The Miller’s Daughter
by Teresa Martin--@Teresa__Martin
“The Miller’s Daughter” episode intrigued me immediately when the news of its airing reached the internet, not because of the plot, not because of “what really happened with Cora and Rumplestiltskin,” but rather in the title itself. The Once Upon A Time audience was going to be treated, for the first time in Season Two, to a classic fairy tale with the Once twist. All had seen Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter, Cora, but never seen them featured together using the source material. We had not seen the fairy tale that epitomizes one of the most popular characters on the show, Rumplestiltskin. He and the lowly daughter were finally going to be together, acting out the conflict, battle of wills, and their final estrangement. No wonder fans were salivating.
The original tale, as recorded by the Grimm Brothers, presents the narrative of an unfortunate daughter whose father brags that she can spin straw into gold. When word reaches the king, she is locked in a tower to spin the gold or die in the morning. Rumplestiltskin then appears, offering to complete the task in exchange for certain items. Three successive times he does this, and the king marries her. Yet to her horror, she finds that Rumplestiltskin intends to take her first-born as payment. Seeing her distress, Rumplestiltskin takes pity on her and says that she can keep the child if she guesses his name. Sending a servant to assist her, she finds out the name, and when she says “Rumplestiltskin,” he tears himself in two falling into hell.
Maria Tatar notes that while Rumplestiltskin is an imp, and portrayed as a treacherous creature, he nevertheless shows a remarkable pity for the daughter, especially in the face of her despair at losing her child. Like the Rumplestiltskin of Once Upon a Time, there is more behind the evil persona.
The Once version presents the daughter, Cora, as an embittered peasant who is humiliated by the intended of the prince. Motivated by envy, she attends a masked ball at the palace wearing a stolen mask and red dress. Masks are symbols of ”protection, identification, or disguise.” When Cora enters the ball she is attempting to hide her status and fit in with the nobles. In Japanese theatre a mask’s color is significant. Black, the color of Cora’s, stands for villainy. Her mask also has elements of red that match her gown with notable substance. Red is “a masculine color of life, fire, war, energy, aggression, danger… emotion, passion, love … strength and youth (Tressider).” There is also its association with sexuality, the “scarlet woman,” and of course the apple of the forbidden fruit. Red in Asian cultures however can be a sign of purity and luck. The audience knows that Cora is about to become very lucky in marrying the prince and that she is relatively pure at this point. Her corruption is not yet complete.
Moreover masks also have a rich symbolism linked with transfiguration. “Transformation of all kinds symbolize liberation from the physical or mortal limitations of nature (Tressider).” This foreshadows that Cora is about to become a practitioner of the extra-natural power of magic. Her departure from peasant status, her bitterness, and thirst for revenge is revealed. Thus the dress and mask are showing the viewer everything that needs to be known about Cora without a single line of dialogue. At the ball she proceeds to lie out of pride that she can spin straw into gold. This leads to her being locked in the tower and drawing the attention of Rumplestiltskin. Yet he does not seduce her further into darkness, rather it is she.
Consider how the drama in the tower plays out. Rumplestiltskin begins with his routine of mocking the desperate soul, saying a lot of “dearies,” and showing her his deal asking if she can read. Then she takes control by demanding she be the one to spin the gold. As she speaks, he interrupts her at one point with a surprised, ”What?” Soon Rumplestiltskin is opening up to her and narrating his greatest moment of humiliation. By the end of the scene, he is whispering to her, kissing on her, and while she is clearly attracted, the change in his voice shows that he is under her command. This is also demonstrated when Rumplestiltskin meets with her when she is dressed in wedding attire. While Cora shows some vulnerability, she has Rumple on his knees before her as she simpers and gains from him the knowledge she wants. She is the imp, and he the innocent daughter.
Switching these roles is what makes the episode so fascinating. Rumplestiltskin is slowly transformed into a lover under Cora’s power, even to the point of changing the deal so that he will father the baby she promised to give him. It is not an accident that Cora is wearing a wedding dress when he asks this of her. His posture is almost as one making a proposal of marriage. This “deal,” like a wedding, is sealed with a kiss.
Surprising the audience, Cora breaks the deal. She, like the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin, tears herself in two by taking out her own heart. Even though she does not literally fall into hell, she falls into something worse becoming a being who, by her own choice, loses her free will and allows evil to control her destiny. She keeps her heart safe, but far away. Unfortunately, it is Regina who bears the brunt of this decision. How much this action destroys Cora is revealed in the seconds she has her heart back. She looks with love at her daughter and sees the truth: Regina is her true love. Cora never looked at Rumplestiltskin like that, with or without her heart. Then sadly, she dies. Perhaps this is why her assertion that he is the only man she ever loved falls flat. She never truly loved him.
The great sorrow of Once Upon a Time’s miller’s daughter is that she always had what she ever wanted right before her: true love and peace with her child. Realizing this at the last minute is Cora’s great anguish. Once fans were not only given through the role reversals of Cora and Rumplestiltskin a tale true to the spirit of its roots, but one that takes the viewers beyond into high tragedy. Cora will never be a hero, nor remembered with fondness, but only regret. She begins as a passive victim of her upbringing, and lives as a bitter, cruel woman seeking to take Rumplestiltskin’s power unto herself. While she may have wept about ripping out her heart, the fact remains that she did rip it out. Thus torn in two, Cora is turned from a victim of circumstances into a demon. Her last moments give hope that she redeemed herself, but her deeds leave a trail of misery to which Regina continues to reap the bitter fruits.
Maria Tatar. The Annotated Brothers Grimm. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.
Tresidder, Jack. The Watkins Dictionary of Symbols. London: Watkins, 2008. Print.
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