Monday, October 12, 2009

Fairy Tale Names

Rumpelstiltskin by Jiri Trnka

In the land of Faery names are very important - to know a person or creatures name is to have power over it and so true names are closely guarded. This sensibility is reflected to varying degrees in many cultures too and so we end up with nicknames, honorifics, and even substitute names for infants to mislead mischievous gnomes, fairies or demons from stealing their souls.

But what about fairy tales? Names aren't usually given to all the characters in a fairy tale. Sometimes only one name is used and sometimes that name is really a representation of the character in focus and not their real name at all. Names still have a certain importance in fairy tales, though not having quite the same weight as the concept does in faery myths and legends but the choosing of an infants name is often given great weight and one tale in particular makes it clear that one's name is very important indeed.
Rumpelstiltskin by Kay Nielsen

I'm talking of Rumpelstiltskin of course. This is the tale with the most names mentioned in any fairy tale ever (that I'm aware of) and is part of the whole point of the story. What I find interesting is that in many of the versions I've read, the Queen (who is unnamed in most versions), when trying to guess the little man's name, starts with exotic sounding names, moves to whimsical/nonsensical names then ends up listing common ones before announcing the true name - which is completely unique - and getting herself, and her firstborn, out of a sticky situation. (You can read the story and the names the Queen recites at the awesome SurLaLune site HERE.)
Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson

Rumpelstiltskin is one of those names that, once you know it, sticks in your memory but it's interesting to see the other fairy tale names that have also 'stuck' through the ages and across cultural boundaries.

This page HERE has an interesting list of names - male and female - in fairy tales for people to consider for their children. While a good portion of them are, unsurprisingly, from Disney retellings, there are quite a few unexpected ones too. (Rumpelstiltskin isn't on the list, presumably because no parent would ever inflict such a curse on their child.. here's hoping that assumption is correct!)

Here's a sampling of some unusual ones on that page:

BABETTEBeauty and the Beast

FINETTEFinette Cendron

JORINDEJorinde and Joringel

TALIASun, Moon and Talia

WINNIFREDThe Princess and the Pea

It's by no means a comprehensive list but it does get the gray matter working a little! It's certainly a baby name category you don't very often, though I think it would be a very interesting little volume to put together - especially if it were multi-cultural.
Fairy Story (Rumpelstiltskin) by Jesus Blasco

Many of the names for the heroes and heroines are 'everyman' names. For example Ivan is extremely common in Russia, just like Jack is in English. The same goes for Hansel and Gretel which, to English speaking countries sounds exotic but to Germanic people is essentially Jack and Jill. When I was researching Jorinde and Joringel for my recent retelling I found reference to the fact that their names were the equivalent of 'George', in both the feminine and the masculine (which makes you think of the tale a whole different way again).

Sometimes, though, the names are special and unique. I'd be very interested to see a collection put together. Anyone up for the job? ;)

NOTE: I should point out that fairy tale character names were discussed on the SurLaLune discussion board quite a few years ago HERE. It mainly discusses the issue of lead character names but has other interesting points too.


  1. What an amazing blog! I am always creating fairy tale papercut designs and this blog is a great source of information and inspiration!

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  3. You should note though that 'Rumpelstilstkin' is only the english translation.the original german name is 'rumpelstilzchen'

  4. I need you to answer something, if you can. In school, we have a question and I googled , and it led me here. :)) Sooo, The question is something like this:

    "What is a fairytale character who's name is two female names put together?" And it was something along those lines. Do you think you could help me out? If you can't... Then I can do more googleing. And also, if you could, could you possibly provide a link that could lead me to a website of all the fairy tale character names. I don't know if It's a boy or a girl. (for the Question). And it inspires me, how you write all of this out.