Rumpelstiltskin is a character in a fairy tale of the same name that originated in Germany (where he is known as Rumpelstilzchen). The tale was collected by the Brothers Grimm, who first published it in the 1812 edition of Children's and Household Tales. It was subsequently revised in later editions until the final version was published in 1857.

The story has been retold in other countries, sometimes with the main characters name changing completely; Tom Tit Tot in England (from English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs) and Päronskaft (meaning "pear stalk") in Sweden.

Plot synopsis

In order to make himself appear more important, a miller/commoner lied to the king that his daughter could spin straw into gold. The king called for the girl, shut her in a tower room with straw and a spinning wheel, and demanded that she spin the straw into gold by morning, for three nights, or be executed. Some versions say that if she failed, she would be skewered and then fricasseed like a pig, while others take a less graphic approach and say that the girl is locked in the dungeon forever. She had given up all hope, when a dwarf appeared in the room and spun straw into gold for her in return for her necklace; then again the following night for her ring. On the third night, when she had nothing with which to reward him, the strange creature spun straw into gold for a promise that the girl's first-born child would become his.

The king was so impressed that he let the miller's daughter marry his son, the prince, but when their first child was born, the dwarf returned to claim his payment: "Now give me what you promised". The queen was frightened and offered him all the wealth she had if she could keep the child. The dwarf refused but finally agreed to give up his claim to the child if the queen could guess his name in three days. At first she failed, but before the second night, her messenger overheard the dwarf hopping about his fire and singing. While there are many variations in this song, the 1886 translation by Lucy Crane reads

"To-day do I bake, to-morrow I brew,
The day after that the queen's child comes in;
And oh! I am glad that nobody knew
That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!

When the dwarf came to the queen on the third day and she revealed his name, Rumpelstiltskin lost his bargain. In the 1812 edition of the Brothers Grimm tales, Rumpelstiltskin then "ran away angrily, and never came back". The ending was revised in a final 1857 edition to a more gruesome version where Rumpelstiltskin "in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and and then took his left foot and tore himself in two." Other versions have Rumpelstiltskin driving his right foot so far into the ground that he creates a chasm and falls into it, never to be seen again. In the oral version originally collected by the brothers Grimm, Rumpelstiltskin flies out of the window on a cooking ladle (Heidi Anne Heiner).

Name origins

The name Rumpelstilzchen in German means literally "little rattle stilt". (A stilt is a post or pole which provides support for a structure.) A rumpelstilt or rumpelstilz was the name of a type of goblin, also called a pophart or poppart that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks. The meaning is similar to rumpelgeist ("rattle ghost") or poltergeist ("noisy ghost"), a mischievous spirit that clatters and moves household objects. (Other related concepts are mummarts or boggarts and hobs that are mischievous household spirits that disguise themselves.)

The earliest known mention of Rumpelstiltskin occurs in Johann Fischart's Geschichtklitterung, or Gargantua of 1577 (a loose adaptation of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel) which refers to an "amusement" for children named "Rumpele stilt or the Poppart".


The story of Rumpelstiltskin is an example of Aarne and Thompson's folklore type 500 (The Name of the Helper; see links below). Other fairy tale themes in the story include the Impossible Task, the Hard Bargain, the Changeling Child, and, above all, the Secret Name.

Rumpelstiltskin is most commonly interpreted as a cautionary tale against bragging (compare with the concept of hubris in Greek mythology), but in this case not the miller himself but rather his daughter is punished for his lies. An alternative explanation is that the tale could have been meant to teach women the importance of performing a supporting role in their later marriage. The gift of spinning straw into gold is seen here as a metaphor for the value of household skills. Indeed, the king in this tale does not seem to be interested in the girl besides her alleged magical capabilities — even though her beauty is mentioned in passing — and she exists only to bring him riches and bear his children.

Because of Rumpelstiltskin's odd name, magical powers involving gold and attempted theft of a human child, some critics have also interpreted the story in the context of medieval German anti-semitism.

Specific anlysis as related to Secret Name is the idea we cannot banish problems that plague us until they are properly identified for what they are. Knowing the name of the problem is understanding the problem.

The dwarf's demand for the girl's first-born child probably has remnants of older legends which held that malignant sprites and goblins would steal unattended babies and replace them with a child (or "changeling") of their own. (Similar tales exist about trolls as well, though their motives were generally seen as selfish rather than unpleasant, in that they supposedly found some of their own children too humanoid to exist among them.) However, tales like these in themselves were intended to stop children from playing outside without care, or mothers from leaving their children in danger, and the miller, famously, puts his own child in the power of a greedy king, while she in turn agrees to hand over her child to a virtual stranger.

Another tale revolves about a girl trapped by false claims about her spinning abilities: The Three Spinners. However, the three women who assist that girl do not demand her first born, but that she invite them to her wedding and say that they are relatives of hers. With this more reasonable request, she complies, and is freed from her hated spinning when they tell the king that their hideous looks spring from their endless spinning. In one Italian variant, she must discover their names, as with Rumpelstiltskin, but not for the same reason: she must use their names to invite them, and she has forgotten them.

