Let’s backtrack for a moment to the days when I had hundreds of books of fairy tale retellings. One that impressed me the most was The Rumpelstiltskin Problem.
This book comprises an introduction in which the author recounts and talks about the fairy tale itself, followed by 6 retellings of the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. Each story is different in its own way:
-A story where Rumpelstiltskin is a troll with a dire craving for a taste of the flesh of a human babe;
-A tale in which Rumpelstiltskin is an elf in love with the girl, who is blinded by the glory of being wedded to a king
-A tale in which an unfortunate king is saddled with a “foreign princess” who is a not-too-subtle attempt at a con-(wo)man
-A story where a miller and his daughter attempt to trick a greedy king after he threatens them with their lives should they not be able to turn the miller’s exaggerated boasting into reality
-A story in which a childless woman attempts to adopt from a young queen who cares for nothing but herself
-A tale in which a house guardian is entirely misunderstood in his attempts to help the inhabitants of the house.
Each story is a different angle at the same story, because Velde isn’t just trying to retell the fairy tale: she’s trying to answer questions about the story which she poses in the introduction. Her style is wonderful, with a sarcastic, witty sort of humor that needles at the holes in the original fairy tale and magnificently seals those holes in her own version.
The thing is, though, it wasn’t the stories that drew me in. It was the introduction. Because the introduction, in a truly spectacular and hilarious essay, outlines the story of Rumpelstiltskin and all the storytelling fallacies into which it falls. Vivien Vande Velde concludes—and no doubt very rightly—that if anyone had written this story for English class, they would be lucky to come away with a D, because clearly, nothing makes sense. Here are just a few of the problems that she finds: Why does the king not wonder why the miller is so poor, if his daughter can spin straw into gold? Why does the miller send his daughter to the king, knowing perfectly well that she can’t spin straw into gold? Why does Rumpelstiltskin want the child? Why does Rumpelstiltskin agree to wait 3 days and give up the child if the queen can guess his name, when there is absolutely no benefit to him in this deal?
So she takes this incomprehensible story in hand, and writes several versions in order to make more sense of it. Each version is very different, and reading essentially the same story 6 times hardly feels redundant at all.
I would give this a 9/10.