“Sleeping Beauty” and the Spinning Room

So, we all know the story: at the little princess’ christening, she is cursed to prick herself on a spindle and die. The good fairy mitigates the curse to a 100-year sleep. However, “The king, hoping to rescue his dear child, issued an order that all spindles in the entire kingdom should be destroyed.” (Grimms’ version)

I was looking up the German custom of “Spinnstuben“, Spinning Rooms: regular gatherings of village women in the evenings of the winter months for the purpose of getting their spinning done (sort of like the colonial custom of Quilting Bees, or today’s Stich-‘n-Bitch sessions). It was a place to get boring and repetitive work done in a social setting. A Spinnstube was also sometimes called Lichtstube, light room – it saved candles to only light up one room that everyone sat in. The women did spinning and other textile work, the men perhaps woodcarving; they’d sing folk songs and tell stories. A lot of fairy tales and folklore were disseminated at those gatherings.

However, one thing I learned was that this practice wasn’t always looked upon with a benevolent eye by the authorities. I had pictured a Spinnstube as a gathering of all the village women, a regular event for everyone, but according to what I found out, it was mostly a young person’s gathering. Sometimes it was co-ed, sometimes divided into guys and girls, with the guys coming along at the end of the evening to escort the girls home. One of its main purposes was for young people to have a chance to socialise and get to know one another; it was the chief place for the young folk to couple up.

This article & video (in German) describes the custom from Upper Franconia, where it was still practised up until the 1950s, and interviews some elderly couples who remembered participating (translation and emphasis mine):

“First the women came at 7:00 and did their needlework, and then the men came at 9:00, then the women had to quit knitting and the fun started.”

Bruno Gernert from Wülfersthausen

He also describes in the video that if a girl didn’t want to quit her needlework, the boys would take her yarn and tie it around the table leg so she couldn’t keep going – they wanted to get to the fun part, playing games or even dancing (they had an accordionist who would play for two hours straight for the payment of only one fresh egg per person). Another interviewee says, with a suggestive eyebrow waggle at his wife of 58 years sitting beside him, that sometimes the lights would be turned off, and “that’s when they got to know each other much better.”

So, spinning, sure, but not just spinning…

“The whole light room practice was a thorn in the eye of the authorities; they did not like it, because a lot of matches were made there, and there was a lot of fooling around. They kept trying to forbid the light- and spinning rooms, but they never succeeded in abolishing them.”

Reinhold Albert, Historian in the Rhön-Grabfeld area

In addition, it wasn’t just the “immorality” of the spinning rooms that was a thorn in the flesh of the Powers That Be, but also the fact that they were excellent places for passing on gossip and political information, if not breed insurrection.

The Wikipedia article quotes a piece from the late 1880s (emphasis mine):

Because of the transgressions in moral behaviour that occurred there, several counties implemented Spinning Room Regulations, i.e. police rules regarding the time and duration of the gathering; in the area of what used to be Kurhessen, from 1726 on they were forbidden entirely. (Meyers Konversationslexikon of 1888-1890)

So:

The authorities didn’t like spinning rooms and tried to forbid them

Spinning rooms were a chief source of fairy tales and their retellings.

The “Sleeping Beauty” tale features a king who tries to ban spinning in his kingdom.

Coincidence? I wonder…

Fairy Tales Are Ancient (Who Knew?)

I’m about three years behind the times here, but I just ran across a fascinating study, via this article from The Guardian:

Fairytales much older than previously thought, say researchers

The actual paper is here:
Basically, the authors used the research methods of anthropology and biology, and they traced the existence of various folktales throughout the realm of the Indo-European language distribution (i.e. Europe and into India).
Unsurprisingly (to anyone but top-down theorists), they found evidence for the telling of certain tale types way, way back, before the languages we know today even existed.
The things you find out when you dig around for more info on “Sleeping Beauty” for the retelling you’re working on… (I don’t even know by which rabbit trail I arrived at that article…)

“The Disney Effect”, by Allie May

An excellent series of three articles on how Disney is often the dominant version of classical tales, showing what the “originals” are like: The Disney Effect”. I especially appreciate this because the author, Allie May, loves Disney, so this is not the Disney-bashing you might expect (“Oh woe, how The Evil Culture Industry has destroyed our beloved classic stories!”), but a fun and knowledgeable outlining of the elements of the source texts from which Disney wrote their films (or sometimes were just loosely inspired by).

Beauty and the Book

I had a gift card for the local bookstore that I’d been saving for something special. And I went shopping today and spent it: The Beauty and the Beast, the full novel-length version by Mme de Villeneuve (in the 1858 translation by J. R. Planché), with amazing and fancy illustrations (some of them pop-ups) by MinaLima. It only just came out a couple of weeks ago. Now I finally have my own copy of the Villeneuve version!

 

The Issue With Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin-Crane1886

I have a heck of a time typing “Rumpelstiltskin” – the “ltsk” combo in the middle is really hard to get, as no other word I can think of has that sound sequence in English. For some reason, the German “Rumpelstilzchen” flows much easier from the fingers.

However, that’s not the main issue with this fairy tale. The real problem, I decided on re-reading it yesterday, is that the beautiful miller’s daughter (that’s the beautiful daughter of the miller, not the daughter of the beautiful miller – there’s English grammatical ambiguity for you) is screwed coming and going.

