Manuscript vs Myth: Spinning Silver
Inspired by her own family’s history as Lithuanian and Polish immigrants to America, Naomi Novik’s ‘Spinning Silver’ reimagines the fairy tale of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ (amongst others) to create a vibrant and mysterious Polish-inspired fantasy world. In this world, only a silver-spinning Jew named Miryem, a Tsarina named Irina, and a debtor named Wanda can save the fictitious kingdom of Lithvas from falling to either fire or ice.
Miryem is the daughter of a moneylender – and a poor one. Her father’s generosity and unwillingness to actually claim back the money he lends has left their family destitute. With a harsh winter and her mother growing ill, Miryem takes up her father’s duty and his books, collecting the money her family is owed.
Wanda is the daughter of a violent drunk. With her mother dead and buried in the garden, Wanda takes care of her father and two younger brothers, helped by a magical tree in the garden which grows over her mother’s grave. When her father’s debts come due, and the family is unable to pay, Wanda finds her escape with Miryem’s family – working for them to pay of her father’s debt.
Irina is the daughter of a Duke, unappreciated by a father who considers her too plain to make a good-enough match. To everyone’s surprise, Irina’s strange bloodline and the use of enchanted jewellery succeed in snatching the attention of the Tsar. With their wedding, Irina finds herself married to a man bound to a demon, with fire in his heart.
At a first glance, the story doesn’t seem to have much in common with the tale of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. In the fairy tale, a boastful miller tells the king that his daughter is so talented she can spin straw into gold. Intrigued, the king demands that the daughter be tested. The girl is brought to the castle and locked in a room full of straw. She is told that she has until morning to spin it into gold, or she will die. Despairing, the girl begins to weep, only for a little man to appear, asking what she will give him if he does the task for her.
The girl gives him the ring from her finger, and the man spins the straw into gold.
The next night, the girl is given the same task, in a larger room and the little man appears again, this time she gives him her mother’s necklace and the man spins the straw into gold. The next night, the girl is given the same task in an even larger room. This time the king tells her that if she succeeds, he will marry her. The little man appears again but the girl has nothing else he can give in payment. The little man requests her first born child. With no other choice, the girl agrees.
When the appears the next day and sees the final room filled with gold he is overjoyed and marries the girl. Everything seems well and the king and queen have a child together. Not long after the birth, the little man appears again, and asks to claim his reward. Devastated, the queen begs to give him anything else, but the little man is not swayed. Finally, he gives her a chance to win back her child. For three nights he will visit, and the queen will try to guess the little man’s name. If she succeeds, the child will remain with her. The queen sends her soldiers across the land to bring back as many unusual names as they can find. Finally, one soldier returns having overheard a strange little man singing to himself about his clever trick, and having overheard the man’s name –Rumpelstiltskin. On the final night, the Queen guesses correctly, and Rumpelstiltskin is so enraged that he stomps through the floor and tears himself in two.
In ‘Spinning Silver’ it is Miryem who takes on the role of the miller’s daughter, turned queen, though it is not straw that she is said to spin to gold. While her father was a poor moneylender, Miryem becomes a very good one. Though she is scrupulously fair, Miryem gains a (well-earned) reputation for being able to get the best deal, though her family worry that the toll being the village’s moneylender may take on her. During one such argument with her family, Miryem demands to know why they are unhappy to have their poor fortunes reversed, why they are not thrilled to have a daughter who can ‘turn silver into gold.’
Her words are overheard by a king… and not a human one.
Instead, Miryem’s words are overheard by the Staryk, a species of elf or fey invented by Novik and taking inspiration from European folklore. Each winter, the Staryk ride from their home in a glass mountain out into the world of man using their uncanny Staryk road. With their passing, the world grows colder, and humans stay indoors, lest the Staryk kill or kidnap them. Any plant or animal that is pure white is said to belong to the Staryk, and no human dare hunt or fell it.
The yearly fear of the Staryk shares some similarity to the wild hunt – a night which appears across European folklore in which elves, demons, or spirits ride through the land of the living, stealing, cursing or killing any soul unlucky enough not to have stayed inside, or out of the woods.
Additionally, the Staryk’s claim over any white animal or plant has ties to European folklore, too, with both sometimes being said to be associated with fairies, elves, or magic. Elves and fairies are often described (although not exclusively) of being seen with startlingly white horses or deer. In Scotland, rare white heather is said to only grow over the graves of fairies, though conversely picking the heather was said to bring good luck, instead of elven vengeance. There are also, certainly, many legends of unwitting humans chopping down a tree that had belonged to a fairy, only to find themselves cursed for the act. The Staryk road may also be a reference to the fairy pass – an invisible road used by fairies which curses those who dared build on it, even though, being invisible, they had no idea it was there.
The Staryk live in a world of winter – filled with snow, white animals, and white plants. They make their home inside a stunning glass mountain, split in two by a frozen waterfall. This glass mountain appears in Polish fairy tales – atop of the mountain is said to be a trapped princess, and a tree with golden apples. With everything that grows in the Staryk’s home pure white, the mountain is not home the tree, but it is certainly where the Staryk keep their gold. Gold that they steal during raids of the human land, for, unfortunately for Miryem, there is nothing the Staryk desire more than gold.
