Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Searching for Rumpelstiltskin

As a child library patron, and a good reader, I found my sweet spot when I saw the colorful Andrew Lang fairy book series on the shelves. Lang, who died in 1912, was a serious author and literary scholar. He collected hundreds of folk and fairy tales from around the world and published them in a series of 10 or so well-written and well-edited books named after colors: The Green Fairy Book, The Violet Fairy Book, etc.

Since discovering Lang, and later Anderson and the Grimm Brothers, I have loved fairy tales and to this day, as an aged woman, I love them still. I especially relish re-told fairy tales where the imagination of a present day fantasy writer intersects with the magic of a well-worn tale to produce a story that resonates with the past and speaks to us in the present.

Rumpelstiltskin is a story that always stuck with me. It's creepy, scary, and features the heroine's breath-stealing last minute escape from doom. Also, as an avid knitter I have lately been fascinated by the spinning, yarny aspects of the story as well.

In The Crimson Thread, published in 2008, Suzanne Weyn delivers a non-magical version of the story, but retains a flavor of magic in the character of Ray Stalls (Rumpelstiltskin) and his prodigious tailoring ability. Set in New York city at the end of the 19th century, the story centers on Bertie Miller, a young Irish immigrant to the United States and a talented dressmaker. She finds her way into the rag trade on her own ability, but requires the secret help of Ray Stalls to keep her position as chief designer and dressmaker for a fashion house that sets the trends of the day. Married to the boss's son, Bertie also needs Ray's protection when her marriage turns sour. While the story is naturalistic, I can't figure out how Ray turned one yard of crimson thread into eye-dazzling embellishments that made ladies of fashion mad for the dresses he sewed. A bit of magic after all.

In A Curse as Dark as Gold, also published in 2008 by Elizabeth C. Bunce, dark magic pervades the textile mill currently run by nineteen year old Charlotte Miller who inherits the factory from her late father. Brave, hard-driving Charlotte will forfeit her beloved baby son to a spinning ghoul unless she can lift the curse that has doomed her family's mill for many years. This is a strongly suspenseful and well-researched story that provides a glimpse into the workings of a late 18th century textile mill. Bunce, a first time novelist, won the 2009 William C. Morris YA Debut award for this book.

In Spinners, 2001, Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen create a stark retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in the tragic story of a spindler who cripples himself spinning straw into gold for the woman he loves. Following the outline of the original story, the girl marries a rich man, but the child she bears is the spindler's daughter. The subsequent life of the crippled spindler is so loveless and lonely that he later tries to find a child that will belong to him and fill the void in his life. This story is non-magical and grimmer than Grimm, but it is also a moving tale of loneliness and valor

The strangest, most magical, and best of these stories is The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, published in 2006. Like Spinners, it is told from the viewpoint of Rumpelstiltskin, creating sympathy for the man who is blighted in all ways. In The Witch's Boy a goblin-foundling called Lump is raised by a loving witch. Raised in Faeryland, when he later encounters the cruelty of the human world his heart turns to stone and he seeks a child to make him human. Along the way, Lump meets characters from many familiar legends and tales. My favorite character is Falance, the witch's familiar who is sometimes a graceful magician and wily card shark and sometimes a cat.

All of the books discussed above can be found in the Young Adult section of the library except for The Witch's Boy which is in Youth Services. All are eminently suited for adults.