Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday! It has certainly been a hot minute, and I feel terrible about it. One of my goals for 2022 is to post these more regularly. I’m going to try for at least one a month but preferably two. We’ll see what happens.
But anyway, today we are looking at the first “Rumpelstiltskin” retelling of this feature. I already wrote a (spoiler-free) review of Gold Spun, which you can read here. But now we’re going to examine it particularly as a retelling. This will be a shorter edition since I’m not going to rehash my review in the usual “My Thoughts” section. Let’s jump in!
My Rating: 4 stars
Warning: Contains spoilers
As a Retelling:
June draws solely from the Grimm version of the fairy tale, which is also the best-known variation. Her protagonist, Nor, is a miller’s daughter, as in the original. However, this is about the only similarity other than the plot Nor falls into. The miller’s daughter of the fairy tale is utterly passive. She has no name and no agency, and she doesn’t do much in the story other than cry. Her father makes up the story of her being able to spin straw into gold, which results in her being taken by the king and faced with death if she can’t produce the promised gold. Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t seem to have any reason for appearing to her, and she doesn’t take any active part in transforming the gold. In comparison, Nor is a much more active character. After their mill is destroyed in a war and her parents die, Nor becomes a thief and con artist to provide for her brothers. In the fairy tale, it is the miller who comes up with the story about his daughter spinning straw into gold in order to seem important during his audience with the king. In the novel, it is instead Nor who comes up with the farce in an effort to make some money at the Spring Faire. This book is full of morally grey characters, and Nor is probably the most prominent one. Yes, she steals from people and tricks them out of her money. But she’s doing it to keep her family alive, and she does frequently ponder on the morality of it. She also does plenty of good things throughout the story, including saving Pel, our Rumpelstiltskin character.
Pel is one of the fay, who are at war with the kingdom of Reynallis. Nor encounters him out in the woods, where he has been captured by two men who plan to hand him over to the king for a reward. Nor helps free him, and in return he gives her a golden thread and a bracelet that she can use to summon him to further pay the debt. This interaction is entirely a creation of June. In the fairy tale, the miller’s daughter has never encountered Rumpelstiltskin before, and he just inexplicably shows up when she is locked in a room of spin straw. None of the variations feature her meeting the Rumpelstiltskin character beforehand either. This is a great move on June’s part since a magical helper appearing out of nowhere just doesn’t work in a novel. Instead we receive a reasonable explanation for why Pel would help Nor and get to see their relationship develop over the course of the book. In the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin is clearly the villain who needs to be defeated; though he helps the miller’s daughter, he does it so he can take her baby. However, Pel, like Nor, is a morally grey character and ultimately not the villain of this story. Rather, he serves as one of Nor’s two love interests.
Casper is our other love interest and has just become the king of Reynallis after his brother is killed by the fay. In the fairy tale, the king is characterized as greedy and cruel; he threatens to kill the miller’s daughter if she does not spin straw into gold, insists she do it twice more after the first time, and only offers to marry her because of how rich she can make him. Casper is far more likable, though he does start off as antagonistic toward Nor. This is understandable since she steals his ring upon encountering him in the forest. The next time he sees her, she is tricking the common people into believing she can spin straw into gold. His motivations are justice and the desire to protect his people rather than greed. Since the people at the Spring Faire claim to have seen Nor transform the straw, Casper knows he can’t just punish her; he has to prove she lied. He whisks her away to the palace, claiming that he will marry her if she successfully spins the straw into gold and planning on making an example of her when she fails. One of the most enjoyable things about the book for me was seeing Casper and Nor’s relationship develop from him treating her coldly and her being afraid for her life to them admitting the mistakes they’ve made and eventually coming to care for each other.
June’s spinning scene and the price behind it is ultimately much different from the ones in the fairy tale. In the Grimm story, Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold for the miller’s daughter three times. For the first she pays with her necklace, the second with her ring, and for the third she promises her first born child. June opts for only one night of spinning. This also means there is only one price, and it’s different than anything in the fairy tale. In order to transform the straw, Pel needs human blood. Nor has to cut herself repeatedly throughout the night and cover the straw with her blood, giving her a far more active role than the miller’s daughter, who does absolutely nothing. In at least one version I heard as a child, she just goes to sleep. Nor does pass out at one point from blood loss, but once she recovers she continues preparing the straw and tells Pel a story to pass the time. It’s a gruesome and tension filled scene, and I adored it. As in the fairy tale, when morning comes the room is full of gold and Casper is amazed.
In a major deviation from the fairy tale, the end of the novel does not feature Nor and Casper’s firstborn child or, more importantly, the name guessing challenge, which appears in every variation of the tale. In the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin returns once the child is born to take his payment. He offers the miller’s daughter, now the queen, three days to guess his name. If she succeeds, she can keep her child. When she manages it in the end, he gets so angry that he tears himself in two. June’s story doesn’t feature any of this, though Pel’s true name does play a major role in the climax. During Casper’s coronation, the fay queen and her army attack, taking him and Nor. Pel clearly doesn’t want to be involved, but the queen uses his true name, Rumpelstiltskin, to force him to participate. Luckily, Nor happens to overhear it. Later on, she uses it to force Pel to release her and Casper and burn the fay camp. Pel is furious with her, and the book ends with him thinking of revenge and being ordered by the queen to track him down. This is a huge change, and it took me by surprise since guessing the name is such an integral part of the fairy tale. However, it worked quite well to make the climax more action-packed and exciting. And it means we get a sequel!
Other Reading Recommendations:
This is a slightly shorter section today because Gold Spun is June’s first novel, so she doesn’t have more to recommend at the moment (the sequel isn’t out yet). Starred titles are books I’ve read myself. The others are ones I want to read and may be featured in the future. I’ve only read two other retellings of this story, so there are fewer starred titles than usual.
Other Retellings of “Rumpelstiltskin”:
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik*
- A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce*
- The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
- Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli
- The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn
- The Queen of Straw and Gold by Shari L. Tapscott
- Gilded by Marissa Meyer
- Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesel Shurtliff
About the Fairy Tale:
- Tom Tit Tot: An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale by Edward Clodd