The story begins when a miller boasts to the king of his daughter's (exaggerated) domestic skills; in an effort to appear important, the miller tells him that she can even spin straw into gold. The king takes a bit more interest than intended, and the daughter soon finds herself in a room full of straw with nothing but a spinning wheel and a death threat from the king, to make good on her father's empty boast.
The task is impossible; she despairs; and a little man suddenly appears and offers to spin the straw to gold for her, in exchange for her necklace. The next night, under the same conditions, he again appears and does the work in exchange for her ring. The third night, the king tells her he will marry her if she completes the work, but she has nothing left to give the little man. At his suggestion, she promises him her first-born child, and he does the work on spec, as it were.
She and the king get married and have a child, and sure enough, the little man shows up and tries to take it away. However, seeing her grief, he relents and gives her a loophole: If she can guess his name in the next three days, she can keep the child.
So, for the next couple of days, the young queen lists every name she can think of, and sends out messengers to collect new ones, but the little man always denies that any of them is his name. By the third day, things are looking grim, until her messenger tells her that he overheard a little man singing a peculiar song:
- "Tomorrow I brew, today I bake,And then the child away I'll take;For little deems my royal dameThat Rumpelstiltskin is my name!"
And so, at the last minute, the queen guesses the man is called Rumpelstiltskin; in some versions, he is so enraged that he stamps his foot right into the floor and tears himself in two while in others he flees into the night never to return.
Rumpelstiltskin's reaction to his name varies depending on the version of the story; in the tale the Grimms first collected, he flew out of the window on a spoon. In the Grimms' early editions, he simply left in a huff. Later, they gave him the interesting but anatomically improbable death above (complete with illustration!). In yet another version, his stomp creates a hole in the floor through which he falls to Hell. (See Deal with the Devil below.)
A common joke in parodies is to have the story told through the eyes of a Private Detective who is hired by the Queen to investigate the name question.
Rumpelstiltskin contains examples of the following tropes:
- Adaptational Heroism: In some versions of the story has the greedy king fall in love with the miller's daughter during her stay at his castle, with him treating her more and more gently before asking her to marry him. The king's demand that she stays three days becomes less about getting gold and more about keeping her around, with him unaware that she has to make deals with Rumpelstiltskin every night. Usually in these stories, the miller's daughter tells the king about Rumpelstiltskin and he isn't upset with her having lied to him about being able to spin straw into gold and does everything he can to help save their child.
- Adaptational Villainy: In the video game adaptation Living Legends: Bound by Wishes, Mayor Tom (Rumpelstiltskin)'s contract (which in this version, is not optional) with the miller's daughter is clearly written in advantage for him: either she gives him her son or her own life in exchange for (his) magic spindle that she wished for (which he wants it back).
- Bowdlerize: The ending is often changed in child friendly adaptations. In the original tale he gets his foot stuck in the ground, then rips himself in two while trying to pull himself out. Modern adaptations have him simply run away in anger. Another adaptation has him actually have a change of heart seeing how happy the Queen is that she can keep her child. Then the Queen tells him he's allowed to come and visit herself and the child whenever he wants in the palace.
- Deal with the Devil: It is implied that Rumpelstiltskin is, if not actually demonic, at least fey and up to no good.
- In one British version of the tale, Duffy and the Devil, he is the devil. His name is given as "Tillytop;" he laughs in Duffy's face when she guesses "Lucifer" and comments that Beelzebub is a distant cousin.
- Decomposite Character: When the story is told to children, the miller's daughter might marry the greedy king's (presumably nicer) son instead of the king himself; ABC's Once Upon a Time even uses this for their retelling. Ironically, this is also the case with variants of The Three Aunts.
- In one adaptation, it's the king's wife, the queen, who threatens to have the miller's daughter executed and the one insisting that she try to spin gold three times.