I used to like “Rumpelstilzchen” when I was a child. It has an ending that I always found quite satisfying: The nasty manipulative gnome is found out, and in his fury at being thwarted he tears himself in half. Happily Ever After, The End. It never occurred to me that that’s really kind of gruesome – as Max Lüthi says, it’s not a bloody tearing-apart, but a neat separation into two halves; he sort of “falls to pieces” (p.27 of Das europäische Volksmärchen). Thinking about it, I guess I always pictured it more like a piece of paper being ripped in half. Rumpelstiltskin is a paper-flat “bad guy”, so when he tears himself in half there’s no blood and guts, because he hasn’t got any.

And the other thing I didn’t think about as a kid – also due to the paper-flatness of the characters – is that the miller’s daughter, or queen, as she is now, has a terrible husband. In fact, she’s entirely surrounded by awful males. First, her father, who lies about her to make himself look better to the king. Then the king, whose chief – in fact, only – characteristic is greed; he’s ready to murder her if he doesn’t get his way. And then Rumpelstiltskin, of course, who does things for her only for a steep price. Daddy wants glory; ruler (and then husband) wants gold; gnome wants something alive (to, presumably, roast in the fire as the main dish to go with his baking and brewing).

RumpelstiltskinAnd what does the miller’s daughter want? Who knows. Well, actually – we do know, or at least as a child I knew. With fairy tales it doesn’t do to overthink. Now that I’m an adult and know something about marriage relationships, the thought of the miller’s daughter tied for life (and having to share a bed!) with a gold-digging murderer – well, it bothers me. But as a kid, I completely glossed over the “Do this by morning or I’ll kill you!” part, and the “even if she is only a miller’s daughter, I will not find a richer wife in all the world” bit, too. I skipped straight to “He married her, and the beautiful miller’s daughter became queen.” Because that, as I knew in my childish wisdom, is the key part. She got to be queen – she is now a woman of power and immense wealth. Who cares about all that mushy emotional stuff? Fairy tale characters aren’t real people.

But that’s where retellings of this tale hit a big snag. In fact, that’s one of the big snags in any fairy tale retellings – they try to flesh out the characters. Where true folktale characters are paper-flat – in Lüthi’s words, one-dimensional – novelisations and adaptations have to go further, have to make the characters “real”. And a woman whose only aim in life is power and wealth is, quite frankly, an unsympathetic character. Sure, she’s a great mate for Mr “Gimme Gold or You’re Dead” King, so her happily-ever-after is believable. But as novel readers we don’t like her, we don’t care for her, and we’d rather hear about what makes Rumpelstiltskin tick (hence Once Upon a Time‘s Rumple/Mr. Gold, who was always the most interesting character in the whole show).

“Rumpelstiltskin” adaptations struggle with the miller’s daughter and her relationship to the king. 21st-century sensibilities don’t allow for a marriage based purely on material consideration being a happy outcome – there’s no “true love” in the picture, so it can’t be any good.

I watched a 2006 movie version last night – here (with English subtitles of a sort – they seem like the product of Google Translate and sometimes spectacularly get it wrong, but they still get at the gist of the dialogue). The movie’s solution to the problem is that the king, young, handsome, and quite un-greedy, falls in love with the miller’s daughter at first sight (he’s quite cute the way he plays it – totally loses his head, can’t keep his eyes off her), and it’s his old, ugly, avaricious chief minister who does the locking her up in rooms full of straw and threatening her life (and that of her father, into the bargain, which makes her keep her mouth shut about it all).

So that’s all good – we’re doing homage to true love, and the bad guys are all, indeed, bad, and get suitably punished (the nasty minister gets drummed out of the castle by the cudgel-from-the-sack, which I liked, it being another favourite of mine). The only one who doesn’t get rapped over the knuckles for his misbehaviour is the lying papa, but as he only told lies in the first place because he’s so proud of his daughter and loves her so much, it’s all okay too.

It was interesting to see how this adaptation changes the original tale to make sure its morals fall in line with today’s ideas of what is good, bad and desirable. Some time ago I was talking about the problem with “Sleeping Beauty” – another tale that has at its core a story element that simply does not fit with today’s sensibilities (the 100-year sleep, in that case). Some fairy tales translate easily – “Cinderella” being one; with others, it seems you can’t take the “original” (17th/18th/19th-century) tale and make it fit today without changing one or more core plot points.

But that’s what makes fairy tale adaptations so interesting, both reading and writing them – how are you going to solve that unfitting plot element? On that note, I might take a stab at “Rumpelstiltskin” myself. Although I’m not sure yet where I’ll go with it, hopefully by the time I’ve typed his name a hundred times or more, my fingers will cooperate. Rumpelstiltskin, Rumpelstiltskin, Rumpelstilt…

Caliph Stork

Check out InkGypsy’s post on “Caliph Stork”, one of the fairy tales written by my beloved Wilhelm Hauff: http://fairytalenewsblog.blogspot.ca/2017/05/caliph-stork-by-wilhelm-hauff.html. Some gorgeous illustrations here.

What I find quite fascinating is that “Caliph Stork”, written by a early-19th-century German, has made it into genuine Middle Eastern folklore. A clear top-down genesis of a folktale – and one crossing cultural boundaries, at that! Talk about cultural appropriation – but the culture in question re-appropriated it. I wonder how many other times that has happened.

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