Fractured Fairy Tale Challenges Happily Ever After
NOTE: This analysis contains spoilers. Please bookmark this page and return if you would like to watch the series.
Once Upon a Time is an American television series that has plenty of things to say about theological concepts of forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation and living happily ever after. A fractured fairy tale, it cleverly intertwines a number of classic fairy tales, Disney movies, ancient myths, fantasy and folk stories with the ‘real’ world.
Emma Swan, a bail bonds person, has her life turned upside down when the child she gave up, some ten years previously, shows up on her doorstep. Henry Mills has a fantastical tale concerning the people who live in Storybrooke, Maine, where he has been adopted by the Mayoress. His mother, Regina Mills, is actually The Evil Queen from the story of Snow White. She has trapped everyone in this town for 28 years after casting a curse obtained from Rumpelstiltskin. None of the residents of the Enchanted Forest have any of their memories and fail to realise that they are not aging in this new environment. Emma is supposedly the daughter of Snow White, Henry’s school teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard, and Prince Charming, coma victim David Nolan. She escaped the curse by being sent through a magic tree along with a protector – the ‘real boy’ Pinocchio. Henry is convinced that his biological mother is the only one who can break the curse and restore the residents to their former lives. Emma is the promised Saviour, revealed to him through the pages of a magical story book.
Over the course of seven seasons we see the introduction of a large number of characters who are all very cleverly linked. Rumpelstiltskin is also Captain Hook’s nemesis, the crocodile, named for his leather coat, the Beast of Beauty fame and the Dark One, epitome of all evil. Peter Pan is Rumpelstiltskin’s father and King Arthur offered Prince Charming a seat at the Round Table. Elsa and Anna from Frozen are from a neighbouring kingdom and the latter taught Prince Charming to be brave. Ariel, the mermaid, helped Snow White as did Jasmine from Aladdin. Hercules was Snow White’s first crush and Hades wants out of the underworld. The Evil Queen has an even worse mother, who ends up the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland, and a sister she doesn’t know, the Wicked Witch from Oz. Viewers are taken on a fun ride of interconnected stories, with each episode having scenes from both the Enchanted Forest history, as told in Henry’s book, and the real world.
What this series does very well though, is challenge a lot of the foundations of the contemporary fairy tale, especially those of Disney ilk. Living happily ever after is played with at length. Snow White and Prince Charming’s drama actually starts with their marriage, rather than it being the end of their story. Their wedding is interrupted by the Evil Queen informing them of the coming curse and that there is nothing they can do about it. Their marriage is a lot like real marriages – full of ups and downs, tragedies to live through, lost friends, fighting to keep their love alive and struggling to raise a child and grandchild. It may be in a fantasy television realm, but comes across as more grounded than many real-life shows.
True love’s kiss, the one weapon that no curse or spell can withstand, turns out to be broader than just romantic love between a man and a woman. During the course of the series, true love is shown between a mother and son, a daughter and step mother, and between friends.
The theological concepts of forgiveness and redemption are explored in detail over the course of the series. The Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin both experience battles with their own darkness and seek to find ways to be reconciled with a step son and love interest respectively. They are both offered forgiveness, totally undeserved, by other characters in the stories. This fits with a Christian notion of forgiveness. Redemption, on the other hand, for the most part has to be earned and proven in some way instead of freely given. That might be through changing their ways or sacrificing themselves to protect another, before redemption is granted.
Emma is a very reluctant Saviour. She doesn’t believe Henry’s story and spends much of the first season trying to convince him that it is all in his imagination. She saves Henry from death, and the residents of Storybrooke from the curse, when she finally believes and kisses her son. Throughout the rest of the series she spends much of her time as the Saviour fighting the characters of evil – Cruella De Vil, Malificent, Ursula and Mr Hyde to name a few – and wrestling with her status as the Saviour.
The character who, I believe, is closer to a Christlike Saviour figure is Belle French. The beauty to Rumpelstiltskin’s beast she offers him an alternative view of himself and shows him undeserved love. It is her commitment to him and her love through many trials that finally sees him changing. She offers forgiveness when he fails and encouragement when he tries. She stands by him. In the end he sacrifices himself to save everyone, becoming a hero in the process, and gets his happily ever after – life eternal with Belle.
While this show could arguably have been wrapped up successfully a season or two earlier, it is an engaging and cleverly written show. Suitable for older children, it offers some family friendly entertainment that has faith conversation potential.
All seven seasons of Once Upon A Time are now available on iTunes
Dr Katherine Grocott