Saturday, September 29, 2012


Title: Rumpelstiltskin vs Miller: The Child Custody Battle That Turned a Kingdom Upside Down
Author: Michael H Brandt
Publisher: Dorrance Publishing
Pages: 774

As a child, I loved stories that began with “Once upon a time,” (I still do) but I remember feeling a distinct sense of dissatisfaction when they ended with “and they lived happily ever after.” Even as a child, I resented the simplistic finality of that phrase. Surely that couldn’t be the end? Surely things had just started warming up?

That dissatisfaction was finally put to rest in Rumpelstiltskin versus Miller: The Child Custody Battle that Turned a Kingdom Upside Down by Michael H Brandt. Finally someone has the good sense to realise my predicament and the potential for a novel inherent in Rumpelstiltskin, a fairy tale that is certainly unlike any other.

For one, the heroine and the king do not marry for love. What are the odds of a marriage like that ending with a “happily ever after”?

For those whose childhood did not include a reading of the fairy tales, here’s a gist of the tale, as presented by the Brothers Grimm. A loudmouth miller has a beautiful daughter. In conversation with the king, the miller claims that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The greedy king has her arrested and imprisoned with all the straw he can put together at short notice, with an injunction that if she fails to deliver, she will be executed. Of course, she can’t and so she begins to cry. An old man shows up there out of nowhere, and offers to spin the straw into gold. In return she offers him her necklace the first day and her ring on the second. When she has nothing valuable left to give him on the third day, he makes her promise to give him her first born child after she is queen. When he comes to claim his prize years later, she begs and asks him to spare her child. He agrees provided she is able to guess his name. She sends her servants after him to tail him and learn his rather unusual name. When she makes an informed guess the following day, he stamps his foot upon the ground and falls in up to his waist. In some versions, he even rends his body in two.

In a departure from the original fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, instead of forfeiting his claims, snaps his own leg and goes off into a coma, out of sheer distress at the duplicity of Millicent in employing means other than guesswork in finding his name. Despite wanting to revive him, Millicent is prevailed upon to believe that the elf is dead. This fixes the idea of ingratitude in the mind of the elf and changes forever the course of fairy tale history.

The Queen’s refusal to give up her son to the elf, Rumplestiltskin, who played such a notable role in the spinning of straw into gold, and in making her Queen and saving her life leads to his anger and the Trial of the Millennium, as he takes her to court for breach of promise. 

Meanwhile, Rumpelstiltskin exhorts the Forest People, the ogres, trolls, goblins, elves, etc, who are even further down the food chain than the most destitute of the humans, to rise against the cruelties and the injustices of the king, the government and the upper class. The Forest People begin to assert themselves, forming a union of sorts and rebelling against the inept king and the corrupt government.

We also learn here that the elf wants the first-born son of the Queen so that he can teach the lad to be a better human being and a wiser king than his father was.

I admire the resourcefulness of Brandt in his choice of a fairy tale. Rumpelstiltskin is perhaps most apt for an exercise of this kind and Brandt has worked on it most admirably.

Purporting to be the first person account of Adlai Miller-Balbour, the first born son of Queen Millicent, the miller’s daughter, and King Yvan of Espranchk, the book is clever and ingenious. The story, set in the fictional country of Espranchk, mirrors the conditions of the pre-Reformation and pre-Renaissance era. When the clergy and the nobility dominated over the merchant class and all dominated over the common man. Brandt’s book helps us to fill in the gaps in the original fairy tale.

And so, the Journeyman’s Movement is what we know as the Socialist movement. The story dips into our world history to give us a neutral background on Espranchk. There are references to the Jews (known here as the Hebids), the Holy Land etc. There are bits of spirituality as when Millicent realises that “mere affiliation with a religious denomination was not in itself a certificate of good character.”

The writing is from the perspective of someone who lived centuries ago. Adlai comes across as a reliable narrator, who presents us the situation of Espranchk in its historical and chronological context, and helps us understand the motives behind the selfishness of the queen, her desire to be a queen and her desperation to remain one, the greed and the cruelty of the king and the crazy demands of the elf.

The beauty of Millicent as a heroine is that unlike others of her ilk, she does not rely on her beauty to get ahead. She has a great memory, a tremendous capacity of learning, and a talent for oratory and public life, giving rise to legends about her being superhuman. She is not afraid to learn, ask questions or seek help. And she gains confidence and the love of the common people, she also learns to get her own way under cover of a multitude of “Yvan, dears.”

The queen learns about the laws of Espranchk and takes her place as a judge of people’s issues in the government. Her attempts to do good help create a legend around her persona and she begins to be seen as a fairy with magical powers.

Queen Millicent is intensely feminine in a masculine world and yet her drive, can-do spirit and aggressiveness cause her to be seen as masculine. Her desire to win at tennis is an expression of her desire to have an achievement of her own. 

But power, no matter how little, causes the queen to change in subtle ways, while retaining her core personality and nature. The book succeeds in bringing out effectively the change that power can bring into a person.

In the original fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin is a cantankerous old man. Here he is an elf, one of the Forest Peoples, who knows the art of alchemy. He is also more wronged against than wrong.

There were some amusing touches. Apparently it was the ogres that invented the game that we know today as American Football. Also, I’ve always wondered how the writers of fantasy fiction came up with names. Here Professor Snighig teaches Millicent to speak well. Snighig is an anagram of Higgins.

I was a little disappointed in the queen’s speeches for although we are told that she was an orator who inspired applause, that fails to come across to the reader. This is a letdown considering that her emergence in public life is described as a “magical experience.”

Some trifling thoughts: A little more fine–tooth-combing would have yielded avoidable proofing errors.

The book is honest enough not to gloss over Millicent’s faults, which speaks highly of Adlai’s own neutral voice in the telling of this tale. Her hunger for staying in power, enjoy her position as Queen, and dealing with Rumpelstiltskin effectively is telling.

Nothing seems forced, an achievement considering the size of the book at 774 pages. The pace of the book never flags nor weighs on the reader heavily.

Thank you, Mr Brandt, for re-creating the magic of a fairy tale for grownups, and for doing it in such an instructive, educative and yet thoroughly entertaining manner.

I highly recommend this one.

I received a complimentary copy of Rumpelstiltskin Versus Miller: The Child Custody Battle That Turned a Kingdom Upside Down as a member of the Dorrance Publishing Book Review Team. Visit to learn how you can become a member of the Book Review Team.

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