Saturday , December 2 2023
One of the joys of 'Once Upon a Time' is seeing the many faces of Rumplestiltskin, played by the fabulous Robert Carlyle, a brilliant guide to his character.

‘Once Upon a Time’: The Many Faces of Rumplestiltskin – Part One

One of the greatest joys of Once Upon a Time is observing the many guises, faces, and voices of its most interesting anti-hero, Rumplestiltskin. Rumple (as he is fondly known, especially when he’s not dark and scary) is played by the fabulous Robert Carlyle (California Solo, Full Monty, Trainspotting, Stargate Universe, etc.), who is brilliant giving viewers insight into so many sides of the multi-faceted prism that is his Once Upon a Time character.

After last Sunday’s devastating episode, in which we observed Rumple struggling against the hold upon which the Wicked Witch Zelena has upon him, and grief-stricken at the death of his son Baelfire, I began to think about the many personas that Carlyle has revealed in three and a half seasons, and we have not yet seen. It seems that Carlyle continues to mine words and situations that the writers conjure for him, pulling from his magic actors’ hat a mounting array of Rumplestiltskins, Mr. Golds, Dark Ones, and Rumples. Each of his names frames its own cast of shadings and facets to reveal. So, indulge me in this recounting of the many faces of Once Upon a Time’s Rumplestiltskin.

Early Rumplestiltskin

Living in the shadow of his father’s cowardice, Rumple wants nothing more than to overcome the specter of his father’s life. Seeing opportunity in conscription to the King’s army, Rumple gladly goes, despite his wife Milah’s admonitions to stay safe with her in their thatched cottage. This Rumple is a quiet, humble man, downtrodden by his father’s reputation (something we will not begin to understand until season three). Carlyle is gifted with large expressive eyes, and Rumple’s are warm, almost liquid amber, letting us see into both his fear and determination.

He sees little way out of this life. He is frightened, but brave as he goes off to war. But when a seer tells him that he will die, leaving his unborn child to suffer the fate of growing up without a father, Rumple has second thoughts. And his thoughts of valor crumble under the possibility that his own child will live a fatherless life. At this point in time, Rumple is a gentle soul, but we see the fierceness that underlies the surface when he injures himself, thinking of a greater good than coming home the valiant hero.

What is it that has shaped Rumple’s life, so scarring him that he sees himself as nothing, as worthless, as dust? As we learn in the Neverland story arc, Rumple has been beaten down, the victim of emotional abuse at the hands of his reckless, feckless father Malcolm. Malcolm wanted nothing to do with the responsibilities of a son (I wonder what came of Rumple’s mum?), forcing Rumple into a life no child should have to endure: loveless and lost. No wonder Rumple, in his early days, was so determined to not be his father–and to be there for his young son, no matter the cost to his reputation or well being.

Papa Rumple

We meet up with Rumplestiltskin several years later. Hobbled from his self-injury, he seems a decent man–a good father. But Milah, disenchanted with her husband has taken up with the pirate Killian (who by the episode’s end is indeed Captain Hook). Believing that the pirate has taken Milah captive, Rumple tries bravely to confront the swashbuckling swordsman, but is ill equipped to do anything but plead for his wife’s life. But he must make a choice: die at the hands of Killian and his band of pirates, leaving Baelfire an orphan–or turn back, again branded a coward, but secure in the fact that his son will not be an orphan. Mercilessly laughed off the ship by Killian and his men, Rumple has nothing to do but go back. His choice is not really a choice at all; it is a responsibility. You can see the desire in Rumple’s eyes to confront the pirate, the futility in his inability to do so. It is but another futile, frustrating moment in Rumple’s simple life.

Rumplestiltskin’s Life-Altering Encounter with Destiny (AKA The Dark One)

With the Ogre War still ongoing, the King’s army has taken to sending the children of the realm into battle. Ignoring the official propaganda that it is noble and brave to lay down your life for King and country, Rumple understands that to fight is to die, and there is honor is volunteering to be a sacrifice on the alter of power. By this point, Rumple has sacrificed much for the safety of his son, and he is not about to give it up now, but what can he, a humble peasant do? His position is never clearer than when he is forced in the presence of his son to kiss the boot of the King’s knight, someone who remembers him from years ago when he chose to return from the war to his family.

But Rumple has had enough: he is frightened and desperate but willing to endure it all, if only to keep Baelfire safe from harm. But in a fateful, pivotal meeting (or something planned and sinister), Rumple encounters a beggar (Brad Douriff), who makes him the deal of a lifetime. Because Rumple is a lot more courageous than he thinks he is, and fueled by the overriding desire to save Bae from the Ogre War, he steals a magic dagger and in so doing, seals his fate for the next many hundreds of years.

We see the change as Baelfire does, and Carlyle channels all the fury and frustration of a browbeaten, humiliated man suddenly acquiring power and resources, strength and reckless abandon to do what he will. Rumple has changed into the Dark One, eyes hard and cold, yet even behind the contact lenses, we can see small vestiges of Rumple’s humanity–almost as if he regrets taking the power handed to him.

Early Dark One

It is easier to trace pre-Dark One Rumple than it is to trace the many nuances over time that define the Dark One days, which stretch centuries, and not years. But Carlyle is a good guide, and because he keeps each era of the Dark One so firmly in mind, it is not difficult to understand his many incarnations in context of his timeline (some of which we’ve yet to explore, of course!)

During the early days of the Dark One, you can see what instantaneous power can do to a man. All done in the name of protecting his family, Rumplestiltskin (I hesitate to call by the sweet diminutive Rumple at this point, because the name connotes an underlying softness, and there is none to be seen in the new Dark One.) Rumplestiltskin will turn a person into a snail and stomp upon it, if it suits his version of what must be done, giving no thought to the consequences either for the poor victim or for his immortal life.

He is hard and callus, projecting back the cruelty that he, himself, has suffered, taking none of his power and using it for good (save for stopping the Ogre War and bringing home the children); instead using his power with arrogance and hubris. Baelfire does not know his father, who has disappeared beneath brocade robes and a luminous, hard green shell of a mask. Is Rumplestiltskin a crocodile (as Hook would call him) or is that hard shell simply a turtle-shell fortress for the lonely, battered Rumple to hide within?

Early Dark One does not survive long, for it is only a short time after he becomes the monstrous beast, that Baelfire has had enough, turning to the Blue Fairy for something–anything–to bring back his beloved Papa. And so we come to the second turning point: the moment when Rumplestiltskin lets go his son’s hand, and Baelfire disappears from the Enchanted Forest. And everything changes–not only for Rumplestiltskin, but for all the Enchanted Forest.

Part 2.

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About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

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  1. Thanks, Barbara, and best wishes for the new (old) endeavor. This is a great place to read insightful pieces from people with varied (and variable) points of view.

  2. Than you Barbara, wonderful first part. I really want to read what’s next!

  3. Barbara, “Rumplestiltskin will turn a young child into a snail” Nope, nope. Rumple turns the man into a snail. Never the kid. It’s actually very important in his psychology

  4. Only fantasy/science fiction can afford the writer and actor this kind of opportunity. Yet rarely is it ever recognized by the industry, even as entire cultures identify and take their stories and characters as their own. It falls on excellent, insightful retrospectives like this one to fill the gap between professional neglect and fannish adoration to do justice to deserving work. Kudos and thank you!