Saturday, April 25, 2020

'The Girl Who Spun Gold', And How Rumpelstiltskin Explores Creativity Under Stress

All illustrations in this post by Leo & Diane Dillon for Virginia Hamilton's The Girl Who Spun Gold
This past couple of weeks in the Fairy Tale Newsroom, we've been thinking a lot about the trials of the usually-nameless girl in Rumpelstiltskin, forced to produce gold from the leftover dried stalks of cereal plants, after all the "good" parts have been removed (we call it straw), under fear of death if results - a.k.a. GOLD - aren't produced.

Boy does that feel relevant right now! In a world where we can barely find toilet paper, how are we supposed to produce beautiful and good things with substitute or substandard (or no!) resources? Let alone get in a creative flow when every tickle of the nose making us sneeze has us grabbing our always-within-reach thermometers, to see if we've (gulp!) gotten a fever and been infected?

It's a mad world and we feel like we've gone mad too, and oh-my-goodness-if-one-more-person-says-this-is-the-ideal-time-to learn-a-new-language-we-just-might-scream?! We might as well be trying to spin gold out of empty toilet rolls... Hey Miller's Daughter: we are so feeling your mood right now!

Did you notice the focus of this fairy tale tends to be about naming yet the girl at the center of the conflict, the one under duress, the one without whom the tale wouldn't be, rarely has a name of her own? We'll come back to that... it's important.
The Pressure To Produce "Gold" In A Pandemic
Although we don't have a tyrant threatening to kill us (personally), it's no exaggeration to say that all over the world we are currently living under bizarre conditions with the possibility of illness and death looming, and yet somehow we are required to keep "normal life happening" and, as it turns out, are being pressured to do a whole lot more. As fairy tale friends and professors Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman commented in an interview with Enchanted Conversation Magazine's Kate Wolford, just this week:
"'s hard to tap into that creativity, to do the things you want to do and make the things you want to make, when your mind is caught up in a stress spiral or too awhirl to settle down. (If you've found yourself actually screaming 'STOP' out loud to your own brain in the last few weeks, know you're not alone!)"If you're scared, if you're stressed, it can feel impossible to do basic tasks, let alone be Super Creative and Accomplished!
Rumpelstiltskin provides some interesting ways to look at survival under pressure, at creativity under pressure, and, depending on how the tale is told, different ways to consider ingenuity, bargaining, and even helpers.
To quote the Carterhaugh Fairy Tale Profs:
"Spinning is, of course, about so much more than transforming fiber into thread."
The CarterhaughSchool for Folklore and the Fantastic course "Rapunzel's Circle: Finding Enchantment Under Quarantine", starting next week, seeks to find ways to help fairy tale folk through the stress and pressures to places of wonder and hope and to help the open the door to creativity despite the circumstances. The pressure to do the most ordinary of things (did you shower today?) is so very great at present, and the call to "be productive, creative, or reinvent yourself NOW, because this is the perfect opportunity and it will NEVER come again", puts even more pressure on top of basic survival. It's not as simple as it first appears; it's a very complex issue, swirling with human need, fear, worry, confusion, motivation, values, and having to remain on guard against misinformation.
Putting The Focus On (And Helping) The Ones In Crisis, Not The Unfamiliar Threat With A Weird Name

COVID-19 (which stands for coronavirus disease appearing in 2019).
SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 )
Coronavirus is the family of viruses this new (novel) one belongs to (which include SARS and MERS).
COVID-19 is the official name for the disease.
SARS-CoV-2 is the official name of the virus that causes the disease...

See? We're already stressed out by focusing on the names of these threats, names we barely understand, and currently have no cure for, rather than the people - us! - in crisis who have to deal with the threat, no matter what its name happens to technically be. ("A rose is a rose by any other name...")
It's affecting people EVERYWHERE of all different backgrounds, cultures, social statuses, faiths, countries, and appearances. If anything, this coronavirus is a great equalizer. We are all at risk. And yet when we're stuck at home with our immediate families, we can forget that faces that don't look like ours are dealing with the exact same issues, worries, and stressors. But the wonderful thing is that remembering this can bring us together, even while separated, which is what we truly need to survive this: we need each other, just not in a way that we're used to.

For this post we thought we'd focus on a different representation of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale by the amazing African-American writer Virginia Hamilton, specifically to remind ourselves that this is a worldwide issue, not just a local or national one and that we should be focusing on what we - as people - are doing. 

