Rumpelstiltskin is by far one of the most intriguing and elusive figures found in folklore. Whereas most villains in common fairy-tales share traits that immediately discern them as antagonists – such as arrogance, impulsiveness, and cruelty – Rumplestiltskin is different because he is shrouded in mystery from the very beginning. The reader knows only what is immediately apparent: Rumpelstiltskin is an imp who deals in treacherous agreements. Although the miller’s daughter accepts his strangeness out of desperation, the reader cannot help but wonder what motivates such a seemingly wicked man to come to her aid for little more than nothing.
This intrigue and bafflement is further compounded in ABC’s Once Upon a Time television series.
In OUAT, Rumple repeatedly strays from common notions of villainy. He is so alike the original Brothers Grimm rendering, and yet so different. Perhaps what he reclaims most from his original character is his mysteriousness – Three seasons later, I still have no idea exactly what his motivations are. Nevertheless, I enjoy his screen time more than anyone else’s. There’s something inherently intriguing about an unpredictable antagonist. But OUAT goes beyond even this absurd notion: I’m not even sure whether Rumple, or his Storybrooke counterpart Mr. Gold, is an antagonist. Rather, I feel that he is more of a wicked enabler – he brings out the worst in everyone by trickery and deceit… and yet, like his fairytale counterpart, he never breaks a deal.
Mr. Gold’s exhibition of these contradictory themes is even more chilling than Rumpelstiltskin ’s – Disney shows, through a careful and yet somehow systemic lack of full character development, how easily someone in our world can transform from a refined, mostly pleasant shopkeeper into a coldhearted, vengeful killer. Some might argue that Rumple is evil only because of his dagger – but it’s necessary to remember what he had to do in order to claim that dagger. For reasons that are as incomprehensible as human nature, Rumple has always been intrinsically evil – and by extension, anyone in our world could be too. In this adaptation, Disney introduces a haunting notion: The darkest villains aren’t those who linger between the dusty pages of ancient tomes and lord their power through oppression and arrogance. They’re the people who walk unbeknownst amongst us in the real world, preying on our fears and manipulating us without our conscious knowledge – an ode, some might say, to the Disney Corporation itself.