A Short Story from the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
Long ago in a kingdom now gone there lived a miller who had a very beautiful daughter. The miller was so proud of her and so eager to move up in the world that one day he went to the king and told him that his daughter was so clever that she could spin gold out of straw.
The king was prepared to talk to people like millers, and even listen to them, because he desperately needed gold to pay for his silks and spices from the East, his increasingly sumptuous woollen fabrics and carved furniture and stone castles, and to finance the wars he kept engaging in to keep hold of his kingdom and. wherever possible, expand it. The taxes and fines he and his nobles were able to extract from the serfs and artisans and small manufacturers like the miller were no longer enough to pay for all this, and he was prepared to listen to anyone who could tell him how to get more gold.
"Bring her to the palace in the morning," said the king, expecting that a witch with such powers must be ugly. When he saw her he was astonished by her beauty, but he did not say so. He led her to a chamber where there was a great quantity of straw, a stool, and a spinning wheel and said. "You must spin all this into gold before morning. or you will be put to death." The poor girl protested that she could not do it, but the king was unmoved. The door was locked and she was left alone, weeping loudly.
As night fell the door was suddenly unlocked and in hobbled a little hunch-backed man. "Who are you?" sobbed the maiden.
"I hear you have need of a master spinner. I am the best in the land."
"Are you a dwarf?" asked the maiden.
"If you say so," said the little man. "My mother was so poor that all her other children died, and so did she. I am the runt of the litter."
“I have to spin all this straw into gold before morning, or the king will have me put to death. Can you do it?"
"What will you pay me?"
"My beautiful necklace."
The little man nodded his head, sat down at the spinning wheel and began to spin. Whirr, whirr, whirr went the wheel, and one bobbin was full of gold thread. Then he set up another. Whirr, whirr, whirr, thrice round again, and a second bobbin was full. And so he worked all night until all straw had been spun into gold.
At sunrise the dwarf left with her necklace in his pocket, and soon afterwards the king came in He could hardly conceal his surprise and pleasure at seeing the gold. But he had the spinning wheel and the girl taken to another room containing much more straw. "If you value your life you will spin all this into gold before sunrise."
The miller's daughter was in despair. "What shall I do now?" she wept. "No magic will save me a second time." But the words were scarcely out of her mouth when the door sprang open again and in stepped the dwarf. "What will you give me this time?"
"This ring from my finger." The hunchback took it. sat down and once more began to spin. Faster and faster went the wheel all night long until all the great pile of straw had been turned into bobbins of fine gold.
The dawn came and the king appeared. He was delighted, but he was far from satisfied. He had begun to see a way in which he could make himself the richest king in the world. He might marry the girl and make her spin gold whenever he wanted it. But just to be sure he had her taken into yet another room piled high with straw and commanded her on peril of her life to turn it all into gold by morning.
The miller's beautiful daughter waited for the dwarf to appear again, and sure enough, he did. "That is a great deal of straw. What will you give me to spin it all into gold before morning?"
"I have nothing left to pay you with. "
The little man tugged his thin beard and pondered for a moment. Then he said. "I have no child. When you are queen you must give me your firstborn infant. For that, I will do the work. "
Desperate to save her life and thinking it impossible that she should ever be queen the girl agreed. Once again he began to spin. The wheel fairly sang, so fast he span, and by morning he had finished it all.
When the king arrived he was overjoyed. "You are a very beautiful girl," he said. "Fit to be a queen. I will make you my wife."
The miller was extremely satisfied. At the royal wedding of his fair daughter, he was dressed in fine new clothes and strutted about as though the king had already made him a duke.
A year went by and queen gave birth to a fine healthy boy child. By this time she had quite forgotten her promise to the little hunchback. Then one day he was brought before her. "Your majesty," he said, "it is time to pay your debt."
The queen was terrified. She offered him all the riches in the kingdom, but he said. "I do not want wealth. You must keep your promise."
Then she wept and groaned as if her heart would break until the dwarf took pity on her. "I will give you three days and if during that time you can manage to guess my name I will let you keep your child. "
All night the queen lay awake trying to think what to do. She knew that she could never discover his name by guessing, so in the morning she sent out spies into the countryside to try to find out the dwarf's name.
When he came before her she tried him with all the strange names they had gathered. "Is your name Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar?" But at every one the dwarf said. "No, that is not my name."
Again the messengers set off throughout the kingdom and came back with names like Ribs-of-Beef. Spindleshanks and Hunchback. but when the little man appeared he said to everyone. "No. that is not my name."
On the third day, the queen’s spies came back with no more names, but one of them said. "As I came to a high mountain near the edge of the forest where the foxes and hares say goodnight to each other I saw a little hovel with a fire burning outside. Dancing round the fire was a little hunch-backed man and he was singing:
Today I've brewed, tomorrow I'll bake
And then I shall the Queen's child take.
Little does my lady dream
That Rumpelstiltskin is my name.
When the dwarf appeared the queen pretended to be still guessing. "Is your name Hans?”
"Is it Conrad?"
"No, it is not?"
"Then are you called Rumpelstiltskin?"
"A witch has told you!" shrieked the little man and he stamped his right foot so hard upon the ground that it was buried up to his thigh.
Some say that as he tried to pull it out he tore himself in two. Others have it that it was the new queen who had him put to death for trespassing and poaching in the king's deer forest. But whichever account is true it is plain that the queen had no pity on the little stunted man who had done all the work for which she had taken the credit. Through the product of his labour the miller's daughter had become queen. She and her father had come to power in the kingdom, and they were just as ruthless and avaricious as the king had been.