Monday, October 28, 2002

Transformations is Anne Sexton’s venture into narrative poetry. Her fairytales are told almost prosaically, but with unusual metaphors, anachronisms, and introductory commentaries, these pieces really are transformed.

“Rumplestiltskin” flips the old trickster-fable into a commentary about the dual nature of one’s own identity.

Rumplestiltskin and identity.
who is R?
silly little man
one of the magi
small old man
little thing
barbed hook

R as the queen’s own construction

In “Rumplestiltskin,” Sexton presents the dwarf as an extension of the queen’s own personality, her “evil side” trying to get out. If Rumplestiltskin represents something evil, then the fairytale—both here and it its classic form—poses a dilemma. The queen needs the dwarf; he saves her from the king’s wrath. He is evil only in the sense that he demands a price the queen is unwilling to pay but must. Rumplestiltskin is a usurer.

A usurer, and in Sexton’s reading, an aspect of the queen’s own character. The “little old man trying to get out.”

This paper refers to the heroine as “the queen,” although she does not acquire that title until halfway through the piece. This is done for the sake of expediency; she is otherwise unnamed and “queen” is a short, simple title.

Names of the double in Rumplestiltskin

Doppelgänger: with this title, Rumplestiltskin is reduced (or empowered?) to a ghost of the queen’s own self. The adversary/helper as an entity of one’s consciousness gives him an unusually mystic role. How does one conquer a Doppelgänger? By naming it, Sexton says. If, as is suggested, the queen’s enemy is inside her, then victory is won merely by identifying the foe.

In her search for identity, the first names the queen suggests are Melchior and Balthazar—traditionally, two of the wise men who sought Jesus at his birth. This suggests the queen’s son as a kind of savior (and why did she want a child so badly?), but posits his seekers as not merely worshipers but kidnapers, replacement parents. Indeed, Rumplestiltskin as “papa” is a rather central idea. “No child will ever call me Papa,” he cries three magic times, and that desire for parenthood controls him throughout the piece. “[B]eing mortal/ who can blame him?” asks Sexton, undermining Rumplestiltskin’s supernatural characteristics. Rumplestiltskin is a father in need of a child.

With “Truman’s asexual voice,” Sexton’s Doppelgänger identifies himself as “your dwarf,... the law of your members.” In a world of subconscious and conscious, Rumplestiltskin is the subconscious, not the rational “grandfather of watchfulness” but a more instinctive bodily impulse. The “asexual voice” is somehow frighteningly sexual; Rumplestiltskin’s chant “nobody will ever call me Papa” is somehow more disturbing in its impotence than the king’s virile threats. And it is, arguably, Rumplestiltskin’s lack of sex that makes him the danger—he is unidentifiable.

The dwarf is frightening and powerful in his lack of (or freedom from?) sexual identity (though he is called “he”). It is this hidden identity that gives him power. The straw-into-gold business seems almost peripheral to the dwarf’s insistence on his vague “no child will ever call me Papa.”