I was recently reminded of a story I read a Long Time Ago. It never really appealed to me at the time, but on re-reading it, now, with 16 years of experience as a professional teller of tales, it has a very different sound to it.
The story of "Old Rinkrank" is tale No. 196 in the sixth edition of Grimm's Children's and Household Tales. It was collected by the brothers, found in Frisian Archiv von Ehrentraut - the archive of Ehrentraut.
The basic story is this: King has a glass mountain 'created.' Anyone wishing to marry his daughter has to cross the mountain, and if they fail, they lose their heads. A young man wants to marry said princess, who goes with him to help. She falls through the mountain herself and vanishes as it seals up. Young man goes back to king. King 'brings down' glass mountain. Girl finds herself in the bowels of the earth confronted by an old man with a long grey beard. He makes her his slave and takes her to his cave home/dwelling. Daily he leaves the cave-home climbing a ladder to the top world, returning with gold and silver. This is Rinkrank. When the princess becomes old, he tells her his name and names her Mother Mansrot. She has enough and plans her own escape. She lays a trap for him and locks his beard in a window. He eventually tells her where the ladder is, which she finds. She climbs up the ladder and with a string she has with her, attached at the other end to the window, releases Rinkrank from the trap. Princess goes home, tells her father the king, who digs up the underground lair, and kills Old Rinkrank. Princess marries her sweetheart who is still waiting on her and all live Happily Ever After.
This, to me, is a very different and sinister if not outright dark fairy tale, which I recently reacquainted with through the legendary Gwenda Ledbetter. When I re-read it today, I find a story unlike many others. To begin with the princess is old when she gets married. She rescues herself. She is renamed by her captor, who appears to only reveal his name years later when she is grey.
Let’s dig in.
Looking deeply into Old Rinkrank, if the king has the glass mountain made, he would have known that the mountain would open up and reseal itself. Did he plan to have his daughter vanish, or was the plan that his daughter would never marry? Was the mountain designed to capture the suitors, who would fall through the magical glass, never to be seen again? The king, then, would not have to marry his daughter off. If she were married there was always the possibility that the king would lose his kingdom. Kings and queens were often overthrown or murdered back then. Glass is a liquid, and quite often liquid is seen as representing love - Cups in Tarot etc.. Is the king freezing the love of his daughter as the glass mountain? The princess obviously loves this suitor (not a prince, or if he is, it is not specified) as she says she will go with him to help him succeed. The king does not object, so does he even know? Does she sneak off in secret to assist her true love?
Did the king know of the old man, Rinkrank? Again, he should if he had had the mountain built. Was the old man Rinkrank there to 'take care of' any falling suitor? Daily, Rinkrank goes to collect gold and silver. Is this his promised payment from the king in return for his deadly services? With the princess captured, is the payment now a bribe or ransom?
The king, frightened that the truth might come out, brings down the glass mountain. After all, neither he nor the suitor go in search of the princess. And Rinkrank hiding in his underground cave dwelling/home, collects the money still, presumably not giving away the secret to the king's daughter. She is made a servant, a slave to Rinkrank. The old man gives her the choice of slavery or death. She picks for the former and cleans and cooks for him. Everyday Rinkrank leaves, climbing a giant ladder to the above ground. He pulls this out of his pocket. Once up there he pulls the ladder after him only to return with the gold and silver.
For years she works for Rinkrank, and when she is grey and old, he names her Mother Manrot, and tells her his name. Bear in mind these stories are old and life expectancy was not as it is today. The king might have made it to fifty, so, if he had her when he was sixteen to eighteen years of age, not uncommon then, she would be around thirty years old now in the story, possibly. Why name her now? Did he feel he is losing his power over her and wants to strengthen that grip? The names are not kind nicknames but harsh names. Does Rinkrank smell? Mother Manrot - has she become rotten herself, or so ugly her appearance makes him rot? This is not important. Naming things - oneself or others - is powerful; that is what is important, and that she is there a long time before he names her and reveals his name. If it is because he feels his grip over her is weakening, and the naming will stop this, it backfires! It is at this point she decides to escape.
A colleague of mine, Charles Kiernan pondered on a possible Bruno Bettelheim explanation… The conflict and struggle between Mother Mansrot and Old Rinkrank reflects the internal struggle of an individual in whom the authoritarian superego (Rinkrank) has subjugated the id (the princess’s wants and desires) until the ego (in a burst of tenacity) releases the superego’s stranglehold and restores equilibrium, allowing the individual to reintegrate their personality.
Kiernan does not think this is the real reason. But the naming has to be the catalyst that has her finish her chores and then set a trap for Old man Rinkrank. She locks up the house, doors and all but one window - a small window which she leaves open and attaches a string to. She goes to another part of the house. Rinkrank arrives home and demands to be let in. The princess refuses. He finds the open window and puts his beard through planning on following, but the princess yanks on the string which traps his beard. He pulls and tugs but she will not let him free until he gives up where he keeps the ladder. We know from earlier in the tale that it is kept in his pocket, and he pulls it up after him once he has ascended. There must be another, as he admits it is hidden with the treasure. She finds it, climbs it, adds to the length of string until she is at the top and only then frees Rinkrank.
The princess, leaving Rinkrank to nurse his beard, runs off back to her castle. Her father and suitor are still alive and there waiting for her. The king immediately acts. The king has the old man killed - to keep his treachery concealed, I presume. They take the money, and the princess and her suitor are married - and they All Live Happily Ever After.
This is, or could be, a very duplicitous story. The king is a complete tyrant, at least from this point of view. What are the king and the suitor doing all this time? Presumably the marriage would have taken place when she was sixteen at the latest, if this is a very old story, making her absence last fourteen years. If the plan was to be rid of the princess all along, and the suitor was in on this, why did they get married? Maybe the suitor figured out what happened, sent her a message, and he and the princess killed the king as soon as they could. This story provokes so many questions and gets me all excited about all the possible answers, and which ones are most relevant for today's audience.
Old Rinkrank is interesting and, if taken from this point of view, very dark indeed! I love it. I might, of course, be reading way too much into the story. But it is fun to ponder on these things.
What would you have the princess do? Is the suitor as much as a tyrant as the king? Is the story pure entertainment, the sort of Michael Creighton, Lisa Unger, Gillian Flynn, or Patterson story of it’s time? What are your thoughts? How would you tackle the story?