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What’s in a Name on Once Upon a Time?

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Names are very important in the dual stories of the Enchanted Forest and Storybrooke, which frame the Once Upon a Time narrative. Avatars and metaphors, the names of fairy tale characters—and even nursery rhyme characters are deep with both overt meaning and often-subtle subtext. And in this series, names may well be significant puzzle pieces—clues to the overall mysteries within.

The name “Snow White” suggests purity—both outward and within. “Mary Margaret” is a name that, to me, at least, creates an image of mousey Sunday school teachers with prim and proper appearance and rigid manners. While the image fits the Storybrooke version of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), it does not fit Snow White of the Enchanted Forest. Of course, “Blanchard,” her surname, comes from “blanche,” the French word for “white.” But the name also has Germanic origins, and in German, Blanchard signifies bravery and courage. And it’s a perfect for the courageous, bold Snow White.

What will the future hold for Mary Margaret? As she draws closer to Emma (and finds the pull towards David (Josh Dallas) growing more and more irresistible), what effect will that have on her memories? Will she, like Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan) begin to understand the past in small snippets, dreams and visions? And if she does, will she draw strength and courage from them, becoming more her true self?

Speaking of David, it’s interesting to note that both his Storybrooke and Enchanted Forest personas have two names. In the Enchanted Forest he is known by his given name James—and by Prince Charming; in Storybrooke, he has been known as both David Nolan and John Doe.

David Nolan is an interesting name for Prince Charming. David was a Biblical philosopher-king and a great leader. The name Nolan means noble, and it is Prince Charming’s nobility that eventually gets to Snow White. It’s a perfect name for him.

David is drawn towards two women in Storybrooke just as he had been in the Enchanted Forest—one by duty and the other by love. If you recall, James is essentially coerced into his union with King Midas’ daughter, only going there out of fealty to his mother—and his sense of honor and nobility.

And, to carry Prince Charming’s duality even further, he is, if you recall, a twin. James replaces his twin, hiding his shepherd’s inner self with the false trappings of royalty.

When he meets Snow White by chance on the road to his marriage with Abigail, he is immediately (if not obviously) taken by the independent, rebellious young highway-woman. And clearly, the pull of love is stronger than the pull of fealty, so James and Snow eventually get together. However, things do not stay happy for long; the queen enacts the darkest of curses, affecting James, Snow—and everyone else in the Enchanted Forest.

As for The Evil  Queen (Lana Parrilla), she is called Regina Mills in Storybrooke. “Regina” is as royal as names get. But what about “Mills?” Okay, I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but if you know the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin (the original Grimm story), you may remember that Rumple’s bargain was with a miller’s daughter. So I have to wonder if Regina’s tie to Rumple—perhaps the key to their relationship—is that she is the original miller’s daughter (or even granddaughter)? Although they appear roughly the same age in Once Upon a Time, age means nothing in the fairy tale world, so, who knows?

The queen’s father is Henry, just like her adopted son; it means “home ruler,” and has been the name of kings for centuries going back to the 11th Century. Do Once Upon a Time’s Henrys simply have regal names, or is there some other significance to their name? Regina’s father may not have been ruler of his own castle (and had his heart cut out by his scheming and vengeful daughter), but young Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore) seems to be taking charge of his destiny (and perhaps his home—and all its inhabitants) by having found Emma (Jennifer Morrison). Perhaps Henry will ultimately fulfill the promise of his important name.

And what of Emma’s name? Uniquely, her name is the same in Storybrooke as it had been in the Enchanted Forest. The name Emma signifies universality and wholeness. It is only through Emma, the rescued child of Snow White and Prince Charming that all the inhabitants of the fairy tale land can again be whole, and things be put back the way they belong. Without Emma, there can never be a happily ever after for any of them. Her name fits quite well, don’t you think?

