The Power Of Red A Look at Color on Once Upon A Time
by Zachery Van Norman - @thezachvan
The color red has long been meaningful in fairy tales and medieval literature. Many of the stories we see each week feature characters for which red is an integral component, like Snow White and Red Riding Hood. The creators of Once Upon A Time are clearly aware of the symbolism of the color red in fairy tales and are using it to their full advantage with each episode. In fact, it begins with the very first moments of the show, and immediately becomes a crucial piece to understanding the scope and direction of the overall story. The color red has a different meaning for each character, but it unites them in a way that symbolizes what the show is all about.
We join the tale of OUAT to see a man riding a horse on a road that crosses a lake. This is Prince Charming, splendored in a red coat and cloak as he rides his steed to save his princess. Arriving in the forest too late to prevent her death, the broken prince bends to her lips to bid her goodbye. But no, she is not dead! True love's kiss breaks the curse upon her, and the prince smiles in triumph as he holds his lady love and repeats their vow to each other.
I Will Always Find You
Charming's introduction at the "end" of the Snow White story gives us an air of familiarity with the Prince before we find out about his past, a past in which he went by his real name David and which begins in “The Shepherd.” This episode revealed that the Prince began as a pauper, living with his mother Ruth and maintaining their farm while battling her persistent efforts to have him married. Rumplestiltskin arrived one day and David's life took its fateful turn: he learned he'd had a twin brother James, traded in infancy for the success of his parents' failing farm and taken to live as the son of King George. An agreement that had been made between George and King Midas could not be completed without David taking the place of Prince James and slaying a dragon. David agreed to take part in the charade and proved himself a capable prince by conquering the beast, but no amount of bravery could have prepared him for what happened next: Midas offered his daughter's hand in marriage and a union of the kingdoms. Under threat of King George, David agreed to assume the life of Prince James and enter into marriage with Princess Abigail, sacrificing his chance at true love to spare his mother's life as well as the livelihood of the land.
Ironically it is the decision to marry Abigail that leads him to his true love. En route to their wedding in “Snow Falls,” the Prince and Abigail are delayed by the actions of a thief, who takes the Prince's bag of jewels; among the bounty is a ring belonging to Ruth. Determined to get it back, he catches the thief and discovers that the thief is a woman. She uses his momentary confusion to strike him with a rock and escape. Later, after he has found her hiding place, the Prince traps the thief in a net, demanding that she return his mother's ring or he will reveal her secret: that she is the wanted criminal Snow White.
Here, in these moments, the color red symbolizes David's love, his commitment to family, and his power. Snow's hit with the rock draws blood and scars his chin, creating a physical mark that echoes the one she has left on his heart and psyche. The blood on his chin is significant because Snow White has taken his mother's ring, the last connection to his family's line and his life before princehood. More notably, the blood is also a precursor for his future family, as the end result of this meeting will be his daughter Emma and the beginnings of a new bloodline, a bloodline that will come to include Henry. And it's an indicator of the Prince's leadership abilities, showing his willingness to literally put his blood, sweat and tears into achieving success. Later, when he captures Snow in the net, she gives him the Charming nickname which will mark him throughout the histories of many lands, including the one without magic. Then, with the red inner lining of his doublet bared, Charming removes Snow White's Wanted poster from directly above his heart, as proof that he has wanted her from the moment they laid eyes on each other.
Charming's doublet is part of his standard ensemble which he wears with a consistency that compliments his strength of character perfectly. Charming was quickly established as a courageous man willing to fight for what he believes in, and as Snow and Charming's love story continued, the examples of his bravery and leadership occurred more frequently. Charming spoke of his qualities in “What Happened to Frederick,” after Abigail warned him that no other soldier had returned from facing the Siren, and he told her that the other warriors had failed in part from their lack of fearless bravery. Here our Prince himself acknowledges that he possesses gallantry beyond the norm, a powerful quality that sets him apart from the other soldiers and is emphasized by his scarf and doublet.
After Snow lost her memory of Charming in “Heart of Darkness,” she rejected his advances to rekindle their love and he sought help from Rumplestiltskin, furthering the imp's continued presence in his life. After making a deal to find Snow, Charming arrived in time to jump in front of the arrow that was meant to kill Regina. The red lining was again on display when Snow demanded to know why he'd stopped her, and he reemphasized his love for her and refusal to let her turn to evil. Here Charming literally put his heart on the line for his true love, willing to bleed and die for her. There's even red on his gloves as he reaches for his wound, flame-like accents that symbolize his burning passion. Snow kissed him in response to that passion, restoring her memory and allowing a brief reunion before he was captured by Regina's soldiers and taken to her castle.
