I have been working on a retelling of the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Rumpelstiltskin. My version will be a darker and more adult story than is usual. As I worked I have also been thinking about possible meanings of the name.
It has been claimed, notably in Wikipedia, that the name means something like “Little Rattle Post” from ‘rumpel‘, to rattle and ‘stilt’ a wooden post or support, along with the diminutive ‘kin‘. A rumpelstiltz is said to be a type of goblin or sprite that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks. This is then linked with rumpelgeist, a variant of poltergeist. The german verb rumpeln, however, is more usually translated as ‘rumble’, which certainly sounds more onomatopoeically convincing, and while a post may be rattled it is harder to imagine the circumstances in which it can be rumbled.
Another peculiarity of the story is its ending. At least one version of the story collected by the Brothers Grimm, recounts that when the Queen guessed Rumpelstiltskin’s name he was so furious that he stamped his right leg into the ground up to his waist and then “in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.” This ending doesn’t seem to add much to the story apart from typically gruesome ‘Grimm’ horror. There is also the scene where the Queen’s messenger sees Rumplestiltskin singing the song that reveals his name. Rumpelstiltskin is described as “jumping around the fire, hopping on one leg and calling out”.
This suggests to me that these were original elements of the story that got confused and put into the wrong places. I think the ‘little manikin’ who spun straw into gold was originally a one-legged character. He had lost a leg, or had it ‘ripped off” in a accident. The name Rumpelstiltskin or Little Rumble Post then refers to the sound that his wooden leg, or maybe a crutch, made as he stumped across the floor. There is also an English version of the same folk tale, not a translation of Grimm, but a related tradition. In that story the name of the gold-spinning helper is Tom-Tit-Tot. Do we once again hear the sound of a wooden-leg echoing through the tale?