If A Child is Left in the Forest… (The Beginning of a Thought)

By Asmaa Ghonim

The image of the forest is important to folk and fairy tales since it obviously either elicits images of awful horror or wonder. It is no wonder that it is utilized often in different kinds of fairy and folk tales, including two that premiered as television programs this year, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. This post, however, will only focus on a recent episode of Once Upon A Time titled “True North.” Its first scene is of, strangely, the Hulk. The graphic novel/comic book character who turns into an angry green monster/beast is an interesting choice to open up the episode with, I think, because it simply highlights that change that one has to take in order to survive (that he’s green is just an extra). Also, a less-known power that the Hulk possesses is that he can hone in to his point of origin, AKA: Home. Not only is that a theme that’s prevalent in all the episodes of OUAT, it’s particularly important for the fairy tale they utilized for that episode.

Both paralleling and contradicting the Hulk opening, the scene that starts the fairy tale sequence is a man chopping up wood. In fact, the camera follows the fall of a particularly tall tree that would help him and his family’s warmth that coming winter. The tree makes noise, but nothing stirs, as if, in fact, no noise had been made at all. The story in that episode, which revolves around the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, starts out with a powerful image of what I will call gentle deforestation: the brother and sister act are caught, and the consequences don’t seem as if they’re monstrous, but they are.

In “True North,” (weirdly relating back to Hulk’s ability to know what his true north, point of origin is) Hansel and Gretel – or Ava and Nicholas – have to find their father. In Storybrook, the father must be found so that the characters are not separated from each other. In the Fairy Tale version, however, there is no threat that Hansel and Gretel would be separated, but there is the threat of them not being with their father. The change in perspective of who’s included in the family is interesting, given the end of the episode – where ironically it is in Storybrook that they are united with their father while in the Fairy Tale, where their father is necessary to their family unit, they are lost in the woods with no definite resolution. Both fathers have compasses that point back to them. The first that solely highlights children (other than Henry, the main Hermes-like instigating character who is not of the fairy tale land), the episode plays with children as the wise, knowing individuals who can take care of themselves (more especially the female character of Gretel/Eva). They are the instigators of the action. In fact, they run away from Regina/Evil Queen at first. Anyway, I get ahead of myself. Let me backtrack.

The first scene that Ava and Nicholas are in, they smuggle candy and other items into Henry’s backpack, transferring the initial blame onto Henry and away from them. Of course this does not last long. But right from the beginning, we are aware that they have probably smuggled food out the same way multiple times. The stealing is done by Nicholas, and the subterfuge is conducted by Ava. (Notice how Henry is jealous when Nicholas walks into the picture until he discovers that Nicholas is simply Ava’s sibling). We wonder, also, how many times they have been caught because of their solid-sounding story, one that even lie-detecting Emma Swan couldn’t pick up at first. They run home, a dilapidated backroom of a house that’s empty. The squatting children take care of each other and themselves through systems and procedures that they are careful about following. In fact, they follow them until they are caught by Emma.

Suburbia as a forest that the kids lose themselves in is conversely related to the forest they walk through at the end of that episode. In the fairy tale land, they work together. Gretel mostly comes up with ways to get them out, whether she has to be the brain or the brawn. They completely refuse the beauty and abundance of a foster house filled with a pseudo-mother figure (The Evil Queen). Instead, they go out into the forest, alone, to find their father. There is the noted difference again that they never actually find their father, while in Storybrook they are united with him.

I think that the difference between “real life” and the real “fairy tale” is one of the most different in the series so far, however. Of course, the point of origin is the father, and the quest to find him is the same, and they still possess their total mistrust of adult figures, even the ever-likable Emma. But unlike, for instance, the Cinderella arc, where the fairy tale and real life are so similar, in this episode, the stories have to be different. For instance, if Eva and Nicholas had to steal to pay some kind of room and board, (a la Oliver Twist), that would have resonated a bit more with the fairy tale’s interest in an exchange of “goods.” Where The Evil Witch trades the apple with the children’s freedom. The fact that they really are different from each other makes an interesting intersection with the fact that this is the first episode devoted to a children-centric fairy tale.

However, there is a third intersection that strengthens the power of this episode further. In an aspect of their story that makes them definitely one of the most powerful characters we have ever seen, Hansel, Gretel, Nicholas, and Ava do not use Rumplestiltskin. He definitely has to be in the story somehow, but he enters through the compass transaction. And, even then, he only enters the story through Storybrook. But that is an interaction he had with their father and not them (I wonder who the compass points to when the father has it?), and that makes him an invisible aspect to the story that they don’t owe any debt to.

So how do Hansel, Gretel, Nicholas, and Ava fit within the arc of the story? Will they come back, do you guys think? Why the drastic name changes from the Fairy Tale characters to the Storybrook ones?

With so many questions, it is obvious that this episode completely fascinates me, and I’m working with it more for sure (but this post has already gotten long enough, I think…). However, those are my initial ideas, and I would totally welcome any input anyone has about this episode or, more generally, my interest in either the interaction between the Fairy Tale world and Storybrook, the anomalies within the series, and the utilization of children or children-like characters in the series. Thanks in advance!

[I am aware that since that episode there have been others that have been very children-heavy and also virtually Rumplestiltskin-less and also different from Fairy Tale version to Storybrook version (specifically, I’m talking about the last episode where the Fairy Tale explains the end of the Storybrook arc).]

Asmaa is a first-year PhD student who visits the world of children’s lit from time to time.

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