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Rumplestiltskin: Once Upon a Time‘s Byronic Hero

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You may disagree with me that Once Upon a Time‘s Rumplestiltskin (the brilliant Robert Carlyle) is a Byronic hero, but I’m pretty sure he is. Rumple is certainly not heroic in the the way most of us use the word, but then again, neither is Wuthering Heights‘ Heathcliff, and few would dispute his status as a true Byronic!

The Byronic hero is a specific archetype in literature of all types – intelligent and magnetic, melancholy and brooding, isolated and always burdened with significant flaws. He is part of a grand tradition of romantic heroes.

Brooding? Melancholy? With his demented laugh and gleeful menace, that doesn’t necessarily sound like our Rumple, at least on the surface. But it seems like a pretty good description of his Storybrooke alter ego Mr. Gold.

There is a sadness and loneliness about Mr. Gold that Rumple also possesses, although he does a great job of covering it beneath his flamboyance and bravado, his spells and deals. Yet, in last season’s “Skin Deep,” there it is. Spinning at his wheel “to forget,” contemplating the loss of his son, even telling Belle, when sending her out for straw, that he knows she’ll not return to him, it’s all there. His intelligence is displayed not by Regina’s curse but for its place within the elaborate set of manipulations and consequences he has devised to put it into motion, all designed for one purpose: to find his son Baelfire. It is a romantic quest worthy of any Romantic hero, Byronic or otherwise.

The original Byronic hero was the English Romantic Period poet Lord Byron himself, described by his lady as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” For some undefinable reason, Byronic heroes seem to draw women like moths to a flame. Whether it is that their wounded souls tug at our hearts or (as some might, I believe wrongly, argue) we just like “bad boys,” Byronic heroes come in many guises: vampires, dark knights (and the Dark Knight), disillusioned idealists jaded by injustice or betrayal.

So, that brings me to Once‘s Rumple. The creators of the show Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis the writers, and Carlyle have collaborated to create in Rumplestiltskin a Heathcliff Byronic hero. He is more in the Byronic mold of Heathcliff, the anti-hero of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights than, than he is the softer Edward Rochester of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but Rumple is in many ways a very classic Byronic hero.

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is as cruel vengeful as he is wounded and tormented. There is little softness to him as he seeks revenge upon those whom he believes have wronged him, and those whom would keep from him his beloved Cathy. Now that sounds like our Rumple. But like Rumple, Heathcliff doesn’t he doesn’t start out that way.

An orphan, he is taken in by a kindly man (perhaps his natural father), but soon thereafter, the young boy is treated cruelly. Humiliated, beaten, and kept filthy, his is as trampled upon as anyone might be. The only light in his life is Cathy, the daughter of the Earnshaw household, with whom he makes a pact to love they will love each other into eternity. But she grows up, goes off to become a lady, and he is left alone and in despair. She marries for wealth, and he disappears, off to war, only to return years later a wealthy man, now more educated and powerful than those who so abused him a child. He has returned to claim his lady, but at the same time make those who humiliated him suffer his own hands.

We don’t know what has made Rumple into the terrified, defeated man we meet in this week’s episode “The Crocodile” whether he’s always been that way, or beaten down by circumstance. There is history and backstory here yet to be learned by us, and I wonder about his origins. But it is in this way that his story parallels Heathcliff’s. 

In the years between Heathcliff fleeing the Earnshaw household and when we meet him again years later, he has acquired not only wealth, but elegant manners and an education. He has become a gentleman. 

We’ve seen little of Rumple’s history in the early years following his transformation. But somewhere along the way he has become refined, possessing grace and an education. He is learned and well mannered (when it suits him), evident both in the way he speaks and acts. Or are these traits something he has possessed all along, but had been lost to him after so many years as the “town coward?”

I keep going back to the king’s knight in last season’s “Desperate Souls” and what he says to Rumple in the forest. Leaving the battlefield, the knight reminds him, turned the tide of the Ogre War. How can one weak and powerless man–indeed a self-confessed coward–fleeing a war have any sort of an impact at all? If Rumple had no influence even then, if he was simply that meek, cowering peasant, why is he remembered by the knight? This, to me, is a fascinating question, and one I hope will some day be explored.

