An Irishwoman's Diary
A fascinating recent article by Derek Scally in The Irish Times (“Goethe, money and the Faustian pact”, Features, December 10th) traced current German attitudes to inflation and money back to the mid-18th century, and Goethe’s distrust of the new trend for “paper money”.
Goethe’s Faust expresses his views about the dangers of borrowing what you can’t pay back. The moral of the story is that those who cannot repay their debts will be damned for all eternity.
There is another German story which reveals another attitude to the payment of debts. In Rumpelstiltskin, the most well-known version of which was collected by the Grimms and first published 200 years ago, on December 19th, 1812, a miller, trying to promote his daughter’s chances in the marriage market, boasts that she can spin straw into gold. The king, anxious to get his hands on such a treasure of a wife, calls her father’s bluff. He locks the miller’s daughter up in a room with a spinning wheel and a heap of straw for company. If she can live up to her dad’s promise, he’ll marry her. If she doesn’t, she’d die.
Of course, the poor miller’s daughter can’t produce gold from straw. Nobody can, although in Germany and many European countries, the quest for the alchemist’s secret went on for centuries. Luckily a little man comes to the girl’s aid. He can do the trick. In return she has to give him various things, and eventually her first child. But he will let her off her debt if she can guess his name.
You know how the story ends. With help from a friend – a servant – she discovers the name: Rumpelstiltskin.
She gets to keep her baby and her king and her palace. Rumpelstiltskin is annoyed. He hurts his foot.
But he survives.
The story known to most of us as Rumpelstiltskin is an international folktale, “The Name of the Helper”, found in many countries. It was well known in Ireland quite independently of the Grimms. But an interesting difference between Irish versions of this tale and the German version is that the Irish has no mention of gold, straw, kings, princesses, death threats. All that melodrama is absent.
In the Irish versions of the story, a woman is faced with the job which countless millions of Irish women faced over the centuries: she has a huge heap of wool to spin into yarn.
Too much housework, in other words. When she is at the end of her tether, a little man comes along and offers to give her a hand. He’ll do the spinning for her. All she has to do is guess his name. If she doesn’t, he’ll keep all her wool. The story unfolds much in the way of the other Rumpelstiltskin. By a happy accident, the woman’s husband overhears the name of the helper. (It’s always some nonsense name: Naptúin Houster, Suiplis Stuairplis, Filip a Róla, among others).
The little man comes back with the bales of yarn and the woman gets to keep them. He’s annoyed. But he survives.
The Ireland in which the versions we have, collected by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 20th century, knew and used money, obviously. But money plays no part in the Irish versions of the story. The focus is on the simplest of commodities: homespun. The desired thing is yarn, from which cloth can be made, for the household. The overworked woman of the house is not asking for the impossible, for gold from straw, or a king as a husband. She’s only asking for a helping hand which, although it comes from a supernatural little man, could in fact come from anyone.
Some might say that during the boom Ireland, like Faustus, entered into a pact the devil. And now we are being taken to task, and damned, for all eternity.
But can we not more usefully look to the folktale which deals quite directly with debts incurred by the innocent? Ireland was not Faust, but the miller’s daughter. Someone told our sons and daughters that they could spin gold from straw, or from semi-detached houses. Now we know we can’t (lots of us knew this all along).
Sometimes the obvious solution is to write off the debt. This is the message of Rumpelstiltskin.
The Irish millers’ daughters don’t want kings and palaces, but simple homespun. Homes.
What is the name of the helper, who will restore to the innocent what is theirs?