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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rumpelstiltskin and the Realm of Fiction

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 10/11/05 at 09:13 AM

I want to thank Ray Davis for picking up on my Toy/Story idea from a couple of months ago. Following his recent post on The Valve, I went and read Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (which was nasty but damn good, I thought). My own earlier reading of Toy Story was driven by the story’s Fairy Tale qualities, and here is another literary reading of a fairy tale, only a little less heavy on “theory” this time around.

* * *

Everyone knows the story of Rumpelstiltskin, yes? If you’re hazy, here’s a nano-summary of the standard, Brothers Grimm version:

1. Peasant girl; her dad promises the King she’ll weave straw into gold, leaving her stuck. 2. Troll/Gnome/Manikin/demon feller sells her the secret but requires that she learn his secret name. 3. She does ("Rumpelstiltskin"), and wins.

(And here is the Grimm version in translation, more or less intact; the site also has links to the German)

This story, to state the obvious, is about the power of a secret name, the knowledge of which gives you have essentially infinite power over your enemy. If we look a little deeper, though, we notice that it’s not one but two secrets, which are paired but asymmetrical: the peasant girl/princess learns the secret of making gold, while the gnome (I prefer “gnome” over “manikin") holds the secret of his name, until he stupidly gives it away. The secret she’s interested in is linked to the value of labor, whereas the secret the gnome keeps to himself is in language. Lingua-philes and Derrida fans should find this story to be congenial: the power of language trumps the material and labor-oriented power of the spinning-wheel. 

Also congenial: in fairy tales, the editors of the Norton The Great Fairy Tale Tradition tell us, gnomes are usually assigned names that are never given to humans. That might seem small, but there’s a lot in it, if you consider that 1) the names inevitably expose a gnome’s gnomy-ness, and that 2) human beings can always learn, and utter, a gnome’s name. The gnome is a terrifying Other—defined by his often irrational (or non-selfish) malevolence. But he can always be beaten in language.

Back to Rumpelstiltskin. A little digging reveals much more behind the basic story. For one thing, there are dozens of versions of this tale outside of the German tradition. In England, Scotland, and Wales, the gnome was alternately known as Trit-a-Trot, Terrytip, Whuppity Stoorie, and Tom Tit-Tot. Of the batch, none of them have quite the same ring as Rumpelstiltskin, though “Whuppity Stoorie” is pretty memorable. “Rumpelstiltskin” works so well in English because it seems to conjoin three existing English words: “rumple,” “stilts,” and “kin,” making it relatively easy to pronounce—but still utterly anomalous. (And no, I can’t make anything meaningful of the combination of these particular three; I tend to think “Rumpelstiltskin” is a purely phonetic pleasure, that happens to derive from the German “Rumpelstiltzchen.")

Most importantly for my purposes, there is a very juicy French version of “Rumpelstiltskin". Here, his name is Ricdin-Ricdon, and the same Norton Great Fairly Tale Tradition volume mentioned above includes a long version of the story, by Marie-Jeanne Lheritier. It was first published in 1696 (well before both the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson), in a volume of stories called Ouvres meslees.

“Ricdin-Ricdon” unlocks many of the elements of the Brothers Grimm Rumpelstiltskin narrative that seem a bit pat. First, the power granted to the peasant girl Rosanie by Ricdin-Ricdon is attached to a magic wand that enables her to spin raw flax and hemp into fine yarn without effort, and also, at a second wave, to weave the yarn into fabulous and intricate tapestries. It’s not gold, but fine fabric, that is her ticket to the Queen’s (in this case) good graces. This tells you something about the role of fabric and weaving in Europe’s history: it was potentially a powerful tool for social advancement, and central to social positioning in a way that might seem quite strange today. What you wore literally and immediately revealed your social caste.

There are also a number of other features in “Ricdin-Ricdon” that are quite different (and better) than “Rumpelstiltskin.” Since I can’t actually give you the story to read, it’s difficult to explain it, so let me try a list:

--Labor. It’s not just that Rosanie’s poor. She’s also clearly marked by Lheritier as lazy; she knows how to weave well, but doesn’t want to work. She could in theory satisfy the Queen’s demands for fabric, but she would have to weave night and day to do it.

Also, the good King and Queen who take Rosanie under their wing are known as prudent and productive rulers (I think this was published in during the time of Louis XIV, so perhaps there is a bit of court flattery going on). Lheritier underscores monarchical goodness by naming them “King Prud’homme” and “Queen Laborieuse,” respectively. They admire Rosanie partly for her beauty, but really because of her reputation as a weaver (which is, as we know, based on an illusion).