The origins of Rumple’s Dark One persona, the demented monster into which Rumple turns in that same episode, is much clearer, especially now with what we know from “The Crocodile.” Rumplestiltskin, at the point we see him “Desperate Souls,” has lost his wife; we now know how, and how it must have tormented him through the succeeding years. But I wonder if Rumple had made a conscious choice on the deck of that ship in the original confrontation with Killian.

What chance would he have had to win back Milah had he dueled with the pirate? If he had died, which would have been pretty likely, Baelfire would have been alone. So, instead, he willingly and publicly sacrifices his dignity for the sake of his son. There is no doubt that Rumple is terrified standing on the deck of that ship, face-to-face with Killian, but ultimately, how could he have left his son alone and parentless for the sake of his pride?

How much courage had it taken Rumple to go to the pirate Killian and plead for Milah’s return? To me, he was not being a coward. But perhaps he’s heard it enough, been ridiculed and humiliated and beaten down enough by all (including his wife) to actually believe it himself. 

He is enough at peace with himself before losing Milah that he is a bit bewildered at her restlessness with their marriage. He is a gentle man (obviously a bit too gentle for Milah) who would do anything to protect his only child. She tells him in the end that she has never loved him, yet something had drawn her to him at one time. What might that have been? What might she have seen in him? Clearly it hadn’t been wealth or power, although that keeps me returning to the question of what exactly happened to Rumple in the Ogre War. 

I think, however, the quiet, peaceful man we see in “The Crocodile” and at the beginning of “Desperate Souls” is Rumple’s purest self. The disconsolate man who tells Belle, “I have lost so much that I’ve loved,” that he cannot bear to lose her again without her knowing the truth of his heart, cannot be at his core the monster he believes himself to be. Belle knows this, and that remains a key to Rumple’s redemption.

When Smee approaches him in the pub, he begins to remind Rumplestiltskin of the Dark One’s origins. (By the way, was it disconcerting to you as it was to me when they all called by the very Americanized “bar”?) You only became the Dark One, he suggests to Rumple, to protect Baelfire, now vanished down a portal to another world. Rumple doesn’t want to hear this, to be reminded of his loss, to be reminded of that past when he was the oppressed and not the opressor.

Like the disillusioned cynic who at one time was a starry-eyed idealist, circumstance and experience (and a soul-eating curse) have changed Rumple. With the noblest intentions (to rescue his son from the certain death of a senseless war), Rumple had undertaken a risky and courageous act to steal the dagger of Sosa, hoping only to use it to tame the Dark One and save Baelfire. No true coward would have done that.

He’d held onto those pure intentions, even after becoming the Dark One as he ended the Ogre War (at least for a bit) and rescued the children from certain slaughter, but the corrosiveness of power had begun to eat away at him, and now, no more powerless, no more a victim, Rumple had rather begun to like it. Ah, the fatal flaw. 

Perhaps he’d tried to fight the darkest elements, at least at first, using it for good. But you know what they say about absolute power. And that goes for rulers as well as sorcerers. All that power fueled by all that anger at the injustices suffered commingles into a toxic potion, corrosively eating away at Rumple’s soul. But can it be reversed? Can he be redeemed? And what will redeem him? 

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is not redeemed. His bitterness and cruelty to all of those around him, extend into a new generation and haunt him until the day he dies. Rumple’s story is not yet completed, of course, and as monstrous as he can be, his love for Baelfire and for Belle humanize him still after so many centuries. It is that humanity, the light that still remains within him that keeps him from complete darkness.


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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Betsy

    Barbara, fabulous article. I’ve never read Wuthering Heights, but I don’t think that Gold will end up like that. He has such a capacity to love and, in the end, that will save him. The curse is separate from the man and I know that that sweet, kind man is still in there.

    Gold is just a completely different person when it comes to Belle, whether he’s with her or he’s talking about her (to Red and Charming). Nothing matters to him anymore except her safety – not his mask of false bravado, not appearing invulnerable, nothing. He’s fragile and vulnerable around her… I get a huge KICK out of his “heys”, lol. He’s so flustered around her, it’s all he can think of to say – it’s incredibly sweet.

