In these last weeks of Eastertide I have happened upon the TV miniseries Once Upon a Time. I’m only a half dozen or so episodes into the series but have found the premise and presentation both enjoyable and insightful. For those who may not know of the series (though its not exactly new) the premise is that just about every imaginable character from beloved Western fairy tales, who are all mashed up together, are exiled from their idyllic fairy tale kingdom only to be imprisoned to live in a modern American town. All of this happens as a result of a curse intended to take away their happiness. Each person in the town is, or at least once was, a fairy tale character. In scriptural or Platonic language we would say that each person is a ‘type’ of the archetype fairy tale character.
The curse which afflicts them all is amnesia which in Once Upon a Time is experienced as a dark fog of forgetfulness unleashed through jealousy and murder stirred together with a little unsavory magic which rolls in and chokes out any memory of the world as it really is—or at least once was and therefore could be once more. In a psychological sense we might say they all are living with the suppressed experience of who they once were or even false ideologies/delusions which produce false narratives all of a self not grounded in reality or in continuity. What struck me immediately is the parallel between this problem at the crux of the mythologic structure of Once Upon a Time and that of the Christian narrative which mythologizes the same estrangement of humanity from God and one another and the concomitant loss of happiness as a banishment from paradise (Gn 3, Gn 11, Gn 37) which resulted from grasping for power and which always leads to murder (Gn 4, Gn 37:20).
Having set up the mythologic problem to be solved Once Upon a Time, like the Judeo-Christian narratives, understands the antidote to forgetfulness, amnesia, to be remembering—what Christians do as anamnesis (borrowing the term from Plato) and Jews call zikaron/memorial. In Christian eucharistic liturgy the anamnesis is the part of the anaphora (“the carrying back”)/Eucharistic Prayer wherein “fulfilling the command that [the Church] received from Christ the Lord through the Apostles, [she] celebrates the memorial of Christ, recalling especially his blessed Passion, glorious Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven” (GIRM 79e). In the different Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite you can recognize this anamnetic moment by the words, “Therefore, [O Lord,] as we celebrate the memorial…” (emphasis added) though in some regard the whole of not only the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the Mass) but also the entire sacramental system of Christian liturgy is anamnetic insofar as it recalls and makes present the Paschal Mystery into which we have been immersed in our baptism. Celebrating the memorial, remembering who we are and how we have been ransomed, is thus the counter to amnesia, that action by which the Holy Spirit restores our collective memory of who(se) we are, and undoes the spell of exile and banishment which futilely endeavors to make us unhappy. In Once Upon a Time it is the boy (prophet?), Henry, who has been given some revelation in a text, revelation which allows him to remember himself and everyone else in his life into the forgotten narrative and thus discern the true world which they (are called to) inhabit.
Though I am, as I said, not far into Once Upon a Time another interesting parallel is already emerging in my opinion between, the figure of Emma who is, it is foretold, the one who will break the curse of amnesia, “bring back the happy endings,” and with Christ who breaks the prison bars of death and invites us into intimacy with him in remembering. I don’t want to push the parallel too far but at minimum we see a willing condescension taking place: Henry notes that Emma is the only one who could choose to escape being confined into the town and yet chooses not to grasp after that power, albeit not without some internal struggle, but rather to remain with the forgetful people even if only at first for the sake of the one. Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8) thus reversing the curse of death and estrangement and, moreover, commanding that we partake of him, the ripe fruit of the true vine hanging upon the new tree of life planted atop Calvary (see John 6:53-58) thus also reversing the interdiction of Genesis 2:17 and entrusting the Church with a perpetual memorial so that never again would forgetfulness cloud out the saving work of redemption (see also 1 Cor 11:23-26). Emma’s heroism is ultimately shown, not without its rough edges and gritty back-story, not unlike that of Christ, to be fighting evil not with more evil, but with good, confident that good cannot be polluted by coming into contact with evil but rather leave it locked up, frozen in itself.
In presenting the back story of each of the characters as they struggle with contemporary problems Once Upon a Time tacks back and forth between scenes of what was and what is now. It is a way of presenting the story, I find, which fosters imagination—perhaps even a liturgical imagination. The sacraments, we recall, are outward signs that not only point to but also effect the mysteries they make present. And so, just as the liturgy juxtaposes the raw material of the world as we see it with the unaided eye—bread, oil, water, broken people—with the world as God sees it—his own Body, his own Spirit, the cleansing power of redemption, and those fashioned in the image of his own Son—in order to give us a share in that enlightened way of seeing the world, Once Upon a Time likewise juxtaposes modern persons living seemingly ordinary, mundane lives with the fairy tales in which is held out the promise that their lives might take on more than mere muddling through. This allows us, the viewer, to see how these contemporary persons, so like us in many ways, are in fact living out the types revealed in the fairy tales. And just as arranged encounters with persons and artifacts in Once Upon a Time not only jog memories but also in so doing alter the world through the choices the characters make in response to this re-cognition, so in a similar way do the efficacious signs of the sacraments remake the world in which we live by reconnecting us not so much with a past event but with an eternal reality of the Paschal Mystery definitively revealed through the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ in (real historic) time (that is not in abstracted ‘once upon a time’ non-time).
In one of my favorite scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an exchange around which the late and beloved John Dunne, csc built a graduate semester course in narrative theology, Samwise asks Frodo whether he thinks others will ever tell their tale and together they wonder what sort of story they have fallen into. And is this not the fundamental question we need to solve: What stories are we living in? For in knowing these stories, discovering through imaginative works like Once Upon a Time and beginning to inhabit the great story of our salvation in the sacred liturgy our lives begin to be lived into these narratives, these myths which are not untruths but rather the most profound truths we too often forget in a collective amnesia. As Tolkien wrote, reflecting on Faerie Stories, “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”
Post Script: A high school classmate now teaching classics at the University of Puget Sound posted this interesting story about a Seattle-based group using Ancient warrior myths to help veterans fight PTSD, fostering hope by allowing the wound to speak.