November 26, 2011

Rumpelstiltskin and Antisemitism in Fairytales

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 5:10 pm by chavalah

Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) and the Evil Contract

So the other week, I watched an episode of ABC’s “Once Upon A Time,” featuring a desperate servant who wanted a better life for herself, and the sniveling, conniving imp who granted her that wish with the caveat that they had to make a “deal,” which ultimately constituted selling her firstborn child. As the traumatized maiden tried to renege, the jubilant fiend entrapped her with the nefarious contract, brrr! You owe me a debt! A pound of flesh! As I watched, I started wondering to myself if I was visiting my Ashkenazi relatives in the Russian Empire 100 or so years ago, and some Cossacks were rallying support to pillage the Jewish village because they couldn’t make good on a merchant’s deal.

The episode I speak of, “The Price of Gold,” combines two fairytales; that of Cinderella (where instead of being transformed by her Fairy Godmother, Ella strikes a deal with Rumpy,) and Rumpelstiltskin’s own fairtale, where he helps another innocent maiden out for the price of her firstborn child. Killing Christian babies is one of medieval Christendom’s favorite accusations to hurl against the Jews. Apparently there’s nothing quite so yummy for our matzo than their blood. :-/

So let’s review! Specifically taking into account the tale of Rumpelstiltskin.

      • Fairytale that originated in medieval Germany? Check.
      • Compiled in a book by 18th/19th century German storytellers, the Brothers Grimm? Check.
      • Sniveled, hook-nosed villain with difficult-to-pronounce name (meaning “little rattle stilt,” basically a type of goblin)? Check.
      • Includes passages where it’s implied that Rumpy will cook the baby? Check.
      • Quite possibly twisted into Nazi, nationalist propaganda, along with the rest of the Grimm tales, during WWII? Check.

Even “Once Upon a Time,” written in 21st century United States by two Jewish writers, no less, isn’t exactly sensitive with the subject. What is the name of Rumpelstilktsin’s alter ego in Story Brooke? Mr. Gold. (Is that Goldberg or Goldstein, fellas? ;D) Though to be fair, the “Gold” surname may be a flashback to Rumpy’s own story where he promises to spin straw into gold for the miller’s daughter.

Still, the powerful, mysterious Mr. Gold still likes making deals for babies and is even a broker (one of those jobs that was considered immoral and off-limits for medieval Christians, so the Jews were forced into it, because hey, we’re already evil anyway. ;D)

Despite all this, “Once Upon a Time” has caught my attention in spades. Featuring a highly female cast of both heroes and villains, it probes the ideas of family, happiness and fate in a unique and tangible way. And Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold, played by the incredible, Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, is perhaps more intriguing than he is offensive.

2012 promises to be The Year of Snow White in film, which such numbers is Snow White and the Huntsman (starring Kristen Stewart who is hopefully distancing herself from the simpering chew toy named Bella Swan,) and Mirror Mirror (starring Julia Roberts being deliciously evil.) But so far, I’m perfectly happy with 2011 and “Once Upon a Time,” starring the beautiful, talented (and Jewish!) Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White. Check out this tv trailer!

“Once Upon a Time” airs on ABC, Sunday nights at 8 pm EST.



  1. hslav said,

    also, in Once Upon A Time when Ginnifer Goodwin/Snow White (as the teacher) gives an inspirational quote she is wearing a sliver cross necklace.

    • chavalah said,

      Huh. I’ll have to look for that. I suppose it makes sense, given the name Mary Margaret, that she’d be a Christian character. Still, would have been nice for a Jewish actress to play a Jewish heroine.

      • adia said,

        Rarely happens… most Jewish actors (Natalie Portman, Logan Lerman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, etc.) rarely play explicitly Jewish characters, unless these actors are comedians or something.

  2. […] of the issues I had last season are completely moot now. Rumplestiltskin is in no way an antisemitic stereotype—his show canon has expanded far beyond his Grimm’s Fairy Tales origin and he’s become a […]

  3. Mike Gravel said,

    I love the show. Rumpel is selfish, greedy. He manipulates the powerful for this own ends. He is sort of snobbish and very preoccupied with money and power.

    There is NO reason to correlate that with Jewish people. Jewish people are very nice. Very inclusive. They don’t purposely try to populate school districts, and only socialize with each other. They are never snobbish at all.

    • chavalah said,

      Unfortunately, antisemities have been alleging that the Jewish people are selfish and greedy, obsessed with counting gold and amassing power, for hundreds of years. One of the ways that they do this is by creating one dimensional caricatures who are meant to personify “the Jew.” The Rumplestiltskin that you describe has a lot in common with these caricatures.

      I don’t agree that “the Jewish people”–or any group of people–can be described in monolithic terms. And in terms of the show, I also don’t agree wholeheartedly with your impression of Rumplestiltskin–particularly in the second and third seasons he moves beyond being being a cowardly villain hiding behind power. I’ve written more blog entries since this one about the more complicated/less stereotypical aspects of this show; “Once Upon a Time” is actually one of my favorite things on television for those reasons.

  4. […] fortunate to be insulated from regular abuse. The last comment came in late July, in response to this post from several years ago. I suppose that I gave it a rather provocative title.😛 It concerns the […]

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