The Golden Spinster
Once upon a time, far away, somewhere beyond the Red Sea, there lived a certain young lord. When he deemed himself old enough, he decided it would not be a bad thing to go out into the world and seek out a nice wife for himself, and a good mistress for his household. And so he did. But he could not find one that he liked.
At last, he came to the house of a widow, who had three daughters, all maidens. The elder two were hard-working young spinsters, but the youngest, whose name was Hanka, was like a leaden bird, and barely did any work.
When the young lord arrived at spinning time, he was astounded, and wondered to himself how it was that the youngest was dozing by the chimney-corner while her sisters were hard at work. Turning to the mother, he said, “Tell me, old mother, why do you not make that one take up a distaff also? She is surely old enough to be a spinster like her sisters.”
“Oh, young sir,” said the mother. “I would allow her to spin with all her heart, but I fear that if I allow her to take up the distaff, she would do nothing but spin all day long, for being the youngest, she will have to wait the longest to find a husband. With nothing else to fill her time, she would spin up all our spinning materials, then the thatch from the roof, and turn them all into golden threads. And then she would betake herself to my grey hairs. That is why I do not push her to set aside her idleness.”
Filled with delight at the old woman’s words, the young lord said, “If this be so, and if it is God’s will, would you consent to her being my wife? I have a good household filled with flax, hemp and whole heaps of fine and common materials where she could spin away to her heart’s content.”
On hearing the young man’s words, the old woman did not need long to come to her decision. Hanka was woken from her slumbers, the bridegroom was gifted a handsome handkerchief from the clothes-chest, and the marriage ceremony was performed that very evening. Hanka’s older sisters were, at first, somewhat affronted at her good fortune. But by the evening, they were content, and hoped that, soon, they too would get rings on their fingers, now that their idle hand of a sister had obtained a husband.
The next day, the young bridegroom ordered his horses to be harnessed. When all was ready, he placed his tearful bride beside him in his handsome carriage, bid his mother-in-law and new sisters farewell, and they left the village at a gallop.
Poor Hanka sat by her husband, mournful and tearful. He talked to her but she remained as mute as a fish. “What is the matter?” he said. “At my house, I shall give you all that your heart desires. But first, I require that you spin golden threads for me, as your mother has said you can do.”
But Hanka became even more sorrowful on hearing his words.
They arrived at the young lord’s castle. After supper, the bride was taken to a large room piled high, from top to bottom, with nothing but spinning materials.
“Here you are,” said the young lord. “There is distaff, spindle, and spindle-ring … spin away. If, by morning, you spin all this into golden threads, we shall be man and wife. If not, I will have to put you to death without further ado.” The young lord then left the room and shut the door on poor Hanka.
Hanka, alone in the room, did not seat herself under the distaff, for she did not even know how to twirl the threads. Clutching her hands, she said sorrowfully, “Oh God! What am I to do? Here I am in vile disgrace. Why did not my mother teach me to work and spin like my two sisters? I could have reposed in peace at home. Instead I am here where I must perish miserably.”
Suddenly the wall opened, and a little man stood before the terrified Hanka. He had a red cap on his head, and an apron around his waist. Before him, he pushed a little golden hand-cart. “Why are you so tearful?” he asked. “What has happened to you?”
“Why should I not weep?” said Hanka. “See? I have been ordered to spin all this into golden threads by morning. If I do not do so, the young lord will have me put to death. Oh God! What shall I do?” She hid her face in her hands and wept.
“Is that all?” said the little man. “Do not be frightened. I will teach you to spin golden threads, for it is not that difficult. But you must agree to this one condition. This time next year I must find you in this very place. If you are unable to guess my honourable name, you must become my wife, and I shall convey you away in this cart. If you are able to guess it, I shall leave you in peace. But this I will tell you. If you choose to hide yourself this time next year, even if you fly as far as you are able, I shall find you, and I will wring your neck. Are we agreed?”
It was not the most satisfactory of situations for Hanka, but what could the poor girl do? Finally she said to herself, “Let it be left to God, whether I perish this way or that.” Turning to the little man, she said, “I agree.”
On hearing this, the little man gave a little jump, made three circuits around her with his golden cart and seated himself under the distaff. He then proceeded to teach her to spin golden threads. Once he was satisfied that Hanka could spin golden threads, he departed as he had arrived, and the wall closed up of itself behind him.
Now a true golden spinster, Hanka sat under the distaff, and spun away, turning the spinning materials into golden threads, and by morning had spun a room full of golden threads.
In the morning, the young lord awoke and went to see how well the spinster had spun. When he entered the room, he was all but blinded by the glitter, and couldn’t believe his eyes, for it was all gold. He then embraced Hanka and declared her his lawful wife.
They lived happily, and if our young lord had previously loved his Hanka for her golden spinning and affectionate nature, he then loved her a thousand times more for the beautiful son that she bore him.