--No confusing motherhood angle. When she’s adopted by the Queen, she doesn’t get to marry the Prince right away. In the Grimm version she has a child that Rumpelstiltskin threatens to steal, which doesn’t quite fit the social advancement/wealth acquisition theme of the story. Here the Prince is in love with Rosanie, but the class barrier makes any thought of a marriage impossible, that is, until it’s revealed at the end of the story that Rosanie is actually of royal birth from another kingdom. Then a marriage can be properly arranged by the two royal families. (It’s only via an arranged marriage that the couple will really get to do the all-expenses paid, “happily ever after” honeymoon.)

--Storytelling reflexivity. Rosanie’s real parents are named “Lord Longuevue” and “Queen Riant-image,” and her father-figure guardian (who had seemingly abandoned her earlier in her life without telling her the secret of her birth) is named “Disantpeu.” They are—I’m not making this up—the Rulers of the “Realm of Fiction.”

The parallels between storytelling and weaving are pretty obvious—one weaves a yarn, etc.—but in the case of “Ricdin-Ricdon” they are doubled and even tripled. Much of the structure of this story is actually narrated indirectly, as characters recount events to each other (much of Rosanie’s own story is narrated in dialogue to Ricdin-Ricdon). After hearing of Rosanie’s woes, Ricdin-Ricdon offers her his wand, and actually tells her his name.

And literacy and writing plays a part in this. It’s only after she’s ensconced in the court of Queen Laborieuse that Rosanie starts to learn to read but, as with weaving, she finds to be a bit too hard to make it a habit. Still, she uses the tool when she’s struggling to remember Ricdin-Ricdon’s name:

Even though Rosanie still had difficulty in forming the letters of the alphabet, she wanted to see whether these letters could help her recall the name she passionately sought. She went through great pain and applied herself as best she could until she wrote down Racdon, then Ricordon, and finally Ringaudon. In some instances, she was on the verge of joy because she thought she was about to find the name. But then she would fall into despair, convinced that the names her memory recalled were nowhere near the right and proper name.

Writing is, historically, the essential tool for remembering language, though usually one uses something previously written as an aid to memory. It send Rosanie down the right track, but she hasn’t quite mastered it. (When she does, Lheritier hints, she will be able to expose every Gnome who comes her way with the light of her Logos.)

--Ricdin-Ricdon’s interiority. In this version, the gnome actually has a motive of a kind, which is revealed in the scene at the end where gives his name away. The song tells you part of the story:

If a young and tender female,
Loving only childish pleasures,
Had fixed it in her mind
That my name is Ricdin-Ricdon,
She would not fall into my trap.
But the beautiful lass will soon be mine,
For my name has slipped her mind.

The editors of the Norton volume suggest that “spinner” folktales like Rumpelstiltskin/ Ricdin-Ricdon might have been told by groups of women weavers working together. This is one moment where that really seems to click: there is a distinctly feminist warning here—to women who don’t know how to earn your keep, or who aren’t smart enough to look after yourselves, watch out!

He follows it up with a rant about, well, the Courtly Gaze:

“Since men are educated and more cultivated than women, we ordinarily have more trouble in seducing them than we have in duping the gullible sex unless we make use of this sex to get men to fall into our traps. On the other hand, men often cause women to fall into our snares. I myself have acquired more young girls by exploiting their desire to appear beautiful and to groom themselves than twenty of my comrades who have tried one hundred other means to capture them. And this powerful passion that makes them want to acquire beauty and elegance with such fury stems from their boundless desire to captivate men."

The grammar here is a little tricky. Keep in mind that the Prince is overhearing Ricdin-Ricdon talking to an evil sorceress (who I haven’t mentioned… there is a whole ‘mirror’ plot where sorceress attempts to trick the Prince...).

The first part of the passage above seems to be straightforward enough: this is how you trick men, and that is how you trick women. But even as Ricdin-Ricon explains his method, in the final sentence of the passage quote above he hints that it’s not just gnomes and sorceresses who play the game of ensnarement: it’s inherent in the fabric of (non-supernatural) human desire and attraction. And I think that Ricdin-Ricdon is suggesting that it goes both ways.

* * *
So, yeah, go read “Ricdin-Ricdon,” if you can get hold of a copy. (I didn’t see any versions of the Lheritier story on the internet, but I didn’t try very hard. If anyone can track down a link, it would be appreciated.)

But more than that, I’m curious to see if people have ideas about other classic fairy tales that they want to revisit. Everyone has probably considered (and hopefully rejected) the deep sexism of something like Snow White (women as pure/virginal pedestalized ‘statues’ until released by the desire of men). But maybe there are other tricks (or readings) buried in these old stories that might take us in fresh directions. 


