Monday, March 12, 2012

ONCE Upon a Time...

...But certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of 'exile.' 
- J.R.R. Tolkien

Once upon a time.... is the phrase that begins a whole host of fantastic tales and stories so many of us have grown up hearing. Still today in 2012, these age old stories of princesses and fairy godmothers, castles and kings, dragons and dark lords can capture our imaginations.

Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, the famed screenwriters of the hit series LOST, had an idea for a show called Once Upon a Time back in 2004, before teaming up with the writing staff of LOST. They let it germinate for awhile, however, until the stranded souls of Oceanic Flight 815 found their way home. That series ended and their new project is now off and running.

Once Upon a Time (appearing on ABC) centers around the conviction of a young boy named Henry. He believes that Storybrooke, the mysterious town he lives in, has actually been cursed by an evil Queen. She has sent an entire enchanted land full of fairytale characters to this world to rob them of their “happy endings.” Only young Henry and the Queen (who happens to be Henry’s adoptive mother and the mayor of Storybrooke) appear to know the truth. The Queen’s name in the real world is Regina, a nice touch for those who remember their Latin.

“The curse is that we’ve forgotten who we are, and who we love, and what makes us happy,” says actress Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays Snow White in the blessed world and Sr. Mary Margaret in the cursed world. As the series progresses, we meet all sorts of characters cursed with this allegorical amnesia. Prince Charming, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Gepetto, even Jiminy Cricket! There is a dark and brooding Mr. Gold as well, whose true past tells us he is Rumplestiltskin (My wife and I suspect he remembers more than most and just might be vying for power with the Queen).

Little Henry, played by Jared Gilmore, is the hero of the tale, doing his best to wake people up to the curse and to remembering who they truly are. He slipped out of Storybrooke to find his biological mother Emma back with him. Henry’s mysterious book of Fairy Tales holds the life story on everyone. It revealed to him that Emma is the only one who can break the Queen’s spell. What’s Emma’s backstory? She is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, of course, who escaped in a magic craft seconds before the curse was unleashed so many years ago.

When Emma comes to Storybrooke, she is cynical and a bit hardened by life. But in seeing the loveless relationship the Mayor has with Henry, and the suffocating control she holds over the town, Emma decides to stay. With that, the curse already starts unravelling - the town clock tower ticks for the first time any character can remember. It froze at 8:15 (LOST fans got a little wink at that one).

Each episode of Once Upon a Time is a classic tale of good and evil, of selfless acts and selfish pride. Every week we’re given more layers of depth to the Land of Make Believe that really do make us believe again. With flashes from the present to the past via the characters back stories (again in classic LOST fashion), we see what hard choices were made and what chances for healing are possible in the real world.

It’s a tale for today, for so many of us have fallen under the spell of secularism and sin, and forgotten who we truly are.

In the episode “A Still, Small Voice,” a frustrated Dr. Archie Hopper, who is really Jiminy Cricket, asks Henry “Why do you think it’s so important that your fairy tale theory is true?” Henry replies, “Because this can’t be all there is...”

What a fantastic line, and how strongly it resounds in the Catholic heart. I believe if we are still enough, in the quiet, nostalgic moments, smelling a wood-fire or hearing geese sail overhead, we all have a sense of that Something More for which we are made. Like an ache in the chest it throbs. Like music it stirs worlds within us deeper than our reason is aware of, in realms richer than our daily rush could ever reach. Don’t good stories do this to us? Like the labels on the rearview glass in our cars, we know that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Often we’re just overwhelmed by the possibility that Life, Death, Mystery, and our Mission can be as close as this, and even wilder and more mysterious than we ever imagined.

I think this ache for meaning and a “happy ending” is what stirs up so many of these new shows, spinning off of the drama and intrigue and interconnected web of humanity that made the show LOST such an epic series. The series Once Upon a Time is another blaze on this trail into the meaning of life.

C.S. Lewis asks, in his 1955 review of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, “But why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never-land of your own?” He continues: “Because one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality.”

Enjoy the show if you have time, but more so, enjoy the story-time of your own life, written in grace and a heavenly magic so strong that no curse can break it. And in the true love of the Prince of Peace we shall all live... happily ever after.

Originally published in Phaith Magazine, March 2012

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