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What’s in a name? (A lot!)

May 16, 2013

When you hear the name Rumpelstiltskin, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Perhaps this dastardly fiend?

(Photo by Jack Rowand – © 2012 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)

Or maybe this scammer?

Over the years, we’ve seen countless interpretations of the original He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named emerge both on screen and on the page. If you’re not familiar with the tale, it goes a little something like this: a foolish miller lies to a king and tells him his daughter can spin gold into straw. The king, of course, then takes the miller’s daughter and locks her up in a tower with a mountain of straw and a spinning wheel. She thinks all is lost when, suddenly, a nameless creature suddenly appears and spins the straw into gold for her… in exchange for her necklace. The next night he demands a ring, and so on and so forth until, finally, he escalates his requests by asking her first-born child. The miller’s daughter only escapes the bad bargain she’s made into by figuring out his true name.

It’s a fascinating exercise for students to read or listen to the original Brothers Grimm tale and suss out all the clever ways the story has been modified and re-envisioned to fit the needs of a book or film. For instance, the Rumpelstiltskin (AKA Mr. Gold) of the TV show Once Upon a Time possesses all kinds of magic in addition to being able to produce gold (and fits into tales as different as Beauty and the Beast to Peter Pan), but he operates using deals–both magical and otherwise–to manipulate others and get his way.  The creators of Shrek Forever After also chose to focus heavily on this aspect of his character, making him a wheelin’, dealin’ kind of scammer–of course he, too, has higher aspirations for himself.

Another thing most of these reimaginings have in common? Rumpelstiltskin is the villain.

I think that’s why it was so refreshing to read Liesl Shurtliff’s middle grade novel Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin. For once, the legend–called Rump in this story (more on this in a bit!)–gets to play the role of the hero. More over, he’s the kind of clever, funny, underdog main character that makes it easy to root for him as he discovers his strange ability to spin gold and gets himself literally and metaphorically tangled up in the scheming of the miller, the miller’s daughter, and the king.

My favorite aspect of the story, though, ties pretty closely to something that always bothered me about the fairytale: what’s up with the name Rumpelstiltskin? A little research tells us that the original German name, Rumpelstilzchen translates to “little rattle stilt.” (Perhaps not by coincidence, the German words rumpelstilt or rumpelstilz was the name of a kind of goblin.) Here, Rump only knows half his name–and in a kingdom where your name is your destiny… well, let’s just say Rump feels he’s not in store for an easy, simple life.  As he explains in the opening of the book:

My mother named me after a cow’s rear-end. It’s the favorite village joke, and probably the only one, but it’s not really true. At least I don’t think it’s true, and neither does Gran. Really my mother had another name for me, a wonderful name, but no one ever heard it. They only heard the first part. The worst part.

Mother had been very ill when I was born. Gran said she was fevered and coughing and I came before I was supposed to. Still, my mother held me close and whispered my name in my ear. No one heard it but me.

“His name?” Gran asked. “Tell me his name.”

“His name is Rump . . . haaa-cough-cough-cough . . .” Gran gave Mother something warm to drink and pried me from her arms.

“Tell me his name Anna. All of it.”

But Mother never did. She took a breath and then let out all the air and didn’t take any more in. Ever.

Gran said that I cried then, but I never hear that in my imagination. All I hear is silence. Not a move or a breath. The fire doesn’t crack and even the pixies are still.

Finally, Gran holds me up and says, “Rump. His name is Rump.”

The next morning the village bells chimed and the gnomes ran all over The Mountain crying, “Rump! Rump! The new boy’s name is Rump!”

My name couldn’t be changed or taken back, because in The Kingdom your name isn’t just what people call you. Your name is full of meaning and power. Your name is your destiny.

My destiny really stinks.

(c) Liesl Shurtliff 2013

Rump’s voice is irresistible, and if that’s not enough of a hook for kids, there’s also his sassy, brave best friend Red Riding Hood there to help him along his exciting hero’s journey. Though I always hesitate to make these kinds of comparisons, it’s truly a great next-read for anyone who loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

Have you used any fairy tale retellings in your classrooms or libraries to engage kids in the original classics? Sound off in the comments below!