Monday, November 04, 2002

Threes in Rumplestiltskin

In a fairytale poem one would expect the writer to operate in threes; Sexton does not fail to do this in "Rumplestiltskin." There are of course the mentioned threes: the three times the dwarf spins straw into gold, the three rewards, three days to guess his name. The poem is also triple in construction, made up in many parts of groups of three lines: "Inside many of us/ is a small old man/ who wants to get out," "I am your dwarf./ I am the enemy within./ I am the boss of your dreams." The dwarf also repeats three magic times, "and no child will ever call me Papa."

There is another, binary construction to the poem. It is built in two sections of threes, split along the axis of the heroine's marriage. There are many couplets in the poem-- "And then the dwarf appeared/ to claim his prize." And while the fairy tale tells in threes, its characters are binary. Its two active characters, the girl and the dwarf, are presented as halves one of the other. From the start this poems villain is "[i]nside many of us," who says "I am the enemy within." That the dwarf appears to the girl in the outside is an anomaly; right at the beginning Sexton states that dwarves are Doppelgängers-- apparitions of the self. "Beware... Beware..."

And the internal conflict is conducted in twos. The dwarf pops in in a couplet (39-40), but identifies himself by the triple chant of impotency and turns his straw-weaving task in three successive shifts. His final demand is a couplet: "Give me your first-born/ and I will spin." (79-80) The couplet enacts the schizophrenic binary; the triplet a more measured ternary. A ternary is more comfortable than twos: it is the fairy tale's magic means of redemption. Two failures and then one success; two variations on a single theme. By uttering the same thing three times, a character is damned or liberated. Duality is much more problematic. There is no room for the necessary imbalance of thirds. Good and evil are given equal weight, and no third party is able to intervene and liberate.

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