Can stories help us remember who we really are? Can they offer fresh hope for our lives? ABC’s new series Once Upon A Time thinks so, agreeing with some of my favorite storytellers: Jesus, Charles Dickens, and Walter Brueggemann.
It was Jesus who once said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ That came to mind while watching Once Upon A Time last week because the whole premise of that series hinges on a child. An unhappy boy named Henry finds a book of fairy tales and, convinced that everyone in his town is a fairy tale character with complete amnesia, tracks down his birth mother, a skeptical bondswoman, and brings her to Storybrooke to break the curse. No one believes Henry, not his adopted mother who’s really the Evil Queen or his teacher who’s really Snow White. But that doesn’t stop him from following the story and from urging the characters to remember who they are. In this series, then, the kingdom of Fairy Tales belongs to Henry, and if you’re one of the characters, to not listen to him, to not believe him and go along with him, is at peril to your soul, in fact is to turn away your best hope at real life. Everyone’s life in Storybrooke is in the hands of a child.
It was Charles Dickens who said that fairy tales are ministering art. He also credited them with saving his life. His whole family was thrown into debtor’s prison when he was twelve and he had to go to work at a shoe factory (it was the real life nightmare that informed his fictional ones). But it was the stories of his youth, the fairy tales told by his nanny and grandmother, that saved his imagination, indeed his very soul, in those dark years. And he spent the rest of his life defending the high purpose, social benefit, and redeeming power of fairy tales. I thought of this, too, while watching Once Upon A Time. The writers are certainly playing with that ministering art, even if they have not yet delved to its depths. The storylines shift back and forth between modern times, where a town of fairy tale characters have forgotten who they are, and fairy tale times, where we get to see their former lives in flashbacks. Both eras are smartly written – the fairy tale realm especially because it’s taken seriously by the writers. There’s no wink and nudge here (like in NBC’s other soon-to-be-cancelled series Grimm) that fairy tales are really stupid and not to be taken seriously let alone believed. Forget they’re in costume and battling trolls, Snow White’s first encounters with Prince Charming in episode four are as witty, creative, and fun as you’ll find on network television.
Can story heal us? This series flirts with that idea, especially in episode four when a coma patient (Prince Charming) only comes to life when read his own fairy tale by the teacher who doesn’t yet believe she’s Snow White. Can stories help us remember who we really are? Can they deliver a fresh vision of hope for our lives? Can they change us?
The connection of memory and hope is explored by Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament theologian who writes in his study of Isaiah that recovering the deep memories of who we are – our history, culture, past – is key to surviving and moving out of tough times. He roots this argument in the historical situation of the peoples of ancient Israel who were ransacked by a foreign power and taken captive for more than seventy years – so long they began to lose hope and forget Jerusalem and the God who had loved and saved them. It was the prophet Isaiah’s holy commission, something akin to a modern day Bono, to remind them in poems and song that remembering the stories of God loving them and saving them could save them once again. This seems to be the primary theme of Once Upon A Time. Recovering memory of true identity can break the curse of static, unfulfilled lives.
If your days are dry, if life has slowed to stasis and you sense your story was meant to be more, take a cue from Once Upon A Time, Jesus, Dickens, and Brueggemann – try to remember who you are. Recall the stories of your deep past and the past of your family, town, and nation and maybe you will find hope there. If you don’t know these stories, find someone who does. And if those stories are bleak and painful, try some new ones. As in Once Upon A Time, it may take a child telling you a story you can’t possibly believe, or a new person entering your life, or an old fairy tale to wake you from your sleep. It may take listening to Jesus with a child’s heart, or reading Charles Dickens, or imagining the words of Isaiah as U2 songs. It may take something different or something more. But Once Upon A Time reminds us there is hope in fairy tales and in remembering who we really are. I hope we all do.