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Once Upon the Here and Now

on Wed, 08/08/2012 - 00:00

Although fairy tales were first compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early Nineteenth Century, they actually existed in the oral form for centuries before the publication of Children’s and Household Tales in 1812. The settings of most fairy tales are therefore medieval in nature, a time period when kings ruled the land and serfs merely tended the fields. The division of the social classes was more pronounced back then, with no ability for one to rise to a higher lot in life. Fairy tales in turn served as “hope,” however faint, that the lowly sheep farmer or house servant could someday become king or queen themselves—if not by hard work, then by magic instead. Such a dream was merely fantasy, but it was a fantasy that was held onto tightly by the vast majority of Europe’s population.

The ABC drama Once Upon a Time, meanwhile, transplants the characters of those fairy tales into the modern day world of the Twenty First Century. The “Evil Queen” is thus now the Mayor of Storybrook, a small town in the state of Maine. Rumplestiltskin is Mr. Gold and owns most of the homes, buildings and apartments in Storybrook. Cinderella is pregnant and has been abandoned by her Prince, while Snow White and her own Prince Charming have no memories of their fairy tale love for each other. The Huntsman, meanwhile, is Sheriff, Jiminy Cricket is a therapist, Little Red Riding Hood is a sexually provocative waitress at Grandma’s Diner and Grumpy the Dwarf is a custodian. Despite the changes in time and setting, however, the dreams and hopes that served as the main catalyst of the original fairy tales still exist, even if the characters themselves cannot remember.

At the beginning of Once Upon a Time, it is revealed that the Evil Queen has cast a spell to eliminate all “happy endings” from the land as a form of revenge. “Soon everything you love, everything all of you love, will be taken from you forever,” she announces at the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming. “And out of your suffering will rise my victory. I shall destroy your happiness if is it the last thing I do.” Storybrook is then formed, with new identities for all of its residents with no memories of their past lives, a place where time stands still and dreams are long forgotten. There is a loophole, however—the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming can break the spell when she turns twenty-eight years of age. The child in question is named Emma, and her escape from the coming doom was arranged in the final seconds before the spell itself was cast.

Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) grew up in a series of foster homes with no knowledge of her parents or the fate of Storybrook until the ten-year-old son that she gave up for adoption finds his mother on her twenty-eighth birthday. It turns out that Henry (Jared Gilmore) was adopted by the former Evil Queen, Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), and has figured out that Storybrook is not what it appears to be. He convinces Emma to return with him to Storybrook, and the future “savior” of the land agrees to stay, not out of a belief in Henry’s fairy tale conspiracy but out of concern for her lost son. The decision slowly causes the delusion of the spell to unravel, providing “happy endings” to many of the classic characters of the original fairy tales in the aftermath.

Once Upon a Time was created by former Lost scribes Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, and the two ABC dramas share the same narrative structure. On Lost, a small group of survivors from an airplane crash finds themselves trapped on a mysterious island. Each episode focuses on one of the survivors and, through the use of flashbacks, reveals what their life was like pre-crash. Once Upon a Time, meanwhile, follows the population of a small town trapped within the city limits, and likewise uses flashbacks to recount the fairy tale stories from which they originated. While Lost was ultimately about redemption and finding meaning in life no matter how “lost” one may appear, however, Once Upon a Time is about the “hope” that one’s life can change for the better and that a “happy ending” eternally lies over the next horizon.

“You know what the issue is with this world?” the Mad Hatter (Sebastian Stan) of Alice in Wonderland fame asks Emma Swan. “Everyone wants a magical solution for their problems and everyone refuses to believe in magic.” This was not the case in the original fairy tale land from which they came, as almost all of the characters relied on magic to change their lot in life. Cinderella is a case in point. According to the tale woven in Once Upon a Time, her fairy godmother is slain by Rumplestiltskin in order for the dark overlord to acquire her magic wand. “All magic comes with a price,” he tells Cinderella afterwards. “Go back to your life and thank your lucky stars you’ve still got something to go back to.”

“My life, it’s wretched,” Cinderella replies. “I’ll do anything to get out of it, anything.” Rumplestiltskin suggests that she “change it” on her own, but Cinderella wants the magical way out instead. In the real world of Storybrook, however, the magical way is not an option and the now pregnant Ashley Boyd (Jessy Schram) struggles with her decision to give the baby to Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) and her increasing desire to raise the child herself. While the evil spell would dictate that the baby indeed belongs to Mr. Gold, the arrival of Emma Swan opens the possibility of a “happy ending” based on the original “change your life if you don’t like it” advice of Rumplestiltskin.

Ashley Boyd is not the only one who discovers a “happy ending” at the hands of Emma Swan. Hansel and Gretel are reunited with their father, a now grown-up Pinocchio finds Geppetto and even Rumplestiltskin realizes that his long-lost love is not dead after all. Thanks to Emma Swan, it turns out that there is magic in this world—the magic of love. In fact, it was the loss of the Evil Queen’s own true love that led to her dark path of seeking revenge on Snow White and Prince Charming. While those two fairy tale lovers still manage to find each other in the guises of Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin) and David Nolan (Josh Dallas), however, there are as many obstacles that keep them apart in this world as there were in their original. In the end it doesn’t matter, for in the world of Once Upon a Time, no spell can ever truly stand in the way of true love.

“What’s a story?” the Mad Hatter asks Emma Swan. “When you were in high school, did you learn about the Civil War? Did you read about it, perchance, in a book? How is that any less real than any other book? Story books are based on, what? Imagination. Where does that come from? It has to come from somewhere.” For the original fairy tales of old, their origination stemmed from a desire for a better life despite the obstacles that stood in the way during the Middle Ages. In the Twenty First Century, that desire and hope for a better life still exists, but the means to do so are now contained within the words of Rumplestiltskin to Cinderella—“Change it.” Like the Mad Hatter’s earlier mentioned observation, however, most people still want a “magical solution” to their problems.

Once Upon a Time teaches us that magic does still exist in this world. It may not be perfect, it may not transform one’s life from that of mere servant into a princess, but it exists nonetheless. We all contain the magic that is necessary to change our lives, we just need to embrace it and believe in the hope that it offers. It worked for Snow White, Cinderella and countless other fairy tale characters of the past, and while life in the Twenty First Century may not be a fairy tale itself, the possibility for a “happy ending” exists nonetheless.

Anthony Letizia (August 8, 2012)

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