A miller is called before the king for an unspecified reason, and to make himself more impressive, lies that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king deals with this obvious dick-waving in the most reasonable way possible: by locking the girl in a barn filled with straw, and telling her he will execute her if he doesn’t return to find it full of gold in the morning.
“Look, kid, nobody is mad at you. But your daddy told the King he grew the best turnips in the kingdom, and until we check he wasn’t bullshitting his Lord and Sovereign, you gotta just sit here with me. You don’t want your king being lied to by peasants, do you? Good boy.”
So there she is, locked in the barn, weeping and probably wondering whether she’ll be hanged, stoned or broken on the wheel like a bug. Enter Rumpelstiltskin, a small hobgoblin-like creature, who asks why she is crying. Upon learning of her plight, the hobgoblin offers to spin the straw into gold for her, in exchange for her necklace. The deal is made, all parties keep to their end, and in the morning the miller’s daughter is not decapitated.
The king is pleasantly surprised to see all the gold in the morning, and as a token of his gratitude, does the exact same thing to the girl the following night. Locked back up in the barn with an even bigger pile of straw, she again begins to weep (I hear recurrent death threats can have that effect). But she’s saved once more when the hobgoblin turns up and does the job in exchange for her ring this time. Again, everybody goes to bed happy.
The next morning, the king is so impressed with this even bigger pile of gold that he immediately demands another - and promises the girl that if she can pull it off a third time, he will marry her and make her his queen. Presumably the proposal itself is the height of romance, what with him locking her in the barn threatening her death if she fails as it’s being made.
“It’s okay, honey, this just symbolises how I’ll break your fingers one by one if you ever lie to me.”
The hobgoblin shows up to bail her out again. But the girl is now out of jewellery, and has nothing to offer him in return. So, in lieu of bling, he asks for her firstborn child. Realising that she’s quite attached to her head, the girl agrees, and the king marries her the next day after finding the third pile of gold.
They reign together happily, and no mention is made of domestic abuse despite the king’s overt sociopathic tendencies thus far. A year later, their first son is born, and the queen is so happy that she forgets all about the deal. Before long, however, the hobgoblin shatters her new-found royal bliss when he comes back to claim the child as agreed.
Proles can be like that. Motherfuckers always want paying.
The queen weeps at the thought and offers all her wealth if he will let her keep the boy, but the hobgoblin is adamant, declaring that living things are more dear to him than all the treasures in the world. Eventually, though, she weeps so piteously that he concedes somewhat; if she can guess his name within three days, he will let her keep the child.
“Awww, don’t do that. You knew the deal. C’mon, stop crying... it’ll be all right... Oh, for fuck’s sake. Aight, here’s what we’ll do.”
For the next two nights the queen lies awake thinking of every name she can, but never gets it right when the hobgoblin shows up to hear her guesses. So eventually, she does what any mother who is also a queen would do, and dispatches spies to find it out. One such messenger returns to her on the third night and reports to having seen a hobgoblin through a cottage window at the edge of the forest. The queen realises that she is saved when she hears that the creature was dancing around, singing that the queen will never guess his name is Rumpelstiltskin.
The next day, the queen tries this name. The hobgoblin cries, “The Devil has told you that! The Devil has told you that!”, and flies into such a rage that he literally tears himself in two.
I know what you're thinking, and yes: exactly the fuck like that.
The Supposed Moral
Actually, this one’s kind of on the monster’s side. The king is immediately established as a tyrant and all-around dick when he responds to a miller’s boast by threatening the life of his innocent daughter. And when he marries the girl, it’s implicitly out of greed – he does it because he believes she can spin straw into gold. Let’s hope he never asked her for an encore.
The king plays fast and loose with the lives of others, and more importantly, he forces the miller’s daughter to do the same by relinquishing her as-yet-unborn child to save her own life. The hobgoblin, a rustic forest-dweller living outside of their code, is the only one whose actions suggest that living things are truly more precious than riches to him – the king marries out of greed for gold, the miller’s daughter effectively becomes a queen by selling her firstborn. Rumpelstiltskin, however, will not be bought off.
And, leaving aside his goblin-like appearance, look at what he actually does: he shows up like a guardian angel and twice save a peasant girl’s life in exchange for some comparatively minor payment.
Granted, he also demands her firstborn with the same matter-of-factness. But it’s at least strongly implied that he does this in a children-are-a-gift kind of way, rather than a Saw II kind of way. And he is moved enough by the queen’s grief to give her another shot – it’s true that it doesn’t exactly make the prospect of giving up her child any less painful, but you know what? He didn’t have to do that shit. He’s played fairer than anyone else in the story.
The Actual Moral
So the king is a dick, while the 'monster' actually isn't so bad. But what about the protagonist?
The tale initially places our sympathy with the miller’s daughter, for the terrifying and unjust situations that the actions of the king and her father put her in. Even when she gives in and promises the hobgoblin her first child, we can sympathise; the child doesn’t exist yet and is no more than a distant possibility to her, whereas she is really in this barn and really going to die.
Trouble is, the girl is no longer so innocent when she becomes a queen. Corruption rules, and power brings the realisation that it’s actually no big deal to promise the moon when it’s convenient, and renege when it’s not.
All the easier if you’re dealing with someone in a less privileged position than you. As a miller’s daughter, she was helpless; but as the queen, she suddenly finds herself able to deny the forest-dwelling hobgoblin. Power both corrupts and enables - she can’t stop him from reclaiming his dues by force, because he’s magic. But being as she’s now a queen, with minions and everything, she can stop him with some good old-fashioned subterfuge. And it doesn’t matter that she cheated, and she knows she cheated, and he knows she cheated – there’s no come-back. It’s just tough shit for the little man. The ruling classes will have their will of you, and do you out of your payment if it suits.
I for one am grateful to be living in a time where such inequalities and injustices now allow for proper legal redress.