When I was little, my brother had a favourite fairy tale.
It involved a hot-tempered goblin-type, and culminated in a huge tantrum. My brother loved that. I can still remember him simulating goblinesque fury, jumping up and down with a bright red face.
You will all know the tale: it’s international. The Scottish peoples call him Whuppity Stoorie, the Arabic Joaidane, or Him Who Talks Too Much. It was the Brothers Grimm who immortalised the tiny hothead as Rumpelstilzchen.
In it, a father and idiot goes bragging to the king about his stunning daughter’s charms. In doing so, he gets a little carried away. This daughter is different, he insists. This daughter can spin straw into gold.
I can’t help panning away from the Father to his aghast daughter’s face at this point. Never in her wildest nightmares could she have imagined her garrulous dad dropping her in so much trouble, so conclusively.
This story first surfaced in Germany in 1577. Just thirty-odd years before, some King in an island realm across the sea had been busy chopping his wives’ heads off. Executions were an art form, and Kings ordered executions. You did not make false claims about your daughter to a monarch with background knowledge such as this.
With a 16th century belief system, it was quite credible that a monarch might shut the girl up in a draughty castle room with a spinning wheel and a shedload of straw, and demand a crock of gold by the morning.
Enter, Rumplestilzchen. A small man with big talents. One with a passport out of that little room. He could spin straw into gold.
But always in return for something, you understand.
The first night, it was a necklace. She went to sleep: he industriously spun all night. Come dawn, a gleaming skein of pure gold awaited the King when he arrived.
The second night she bartered using her ring. The third, there was nothing left except the unthinkable: pledging a life away. Rumplestilzchen wanted her first born son, as soon as he was born.
She said yes. What would you do, faced with a dawn execution? Survival techniques clicked in, and the goblin had a deal. The straw was spun into gold, the King made the girl his queen (a dubious honour), and all was happy until the moment she had her perfect little son.
When Rumplestilzchen turned up to collect his pay.
Why do you think he gave her an out? Why would he spoil a perfect scheme? Perhaps he enjoyed the occasional flutter, a little risk, a little adrenolin. If you can guess my name, he told her, you can keep the kid.
Three nights, this went on. For two nights, the guessing was fruitless because it didn’t have that vital element: espionage. Intelligence.
Silly little man. Kings have vast armies at their beck and call, and every troop was out searching for him. Was it really wise to caper around singing a victory song at the top of one’s voice? Of course, by the third night a member of the Intelligence corps had spotted him, and shot back to the castle to claim the not inconsiderable reward.
“Is your name……Rumpelstilzchen?” The queen enquired, gazing at him beneath fluttering lashes.
At which well-informed guess, the little man flew into rage, jumped up and down on the royal floor and cursed mightily. His fury was so epic that he made a hole in the floor, fell into it, and was never seen again. Although there are more gruesome endings, which you may google if you insist.
Now I have to admit a sneaking affection for this little Cvilidreta, or whine-screamer, as the Croatians dub him.
Because society and its leaders love a beautiful face.
And yet the talent is often housed somewhere completely different, as Roxane found in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac.
Spinning straw into gold – that’s a tough gig. This is one supremely talented person. And to each of us is accorded a dark side and a light side. Rumplestilzchen’s golden talent is balanced by a nasty manipulative streak and a terrible temper.
I’m not saying we should trust him. I wasn’t born yesterday. But a little recognition, for the love of Mike. Think of the effect he could have on inflation.
Creative people spend their lives spinning straw into gold. You’ll remember them from school – that out-crowd over there in the corner of the cafeteria at sixth form. The ones who occasionally offended with their outlandish dress code. Or who simply didn’t have a dress code and blended with the magnolia wall paint.
Different is their middle name. And they’re often moody: one moment high and in the zone, the next in a well of despair because they are rendered impotent by the blinking cursor on a page, a blank canvas, a stolid lump of clay, an expectant, silent recording studio.
They may not fit in. But those glorious skeins of gold, they just keep on coming.
Now: clearly small moody creative types running off with sons is not desirable. If he ever tried it with Felix, I’d employ my best steel-toed Dr Martens to kick him into touch. But we’re not talking about a real person here, are we? This little man is a construct, a concept, a 433-year-old bundle of social neuroses which reflect our civilisation’s values right back at us.
So a new picture is going up on my little wall of fame here in my office. Rumplestilzchen, the fatally flawed, ugly little genius. The goblin who brought angst to new heights. One who spun straw into gold.