Naming the helper: maternal concerns and the Queen's incorrect guesses in the Grimms' "Rumpelstiltskin"

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Author: Ann Schmiesing
Date: Oct. 2011
From: Marvels & Tales(Vol. 25, Issue 2)
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,830 words

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Given three days to guess the name of the diminutive figure who spun straw into gold for her and now claims her child, the miller's daughter in the Grimms' "Rumpelstilzchen"--or, as known in English, "Rumpelstiltskin"--first guesses that his name is Kasper, Melchior, or Balzer, German variants of the names traditionally given to the Magi who came bearing gifts to the Christ child. On the second day, her guessing begins with Rippenbiest, Hammelswade, and Schnurbein, names whose connotations of disease and deformity are explored in this essay. Whereas the first trio of names suggests the daughter's psychological desire to recast the magical dwarf as a biblical gift-bearing Magus, the second trio suggests a fear that he is an agent of disease who will deform or kill her child. This essay analyzes the addition of these names to the second edition (1819) of the Kinder- und Hausmarchen (KHM) in the context of Wilhelm Grimm's editing of this edition. As is shown in this essay, the maternal concerns revealed by both sets of incorrect guesses do not merely illustrate Wilhelm Grimm's altering of the queen's role to fit nineteenth-century bourgeois conceptions of women as nurturing mothers; in addition to this, they shed significant light on the value placed on life in the tale, as well as on the often overlooked theme of disability and disease in the KHM. (1) These aspects are related in this essay to Wilhelm Grimm's own precarious health, as well as to his later loss of his firstborn son.

It is perhaps because none of the queen's six guesses proves correct that critics have tended to ignore them in their analyses of the Grimms' "Rumpelstiltskin." Similarly, secondary literature on variants such as "Tom Tit Tot" has typically mentioned only that the female protagonist first attempts unsuccessfully to guess the name of her tormentor, without paying attention to the incorrect guesses themselves. (2) This is in part because of the tendency to focus on "Rumpelstiltskin" and related tales as Name of the Helper tales in the Aarne-Thompson classification (AT 500)--a tendency that has led to a pronounced emphasis on Rumpelstiltskin's actual name and role rather than on the daughter's perception of his role. In revisiting names in "Rumpelstiltskin," my interest lies not so much in the name of the helper (that is, with the fact that the miller's daughter, now queen, must guess Rumpelstiltskin's actual name) as in the naming of the helper and the psychological insights that the queen's incorrect guesses yield. These incorrect guesses are met with the refrain "So hei [beta] ich nicht" (That is not my name; KHM 7th ed., 1: 287). (3) Though the refrain tells principally what Rumpelstiltskin is not, the guesses themselves shed light on what the queen is, at least as the Grimms see her and circumscribe her role: a mother whose hopes and fears are meant to underscore her love for her child.

As Jack Zipes has pointed out, "Rumpelstiltskin" is disturbing "not because we never really know the identity of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A275921483