Monthly Archives: November 2011

Once Upon A Time‘s Monomythic Fairy Tale

“I know the hero never believes at first. If he did, it wouldn’t be a very good story.”

Once Upon A Bad Photoshop Job

Diving back into this blog after a number of monumental changes in my life (new program, new city, new work), I’m going back to an old interest of mine: the durability of the monomyth. The monomyth, also known as the hero’s journey, was identified by Joseph Campbell as an underlying structure of the majority of Western folklore and myths. It follows the hero through the call to adventure, various trials, victory, and finally reintegration into society. I wrote my undergraduate thesis in part about the re-workings of this narrative structure in Jewish-American fiction, and part of my work on that project included looking at the variety of ways the hero’s journey structure has appeared in recent popular culture. The best example of this narrative is, of course, Star Wars. George Lucas directly attributes much of the film’s structure to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Star Wars succeeds–at least partially–because it wears its monomyth on its sleeve. While I appreciate the variety of cultural producers who have twisted and reworked the hero’s journey over the years, there’s value in the commitment to telling a familiar story well. Which brings me to Once Upon A Time.

Like, apparently, 12 million other American viewers, I tuned into Once Upon A Time‘s premiere two weeks ago. I was instantly enamored with the fairy-tales-in-our-world program, but I didn’t quite know why. I had thought I’d be constantly comparing the show to Bill Willingham’s brilliant comic series, Fables, and find it wanting, but while watching the pilot that thought rarely entered my mind. Perhaps it was the unbridled cheese, perhaps it was the fantasy, or perhaps it was the power of the Disney machine. I couldn’t pin the appeal down beyond it being a fun ride. Then I watched last Sunday’s episode in which the plot-device-in-child-form, Henry utters the quote that starts this post. He’s practically citing Campbell, referencing the Call to Adventure and more explicitly, the hero’s Refusal of the Call (here, only an initial refusal).

The (New) Hope

Once Upon A Time appears to be taking Campbell’s conception of the hero of myth and applying it to the world of fairy tales. In The Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell writes:

The composite hero of the monomyth is a personage of exceptional gifts. . . . He and/or the world in which he finds himself suffers from a symbolical deficiency. In fairy tales this may be as slight as the lack of a certain golden ring, whereas in apocalyptic vision, the physical and spiritual life of the whole earth can be represented as fallen, or on the point of falling into ruin. Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical macrocosmic triumph. (37-8)

In Once Upon A Time, a story explicitly and wholly intent on fairy tales deficient in their own symbolic history, the fairy tale hero and the mythical hero are interestingly conflated. Emma Swann, the protagonist pictured above (with the StarWars-echoing designation of “The Hope”) is the child of Snow White and Prince Charming, destined to awake the town filled of fairy-tale figures from their ignorance of their own history. The macrocosm of the fairy-tale kingdom from where they came has been funneled into the microcosm of Storeybrook, Maine, the town Emma must save.  In her domestic achievement, she, supposedly, will save an entire world.  Her goal, in fact, is the reintegration of society itself (melding fairy-world and Storybrooke), and in doing so, reintegrating herself into the family she never knew she had (Snow White and Prince Charming).

With only two episodes aired so far, I can only speculate on the true influence of the monomythic structure on the show, but there certainly appears to be some intriguing affinities between the two.  Emma’s son, Henry, appears to be fulfilling dual roles as Caller to the hero and her supernatural guide (despite his key characteristic being that he is not in any fairy tales), telling her about her destiny and giving her the knowledge he believes she needs to fulfill her storybook role.  When Emma crossed the First Threshold by deciding to stay in Storybrooke, it is a moment of re-invigoration more than self-annihilation (marked by the town clock, symbol of the characters being stuck out of time, moving for the first time in memory).  The changes to the familiar structure are mild and necessary to keep the story fresh, but at its core, Once Upon A Time seems happy to embrace its fairy-tale hero’s journey.