The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales


Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

Once there was a miller who was poor, but who had a beautiful daughter. Now it happened that he had to go and speak to the King, and in order to make himself appear important he said to him, “I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold.” The King said to the miller, “That is an art which pleases me well; if your daughter is as clever as you say, bring her to- morrow to my palace, and I will try what she can do.”

And when the girl was brought to him he took her into a room which was quite full of straw, gave her a spinning-wheel and a reel, and said, “Now set to work, and if by to-morrow morning early you have not spun this straw into gold during the night, you must die.” Thereupon he himself locked up the room, and left her in it alone.

The usual interpretation of this fairy tale is the victory of the young miller’s daughter all along the line: she saves her life, becomes queen, gets a child and can outsmart the Rumpelstiltskin to keep everything acquired. But, we are no longer so sure about this interpretation...

It begins - and as often happens in the development of a human being - with a dangerous plight. There is a mill that reminds us of the mill wheel of life, which is driven incessantly and turns endlessly in a circle. What for? It grinds and transforms the rough into something fine.

The miller in this mill now claims that his daughter can spin straw to gold. It is an open question whether he meant that literally, or rather wanted to express that she would be very skilful – in German we say: She has golden hands! His intention was definitely to brag to the king, who stands for wealth and prestige. His motive is not too praiseworthy, and so his words can hardly bear good fruit. The king now seems to take the words of the miller literally and even threatens the girl with death if she cannot do what her father has claimed.

But what does it mean to spin straw to gold? Straw and gold are two extremes that look similar at first glance. Straw was one of the farmer’s treasures, back in those days, when the cornstalks were not yet converted into dwarfs. The straw served as a place to sleep for humans and cattle and as a cheap building material. Or it was used for weaving mats, shoes, sandals, hats, baskets and beautiful jewellery. Well-dried straw has a golden colour, but is internally hollow and barely nutritious. Gold was the wealth of the rich and coins and precious jewellery were made from it.

Spinning can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, diligent work can turn everything into gold, and on the other hand one can make even colourful paper notes into valuable money by spinning a yarn. What is really valuable in life or not is a matter of fashion, mental education or imagination. At the end it’s about transforming something supposedly low into the most valuable thing people know. This transformation into gold was also the ultimate goal in alchemy and usually accompanied by a lot of magic, which often occurs in fairy tales. But most of the time, magic is a spiritual process, that means a spiritual development from the lower to the higher.

Gold stands for both wealth and longevity, as well as light, wisdom and thus a pure and golden soul. How do you get from the straw of life to a pure soul, which does not know greed and anger? You need to know how to live in harmony with nature and all beings. If you do not respect and love nature, or if you even think that you are surrounded only by lifeless things that you can force and use at will, then you set yourself up as a tyrannical ruler. A tyrant can kill and torture because he sees himself apart from others and has no compassion. He may think: What is the misery of others to me?! But those who have no compassion are inwardly cold and dead.

Well, the miller’s daughter no longer knows how to spin straw into gold using the power of nature. As long as she cannot do this, she is dead, at least in a spiritual way, because she has lost touch with living nature. That’s one possible way to interpret the first threat from the king. One can argue about the motivation of the king, whether he is greedy for gold, or whether he stands for the male power that challenges the feminine to develop.

So there sat the poor miller’s daughter, and for her life could not tell what to do; she had no idea how straw could be spun into gold, and she grew more and more miserable, until at last she began to weep. But all at once the door opened, and in came a little man, and said, “Good evening, Mistress Miller; why are you crying so?”

“Alas!” answered the girl, “I have to spin straw into gold, and I do not know how to do it.” “What will you give me,” said the manikin, “if I do it for you?” “My necklace,” said the girl. The little man took the necklace, seated himself in front of the wheel, and “whirr, whirr, whirr,” three turns, and the reel was full; then he put another on, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three times round, and the second was full too. And so it went on until the morning, when all the straw was spun, and all the reels were full of gold.

Who comes to help, if everything seems hopeless, even if it was not called? Nature itself, here as an unimpressive little man who willingly accepts the necklace in return. A chain stands symbolically for very different things: for connection as well as for dependence, for captivity and oppression and also for an exalted position. Since the little man gladly accepts the necklace, it could be meant that the miller’s daughter wants to honour the helper and restore her connection with nature. In any case, she wants to free herself from the risky situation in which she fears for her life.

By daybreak the King was already there, and when he saw the gold he was astonished and delighted, but his heart became only more greedy. He had the miller’s daughter taken into another room full of straw, which was much larger, and commanded her to spin that also in one night if she valued her life. The girl knew not how to help herself, and was crying, when the door again opened, and the little man appeared, and said, “What will you give me if I spin the straw into gold for you?” “The ring on my finger,” answered the girl. The little man took the ring, again began to turn the wheel, and by morning had spun all the straw into glittering gold.

