HEA? No Way, José!
I have been spending a lot of time lately on blogs and forums for romance novels, and I find it often mentioned, as we all no doubt have already noticed, that they frequently take their themes from fairy tales--Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast being probably the most frequent inspirations. But it is my theory that there are three stories which, as given, CANNOT POSSIBLY have a Happy Ever After ending. I intend to discuss them, and you can, too. In order to keep people reading, I'm going to do it as a series.
We all know the story, but here's a refresher, with helpful notes: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/rumpelstiltskin/index.html
Whether the instigator of the spinning challenge is a boastful miller, a boastful miller's daughter, or an embarrassed miller lying about his lazy daughter's domestic skills, the rest of the setup is the same: the king puts her in ever-larger rooms full of straw, telling her to spin gold or die; the little man helps her, demanding her first-born as payment; she marries the king, the little man demands the baby, the name-guessing game, and the end of Rumpelstiltskin. A regular fairy tale, right?
No. Consider that from the very beginning, the king threatens her with death, not because she's done something wrong but if she can't do something that no one else can do, either. And he marries her only because of the gold, not for love or her virtue or her beauty or any similar traditional fairy-tale motive.
This is NOT the recipe for Happy-Ever-After. She must be scared spitless of him. Even after marriage, she must dread the moment when he says, "Darling, we're running short of gold again...." Even in the version where she's lazy, she'd have to be dead stupid not to see that it's NOT good to be the Queen when the King is a homicidal miser.
I have seen a few versions in which there is a believable happy ending. Vivian Vande Velde has a whole volume of Rumpelstiltskin stories with various takes on the tale. The happy endings I've seen all, without exception, involve changing the premises of the story in some way. The most common is to have the Rumpelstiltskin figure turn out to be an elven prince in disguise, or a magician of some sort, and the girl dumps the King and goes off with him instead. In a few, she just runs off before she can be forced to marry the King. Sometimes it turns out he was under an evil spell and didn't want to kill her at all. And in one of Vande Velde's, the test was made up by the king to scare off females pursuing him and never intended to be used at all.
The only bridegroom I can think of that's worse than this is Scheherazade's, who is already a serial killer by the time she marries him.
I have a definite bias towards stories with a moral, where virtue is rewarded and evil soundly punished--or at least reformed. There is no moral here at all--the girl does nothing to deserve to become Queen, and the King is not reformed or in any way made to feel that his death threats were wrong. In many fairy tales there is a fairy or animal helper, who rewards the protagonist for his or her kindness in rescuing or in some other way helping it--the bird caught in a snare, the ants whose anthill is about to be flooded, and so on. Sometimes they simply appear because of her goodness, or because of some supernatural protector, like the animals in the various versions of Cinderella. The moral here is that goodness is rewarded by goodness. Rumpelstiltskin is not a kindly helper but has his own agenda: getting hold of the baby prince. And the Queen, once she knows she'll win the guessing game, toys with him by guessing wrong at first. Rumpelstiltskin/Tom Tit Tot is often interpreted as a demonic creature, not a real dwarf in the sense of an earth elemental type or a different species, like Snow White's dwarves. Nobody in this story comes off well, and the baby will probably grow up to be Jack the Ripper, like Prince Albert Victor.
So, have you seen, or can you imagine, any played-straight version of Rumpelstiltskin that has a believable happy ending?