There is no one in the Enchanted Forest to whom names mean more than to Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle). In a recent interview I did with the Jane Espenson, writer of this Sunday’s episode “Desperate Souls,” I asked about Rumple’s book collection last seen a few episodes ago. “Yes, he has lots of books,” she agreed. “Full of spells and secrets, and, I would guess, a lot of names.  This is man to whom names are very important.  Even more than to Santa.”

Rumple’s name in Storybrooke is Mr. Gold, and the connection would seem very obvious, since Rumple is legendary for spinning straw into gold. But why, I wonder, has he no first name? There must be a reason, and he is the only character in Storybrooke we’ve met so far without a first name.

In the original Grimm Rumpelstiltskin tale, a miller’s daughter makes a bargain with Rumple, promising him her firstborn in exchange for making her a rich queen. Eventually, he agrees to let her out of the bargain, but only if she can guess his name. And since all stories end happily ever after in the world of Grimm (at least for the story’s protagonists), the young queen learns Rumple’s name and foils the bargain.

Names are not only important, they hold much power, and I would guess that Mr. Gold’s given name will be a deeply held secret until the end of the series—for who knows what mysteries and magic it holds. Whoever learns this name, I would venture, will have power over the most powerful person in Storybrooke.

There are, of course, other Storybrooke characters with Enchanted Forest origins, and their names also signify those connections, for example, Little Red Riding Hood (Ruby) and Jiminy Cricket (Archie Hopper). Whether those names acquire deeper significance as time goes on is anyone’s guess.

So, does anyone want to guess? Feel free to use the comment thread to play your own Storybrooke name game. Once Upon a Time returns Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. ET with “Desperate Souls,” which explores Rumple’s origins. In the meantime, enjoy a clip from the episode to tease you ‘till then.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Breezy
  • Nikab84

    so as the huntsman, what does sherriff graham mean? makes me think of graham crackers or cookies which leads to the gingerbread man…also notice they didn’t tell us the strangers name either…

  • Action Kate

    Hubby pointed out that the editor of the paper is Sidney Glass… aka Mr. Mirror Mirror on the Wall.

  • Hi Nancy–Those are of course the original names–and like Snow White, interesting. The cool thing about OUAT, is that such care was taken in creating the names for the STorybrooke characters–and creating new contexts for the original names. We’ll see what that brings for Belle and Gaston in 1×12 (Skin Deep)

  • I can give some additional info on names. Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, is French for “beautiful”. Not sure what Gaston means, but gastronomy has to do with eating.

  • Brighid45

    This will be one powerhouse of an episode! Can’t wait to see it.

    It’s fun to watch OUAT begin to find its feet. It’s been my experience that perforce most shows spend their first season developing the mythos and universe the characters inhabit. IMO the progression here has been a bit uneven, but that’s not unexpected nor problematic, it’s part of the creative process. What keeps things interesting is the steady vision the writers have regarding the dual nature of this world–something you might think would be obvious, but there are some great subtleties within that premise that add wonderful depth to the storyline. Character names are a big part of those subtleties, as you rightly point out.

    One of the few true powers we humans possess is the ability to name things. Names are old and deep magick. There’s a great moment in Stephen King’s novel It, where one of the children tells Pennywise she knows the true names of things and the monster recoils from her in fear. As you illustrate very well in your comments, in the mirrored world of OUAT names have even more significance because they hold clues to the characters true natures under the glamour placed on them by the curse. And yet they’re not all straightforward hints; you have to think about them, which leads to discussion and debate, and the potential for deeper understanding (my favorite part of being a fangirl!).

    I’m looking forward to finding out more about Rumple/Mr. Gold, but also hoping we come away with more questions than answers, and an urge to speculate on the enticing clues left behind.

    Excellent post Barbara, thank you. This discussion is going to be great fun, I look forward to more of your comments as the season progresses.

    Btw, the derivations you cite for the name Emma are correct. Just as an aside, Emma comes from the word ‘ermin’, referring the the animal prized for its winter coat of pure white fur. Interesting, yes? 🙂