It is not a fairy tale, but rather an ironic reworking of one, nor does it really suit itself to language-based readings like the Rumplestiltskin story.  But my favorite is still the chapter “The Mathematics of Gonfal” from James Branch Cabell’s book _The Silver Stallion_.

In this chapter, a queen decrees that the champion who brings back the worthiest treasure shall marry her.  Eight set out, or rather, seven do, for the eighth, Gonfal, a widower who is somewhat older than the other seven youths, manages to cripple his hand during the ceremony of sword-blessing.  He must stay behind, and during the next year becomes a favorite of the queen.  The seven others bring back magical artifacts that assure worldly power, but Gonfal points out to the queen that this is a loan, not a gift, since even powerful people must eventually die.  So the seven are sent back out, Gonfal managing to lame himself this time.  When they return with magical gifts that bring wisdom and knowledge, Gonfal, by now having an affair with the queen, points out that these are also only loans.

At the end of the third year, the queen is presented with a problem.  The seven returning from quest are princes, and there would be war if she puts them off a third time.  Moreover, it has become obvious to the court that she is sleeping with Gonfal, and he says that he knows that he must be put aside and executed.  She tells Gonfal that she has discovered that she really loves him, and that she will defy the others and marry him.

Gonfal reacts with dismay, and points out that everyone would accept her words and there would be no war, since true love is always supposed to triumph.  He says that if they allow this to happen, his love for the queen, based as it is on her physical beauty, will also be seen to be a loan.  It too will pass away as she ages, and change into mere contentment.  Naturally, faced with this insult, the queen decides to have him executed after all.  But both of them also realize at some level that while their involvement has been hedonistically pleasing for both of them, Gonfal has also acted out the whole thing as a sort of extended suicide after the death of his wife.  And the queen, realizing that questions of mortality are really best not thought of, composedly goes on to marry one of the princes.

That’s James Branch Cabell—nasty, urbane, and unfortunately rather misogynistic.

By on 10/11/05 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hm, the logic is interesting: he convinces her to disregard material gain in favor of ideals, only to pull the rug out on her when he tells her that even that idealism is in some sense material.

In short, in the interest of idealism, even idealism has to die.

It might make it less misogynistic if they decided to die together.

Anyway, thanks. I don’t know Cabell’s stuff, and will look the next time I’m in my local used bookstore…

By Amardeep on 10/11/05 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that he could really be described as a sincere idealist; perhaps more as a sort of creepy manipulator.  Cabell is big on the Romantic interpretation of medieval love as woman-worship, and of course to modern eyes this denies her own identity.  Cabell is concious of this as a problem, and Gonfal is in this story is as well.  I don’t think that he’s really characterized as a idealistic lover of the queen by Cabellian standards.  Instead, there is another Romantic trope at work; Gonfal is taking a rather roudabout way of enlisting helpers in killing himself because of his love for the wife he has lost; he is finally executed by beheading, and the earlier occasions where he purposefully maims his hand and foot with his sword in order to have an excuse to not go on quest seem rather like the trial cuts of some suicides.  Having all of this go on within the interstices of the fairy tale story does make it somewhat more interesting than it sounds.

Anyways, if you get the book, be sure to also try the chapter “Above Paradise” even if you are put off by the beginning; it’s a good (in my opinion) metafictional reflection on writing, although not fairy-tale derived.

By on 10/11/05 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to ask: Was the numbering and fragmenting of the nano-summary a Vladimir Propp homage?

By on 10/12/05 at 08:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Not particularly. Though I think what Propp does is very helpful—the 31 functions he talks about become obvious if you read a great number of fairy tales. But I tend to enjoy most the odd, writerly bits that don’t fit any established pattern, or that bind a story to a particular historical moment. (Like when Rosanie is using writing as a tool to help her remember Ricdin-Ricdon’s name)

In some of the 17th century French fairy tales I’ve been dabbling with (really just for fun), there seems to be a tension between the paradigmatic and functional elements one the one hand, and the non-paradigmatic, literary/linguistic, and historically-specific elements, on the other. Perhaps one could say it’s the genre in transition from an oral to a literary (written) sensibility? Something like that? 

But I am a total amateur with this material… If you have any thoughts on Propp, structuralism, fairy tales, etc. I would be happy to hear them.

Incidentally, have you tried the Fairy Tale Generator?

By Amardeep on 10/12/05 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m afraid I’m much more of an amateur than you, but since the invitation was so pleasant, I’ll try and make my two cents as worthwhile as possible, though I suspect I don’t have a single-minded point here:

I think the focus of interest in fairy-tale, legend and myth scholarship can be traced to a borderline metaphysical, borderline nonsensical choice, of whether the concrete details are seen as realizers of (let’s say, the 31) functions, or the functions seen as vessels for the concrete details.

