Joseph Anderson

Once Upon a Time

The magical world of fairy tales has long been of interest to me; I worked with them quite a bit when I was a high school English teacher, and a few years ago I taught a Grimm Tales class for the UW Experimental College. The tales have come into my Soul Cartography class as well, as we explore the idea of narrative cohesion as a way to understand our life journey (although it’s more complicated than that). In the class we don’t analyze them: instead, I read a story aloud and invite everyone to sink into its propulsive motion, so much like the ceaseless pulse of our lives, but with a coherence and clarity and order that can be illuminating.

So I was intrigued earlier this year to learn of a TV series, Once Upon a Time, that draws on the Grimm tales and many similar stories.  Intrigued, but skeptical (you know: TV), I took a look. After working my way slowly but steadily through most of three seasons, I am quite amazed by how deep and powerful a presence it has become in my life, and how consistently it delivers useful wisdom. One insight in particular has been staying with me these past few days, but first let me tell you a bit more about the series.

It brilliantly serves up the concept that a group of characters from fairy tales are transported (because of an evil queen’s curse, of course) to a small town in Maine where they have forgotten their identities and magic is no longer available to them. Through the seasons the circumstances of this premise evolve, but it is fascinating how characters from multiple fantasy worlds are woven together into a single ever-more-complex story line. So Rumpelstiltskin, Pinocchio, Robin Hood, and Peter Pan – along with the Wicked Witch of the West, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and the Little Mermaid – are not only interacting with each other, but actually have deep unfolding relationships, including in some cases family ties.

It’s really well done: entertaining, with excellent production values, usually convincing, and always intriguing. I do recommend it! But I wouldn’t be writing about the series if there wasn’t also very good teaching in it about the nature of the spiritual path. This takes the form of an exploration of the uses and abuses of power, the presence or absence of heart, staying in integrity, redemption through sacrifice, and so much more.

“Magic always comes with a price” is one of the key recurring phrases of the series. When characters make use of it (as they frequently do) there is some hidden cost that is not revealed until later: a sacrifice, a loss, a personal compromise. The continual dilemma of characters is whether or not to cast that spell, use that magical dagger – is it worth it? The answer is often not clear or simple.

There are a couple of aspects of this concept worth exploring. First, magic can be seen as is a kind of short-cut, that enables us to skip over the difficult business of dealing with our humanity and zip right to the awesome results we are looking for – or, perhaps more importantly, skip past the difficult parts. One of the useful ways I’ve heard this explained is that when intensity or challenge rises and rises, our impulse is to short-circuit the peak of the intensity with one form of addictive behavior or another: it could be anger (the evil queen in Once Upon a Time uses magic a lot to lash out in anger and frustration), it could be substance abuse, it could even be taking an unhealthy refuge in the comfort of religion. A more useful option is to set the magical shortcuts aside, stay with the rising intensity all the way to the top, breath into the discomfort of its peak, and then let it naturally develop into a wiser understanding of oneself. 

So the “price of magic” in this case is the loss of the ability to feel, to be present to one’s full humanity, and to learn what there is to be learned from the depths of experience.

In the show, however, magic is not always a bad thing. Not only do we see characters using magic to short-circuit intensity by acts of violence and revenge: magic often saves loved ones, defends and protects, reveals hidden and healing truths. This “good magic” (or what I’d call, in our context and time, “healing work”) does have its price too: the letting go that is required for any transformation, no matter how positive. However much we may seek healing, we quickly discover that that we are actually very comfortable with our limitations, and giving them up is really pretty painful. There is a price in experiencing healing: surrendering our attachment to the way we have been, and embracing the new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable reality we are called to grow into. The door to freedom may be open, but it’s not that easy to walk through. (There is more on the nature of healing in this post here.)

For the one exercising the healing power, too, there is a price to be paid. When working with a client, I call on the spirits, set an intention, and create space for transformative work to happen. But the outcome is not in my hands. There is nothing more thrilling than being a participant in this process of transformation – but I need to pay the price of letting go. The concept I learned in my shamanic training was “the healer is a hollow bone” – meaning that the healing happens through you, not by you. Seeking to control the outcome in any way just complicates matters and creates interference.

Our world is not a fairy-tale world, and yet it is magical in a different sense: it is full of opportunities for us to learn the very same lessons the fairy-tale characters grapple with. How can I stay attentive to the nature of my experience, right now, without resorting to one form of avoidance or another? How can I let go of my attachment to the way I have been so new possibilities are available to me? How can I participate in the healing and blessing of others without getting entangled in the outcomes I wish for?

I’m so grateful that the Once Upon a Time series has managed to avoid the sanitized, dimensionless artificiality of many other popular treatments of such material. And it’s reminding me of the still greater depths to be plumbed in the source materials on which it is based. So much more to explore!