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“I give you three days […] three days to find out what my name is.” “What is your name?” “It’s…that’s what YOU have to find out!”- An impossible deal struck by a desperate mother and one of the most mischievous imps in all fairy tales
Names have a power of their own in fairy tales. If you know the true name of a magical being, you can have complete control over them – and the same goes vice-versa. It’s a trope that comes up often in stories about the fair folk. Now, fairies in the old stories aren’t the sweet wish-granting Tinkerbell clones that you see these days. They’re immortal, powerful beings with control over nature and magic, and they view their human mortal neighbors as funny playthings to trick, punish or reward as they please. They could pay you for your services with a bag of gold that will turn to acorns come dawn. They can invite you to their place for a christening one weekend and when you return home you’ll find seven years have passed. They switch human children with changelings just for laughs, and cut deals that seem beneficial to you at the start – and this is where Rumpelstiltskin comes in.
Yes, Rumpelstiltskin is by all accounts a fairy. Knack for striking magical bargains? Check. Wants to steal a child for no other reason than just because? Check. Sees others’ struggle between life and death as nothing but a game? Check. Heavily reliant on the Rule of Three? Triple check. Though dear old Rumple managed to stand apart from his fairy kin on account of having a proper name, his story never seemed to quite reach the same level of ubiquity as fairy tale characters like Snow White or Cinderella. Ironically, it probably would have stayed that way were it not for the Snow White-heavy series, Once Upon A Time.
Robert Carlyle’s dual performance as the hammy, conniving Rumpelstiltskin and his civil but duplicitous real world alter-ego Mr. Gold is a highlight of the show – at least for the first few seasons. The character(s) are reinterpreted as a sort of Faustian devil figure, offering characters both good and evil their hearts’ desires at a steep cost. He was a master manipulator and plotter, always one step ahead of everyone and twisting his words so his bargains seemed like the only logical choice, punctuated with that perfect line “All magic comes with a price”. For a series where the Evil Queen was the main antagonist, he well and truly earned being called The Dark One. But Once Upon A Time was heavily inspired by Lost, and much like that show, it went from a fun re-imagining of a not entirely unoriginal scenario to a total mess the writers had no clue what to do with. Things got too complicated, convoluted and inconsistent the longer it went on; Rumple/Gold’s character and motivation began flip-flopping every other week until he became nothing like his devious deal-making literary counterpart. “I’m going to manipulate Regina into cursing the kingdom because I am the Dark One! No, I’m only doing it to rescue my son who I banished to New York! No, I am going to get rid of my Dark One persona for the good of everyone I love! No, I am going to try to stop being the Dark One but hold on to my powers because I like having power! No, I LIKE being the Dark One after all! No, I only became the Dark One because my dad’s Peter Pan, my wife slept with Captain Hook, and my mom, the anti-Blue Fairy, is killing children as part of an elaborate prophecy involving me sacrificing myself to destroy her, hehehehehee!!”
By, the way, didn’t make a word of that last sentence up. This show went in some weeeeeird directions.
But to get back on topic, I have a bit of a soft spot for the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin as I grew up with a “sound” storybook that that told this particular yarn. If you were a 90s kid, you probably had at least one, those books with the buttons that you were prompted to press as you read through and made the different noises; the sound of our titular imp muttering “Fiddlesticks!” is still ingrained in my brain to this day. For all the havoc he wreaks on the young heroine – not to mention the precarious situations the other men in her life put her in – she ultimately pulls through using her wits and whatever means at her disposal, showing an inner strength and courage that few traditional female fairy tale protagonists have. But how well does this translate to Faerie Tale Theatre?Continue reading