Josna Rege

27. Rumpelstiltskin

In 1960s, Childhood, Stories on March 21, 2010 at 9:46 am

The forest is pitch-dark, but there’s a clearing ahead where a bonfire is burning. Round the bonfire dances a little imp of a man, cackling with malevolent glee. I am not afraid, but an air of menace attaches itself to the scene.

This was a recurring dream of my childhood, one that I had every so often for several years, beginning when I was about six  and coming to an end sometime before I entered my teens.  I never knew what it meant or what it had to do with me, but it was always clear to me that the little man was Rumpelstiltskin, from the Grimm’s fairy tale of the same name.

Other recurring dreams of my childhood, and ones that I miss, were dreams of freedom and escape. There were the rare dreams in which I was flying effortlessly, arms stretched out wide, buoyed up by the air currents. Occasionally I soared, but usually I flew low, though safely out of reach of grasping hands. Sadly, as I grew older, the flying dreams faded away; more often I was running for my life, evading faceless pursuers hot on my trail. I ran like the wind, leaping over fences like hurdles in a race, ducking behind walls until they ran by, straining to get to a safe zone before they caught up with me. They never did; these dreams were less frightening than they were exhilarating, giving me confidence that I could always prevail.

There was one particular dream that I had only in delirium, when running a high fever—again, more frequently during childhood, but persisting into early adolescence. In it, a round ball of wool is rolling along smoothly, but somehow it starts getting tangled, tying itself in thick, furred knots. As hard as I try I cannot restore it to its original, smoothly-rolling condition. The ball and I—or perhaps I am the ball—get more and more frantic, until we are snarled helplessly in our own web.

Nowadays I hardly ever remember my dreams, recurring or otherwise. There is one recognizable category, though, that still visits me in one variant or another when deadlines and teaching terms loom: the exam dream.  No one has conditions more conducive to exam dreams than Indian schoolchildren. Exam period came at least three times a year, and during that time we underwent three harrowing examinations a day.  One of my most dreadful exam dreams went like this:

The exams are finally over and I am free—or I think I am. But our teacher, while striding home to grade the pile of exam papers, accidentally drops them off a cliff, and they are all lost irrecoverably. We must return to sit the exam all over again.

In childhood the barrier between waking and sleeping seemed more permeable. I would often catch myself in that hypnagogic state between the two as I was beginning to nod off. Dreams were simply part of my life, and while I didn’t dwell on them, I accepted their necessity. In the fairy tale, the young woman, in a moment of extremity, made a terrible deal with the little  man: that she would let him take her firstborn child. After the baby was born, of course, she had no intention of giving him up, and thankfully, she did not have to do so. The man no longer had any power over her once she had learned his name. And it occurs to me now that while my recurring dream of the bonfire in the dark forest was disturbing, it could not be called a nightmare because at some deep level, I was safe. I could banish the little man at any time because I knew his name: Rumpelstiltskin.

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  1. I used to fly in dreams, too, but haven’t in years. Usually, I had to pump my legs like I was riding a bicycle, sometimes rising just barely out of reach. For some reason, I was often arriving in the school yard in these dreams, but not always. As to exam dreams: I have had these in adulthood, one not all that long ago. As I was going in to take the exam, it dawned on me that I hadn’t attended a single class or done any of the readings all year. The meaning is so transparent, yet I couldn’t place exactly what it corresponded to in real life (hmmm, maybe a lack of self-awareness?).

    And now, time to go dream of working for the Census — oh, wait, that’s real life! Starting tomorrow (4/27) and to last a few weeks.

    • I’ve had that same exam dream, and several times! And my flying was similar, too—kind of ungainly, but it worked, and it was still exhilarating. All the best with your Census work. That reminds me, I still have to fill out our form. x J

  2. Why do we all have those exam dreams? Is there anyone who has been educated beyond 6th grade who doesn’t have those dreams? The flying dreams are special. Haven’t had one in ages. I glide on wind paths, effortlessly, soaring, sometime precipitously falling and trying to compensate, hoping I won’t crash and burn. Oddly don’t remember ever having done so. Shall have to conjure up a spell to bring those dreams back.

    • No, it seems one doesn’t crash or fall, though one has narrow escapes. If you work up that spell, count me in too!
      About the exam dreams, I was talking to a colleague at work and she’d had exactly the same recurring one I’ve had–the one where you realize too late that you’ve been enrolled in a class that you haven’t attended all semester, and now you are faced with the final exam and it’s absolutely unintelligible.

  3. I’ve had both the flying dreams and the exam dreams. They used to come quite often when I was in my 20’s till early 40’s. I don’t “fly” so much now but the exams do still come once in a while. And I get very, very stressed during the exam dreams. I will be sitting for the Shakespear plays and I tried to recall the many quotes, etc. but can’t recall them and yet I felt that I must pass because I had to pass. I also felt thick in the head and very stupid when I had these exam dreams. I wonder why they still haunt me.

    Apart from flying, I would usually be running away from someone in my dreams. But my legs won’t take me fast enough. They woudl be heavy and I felt that I was very, very stressed. Then, as the pursuers were almost on me, somehow I would be able to fly off. Low flying, though. I wonder why so many of us have these dreams?


    • Wish we could banish the exam dreams and bring back those exhilarating flying dreams! Yes, it’s strange how everyone I know who has had flying dreams flies low. As you point out, it’s still a mystery why we share these dreams. Does it tell us something about our ancient ancestors, perhaps? Or mean that we are creatures of “Middle Earth” (as Tolkien put it), both animal and spirit? Perhaps a good thing about those exam and escape dreams is that they help us work through the anxiety and stress while we are sleeping, so that we can cope better in our waking lives. Thanks so much for your terrific comment, Tip, and wishing you lightness and speed in outwitting and outrunning any pursuers!

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