The wonderful thing about this variant, too, is that instead of focusing on the foreign threat of Rumpelstiltskin, or in this case 'Lit'mahn Bittyun', it focuses on the woman at the center of the crisis, and how she employs her skills and resources at hand to solve the dual dilemma of surviving the king's threat and the magic-man's price.
All the illustrations in this post are by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon for Hamilton's retelling of Rumpelstiltskin through the Caribbean, or West Indies, lens, titled The Girl Who Spun Gold. In a note in the rear of the book, Hamilton explains there are many cultural variations from different parts of the world (not just Europe) on the tale and that she chose one from the West Indies for her retelling. (Unfortunately, we have not been able to track down a traditional text or recording of the West Indies variant.) While we are keen to find that West Indies source, in the meantime, this book does a wonderful job of shifting our usual - sometimes too familiar - perspective on the tale, and makes us reconsider it in a different light. Gone is the child-snatching threat and instead the story focuses on the girl, who is given a name: 
Meet Quashiba, a beautiful, innocent girl who is about to be made a queen, although she is not a princess. No, she is merely a peasant girl, busy spinning the plainest thread on a day when the king comes riding up to her.“Oh, great Big King,” says her mama, hoping to catch the king’s attention, “my daughter is spinning a whole field of finest golden thread to make cloth for his Highest.”What can Quashiba do about her mama’s terrible lie? For the king decides to marry her, and in a year, he will padlock her in a room and demand that she spin and weave him three whole rooms of golden things.So begins the dramatic, fascinating fairy tale about Quashiba and the tiny, sinister creature who agrees to save her by spinning gold on one condition.During his three nights of spinning and weaving, she has three chances to guess his whole name. If she fails, he will make her tiny and carry her off.What will Quashiba do? (From Virginia Hamilton's website)
For those interested in cultural variations on well-known tales, a discussion of Virginia Hamilton's adaptation and the accompanying illustrations in relation to authentic West Indies cultural traditions and representation is included in the book Fairy Tales with a Black Consciousness: Essays on Adaptations of Familiar Stories (by Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, Ruth McKoy Lowery, et al). After a discussion of language, story rhythm, names, customs, hierarchy, food, and more, the writers concluded this book was a fair cultural representation "warts and all".
Picture of text excerpt from Fairy Tales with a Black Consciousness
But let's return to the main question: how does Rumpelstiltskin explore creativity under stress (or duress!)?
As already mentioned, not only are there many variants of Rumpelstiltskin, but there are as many ways to tell this tale as there are tellers, and everyone will focus on different things. That principle works very well in seeing how Rumpelstiltskin explores stress too. There is a known relationship between stress and creativity but it's a complex one. While many forms of stress do stifle - even ruin - creativity, others can enhance it, and a lot of "which stress has which effect", depends on the point of view of the person. If your goals have true personal meaning to you, (and that doesn't tend to include repetitive tasks or goals you feel are necessary, like cleaning EVERYTHING, EVERY DAY right now!) then that meaning kindles creativity.
"When people reach goals they consider meaningful, Amabile writes in her book, they "feel good, grow their positive self-efficacy," and "get even more revved up to tackle the next job."The relationship between stress and creativity here depends on how you perceive the stress you're under at any given time. Is it connected to a goal you find meaningful? Does it push you to accomplish this goal? If so, that little dose of stress may be helping you think outside the box.." (Teresa Amabile, from her book The Progress Principle)
The truth, though, is that even a "good stressor" can ruin creativity if it happens in excess - something that is more likely to happen in a pandemic/ quarantine/ isolation/ social distancing situation than it would under normal circumstances because these stakes are high... and this is where it's important to know what your limitations are. When to compromise, when to rest and when to accept help (even if it's not ideal) are all very important strategies for both surviving and getting that creativity flowing. Like the heroine in Rumpelstiltskin, sometimes you are out of options and need to acknowledge this task is not something you can do - or at least something that requires irregular help. What the ABC series, Once Upon A Time said continuously is true, though: "Magic always comes with a price..." and that's something that should be taken into consideration. Actions have consequences, even in dire circumstances when the main goal is just survival, and decisions made under these conditions sometimes compromise the result you wanted, possibly even affect the future. Sometimes that means accepting help and not being able to take full credit for a work that's important to you. Sometimes it means paying someone, or bartering a precious resource you have for services. The result of the trade-off is not always immediately apparent and it may change the course of your plans, or the future you had envisioned. Rumpelstiltskin can remind us of that too. 
But not all Rumpelstiltskin variants have helpers who result in negative fallout! Sometimes they are friends in disguise. Sometimes these helpers will become like family. Sometimes the price is that your life will never be the same - and that's a good thing!

We should also point out that the tale underlines fortitude, not giving up, thinking outside the box, adapting to a situation and then, if the endgame is something you are not happy with, (eg. still having to give up your baby!, or, in this case, not wanting to become a teensy person and carried away) that using your wits, using the resources you have now, and again accepting help (though notice this time it's in a different way in the tale the second crisis around) - all these aspects point toward the possibility of having a say in our destinies, no matter what authorities, situations and complications occur. 
We could go on for MUCH longer discussing pertinent parallels and themes that we could consider relevant to today's pandemic crisis but instead, we'll let you figure out how this fairy tale can be a good reference for your own situation, and, hopefully, make you aware of some choices you perhaps didn't realize you had, so that even now, under quarantine, instead of waiting in limbo, you are able to live your best life and look forward to the future.

Quick Reminder: We feel fortunate to help announce the appearance of a benevolent magical helper for all fairy tale and folklore folk, who need "something" to help them get through this time. Carterhaugh's School of Folklore and the Fantastic has created a custom-made-for-this-pandemic-crisis course "Rapunzel's Circle" and it begins MONDAY. Rather than focusing on achievements, assignments and projects, which can be yet another stress, this course is designed to help you find a safe and calm space, to build hope, discover community and help you dip your toe into some creativity if you feel up for it - all with no pressure, obligation or commitment. There is no way to fail this course and you are welcome to be as involved as you want to be. 

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