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The History of Rumpelstiltskin

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson digs into the history behind the classic fairy tale ''Rumpelstiltskin.'' What does his name mean? How did the story transform between tellers and versions? Let's find out.

Lost in Translation

If you're not familiar with the story or its long history, Rumpelstiltskin might just as well be a tongue twister like 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.' Well, the latter is a neologism, a new word that originated when the idea Mary Poppins wanted to express didn't yet exist. But the name Rumpelstiltskin is the product of centuries of cultural and linguistic translation.

Let's dig into the historical and literary roots of this tale. Let's find out what Rumpelstiltskin actually means.

Origin of the Name

This fairy tale dates back to the 16th century. The earliest documented recording can be found in a work by Johann Fischart, an early modern German scholar and humorist. Fischart (1546-1591) was a prolific author of works ranging from literary criticism to satire, fiction, and poetry. He was a particular fan of the French writer François Rabelais and made several attempts to translate Rabelais' works into German.

Rumplestiltskin can be traced back to one of Fischart's books: Affentheurlich Naupengeheurliche Geschichtklitterung (1577), which roughly translates to Glorious and Egregious Pseudohistories. In an attempt to translate one of Rabelias' works into German, Fischart ended up creating an experimental novel, a pseudo-history, and a play on language.

In Geschichtklitterung, Fischart describes a game called 'Rumpele stilt oder der Poppart.' In Old German, 'rumpeln' is a verb that translates as 'to make a noise.' 'Stilzer' refers to a man with a limp. A 'poppart' is a goblin. As in a game of duck-duck-goose, children take turns acting like an evil goblin chasing after his screaming victims! At any given point, the child assigned as villain would scare off others with scary sounds.

In English, the name Rumpelstiltskin might call up images of a rumpled man on stilts, but that is only an error in translation. According to the European tradition, Rumplestiltksin was a short man, a dwarf or goblin.

Versions

The story of Rumpelstiltskin has few variations, and appears to be primarily contained to the European continent. The best-known version of Rumpelstiltskin comes from the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm, written in 1812.

Illustration of Rumpelstiltskin from Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, 1886.
grimm

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