- Depraved Dwarf: Rumpelstiltskin
- Dub Name Change: Rumpelstiltskin's name is changed in many languages. However, interestingly enough, something close to his original German name (Rumpelstilzchen) is kept in the English translations, despite being quite difficult to spell and pronounce (or perhaps because of it, since it's supposed to be a weird, hard-to-guess name).
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The only character who ever gets a name is the title character. The other characters are known by their occupations in the original story - the miller, the King, and the miller's daughter, who is eventually bumped up to Queen.
- Exact Eavesdropping: Good thing that Rumpelstiltskin just happened to be singing about what his name was when the messenger overheard him.
- The Fair Folk: The title character.
- Half the Man He Used to Be: Some versions of the story end with Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in half in a fit of frustration.
- I Know Your True Name: Once his name is revealed, Rumpelstiltskin is no longer a threat.
- Impossible Task
- Karma Houdini: The miller is never punished for his stupid boast.
- Nor is the king, who's a greedy, cruel, and petty tyrant.
- Subverted in one adaptation when all the gold in the castle turns back to straw. A humbling moment for the king. Now if only we can get an adaptation where the jackass miller gets tarred and feathered or dragged off by a horse.....
- The Once Upon a Time episode "The Miller's Daughter" plays with this trope in the flashback portion (which is essentially an adaptation of the fairy tale): The miller is blameless, as this version has the miller's daughter herself brag about her spinning skills. As for the king, he gets away with everything in the short-term, but the subsequent years see his kingdom lost and the son he hoped would succeed him reduced to little more than a beleaguered husband.
- Also played with in the Dark Parables version of the story. The King is turned into a gold statue for guessing an incorrect name, and the Queen must use her own wits to learn Rumpelstiltskin's name and reclaim her daughter; her only assistance comes from Tom Thumb. But even though she succeeds, his time under the enchantment leaves the King with a permanent personality shift, and she ultimately ends up running away with their baby due to his obsession with wealth. The entire incident ultimately spells doom for their Floating Continent country.
- Also subverted in Living Legends Bound By Wishes: The miller Hans is a loving father and didn't take part in the ordeal, and it was the king who wanted to marry the miller's daughter Augustine in the first place due to his luxurious lifestyle turned on him and Augustine can indeed spin straw into gold.
- Nor is the king, who's a greedy, cruel, and petty tyrant.
- Karmic Death: Rumpelstiltskin's rage brings about his own death.
- Leonine Contract
- Mama Bear: In some retellings, the miller's daughter is more openly hostile to Rumpelstiltskin's attempts to take her child.
- Mysterious Protector: A sinister variant.
- Rags to Royalty: The miller's daughter becomes queen after three of Rumpelstiltskin's visits.
- Royals Who Actually Do Something: Some adaptations have it be the king himself who overhears the name while out hunting, and then rushes home to tell his wife. Other times, he hides himself behind a curtain, ready to try and kill Rumpelstiltskin if the name turns out to be incorrect. But see What Happened to the Mouse? below for the king's usual behavior.
- Rule of Three: Rumpelstiltskin helps the girl three times; she has three nights to guess his name. In some versions, she can guess three names per day, too.
- Sore Loser: Oh yeah. Rumpelstiltskin does not react well to losing the wager.
- Spoiler Title: The audience already knows what Rumpelstiltskin's name is before the character is even introduced in the story.
- Textile Work Is Feminine: Spinning is a proper domestic task for a young woman.
- Useless Father: The miller is a useless father and eventually disappears from the tale altogether.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Once they serve their purposes (the miller for kicking off the plot with his lie and the King for impregnating the miller's daughter), the miller and the King are never mentioned again.
- Withholding Their Name: Part of this story's plot is the queen trying to find the name of the eponymous dwarf as the escape clause out of the Deal with the Devil she had made with him in order to keep her child. He gives three chances to correctly guess his name, and it takes all three nights for her to find out what it was. When she says his name, he throws such a tantrum it actually kills him.