"Once Upon a Time" and the Ethics of Elfland

Fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness. But I found the whole modern world running like a high tide against both my tendernesses.

- GK Chesterton

The ambitious not-quite-fairy-tale Once Upon a Time (conceived by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis seven years before they joined the writing team for Lost) finally premiered this past Sunday on ABC (8 PM EST) - and didn't disappoint.

The show follows two parallel worlds: a land of fairy tale characters (Pinocchio, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, etc.) and the drab, quiet little town of Storybrooke, Maine. The link between the two worlds is an adopted boy, who insists that every person in the town is a character from his book of fairy tales, but have forgotten their past and their true purpose. 

Again, this seems to be an ambitious task for TV; Horowitz and Kitsis seem to want to divide the time of Once Upon a Time between adolescent and adult viewership by jumping back and forth between fairy tales and the real world. But will the fantasy portion leave non-parents channel-surfing for something with more substance? And will the real-world portion be too abstruse for adolescents? 

Judging from the pilot, Horowitz and Kitsis intend to walk this tightrope, and walk it well; and their balancing pole looks to be an attentiveness to the "ethics of elfland" which permeate both worlds. 

GK Chesterton
If there's one author who, with both the serious sobriety of a philosopher and the wonderment of a child, pinned down the connections between "elfland" and the real-world, it was British writer GK Chesterton. His essay "The Ethics of Elfland" (read here or listen here) explores the "noble and healthy principles that arise from" fairy tales, and the ways in which they are "reasonable," even "rational" - not despite their unbelievable concoctions, but because of them. He writes:
"There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast'; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the 'Sleeping Beauty,' which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep."
These stories exist not only for the exercise of "lessons" or "morals"; just as fairy tales are infused with the ways of the world, the world too, in its turn, is infused with the magic and mystery of fairy tales:
"The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched...Nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."
In equating the two things, Chesterton didn't mean to show us that there is a measure of metaphor in elfland, or even a measure of elf-like magic in reality; he meant to really equate them. He wanted to show that elfland and reality mirror, explain, and even contain each other.

In fact, reality can be more elf-like than elfland: "Compared with [fantasies]," he writes, "other [real] things are fantastic." Really, GK Chesterton? Beanstalks, elves, and never-never land are less fantastical than birds, people, and New England?

Maybe - because we see the world with the bored and weary millennia-old eyes of knowledge, not the day-old eyes of wisdom. We forget that the same organizing principle of fairy tales - "an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition" - holds true for all the world.

For example, "when we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock." That answer is: magic. You can write all you want about the biological processes and chemical reactions that relate these two things - but the "mere fact" that the event of laying an egg results eventually in the event of a bird flying is a magical and confounding thing, because it didn't "have to" be that way. It's not a "necessity" - it only feels that way because we're used to it.

Even for the pessimist inclined toward absurdism or fatalism - say, Larry David in Whatever Works - the fact that your existence is the direct result of one determined haploid out of billions finding the egg is a wild surprise with unimaginably small odds. As Chesterton puts it, "any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been." This is even true of the survival of the universe itself - Stephen Hawking has noted that "if the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size." Whether you call your birth and the universe's birth luck or providence - those situations are at least as amazing and unlikely as any fairy tale situation. 

Once Upon a Time looks to portray both this fantastical nature of reality, and the quasi-real nature of our fairy tales - the "shadowlands" where the two meet. By setting it in a town full of people who have forgotten their true, mystical identity, it shows that "we are all under the same mental calamity...we have all forgotten what we really are." We'll admit that we read stories to find hope, and to believe, as one character puts it, "in the possibility of a happy ending" - but we forget that this is because our lives, too, are nothing but fantastic, unlikely stories. 

Just as adults reach the nadir of their non-elf mentality in their hard-headed, pragmatic middle years, so too has our civilization, sloshing through the dreary landscape of a post-Enlightenment, post-post-modern stupor, reached a cynical place where there seems to be very little to be surprised about. We've even forgotten the biggest surprise of all, and a "pleasant surprise" at that - existence itself. 

Once Upon a Time, I hope, will help recover this sense of awe and magic - especially in the adults who've forgotten the great virtue of seeing the world like little children. 


  1. My wife and I just watched the pilot and loved it. The show also seems to have a very strong focus on hope. Emma's son has hope that Emma will come back and restore happy endings. The end of the show was beautiful with the clock starting again. I have high hopes for this show.

    Excellent blog, by the way. I do, wonder, having read through some of your archives if you look for beauty in the wrong places. I don't know.


  2. @Marc Thanks for your comment. We also were very impressed by the pilot - looking forward to seeing if they can keep it up the whole season! I may do a post-season one reflection once all is said and done.

    Thanks for the kudos - regarding "beauty," it's a difficult thing. The case could be made that beauty involves an element of subjective taste, and in that sense maybe our blog is a bit of a misnomer. We don't seek to find what we consider beautiful in art, but explore instead elements of a "quest" in art, especially popular art, regardless of taste. Possibly, the "right" places are places that many won't ever set foot in. "The same opera or rock concert can be heavenly for you and hellish for the reluctant guest at your side." We like the "detective work" of searching out whiffs of this "quest" wherever we can. It keeps things interesting!

    I do appreciate your criticism though - Please come back and visit soon!

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