This story came about during a story telling workshop with the Viborg Story Tellers' Guild: the task was to retell a well-known fairy tale.
A Cautionary Tale
A Cautionary Tale
Our tale begins in the forest, on a warm summer’s eve, with the elves of the forest seated around their campfire in the middle of a huge debate. The matter they are debating they have debated many times before, and they can never reach an agreement: for it concerns the humans and whether or not the elves should have anything to do with them. Most of the elves want to mind their own business and not meddle with human affairs; nothing good can come of that, they say, for humans cannot be trusted. Better to stay in the forest and lead an honest elf life, only visiting the humans’ houses once in a while in the dark of night to fetch a bit of fresh milk from a cow or a jug of ale from the barrel.
But there is one young elf who is curious and who wants to talk with the humans, to find out about their lives and their habits – and yes, to help them, as there are so many things that humans cannot do for themselves. The elves sometimes wonder how humans manage so well with their limited skills; but most of them are happy to know that they are better and have no wish to study these bizarre creatures.
But our young elf is still curious, and one night he once again goes to the houses of the humans and sneaks into the biggest of them all to look at the strange and varied things they keep in that house. Much to his surprise, he hears weeping coming from somewhere; and he is even more surprised when he finds, in a large room, a girl sitting by a spinning wheel and crying her eyes out. This is not the most surprising thing, for the whole room is full of great stacks of hay. The elf feels sorry for the girl and walks up to her, cautiously, so as not to frighten her, and asks her if she needs anything.
‘Oh,’ sobs the girl, ‘the King has locked me in here and demands that I spin all this hay into gold before morning! How am I supposed to do that? And if I don’t, he will have me killed!’
This makes the whole thing a bit less odd, for the young elf knows well how much humans like gold, and he has seen a lot of it in the big house. As he feels sorry for the girl, he wants to help her to get away from the greedy King; but he knows from his studies of humans that he cannot just offer to help. Humans prefer to make bargains over everything, so he thinks for a bit and then carefully says the sentence he has learned from his observations: ‘What will you give me if I help you?’
The girl seems not at all surprised at the question – or, for that matter, that an elf from the forest is standing before her – and immediately says: ‘My necklace.’
Well, then; the elf slips the necklace into his pocket and sits down at the wheel – and before dawn, all of the hay is turned into shining gold thread.
The girl is so happy, she weeps again, but now from joy, and even places a kiss on the forehead of our young elf.
The elf then hurries back to his home in the forest to proudly tell the others of his deed. Some of the other younger elves gather around him to see this strange object that the human girl was wearing around her neck; but the older elves are less impressed. ‘Be careful,’ they mutter, ‘nothing good can come of meddling in human affairs.’
The next night, our young elf again leaves the forest and runs down to the big human house to see what lies in store for him this time. He wanders through the halls and galleries – and again, he hears weeping. Once again, he finds the girl sitting dejectedly by a spinning wheel in a room, twice the size of the first one, filled with great stacks of hay.
Again he walks up to girl and asks her what the matter is.
‘Oh, little elf,’ the girl wails, ‘the King has locked me in here again, for wants more gold! I am to spin all of this hay into gold before morning, or he will have me killed!’
The forest elf thinks of the boundless greed of humans and most of all wants to go away, for the King does not deserve all that gold, he feels. But then he looks at the girl who is there through no fault of her own and risks being put to death; and once again he poses the question he has learned: ‘What will you give me if I help you?’
‘My bracelet,’ says the girl, relieved, and the elf slips the bracelet into his pocket and sits down at the spinning wheel.
By dawn, the floor of the big room is covered in fat bobbins full of shiny gold thread, and the girl is overjoyed.
The elf walks away, thinking to himself, ‘This must be enough. I helped once, and then twice, but the King must have enough gold by now. I am going home to the forest and staying there.’
Back home, he again tells the other elves of his adventure. ‘The King forced her to do it, at I felt sorry for her, so I helped again.’
‘Hmrf,’ grumbles the oldest of the elves, ‘this is what I have said for eight hundred years: humans are not to be trusted. If you had minded your own business the first time around, the matter would be closed. Who knows when that greedy King will be satisfied? You can’t go spinning there every night, you know.’
‘I won’t go back there anymore,’ the young elf promises. ‘And besides, two great big piles of gold thread must be enough. What do they want with all that gold, anyway?’
But nobody can answer him that.
For the third night in a row, the young forest elf runs down to the humans’ houses to have a look around – he still hasn’t seen enough, having spent the first two nights spinning – and believes that now he has the hay out of the way, he can wander through the big house gazing at the wondrous sights in it. But for the third time, he hears the girl weeping and this time finds her in a room as big as the other two put together and filled to the ceiling with hay. And there, at the spinning wheel, sits the girl, crying as if her heart were breaking.
The elf can’t help it: he walks up to her, and the girl brightens when she sees him.
‘Little elf,’ she smiles through her tears, ‘I am so happy to see you! The King demands that I spin all this hay into gold before morning, or he will have me killed.’
