses our mind as such. It’s just what we do.
The third time, the miller’s daughter is promised not just the oh-so-appealing promise of keeping her life but also of becoming the queen. She’s promised an identity—and power! Even if that power might be in service to the king that had been making the unreasonable demands in the first place.
But the sacrifice this time is different. It’s not the one time sacrifice of giving up a trinket (symbolically, giving up a night of sleep or ignoring the violation of a boundary). No, this time, it’s big. Rumpelstiltskin has taken all of the little sacrifices already, now he feels the right to demand the future, to demand her first-born child. Habituated to the sacrifices and her own dependence on Rumpelstiltskin, she agrees.
After the third night, the miller’s daughter becomes her own person. She is referred to as the queen now. Does she love the king? Can she love the person who threatened to kill her if she failed to fill his coffers? Presumably, he doesn’t ask her to spin more straw because she doesn’t have any contact with Rumpelstiltskin until she gives birth to her child.
Children are symbolic of our hard work and our creativity. Her child is a product of her union with the king just as our creative enterprises will draw from our previous experiences, but it is genuine to her. Rumpelstiltskin helped her “fake it ‘til she made it.” But her child—that’s her own genuine creation. Her genius, so to speak.
It’s the one thing that Rumpelstiltskin can’t create. He’s good at parlor tricks, doing what others want, scheming his way through life. But he cannot germinate and gestate something of his own within him. He can’t give birth to life. He can’t create; he can only manipulate.
But Rumpelstiltskin comes back to demand the sacrifice of before. This time, though, instead of helping to succeed, he threatens to destroy what has come naturally from the queen. That habit of sacrificing boundaries, well-being, or principles comes back to haunt.
The three days that the queen has to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name are significant. A perfect mirror of how long it took her to enslave her future to this creature. But the naming part is also significant. Within a psychodynamic perspective, bringing the unconscious to light is the majority of the “cure” of talk therapy.
It’s not that once we understand what is driving us to behave a certain way that we automatically change. We do have to work at it. But it’s far easier to change when we know what we’re up against.
Naming is powerful magic.
It’s only when the queen is able to name Rumpelstiltskin for what he is that she truly comes into her own power, the power to protect her creation and hold her own boundaries.