The Staryk king hears Miryem’s boasts about ‘turning silver to gold’ and unfortunately for her (as with many fey creatures) takes the turn of phrase literally. For three nights, the Staryk king leaves Miryem a bag of silver coins – expecting the same returned in gold in the morning. If she fails, she will be killed, if she succeeds (an equally bad fate) she will be taken by the Staryk king as his bride.
Unable to rely on a magical helper – indeed it is the fey who have asked this task of her – Miryem has no choice but to transform the silver herself. She takes the silver to a jeweller friend and has him transform it into jewellery, first a ring, then a necklace, and finally a crown. The jewellery is sold, and with the proceeds Miryem is able to return in kind what the Staryk king gave her. Debt fulfilled, and to the reluctance of both Miryem and the Staryk king, Miryem is taken as his bride to a land of ice and snow.
Though the story is not the same as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ there are clear inspirations from the tale – most notably the protagonist’s apparent ability to turn a thing to gold. There is also the significance of three in both stories, with Rumpelstilskin visiting three nights, both times, and Miryem being challenged by the Staryk thrice. This is not a trait unique to ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, as the number three often appears in fairy tales – three brothers, three challenges, three nights, and three bears to name a few. There are many reasons thought to inspire this trend, a notable one being to make the story more memorable, particularly as fairy tales were once oral.
The objects that Miryem’s jeweller makes from the Staryk silver also echo the items that the miller’s daughter use to pay Rumpelstiltskin; a ring, then a necklace, then a crown – though of course Rumpelstiltskin asks for a crown-heir, rather than an item of headwear.
Despite the similarities, there are however many differences. It is by Miryem’s own words that she is condemned, rather than her father’s, though this does not leave her father entirely free of blame. Rather than being boastful, and a liar, instead it is her father’s generosity, even in the face of his own family’s desperate plight, that leads to Miryem becoming the town’s money lender and so leads her into the path of the Staryk. It is also by Miryem’s own actions that she is saved – it is she that has the idea to have the silver melted down and sold as jewellery, it is also she who barters for an adequate price for them. There is no magic to help her, only her own wit and tenacity.
The Staryk king also represents a change in the story, he takes on the role of both threatening king, demanding an impossible task in response for marriage or death, and the role of Rumpelstiltskin – a nameless, mysterious being with incredible magic who demands a hard price.
Another matter is the addition of Irina and Wanda. While Miryem struggles in the kingdom of the Staryk, the two other girls face their own difficulties. As with Miryem, their stories do not directly retell a fairy tale, but there certainly narrative parallels between their journey and many common fairy tale tropes.
Irina’s story echoes many classic beauty and the beast style stories – with a young girl married off to a beastly husband who must help him regain his humanity. An example of this is the Scandinavian ‘King Lindworm’, which tells of a prince born in the form of a hideous, scaly dragon with a taste for human flesh. One after another he eats his brides until finally a Shepherd’s daughter manages to trick him into shedding each of his skins. Beneath is human (and presumably less murderous) man. The two are wedded and, so it goes, live happily ever after.
Irina’s husband is not a dragon – though she may wish he were – instead he is bound by contract to a demon of fire, Chernobog. In legend, Chernobog, meaning black god, and Belobog, meaning white god, are reportedly gods of good and evil, who stand in opposition to each other. The authenticity of these legends is disputed. Most of what is known of them comes from the writings of Helmold of Bosau, a 12-century priest who was significantly involved in efforts to convert the Polabian Slavs (the people these gods supposedly belonged to) to Christianity a fact may have influenced his depictions of these deities. Regardless of his origins, the Chernobog that appears in Novik’s ‘Spinning Silver’ is a terrible beast, a fire ever hungry for more to feed it. A fire that stands in direct opposition to the Staryk’s cold – with the kingdom of Lithvas caught in between.
Wanda meanwhile finds herself in a far different tale. Escaping from their abusive father, she and her brother find themselves taking shelter in a seemingly abandoned cottage, when snow threatens to bury them. Alone in the cottage, they begin to see things happen that they can’t explain. The porridge they make is eaten by someone else, and food and even a spindle appear out of nowhere. Unsure what to do, Wanda and her brother treat the house with respect, beginning to cook enough food for their unknown guest, and using the spindle to create a cover for the bed.
This too is a common trope in fairy tales – a child is cast out into the night (often by an evil stepmother) spending the night in the home of Baba Yaga, or a demon or, in one Polish tale, a bear. By treating the mysterious inhabitant with respect, cleaning the cottage and (often) befriending the talking animals that live there, the child is able to survive and return with rich reward. The stepmother sends their own disrespectful child out to achieve the same and unfortunately the rude child soon insults their host and winds up cursed or dead. The cottage that Wanda and her brother stays in has no mysterious witch or bear waiting to kill them if they make a mistake, but they don’t know that. And even so, their attempts to repay what they see as magical gifts certainly makes the cottage a better place to live.
Though the rich stories of these girls each contain elements of classic fairy tales, none of them are a straight-forward retelling of the tale. As such, Novik is able to weave together a number of fairy tale elements to create a fantasy world that is at once familiar, unknown, and entirely magical.