The elf is dismayed. Then the grumpy old elf was right, after all: humans are not to be trusted. But he cannot bring himself to abandon the weeping girl to the mercy of the greedy and brutal King. So he takes a deep breath and once again, he poses his question: ‘What will you give me if I help you?’
This, however, only makes the girl weep even harder. ‘I have nothing left to give you,’ she sobs.
The elf thinks on this and an idea comes to him: of he asks the girl for something impossible, she will reject his offer and he can go on his way. And then she will have to explain to the King that she had had help spinning the hay on the two previous nights – he ought to know, anyway, that humans can’t do that sort of thing.
The elf is quite pleased with his plan and says the most silly and ludicrous thing he can think of: ‘Give me the first child you have when you are queen.’
But the girl lights up and promises to give him the child, anything, as long as he helps her out now.
The elf is somewhat startled at this, but a deal is a deal, and he can do nothing but sit at the wheel once again. And by morning, the floor of the huge room is covered with bobbins full of the loveliest gold thread.
The elf trudges back home to his forest with a heavy heart. Humans are, then, as greedy and mean and brutal as he was always taught. The king demanding more and more gold makes him sad, but does not surprise him – but a mother willingly giving away her child? That he had never foreseen.
‘That’s what I said,’ snaps the old elf. ‘Have you learnt your lesson now, young elf? Better keep far away from those humans from now on.’
‘I will never go near them again,’ the young elf promises miserably.
But when a year or so has gone by, and summer has come around again, his heart has grown light and he has forgotten his disappointment in the doings of humans. The young elf takes a walk one night to the houses of the humans and finds himself close by the largest one. He decides to go inside and take a look around, for there are many things he has not yet seen. His heart stops when he hears weeping, and for a brief moment he thinks that it is the same girl, sitting by her spinning wheel; but then he realises that it is a baby crying and being picked up by his mother, who coos and sings to him. The elf is curious and sneaks into the room where he sees a young woman with a baby in her arms; the baby is nearly as pretty as an elf baby, he thinks, and quite forgets to stay in the shadows.
The young woman sees him and utters a startled gasp; and the elf recognises her, too: it is the girl at the spinning wheel. She has become queen and has a child.
‘Have you come to take my child?’ she asks and clutches the baby so hard that he whimpers. The elf doesn’t really know how to respond: he does not want a human child – what on earth would he do with it? – but a deal is a deal.
While he ponders this, the Queen starts to weep: ‘I will give you anything, my jewellery, say whatever it is you want, only let me keep my child!’
Aha, thinks the elf, a new deal. He does not want her jewellery, but what if he asks her a riddle that is so easy she cannot help guessing it, as a condition for letting her keep the child? The elf is quite pleased with his plan and says the most simple and obvious thing he can think of: ‘If you can guess my name, I will let you keep your child.’
The Queen immediately starts babbling all sorts of human names – as if he would walk around with a silly name like that. William: seriously? Or Jonathan; have you ever heard anything so strange?
So when she is tired and can’t think of any more names, he says: ‘I will come back tomorrow night and give you another chance of guessing my name.’
The next night, the Queen has a long list with a whole lot of names that she has found in old books, and that are a bit less silly than the first ones, but still far too human: Ichabod, Percival, Augustus and the sort. The elf listens to all of them, shaking his head. Finally, the list runs out, and the elf is again obliged to give the Queen another chance of guessing his name.
All the way back home to the forest, he ponders the question how he can get her to guess his name. It isn’t even a strange or unusual name: he is named after an uncle who had the same name as his grandfather – in other words, he carries a good old family name. ‘How can it be so difficult to guess?’ he exclaims out loud. It’s not as if he was called Grumpy or Bootstrap or anything like that. ‘Tomorrow I will have to take the Queen’s child,’ he says to himself, ‘I wish she could guess that my name is Rumpelstiltskin!’
Right then, he hears a noise like a large animal rummaging on the forest floor: he has passed close beside a human hiding behind a bush! The elf is shocked: it is not at all like him to be so inattentive. He has been completely engulfed in his thoughts and not seen or heard anything happening around him. He hurries home to the other elves.
‘Hmrf,’ the oldest elf grumbles, as he is wont, ‘you have gotten yourself into a right mess. Didn’t I tell you to stay away from the humans? Not to be trusted, they aren’t.’
With a heavy heart and sinister forebodings the elf walks through the forest to the big house where the Queen lives, to fulfil his deal with her. Much to his surprise, the Queen seems not the least frightened to see him, rather cheery, and she says in a teasing tone: ‘Let me guess: is your name Peter?’
‘No,’ the elf says, somewhat bemused.
‘Is your name Paul?’
‘No,’ says the elf again.
‘Then it must be Rumpelstiltskin!’ the Queen exclaims, laughing.
Rumpelstiltskin the elf breathes a sigh of relief and is about to declare that the Queen has won and she can keep her child – but right then, four soldiers burst from the doorway and the balcony and jump on him, brandishing a document bearing the King’s seal.
‘In the name of the King’ one of them shouts, ‘Rumpelstiltskin is under arrest for high treason and threats to the life and limbs of the Queen and also the little Prince!’ They grab Rumpelstiltskin and throw him into the dungeons, and there he remains to this day.