    His intentions in becoming the Dark One were good, but what he didn’t KNOW, was that the curse was stronger than he was. He is and never was happy under the curse, but it fought for control of his soul and it won for the most part. For the MOST part, though only the most part – his real soul and spirit are still there inside.

    I personally think the coward bit is overblown by everyone who calls him that. It takes courage to raise a child by yourself – and to raise him into a fine boy. What kind of courage does it take for bullying villagers to torment a loney, timid man? None – they are cowards. IMO, being nervous and frightened doesn’t make one a coward, it makes one human.

    Gold is a broken and damaged man, but he wants to change and he has the love of a woman who knows he can be better than he is right now.

    What will redeem him? Jane in response to my tweet said anyone can be rehabilitated. I think that’s starting to happen now with Gold because of his love for Belle.

    I do think in the end his love for Bae and Belle will be his saving grace.

    I’m ashamed as an English major NOT to have read more (any?) Byron.

    Thank you, Barbara – this was wonderful!

  • WML

    Thanks for the article, Barbara. I do think, however, that Rumple is a little bit more like Rochester than Heathcliff. After all, if there are to be parallels to the fairy tale Beast, there will be redemption at the end. Something that Heathcliff may not have attained.

    I also believe that among all the characters in OUAT, Rumple has most of the qualities of the every man. He was timid, but may have been valiant at one time. He appears weak, but his self sacrifice shows an inner strength that is not readily apparent. He gloats and abuses his new found powers, but blinded by that power, he allows it to overpower his spirit (through the lost of Bae). Yet his inner strength remains, and though repulsed by what he has become, he is still able to give so much of himself to Belle.

    I don’t see Heathcliff ever reining in his anger the way Rumple has. Would it not be interesting if the curse that keeps Rumple in Storybrooke is an artifact of Rumple’s own reluctance to open himself to the world? And if Rumple relinquishes the hold of hate and humiliation and opens himself to love, would it not be fitting that in the reawakening of the kindness in his soul, that the barriers to his search and longing be finally broken?

    As an aside, I am ever so glad that the OUAT creators made Belle an integral part of ths story. It probably altered the trajectory of the Rumple character. It may be that Rumple would still have found redemption, but it the realm of fairy tales, nothing quite beats the beauty finally taming and loving the beast.

  • Outtie

    “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” is positively the best way I’ve heard yet to describe Rumpelstiltskin.

  • obisgirl

    Great article. One tiny point, though. You misspelled Zoso. Yes, it’s spelled with a “Z” not two “S”s.

  • Pixie Michele

    Great insights and wonderful article Barbara! Thanks so much! I hope Rumple’s character redeems himself taking the Beauty and the Beast cues. I see a comparison between Milah and Belle from BATB.
    They both wanted “adventure” in the great wide somewhere (a la Disney’s Belle version.) Rumple couldn’t give that to Milah, and ultimately lost her to Hook who sailed the world. Not an excuse for Milah at all, but it’s there.
    Belle also told Rumple she wanted to “see the world”. Rumple’s been here before, but he doesn’t make the same choice and ask her to stay. Right afterward, he let her go to town, expecting her never to come back. There wasn’t a child involved, but Rumple made the choice not to control. Shows his growth. When Belle returns, he’s amazed and in new territory.
    Giving her the library (and that quote and confession) was the next step in growth.
    Whichever direction is taken, I think the writers have honored the themes of the fairy tales. As long as that respect remains, wonderful things ahead. Cheers!

  • Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    Heathcliff is not as fortunate as Ebenezer Scrooge is by the end of “A Christmas Carol”.

  • Rosie

    [“Rumple’s story is not yet completed, of course, and as monstrous as he can be, his love for Baelfire and for Belle humanize him still after so many centuries. It is that humanity, the light that still remains within him that keeps him from complete darkness.”]

    Am I supposed to believe that being human equates with compassion, warmth and noblity and indulging in brutal or evil behavior equates to something not human?

    Because I can’t buy that. Yes, I realize that humans are capable of such positive behavior. But why do fans of sci-fi and fantasy refuse to accept that ugly and evil behavior are also signs of one’s humanity? Are human beings really that incapable of accepting how monstrous even the average human being can be?