References in popular culture

  • Olga Broumas' first book of poetry, Beginning With O, contains a poem called "Rumpelstiltskin."
  • The horror movie Rumpelstiltskin, directed by Mark Jones
  • The book Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen
  • A song called "Rumpelstiltskin" by John Otway on the album The Pen-Ultimate features the chorus "Give us the baby, Rumpelstiltskin, Rumpelstiltskin".
  • In the PC game King's Quest 1 there's a character called Nikstlitslepmur - Rumpelstiltskin spelled backwards.
  • "I.M. Rumpelstilzchen", a song on the Megaherz album Herzwerk II (song title translates roughly to ''Unofficial Collaborator Rumpelstiltskin).
  • Rumpelstiltskin was brought to life in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "If Wishes Were Horses".
  • Garfield and Friends did the story as a U.S. Acres short titled "The Name Game", in which Orson tries to tell the story to Booker and Sheldon. As the episode progresses, Booker and Sheldon, and later Roy and Wade, request various changes to the story, such as the miller's daughter, (played by Wade) being male and having to give Rumpelstiltskin (Roy) his VCR. At the end of the episode, Wade and Roy end up trying to amend the ending to work in their respective characters' favors.
  • Between the Lions has an episode devoted entirely to the story, "Hay Day", in which Leona, Lionel and his friend Gus play the "guess my name" game along with Fay, the miller's daughter/queen, and Rumpelstiltskin himself administers the game to her a la Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire?
  • Rumpelstiltskin was the name given to a suspect in The Closer episode "The Round File" when he told Brenda and her team to figure out his name for themselves.
  • Rumpelstiltskin was also referred in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.
  • Rumpelstiltskin is featured in Shrek the Third as part of Prince Charming's villain army.
  • Rumpelstiltskin was one of the characters on the island of 1023 in Rudolph's Shiny New Year; Baby New Year allegedly had run into him but immediately left; "No baby ever seems to want to be near me!" Rumpelstiltskin gripes.
  • Fractured Fairy Tales gave a new twist to the story, in which "Rumpelstiltskin" eventually named himself "Louis Smith", "because nobody ever wrote a fairy tale about Louis Smith...until now."
  • Sesame Street did a News Flash sketch about Rumpelstilstkin, the difference being, the little man is already known to be named "Rumpelstiltskin"; the object is to guess his first name. And to help the miller's daughter with the game, Kermit has established a telephone hotline for people who know Rumpelstiltskin's first name to call and tell.
  • Anne Sexton refers to Rumpelstiltskin in her poem "The Abortion."
  • Jonathan Carroll's book Sleeping in Flame features a Rumpelstiltskin-type father/son relationship.
  • Rumpelstiltskin is the name the killer uses in the book The Analyst by John Katzenbach, where the killer communicates with the main character through rhymes published on the New York Times newspaper.
  • Doopliss, a villain from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is based on the story of Rumpelstiltskin in that saying his name will defeat/hinder him. His Japanese name is derived from "Rumpelstiltskin".
  • The television series Reaper has a concept similar to Rumpelstiltskin. The Devil plays the Rumpelstiltskin role, promising to help a young couple in exchange for the soul of their firstborn child.
  • The Meat Puppets II LP featured a song 'Split Myself in Two' In reference to Rumpelstiltskin.
  • The Nameless Man (antagonist of the comic The Goon) is mentioned to be the origin of Rumplestiltskin, although it is never explicitly stated thus.
  • Vivian Vande Velde's book The Rumpelstiltskin Problem presents a handful of alternative versions of the tale in a humorous attempt to address the story's plot holes.
  • The Muppets portrayed the classic story in "Muppet Classic Theater" with Gonzo as the title character.
  • In the online game, Runescape while speaking with an NPC, in an attempt to guess a secret password, there is an option to say, "Is it Rumpelstiltskin?", an obvious reference.
  • The avant-clowncore absurdist rock band Sugarquief parodies the story of Rumpelstiltskin in their song "Ninjarstiltskin".
  • In the movie Foul Play, the would-be Papal assassin is named "Rupert Stiltskin", alias "The Dwarf".
  • In The Skriker, a play by Caryl Churchill, the title character's opening speech uses word play and affected language to tell her own version of the Rumpelstiltskin tale.
  • In the movie Happily N'Ever After, Rumpelstiltskin finally achieves his goal of absconding with the queen's child. As the movie progresses, we find out that Rumpelstiltskin really isn't such a rotten guy after all. He becomes Uncle to the child at the end and returns it to its mother.
  • The short story "A Day In The Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin", from Kevin Brockmeier's collection Things That Fall From The Sky, plays off of the version of the story that ends with Rumpelstiltskin splitting himself in half, and relates one day in the life of one of the halves, which have gone on living despite being separated from each other.
  • The story is being read by Jillian Armacost (Charlize Theron) to her second grade class in a scene in the movie The Astronaut's Wife.
  • It's the name of a creature featured in a Robot Chicken sketch parodying The Twilight Zone.
  • The thrash band Rumpelstiltskin Grinder is named after the story.
  • The children's book Diary of a Fairy Godmother by Esme Raji Codell uses this character.
  • The story is the basis of an episode of TV series Faerie Tale Theatre


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