But Hanka’s happiness began to turn to sorrow, for she alone knew that the joy she shared with her husband could not last for ever. Each passing day brought the dreaded appointed time closer, and Hanka could do nothing but creep like a shadow from room to room, with the knowledge that she would soon lose her good husband and beautiful son.
Hanka’s husband knew nothing of what awaited her, and tried to comfort his wife as best he could, but she would, at first, not be comforted. Until finally, unable to bear the thought that she would soon have the ugly dwarf as her husband, she revealed everything to her young lord.
Horrified, he proclaimed that if anyone knew of such a dwarf, they should make known his real name and would have, as reward, a piece of gold as large as his head.
All wanting to claim such a prize, the people of that district searched and searched, in every corner, in every place they could think of, but nothing could be found out. Nobody knew and nobody had seen the dwarf. As for his name, no living soul could guess it.
And so, the last day arrived. Nothing had been seen or heard of the little man. And Hanka, with her baby boy at her breast, wept continuously at the prospect of losing her husband and her baby.
Her unhappy husband, himself almost exhausted from weeping, could no longer bear the agony of his wife in such a state. Taking his gun, and gathering his faithful hounds, he went out hunting. By the afternoon, what had been a fine day, turned into a rain-lashed one. In this tempest, the young lord’s servants ran hither and thither, seeking shelter, and got so lost that he remained with only one servant on a densely wooded, unknown hill. Soaked and dripping, they wondered where they were to seek shelter in the storm.
The unlucky pair, master and servant, looked to see if they couldn’t spy a shepherd’s hut or a cattle-shed, but where nothing is, there is nothing. Finally, they saw where, out of the hole of the shaft of a mine, puffs of smoke were rolling. “Go, lad,” said the young lord to the servant, “look whence this smoke issues. There must be people there. Ask if they will give us lodging for the night, or at least until the storm passes.”
The servant went and, within minutes, returned, and informed his lord that there was no door, nor shed, nor people there.
“You are a duffer,” said the lord, his teeth chattering. “I will go myself. You, for a punishment, shall drip here and freeze.” Well, neither could the noble lord spy anything. Yet, in one place, the smoke kept continually issuing out of the side shaft. Weary and cold, he finally said, “I must know whence all this smoke comes.” Going to the hole, he knelt beside it and peeped in. He could make out a kitchen underground, where food was cooking, and covers were laid for two on a stone table. And around this table, ran a little man in a red cap pushing a golden hand-cart before him. Each time he made a circuit, he sang:
“I’ve manufactured a golden spinster for the young lord,
She will try to guess my name tonight;
If she guesses my name aright, I shall leave her;
If she guesses it not, I shall take her:
For she will never know that my name is Martynko Klyngas.”
And then he ran madly around the table, shouting: “I’m preparing nine dishes for supper; I shall place her in a silken bed …”
Not wanting to hear anymore, the young lord ran as fast as his legs could carry him to his servant. Fortunately, they found a path and hastened home. The young lord found his wife in misery, for she thought she would be taken before he returned, and she would not be able to take leave of her husband.
“Do not worry so, my wife,” said the young lord. “I know what you require. The dwarf’s name is Martynko Klyngas.” And then he told her everything that he had seen and heard.
Hanka could scarcely stand still for joy. She embraced and kissed her husband, and betook herself to the room where she had spent that first night, spinning the golden threads. At midnight, the wall opened, and the little man with the red cap came rushing in.
Running around Hanka, pushing his golden cart, he shouted as loud as he was able:
“If you guess my name, I leave you;
If you guess it not, I take you;
Only guess, guess away!”
“If I have only one guess,” said Hanka, “it will have to be this; your name is Martynko Klyngas.”
As soon as she uttered this, the dwarf threw his cap on the ground, seized his cart, and departed as he had come. The wall closed, and Hanka was left in peace. From that time on, she spun no more gold. She and her husband lived happily together to the end of their days, and their son grew like a young tree by the water’s side.
The title, in this context, refers to the original meaning (mid-14th century English) of ‘female spinner of thread’. It was expected that unmarried women would occupy themselves with spinning, and the word came to be “the legal designation in England of all unmarried women from a viscount’s daughter downward” (Century Dictionary). By the early 18th century, the word was basically being used for “a woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it.”
The obvious comparison here has to be Grimm’s ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, but I much prefer the details in this tale. As in the Grimm tale, the young lord does bully his new wife into spinning golden threads – though why he has to put her to death if she can’t is beyond my understanding! The variations that I like – it is the mother instead of the drunken father who unwittingly puts her child in an impossible situation; the dwarf wants Hanka instead of her child; she tells her husband of her dilemma; he is the one who finds out the dwarf’s name; and, at the end, when she guesses right, the dwarf just leaves instead of throwing a major hissy fit. But I do wonder why Hanka’s mother hadn’t taught her to spin like her older sisters? Was it because she was the youngest and her mother wanted to ‘spare’ her hard work?