A ring is a magical thing. It is self-contained in complete harmony and stands for eternity, unity, firmness and faith. The girl likes to give it to save herself, but has she learned what it means to be united with nature in love and respect?

We humans like to say: I grow fruit and forge iron. And we think, that leads us close to nature. But who basically let’s all the food grow and the elements submit? It is the nature that works, and we humans can only fit into the process and use what nature is willing to give. We have certainly learned to optimize or change some natural processes over the generations. And now we think we have everything under control and understood. But we rarely know the long-term consequences and fight often enough with unpleasant side effects that we did not have before. We do not want to see what the girl has right in front of her eyes: the little man spins the gold for her because she wants to give something back for the help.

The King rejoiced beyond measure at the sight, but still he had not gold enough; and he had the miller’s daughter taken into a still larger room full of straw, and said, “You must spin this, too, in the course of this night; but if you succeed, you shall be my wife.” “Even if she be a miller’s daughter,” thought he, “I could not find a richer wife in the whole world.”

The question is: is the king really that greedy? Why does he even offer the girl a marriage, such a sacred bond, when it’s all about money? Then he could just continue to press and threaten punishment. He already owns all the gold, so why the connection with a not befitting woman? Maybe he cares about the inner gold, the true treasure, namely the loving connection with nature. And with the third chamber, the girl has reached an inner maturity for him, with which he would like to unite.

When the girl was alone the manikin came again for the third time, and said, “What will you give me if I spin the straw for you this time also?” “I have nothing left that I could give,” answered the girl. “Then promise me, if you should become Queen, your first child.” “Who knows whether that will ever happen?” thought the miller’s daughter; and, not knowing how else to help herself in this strait, she promised the manikin what he wanted, and for that he once more span the straw into gold.

And when the King came in the morning, and found all as he had wished, he took her in marriage, and the pretty miller’s daughter became a Queen.

A year after, she had a beautiful child, and she never gave a thought to the manikin. But suddenly he came into her room, and said, “Now give me what you promised.” The Queen was horror-struck, and offered the manikin all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her the child. But the manikin said, “No, something that is living is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world.”

The words of the little man seem to be cruel. To take a child away from the mother, what is that supposed to mean? Should that be taken literally? Especially since it is not mentioned what the little man is planning with the child. Again we have a symbol, that’s worth thinking about.

Nature is eternal becoming and passing away. And that is what life means - becoming and passing away and developing. Therefore, the little man needs something living, because with dead, so material treasures alone, there is no development. The connection to nature must be filled with life and not just understood as a profitable business at any price.

Not so long ago, people were certain that everything came from the womb of Mother Earth, all life, all food, all treasures. This one source of life, the Mother Goddess or Mother Nature, was worshipped and honoured by sacrificing. The sacrificial rite shows that people acknowledge that nothing living can ever belong to them, for all living beings, animals, plants and children come from Mother Nature alone and belong to her. Our life, body and food are only borrowed for a period of time and then go back to the Mother. To sacrifice symbolically means giving the Mother back what she already owns. It was common to sacrifice the first fruits of the field and thank for the rest, which secured the people’s needs and survival.

In Thanksgiving, there are still the remnants of this spiritual respect for nature, for the power of the divine. There was no need to take life for this rite, but the willingness to consider the new-born life was not selfish property, but part of Mother Nature’s generosity. There is the famous example in the Bible that God demands from Abraham his son Isaac. Was that a sign that God is cruel? Is the Rumpelstiltskin cruel? In the Bible, the sacrifice did not have to be done word for word because it is about the mental attitude. The point is not to regard one’s own child, and therefore one’s own life, as selfish possessions, and not to keep them under selfish desires. It’s about giving priority to life, not to property.

It is said that the girl agrees out of a dire strait. But what is the distress of the miller’s daughter on the third night? After all, the king no longer threatens her with death, but offers her tempting benefit. She could just go and say, “No, I will not give my child away and renounce the marriage to the king.” She does not. Maybe she is now greedy for an excellent position as a queen, and greed brings you really in distress. Although she has a certain connection to nature, because the little man still comes to her help, but she does not take the demanded reward seriously. In fact, she gives her promise without much thinking or understanding and soon forgets the whole thing. How can one forget that one has to give something back for one’s own development and the associated spiritual gain?

Then the Queen began to weep and cry, so that the manikin pitied her. “I will give you three days’ time,” said he; “if by that time you find out my name, then shall you keep your child.”