Charming was imprisoned in Regina's palace when Snow bit “An Apple Red as Blood.” So strong was their love that he felt the effects on her from miles away, and with the Huntsman's help he escaped his captivity in “A Land Without Magic.” Regina found him through her magic mirror and sent him to the Infinite Forest, but in a further entwining of their fates, Rumplestiltskin arrived to make a deal. He offered Charming a return to their land and enchanted his mother's ring to find the cursed Snow, in exchange for Charming putting a magic egg inside the belly of a beast. Charming went head-to-flame with Maleficent in her dragon form, demonstrating incredible bravery and skill as he fought to win the day. Succeeding, he escaped and met with Rumple, who gave him the ring as promised and changed Charming's wet clothes into his red princely robes.
This brought us full circle to the beginning of the show, as Charming rides from the Forbidden Fortress to awaken his maiden fair. The choice of red for his robes can be no coincidence: Charming proved himself to be a hero with exceptional courage and strength in the face of extreme obstacles from many foes. The ultimate reward to his toils is a life of happiness with his true love Snow White; it is therefore appropriate that the color of love and of the heart is the same that swaths our Prince as he is finally triumphant, kissing his princess and proposing marriage in sight of the kingdom that will soon be theirs. The love they share will lead to the creation of their daughter Emma, who shares a connection to her father through the red dress and jacket she wears in the pilot. Their connection was strongly established when Charming battled Regina's soldiers to get his daughter to the safety of the wardrobe, sustaining life-threatening injuries in the process. For David, red means love and family, skill and bravery, trust and nobility. With such quality attributes it's no wonder he makes charming behavior look easy.
“So easy, even David Nolan could do it.”
Alas, David Nolan possesses none of the qualities of David the Prince. Charming's cursed persona began as a coma patient in Storybrooke, awaking after 28 years following story time and a kiss from Mary Margaret. Notably, David Nolan does not wear red, but blue; in fact he starts the series wearing a blue hospital gown. The only time he David Nolan wore red was in “The Shepherd,” when he went to the school to profess his love to Mary Margaret and asked her to meet him under the T(r)oll Bridge. He was still wearing the red shirt when he set out to see her, but it was covered by his blue coat when he ran into Regina, wearing a red scarf and eager to send him the wrong way. It was the windmill at Mr. Gold's shop that clinched the Curse's hold on the Prince, and with his confidence shattered he met Mary Margaret under the bridge and broke the news that he was staying with Kathryn.
David Nolan consistently wore blue from that point onward, echoing the lack of love and bravery in his life. He didn't have courage even in politics: he wore a blue shirt as he stood by Kathryn's opinion instead of asserting his own and helped endorse Sidney Glass for sheriff. The strength of Charming's character was further destroyed, taken by the Curse, as he betrayed Kathryn's trust and began his affair with Mary Margaret. Instead of the Prince's courage, David Nolan is possessed of a fearful heart. He could not make a decision about the direction of his life, afraid of hurting Mary Margaret or Abigail by choosing to be with the other, but instead he hurt them both. But the ultimate betrayal came as Mary Margaret was accused of Kathryn's murder and he chose to believe her capable of such evil rather than stand by her side in the face of scrutiny. After Kathryn was found and David was left alone, Mary Margaret rebuffed his efforts to reconcile, and instead of fighting to save their love, he submitted to fear and made plans to move to Boston. He was nearly at the town line when Emma broke the Curse, and as his memories and old personality returned, he rushed back to Storybrooke to find Snow White and learn to live as a new person.
“David and the Prince. I am both.”
After the Curse was finally broken, Mary Margaret and Emma went through a portal to the Enchanted Forest, Regina regained her magic and the townsfolk were ready to leave Storybrooke. But the Prince was finally able to embrace his regal qualities and resume his role as leader. Driving to the town's edge to stop them from losing their memories forever, he gave an impassioned speech about his lives as David Nolan and Prince Charming, and told them that the qualities of one reminded him of what he had lost of the other. He promised them that he would protect them as they all integrated their two lives and defined what it meant to be both. Unlike many of the other characters, Charming had already led a dual life in the Enchanted Forest, as the pauper David and the prince “James”, so he spoke with confidence knowing that he could help them reclaim their lives. They returned to Storybrooke and the victorious David resumed his search for his family. Still learning to combine his lives, he has yet to wear red, though he has embraced natural fabrics like leather and suede as a likely reminder of his life in the Enchanted Forest with his wife Snow White.
There's more to come with this series! Join us next time when Zach takes a look at the fairest of them all!
Explore the Arthurian legend surrounding Lancelot, take a trip into the woods to discover the mythology behind Red Riding Hood or learn more about a modern day hero called Snow White. Origins provides unique insights and perspectives from talented writers into the characters we know and love, going far beyond the boundaries of Storybrooke.