Parallel worlds in Once Upon a Time

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

I have been watching my Twitter feed with interest over the summer, as I follow the immeasurably talented Once Upon a Time writer Jane Espenson (of Buffy, Battlestar Galactica and Warehouse 13 fame) as well as show runner Adam Horowitz. I was especially intrigued about the building buzz surrounding the writing, casting and filming of an episode purported to introduce Captain Hook, who seems to be yet another regular villain in the making.

From a television viewer’s perspective, I trust Jane and believe that any story line that has her Tweet-erpaited* will be entertaining.  However, from a children’s literature perspective, I am intrigued by the increasing conflation of fairy tale characters with children’s literature characters.  The idea that Peter Pan might show up in a future episode made me slightly uncomfortable, as if Once was going too far in rewriting some of these texts, assuming that they all come from the same place.

The beginning of the show focused strongly on the fairy tale folks, centering the show on the adventures of Snow White, Prince Charming, the evil Step-mother queen and a curse placed on their land.  These characters include Red Riding Hood and her Granny, Rumpelstiltskin, the Huntsman, the magic mirror and even Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.  The curse expelled all of these fairy tale characters from their homeland and into our world, where we are told, there is no such thing as happy endings.

While the central characters are drawn from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, not all of the characters are Grimm’s:  Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, appears as a love interest for Rumpelstiltskin and King Midas makes an appearance, offering his daughter and a handsome gold dowry to King George and Prince Charming.  Beauty and the Beast is technically classified as a fairy tale, while Midas is more myth, from Greek traditions.  However, one could argue that both of these tales are not so far apart in content from Grimm’s as to be out of place.  Midas is depicted as the king of a neighboring land, making Grimm Fairyland a neighboring nation to Greek Mythland.

Things get a little more complicated when we consider the heavy contingent of characters from Carlo Collodi’s Pinnochio: Jiminy Cricket, Geppeto, the Blue Fairy and Pinocchio himself all serve as vital characters.  In fact, Geppeto builds the portal that transports Snow White’s daughter into our world.  These characters live and work in Fairyland, despite the fact that Collodi’s work is a novel, not a fairy tale.  Pinocchio, published in 1883, is considered a work of the first “Golden Age” of children’s literature.  Is it accurate to place these works in the same “land?”

Disney, of course, made a classic animated films out of Pinocchio, the same as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Disney also has films featuring some of the charters new to Season 2: Mulan, Peter Pan, King Arthur’s court.   ABC is owned by Disney and so using characters from the “Disney vault” might be a legitimate canon from which to work.  However, no full-length feature animated films from Disney represent the stories of Hansel and Gretel or Rumpelstiltskin , so this is not a perfect explanation.  Furthermore, certain of Disney’s classic animated films take place outside of Fairyland: films like Bambi, Dumbo and The Lion King are supposed to take place in versions of our world and are touted as “realistic” when it comes their artistic depiction of animals.

In episode 17 of Season 1, Once Upon a Time did something even more interesting than just lumping Pinocchio in with fairy tales.  It introduced the idea of other “worlds” besides Fairlyland and our world.  These are not neighboring nations, like King Midas’s realm, but parallel worlds that must be reached by magic portals.  In this episode, the Evil Queen Regina uses the Mad Hatter’s hat to access one of those parallel worlds: Wonderland. Like Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll is also considered a classic of children’s literature’s Golden Age., as is Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.  And, as the most recent episode of Once Upon a Time (S2E4) shows us, Captain Hook reaches Neverland from Fairyland by means of a portal opened in the sea by a magic bean (presumably Jack’s)

This opens up some really interesting geographical ideas for Once’s source material.  First, various kingdoms and provinces exist in Fairlyland, allowing for the existence of multiple royal families and even a variety of fairy tale sources. It is unclear how national mythology plays into this geography, as both Mulan and Lancelot are described as being from a different “land,” which could be located within the Fairlyland map, though they live by different customs than those of Fairyland.   Snow White’s familiarity with the Knights of the Roundtable speaks to the interpretation of the inclusion of the more distant China-myth land and Camelot as nations within the overarching Fairyland world.

Then, come the parallel worlds, accessed by portal.  Opening portals into Wonderland and Neverland cleverly allows the writers of Once to access other favorite childhood characters and tales to retell without invoking the criticism of “these aren’t fairy tales.” Once could make legitimate forays into other magical worlds, like Narnia, Middle Earth, the Hundred Acre Woods, or more mythical locations like Mount Olympus or Hades.  By depicting these imagined places as parallel dimensions only accessible by portal, Once removes the strictures of time, national origin, or form (allowing crosses between fairy tales, novels, plays, or films).  By allowing all of these childhood imaginary places to exist simultaneously, but in different planes, Once can enable interactions between fairy tale characters, mythological figures and Golden Age characters in a new and interesting way.  And yet, how many children’s classics will be pulled into the plot?  Can we expect to see Harry Potter or the Wizard of Oz in guest appearances?

As a TV watcher, I am intrigued and curious to find out what other worlds the show will venture into, as it continually introduces new characters and new conflicts.  As a children’s lit scholar, I wonder if the writers will know when they have gone too far.

*Did I make this up?  Or do I owe someone credit for this awesome technology/Bambi mashup?

Rebekah is a PhD student, currently teaching a class on YA dystopia and prepping for her exams.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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2 thoughts on “Parallel worlds in Once Upon a Time

  1. Rebekah

    What did I just say?!? This last week we saw the appearance of Dr. Frankenstein! What other fictional worlds will they venture into next?

    • Yup! And Jane Espenson did joke (?) on Twitter this week that she hopes the recent Disney purchase of LucasFilm means they get to play in the Star Wars universe, so the well could go even deeper…

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