Or perhaps this doesn’t have to be an abstract, metaphysical teleology but can be put in practical terms: In Greek tragedy and epic, the intentional, conscience iteration of the same myth can be seen as ground enough that the details had function beyond realizing a pattern, though I guess one can make the case that different realizations allow the functions of the structure to be accessed over and over (I read the book fifteen times, but I’ll go see the movie), Ostraneinie and all.

C. S. Lewis beautifully defined myth as a narrative whose effect is not dependent upon the means of its telling: I.E, merely repeating its Logus\Synopsis\Arguement can cause an effect. Which is fascinatingly ambiguous- One can understand the Logus of a tale to be “A man commits Violation, the hero outsmarts him, and then weds” , the Prop way,
“A young girl is sacrificed; she disappears mysteriously from the eyes of those who sacrificed her; she is transported to another country, where the custom is to offer up an strangers to the goddess.”, the Aristotle way, or “In the summer of 1922, Nick writes, he had just arrived in New York, where he moved to work in the bond business, and rented a house on a part of Long Island called West Egg. Unlike the conservative, aristocratic East Egg, West Egg is home to the “new rich,” those who, having made their fortunes recently, have neither the social connections nor the refinement to move among the East Egg set. “, the Cliffnotes way.

In the first case the Logus is understood as the conceptual functions the story employs, in the second case the mimetic properties that fulfill these functions, in the third the events that posses the properties that fulfill these functions.

So, even the concrete-details\abstractions dichotomy is problematic to shape, before one attempts to choose between the two.

Maybe a good way to try and get a grasp at the issue is to try and discover , when it comes to different version of fairy-tales, which elements diverge into generic parallels, where culturally adjusted parallels, where non-parallels, and which stay exactly the same, and see whether the Proppian method manages to reflect the actual differences in effect that such differences may produce.

In Rumpelstiltskin (Utzligutzli in hebrew) the weaving seems to stay intact, for some reason.
At some level, this is quite like problems of practical Translation Theory, I think. I just noticed the other day for the first time than in the King James Bible there’s “Eli Eli Lama Shabactani” in phonetic hebrew, and found it absolutely mind blowing, .

By on 10/12/05 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber takes a great deal of this fairy tale deconstruction to heart. I highly reccomend it, especially her version of Blue Beard.

By Keith on 10/13/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A very interesting post, but in the process of trying to find an online version of the tale I developed an annoying bibliographical quibble (sorry!):

It was first published in 1696 (well before both the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson), in a volume of stories called <cite>Ouvres meslees</cite>.

Are you sure about this? A PDF digitised version of the <cite>Ouvres</cite> is available from Gallica, the BNF’s digital library, so I’d hoped I’d found you an online version. Unfortunately, browsing through I can’t find any mention of “Ricdin-Ricdon”. According to Jack Zipes (ed.), <cite>Spells of Enchantment</cite> (Penguin, repr. 1992), p. 801:

Born in Paris, Mlle L’Héritier came from a distinguished family of intellectuals. Studious, clever, and honorable, she was on close terms with the most influential women of her time and invited to the gatherings at the more illustrious salons in Paris. Eventually she established her own literary salon, in which she often recited her tales. Mlle L’Héritier’s first major work was <cite>Oeuvres meslées</cite> (1695–98), which contained her well-known fairy tale “L’Adroite Princesse” ("The Discreet Princess"). It was followed immediately by <cite>Bigarrures ingéneuses</cite> (<cite>Ingenious Medlies</cite>, 1696). which includes the first major literary version of Rumpelstiltskin, entitled “Ricdin-Ricdon.” As her reputation grew, she won various literary prizes and was elected to the Accademia dei Ricovrati di Padova.

On the other hand, according to her biographical entry in <cite>The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales</cite> (2003), p. 298, “Ricdin-Ricdon” made its debut in <cite>La Tour ténébreuse</cite> (1705). Sadly, neither of these texts seem to be available from Gallica.

That aside, your identification of reading and writing as playing such a pivotal role in “Ricdin-Ricdon” seemed particularly apt when I learnt from the <cite>Companion</cite> that L’Héritier was a defender of women’s education who rewrote her fairy stories “not simply to convey conventional moral lessons but also to address real social concerns.”

As to fairy tales more generally, I’m not terribly well versed in the relevant critical literature, but I do recommend Robert Darnton’s chapter on “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose” (on the original realism of fairy tales) in <cite>The Great Cat Massacre</cite> (1984) and Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” (a paean to Faërie as an adult genre and a blueprint for his own mythopoeticism) in <cite>Tree and Leaf</cite> (1964).

By Contradictory Ben on 10/15/05 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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