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How a Smithsonian researcher reinterpreted Rumpelstiltskin for the #MeToo era

German folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who recorded the story of Rumpelstilskin, didn't realise it was a joke at men's expense. Picture: Martin Meissner/AP

German folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who recorded the story of Rumpelstilskin, didn't realise it was a joke at men's expense. Picture: Martin Meissner/AP

Published Mar 15, 2020


Washington - Harry Rand might be the most intriguing Washington researcher you've never heard of. The Smithsonian Institution senior cultural history curator is a published poet who holds a 1989 patent for design of a "modular space vehicle for deep space applications." 

Rand has also penned critically acclaimed books on artists and has investigated topics from what Vermeer's famous milkmaid is making (spoiler: bread pudding) to the social implications of medieval foie gras production to how the Trojan Horse was named. Still, it's surprising even for such an omnivorous thinker to devote nearly 300 pages, with footnotes, endnotes and appendixes, to a fairy tale. But he does just that in his new book, "Rumpelstiltskin's Secret: What Women Didn't Tell the Grimms," in which he claims that the story was never intended for children.

First, a brief refresher on the fairy tale: A king tests a miller's boast of his daughter's alchemical prowess by requiring that she, on threat of execution and promise of marriage, spin increasingly large roomfuls of straw into gold for three consecutive nights. A small figure named Rumpelstiltskin arrives and aids her in exchange for a necklace, a ring and - absent other currency - the promise of her firstborn. The now-queen forgets the deal until her savior claims her son a year later. Rumpelstiltskin agrees to rescind if she guesses his name within three days. Many attempts later, the queen or an agent overhears Rumpelstiltskin's name in a tune he sings in his home in the woods. Confronted with it, Rumpelstiltskin yells that the devil must have told her and disappears.

Here's how Rand's central argument about the fairy tale goes: Over many years, perhaps centuries, women hashed out fairy tales in women-only spin circles called Spinnstubes. Many spinners - think sewing, not cycling - knew badly behaved men, so they coped with problems at home and took revenge in their evening stories. These women didn't create Rumpelstiltskin as a bad man; they made him sterile and the butt of cruel jokes.

How do we know he's sterile? It's in his name, Rand explains. Piecing together different parts of the word from Middle Dutch and German, he argues in his book that "Rumpelstiltskin means a crumpled stalk" - that is, it was meant to be a derisive reference to a male body part.

Mocking a scapegoat of their own creation was one of the only ways these women could retaliate at a time when they went from being a father's to a husband's property, Rand continues. They so perfected the tale that German folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who recorded it some 200 years ago, didn't realise it was a joke at men's expense. "It's a story by women for women about their condition as women," Rand says.

Rumpelstiltskin, he argues, could be seen as a kind of antihero, an odd little man suffering from erectile dysfunction who finds that the one thing he craves - fatherhood - eludes him. He counts on the sheltered queen being unaware of his unmentionable name and condition. But after she discovers his name by dubious means and shames him by naming his inadequacy, he can only exit empty-handed. "You see the sophistication of the women who put this story together," Rand says. "It's got a very subtle and wide psychological palette."

Other Rumpelstiltskin scholars make similar observations. Andrea Meyertholen, an assistant professor of German studies at the University of Kansas (who has not read Rand's work), notes that Rumpelstiltskin "is not . . . interchangeable" with the other men in the story. Those men "behave badly" toward the miller's daughter, Meyertholen says, but Rumpelstiltskin is someone who has also been "victimized by the same patriarchal structure."

These bleak elements could be why the story - unlike other Grimm tales, such as those of Cinderella and Rapunzel - has yet to inspire a blockbuster animated movie. A lying father endangers his daughter; a king's greed is homicidal; Rumpelstiltskin practices extortion; a queen mercilessly banishes the fellow who thrice saves her life sans consolation prize. Indeed, notes Teresa Michals, associate professor of English at George Mason University, Disney has a preference for fairy tales with heterosexual romances and heroines who make noble choices.

Yet Rand believes Rumpelstiltskin is very relevant to the lives of 21st-century women. His book was well underway before sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other famous men surfaced. In some of those cases, women tried to warn one another by word of mouth or by passing around secret lists of men to avoid. Once #MeToo hit, Rand says, he couldn't help but see parallels between fairy tale and real life. "The time is ripe by pure unfortunate coincidence to show the historical background of the #MeToo movement," he says - to show "that women have always had to suffer this kind of nonsense, and that their coping or adaptive mechanisms were just as rich as they are today."

Moving forward, Rand intends to continue mining the past in unusual ways. He's working on multiple books - one about how a famous Christmas carol comes from a medieval drinking song, another on Benjamin Franklin's cane, and a third looking at the ways people move through buildings in different cultures. To borrow a page from his analytical technique, his own name betrays his tendency to venture into uncharted territory: In Old English, per the Oxford English Dictionary, "Harry" refers to an incursion and "Rand" to a border, margin or strip of land.

The Washington Post

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