Knowing the name of a god, ghost or human was once essential to gain access to or even power over the other because the name stood for the nature of the being who wore it. With the knowledge of the name one had thus two possibilities: to put it to a good use or to misuse it. A good use means to acknowledge and honour the power of nature and to connect with its divinity. Selfishness leads us to the bad use: I want to have and keep and win for myself! With a great ego we separate ourselves from Mother Nature and tear ourselves and everything apart, that we consider in the light of egoism. We separate it into useful and hostile, in pleasant and unpleasant for us. We make life and the things that surround us a means to an end. When things or beings are useful and pleasant to us, we want to have them. If not, we reject them. We reduce humans, animals and plants to the level of tools that can be used or even thrown away at will. In the light of unity, nature is neither evil nor good. It is what it is. And above all, it is alive.

But back to the plot: Actually, the deal was clear and therefore fair. The girl made a promise, which the queen does not want to keep. And yet the little man gives the queen a second chance. But which one? Perhaps the little man wanted the queen to regain her living connection with nature, after she had forgotten everything in her new state. But does nature want anything? Well, nature constantly challenges us and wants to give us room for improvement. How we take the chance is up to us.

So the Queen thought the whole night of all the names that she had ever heard, and she sent a messenger over the country to inquire, far and wide, for any other names that there might be. When the manikin came the next day, she began with Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar, and said all the names she knew, one after another; but to every one the little man said, “That is not my name.” On the second day she had inquiries made in the neighbourhood as to the names of the people there, and she repeated to the manikin the most uncommon and curious. “Perhaps your name is Shortribs, or Sheepshanks, or Laceleg?” but he always answered, “That is not my name.”

Her own efforts don’t help the queen, wife and mother. Although she thinks at night, so in the dark, also called ignorance, but she gets no access to the little man, to nature. Why does the inner vision fail to help? Maybe because she is looking for something outside.

On the third day the messenger came back again, and said, “I have not been able to find a single new name, but as I came to a high mountain at the end of the forest, where the fox and the hare bid each other good night, there I saw a little house, and before the house a fire was burning, and round about the fire quite a ridiculous little man was jumping: he hopped upon one leg, and shouted --

“To-day I bake, to-morrow brew,
The next I’ll have the young Queen’s child.
Ha! glad am I that no one knew
That Rumpelstiltskin I am styled.”

You may think how glad the Queen was when she heard the name! And when soon afterwards the little man came in, and asked, “Now, Mistress Queen, what is my name?” at first she said, “Is your name Conrad?” - “No.” - “Is your name Harry?” - “No.” - “Perhaps your name is Rumpelstiltskin?” - “The devil has told you that! The devil has told you that!” cried the little man, and in his anger he plunged his right foot so deep into the earth that his whole leg went in; and then in rage he pulled at his left leg so hard with both hands that he tore himself in two.

It is the messenger who, in the midst of the solitude of the forest, finds the little man in a place where Fox and Rabbit, two sworn enemies, salute each other. A place of timelessness and thus harmony, where external contradictions and role behaviour are void. In such a place the little man says: “I bake! I brew!” - because as already mentioned, everything comes from nature. It is nature that basically transforms and creates everything. Man can only fit into the living work of nature and do his share.

The Queen does not get the deeper meaning of the speech, but only the message, how she does not need to keep her promise, because she wants to have her child for herself. A child that would not exist without the little man. She does not want to accept that every life belongs to nature. And so she does not want to take the next step in her spiritual development and to fill nature with life, namely with her own life. She does not see herself connected with the little man, but for her he is the enemy who wants to take something away from her personally. Is it any wonder that nature then feels cheated and angry? Those who do not want to recognize and develop, and think so selfishly, should rather not know the names of the nature spirits, so they cannot abuse them. This also reminds us of our modern science, which also seeks to understand nature with terms and categories in order to control it. Well, that’s not always good.

Accordingly, the little man’s reaction is consistent: Nature can exert wrathful powers, and human egoism, one of the devils of this world, breaks into two, what could be a harmonious and complementary unity.

A fairy tale usually ends with the victory of the good. One could say that the queen has won. From the point of view of the little man, nature has been used for stubborn purposes. And anyone who thinks about this fairy tale certainly draws different conclusions. But if you even try to think about the deeper meaning of a story, then the fairy tale certainly has a happy ending.

Jorinda and Joringel - (topic: power of true love)
Iron John - (topic: making nature an enemy)
The Old Woman in the Wood - (topic: change in nature)
Hansel and Grethel - (topic: defeating ego and desire)
Rumpelstiltskin (topic: essence of nature and its spirit)
Mother Holle - (topic: essence of nature)
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was - (topic: essence of fear)
Little Red-Cap - (topic: essence of desire)
Hans in Luck - (topic: way to true happiness)
Godfather Death - (topic: essence of death and reality)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /