Power Is the Ultimate Aphrodisiac
How Rumpelstiltskin Went from Sly Imp to the Sexiest Man on TV
by Diane J. Reed (author of Twixt)
“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Henry Kissinger once noted for the New York Times. And although he was speaking of the political arena, he might as well have been referring to Robert Carlyle’s over-the-top yet brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Rumpelstiltskin. Yes, that Rumpelstiltskin—the one everyone’s talking about from the hit TV show Once Upon a Time, whose penetrating confidence and charming duplicity as both the fairy tale character and Mr. Gold in Storybrooke has won over the hearts of millions of people worldwide. Don’t believe me? Just try googling Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold and watch your electronic device go into total meltdown (got a fire extinguisher handy?). The fervent and adoring accolades from his fans even outrival Josh Dallas’ portrayal of the ever-so-delicious Prince Charming. Simply put, Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold has become more than a mere character—he’s now a global phenomenon. And regardless of his darkest intentions, inscrutable motives and always conniving manner, Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold has launched into nothing less than a full-fledged sex symbol.
So how on earth does a sly imp from an archaic fairy tale become the sexiest character on TV?
The answer lies in Rumpelstiltskin’s rise to POWER.
Don’t get me wrong—Rumpelstiltskin has always had some potent tricks up his sleeve. Most of us are familiar with the fairy tale from childhood, where a surprise visit by an imp/gnome/elf/little man (he goes by a host of diminutive descriptions) magically changes the fortune of a miller’s daughter who’s imprisoned until she can turn straw into gold. But curiously, in the classic version (first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812), Rumpelstiltskin is largely a bit player in his own fairy tale—a character who appears to pop into the miller’s daughter’s drama in order to keep her plot/conflict going! And ultimately, he loses their battle of deceit (because let’s face it—she tells her share of lies, too). Depending on the version, beaten Rumpelstiltskin either tears himself in two or scampers off, never to be heard from again.
But wait a minute—isn’t Rumpelstiltskin the one with all of the magic power in this story? It’s not the king or the miller’s daughter who turns straw into gold, but the curious little man! And time after time, Rumpelstiltskin honors his wagers, despite the fact that the miller’s daughter offers him worthless items and reneges on her oath. He even allows the miller’s daughter (now the queen) extra time to keep her baby if she can only guess his name, all because she broke down crying . . .
Poor Rumpelstiltskin—is he so desperate for intimacy that he has to come up with mind games to continually keep people engaged? And then create terrifying wagers just to win a real baby who might actually love him back? (Recall that he states in the Grimm version, “a living thing is more valuable to me than all the riches in the world.”)
It might appear so! Because from the time the name Rumpelstiltskin was first mentioned in Johann Fischart’s Geschichtenklitterung or Gargantua in 1577 all the way to the twentieth century, the overall thrust of Rumpelstiltskin’s lonely and devious journey remains remarkably the same. In children’s book after children’s book (and even in recent graphic novels), the illustrations may vary wildly, but the thrust of his experience alters very little. Of course, once film is invented, we get to see fancier renditions with acclaimed actors, such as in Shelly Duvall’s Fairy Tale Theater production of Rumpelstiltskin in 1982.
And then there are the musical film versions, such as the 1987 Rumpelstiltskin production starring Amy Irving (that features her silken voice and a startling amount of bad eighties hair!).
But in each of these versions, Rumpelstiltskin is played rather faithfully to the classic Grimm tale by actors Hervé Villechaize and Billy Barty, respectively.
Not even Walt Disney bothered to touch Rumpelstiltskin with a feature film of his own (was it because his character had become so predictable?). But leave it to one of Disney’s animation rivals to put a creative kick back into Rumpeltstiltskin’s step! In 1959, A.J. Jacobs featured a six-minute retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales for TV. Only this time, the little man’s power has grown substantially—not only can he turn straw into gold, he can provide global FAME as well! This is not your your grandma’s lonely and outcast fairy tale character anymore. A.J. Jacobs upped the ante and turned Rumpelstiltskin into a charming PR man & media mogul who is a spinner of celebrity dreams. He proclaims to the miller’s daughter Gladys (who bears a striking resemblance to pop singer Katy Perry), “Little Lady, I can make you famous overnight! It’s my business to glamorize the unglamorous!” This Rumpelstiltskin has a world of power at his fingertips, and through his PR magic, Gladys becomes a celebutante who rivals Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. (To watch this fascinating animation, follow this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i54NkR2RSvc )
Similarly, it is not just social standing and gold but fame that Rumpelstiltskin provides in Jim Henson’s Muppet adaptation of the tale for TV in 1994. And although Gonzo is not as charming as A.J. Jacob’s Rumpelstiltskin, he continues to intoxicate the miller’s daughter (played by the ever-popular glamour-addict Miss Piggy) with dreams of stardom. Once again, Rumpelstiltskin’s power is growing remarkably in a pop culture that prizes popularity above all things, largely because his ability to enhance fame is being emphasized (to see the Muppet adaptation, with its adorable musical number “Gotta Get That Name,” follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2h_caPZeCfs )
But it’s not until 1995 that Rumpelstiltskin finally becomes the STAR of his own story—and receives some of that fame for himself. Mark Jones directed the horror film Rumpelstiltskin featuring the crafty little man magically released into the twentieth century by an unsuspecting single mother—and of course, he’s once again after her baby. But this time it’s not for affection, but to take the baby’s soul to extend his own life. Suddenly, Rumpelstiltskin has become prominent and powerful enough to scare thousands of film goers, not just the miller’s daughter. And although this film comes under the category of “It’s So Bad It’s Good”, it’s significant because for the very first time in HISTORY, Rumpelstiltskin is a leading man with heaps of dialogue and action! (To see the film trailer, follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2co_we7TgI )
Despite his new found leading-man status, however, throughout this B-horror film, the Rumpelstiltskin character remains ugly and worthy of scorn. All that changes in the final installment of DreamWorks’ animated ogre franchise Shrek: Forever After, released in 2010. After centuries of being considered unattractive, Rumpelstiltskin now gets a glamorous makeover and takes the throne! He is made to be charming and witty with more power than ever before as RULER of the entire kingdom!
Nevertheless, Rumpelstiltskin is still the enemy—someone Shrek and his cohorts must defeat in order to lead their happy lives once again, regardless of how adroit and powerful he has become.
But then this fairy tale character goes through perhaps his most radical transformation of all in Leila Bryce Sin’s 2011 ebook release of Rumpelstiltskin.
Recognize that hunky guy on the cover? Neither do I! Here he have the character of Rumpelstiltskin re-imagined as an imp who at night turns into a full-fledged, Alpha-male erotic hero to rescue the miller’s daughter in her time of need—and a whole lot more! (Can you spell H-O-T?) This character no longer cares a rip for anyone’s baby—the bargain he’s after is the miller’s daughter’s heart. Rumpelstiltskin has grown into the main love interest who not only has magical powers but also the ability to capture the heroine’s affection as well. In fact, he is so successful that the miller’s daughter runs off with HIM at the end of the story—the king and his minions be damned! Rumpelstiltskin has finally succeeded in usurping ALL others to be the star of his very own fairy tale . . .
Which leads us to his latest incarnation in Once Upon A Time as the Storybrooke power-broker extraordinaire Mr. Gold, who is enigmantic, potent, handsome—never diminutive for a second—and sexy as all get out. Why? Because Rumpelstiltskin/Mr.Gold has achieved perhaps the greatest power of all: the ability to read people’s souls. Through the superb acting talents of Robert Carlyle, viewers see a world of hurt behind his gaze—as well as a near-prescient ability to see the pain in others and to know precisely when they’ll be at their weakest and ready for one of his heartwrenching, do-or-die deals. Who wouldn’t fall for a guy with that much charisma, intimate awareness, and shadowy allure? His magnetic furtiveness makes this Rumpelstiltskin hopelessly attractive, partly because he appears to be the only character in Storybrooke who can give Regina/the Evil Queen a run for her money—and he just might be the one to sabotage her at her weakest moment as well. But will Mr. Gold ultimately be the Devil or an Angel for the other fairy tale characters who are marooned in Storybrooke? Given that his character started out over 400 years ago as a sly imp who’s grown into a sexy leading man with nearly god-like powers, that’s an answer we’ll all have to place our bets on and eagerly wait for . . .
Kissinger, Henry. The New York Times, October 28, 1973
Luke, David. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Selected Tales. Penguin Books, 1982.
Author’s note: this article is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise, but rather the start of a fun and open discussion! Please feel free to leave your comments and ideas to keep the conversation going : )