By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
The surprise hit of the 2011-12 television season was Sunday night’s Once Upon a Time. It is literally half fantasy and half realistic mystery because it takes place in two worlds: a fantasyland where all our favorite storybook characters live and a town in Maine where those characters have been imprisoned. This show teaches an important lesson to Christians.
In the story, an evil queen has been foiled by Prince Charming and Snow White. Cast from their presence, she plans her revenge. Upon hearing about this plot, Snow and Charming contrive to save their newborn daughter from the witch’s terrible spell. This curse sweeps over all the people of the land including the Seven Dwarfs, Red Riding Hood, Jiminy Cricket, Hansel and Gretel, Rumplestiltskin, and more. The evil queen sends the people to a terrible land, a place where hopes are lost, dreams never come true, and evil defeats good. That terrible place is modern America.
Stories in the fairytale world then cut back and forth with stories in a town called Storybrooke, Maine. There the evil witch is now the mayor, Snow White a teacher, Prince Charming stuck in a coma, and so on. None of the people of the town know who they really are, except for one. The little daughter of Snow and Charming has grown up an orphan in America, had her own child, and has given him up for adoption.
While the people of Storybrooke never seem to age, our heroine grows till she’s near the same age as her mother. Her little adopted son has grown too—he’s about 10—having been adopted by none other than the evil witch/mayor. He knows the truth, and he arranges for his real mother to find her way to Storybrooke. Because she was protected from the enchantment, he believes she will be able to break the spell.
A Rock or a Holy Place?
The central premise of the story is that our world is the opposite of any magical fairytale world—especially because our world is a place where dreams never come true, hopes are lost, and evil triumphs over good. Is that really the world you and I live in?
The story of Jacob’s ladder is a clue for us. In Genesis 28, Jacob ran away from home to avoid the wrath of his brother Esau. Jacob stopped in the middle of nowhere and lay down to sleep with nothing but a rock for a pillow. As he slept, he had a dream where he saw angels ascending and descending a stairway. He awoke to realize he was not just in a barren wasteland but at the very gateway to Heaven! What looked like an ordinary place, a piece of dead wilderness, turned out to be something supernatural, awe inspiring, magical.
One of the great attacks made against fairytales is that they are unrealistic. Realism is a kind of story that supposedly mimics reality, especially in refusing to include supernatural elements and rejecting the demand for a happy ending. Realism has been considered the most important factor in judging good literature and films for a century. In contrast, fantasy has been rejected by critics as naïve, juvenile, and even foolish.
But which of these approaches to story is more like real life? The problem with realism is that it’s not realistic. Fantasy is far more realistic. Realistic literature assumes events happen randomly, life has no purpose, and the supernatural never intrudes into the world of nature. If God is there, he is far off, silent, and never works miracles.
Fantasy stories, on the other hand, are about princes and princesses. That makes perfect sense since you and I are children of a King. Fantasy stories are filled with danger, adventure, and hardship. While real life doesn’t always feel adventurous (that’s part of Satan’s spell to trick us), it’s replete with hardship and danger.
Fantasy includes a dark, evil force bent on destroying good people. In the Bible he’s called Satan. Fantasy usually ends happily. Life on earth doesn’t always—unless you’re a Christian. Then you know that God has a plan—he causes all things to work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). And you know how your story is going to end: in a happily-ever-after resurrection. Now which is more true to real life: realism or fantasy?
Critics have argued that the problem with fantasy is that it’s “escapist.” J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a devout Christian, replied to this accusation by agreeing with it! But then he asked something like, “Why would we fault a prisoner for wanting to escape his cell?” I couldn’t agree more.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.