Nov 10, 2013

Once Upon a Time There Was a Voiceless Mermaid

I've told many people through the years that there are two ways to read Women Who Run With the Wolves. The first is bibliomancy, which is to simply let the book fall open to a random page and begin there. The other is to read it in order from the beginning, but to do so on no particular timetable and to take it up only when the spirit moves. To do otherwise is to find the book impenetrable -- nigh well unreadable. This is something many women have told me about their attempts to read it. But trust me, I would say, read it only when you feel it calling to you from the shelf and what had been a thick tangle of far too many words will be magically transformed into the most lucid, meaningful prose you've ever indulged. Read past the point in the book you were meant to read on any particular occasion and it will once again look like something written in a foreign language.

I read the book from front to back. It took me well over a year. But each time I picked it up it was a flawless reflection of that moment in time. Not only was the text the perfect insight into an experience I'd just had or some realization that had only just begun to dawn, it came accompanied by sometimes comical Jungian synchronicities. Like the time a boisterous, eccentric old woman in a restaurant bumped into my table and sent my chicken dinner clattering to the floor just as I was reading about Baba Yaga and her house on its crazy chicken legs. Some were far less humorous. One evening I felt moved to open the book again after I returned from the emergency ward. I had very nearly lost the tip of my finger to a confrontation with a trailer hitch. With my unbandaged hand, I removed the bookmark and found myself staring in disbelief at a story called "The Handless Maiden." A few short months later I was pregnant with my daughter. The day after she was born, the World Trade Center fell down and the realization that her father would almost certainly be heading off to war was inescapable. To anyone who's read that portion of the book, the parallels would be hard to miss.

As I enjoy my new favorite show Once Upon a Time, I find myself once again seeing the line between dreams and reality becoming blurred. After taking in a number of episodes from the first season, it occurred to me that I should grab the book I sometimes refer to as "the oracle" from the shelf and more deeply consider some of the rich themes that emerge between the lines of the show's deceptively pedestrian dialog. Book in hand I sat down to watch the next episode which turned out to be "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." In it one of the residents of Storybrooke has some very strange encounters with a wolf. It causes him to begin awakening in the dream as the viewer learns that the wolf had been his constant companion during his life as the Woodsman in the Enchanted Forest. I ran my hand across the gold embossed wolf on the cover of my book and just shook my head at the wonder of it all.

Last Sunday night I sat down to watch the latest episode only to find that in a classically Mercury Retrograde occurrence, something had gone very wrong with the audio track. The background music played just fine but the vocal track was gone. Actors moved their lips but no sound came out. The only way I could tell what was going on was to switch on closed captioning and read the lines. It went on like that for over half the show. It must have been a problem with our local affiliate. Annoying but fitting. The episode introduced the character of Ariel, the little mermaid. I'm not a fan of the Disney version of that or pretty much any of the fairy tales I grew up with. My mother was old fashioned. She gave me books. The Hans Christian Anderson book that contained "The Little Mermaid" was an oversized volume with gorgeous full colored plates -- the most marvelous images of a fantastical life under the sea. I could lose myself for hours in those pictures. But here's what I know. In both Anderson's story and the Disney corruption of it, the little mermaid loses her voice. She trades it for the ability to walk on land and seek her prince. In the Once Upon a Time version of events she loses her voice only at the end, a victim of the evil queen's caprice. So once again, and after the vocal track had been restored, Ariel's lips were moving and no sound was coming out.

Awake? Dreaming? Hard to say.

Season 3 has us in Neverland, the domain of a very wicked Peter Pan. But the mermaid from that story is here conflated with the little mermaid. This, of course, is what the show does. It takes fairy tale characters and fleshes them out with backstories that sometimes merge them with other fairy tale characters. As a narrative tool, it works surprisingly well.

Once Upon a Time's Peter Pan is much darker than he is in any of James Barrie's writings. But there is a lot of truth in this version, perhaps more than in Barrie's fantasies. To anyone familiar with even the broad outlines of Barrie's life, it seems pretty clear that the Peter Pan character was born of tragedy. Barrie lost his older brother to a skating accident when the boy was just shy of 14. The much younger James attended to his mother's grief by dressing up and pretending to the be his dead brother David. So his mother was gifted for some years with the dark, maternal fantasy of the child that never grows up. Strangely Barrie never achieved a normal height. He reportedly stopped growing around the age of 14. He was also emotionally stunted, terrified of marrying, and his eventual marriage ended after fifteen years having never been consummated. The divorce was due to his wife's somewhat understandable infidelity.

Barrie's inspiration for the play Peter Pan -- an expansion of a storyline in his book The Little White Bird -- was his friendship with a family whose children he played with constantly as if he also were still a child. None of this seems terribly healthy.

When we first meet Pan, he is having trouble with his shadow. It's come unstuck and has started getting into mischief. He tries to reattach it with soap. That doesn't work, of course, and correcting it requires the practicality of feminine instinct. Wendy puts a needle and thread to the task. Peter, then, with all the arrogance and narcissism of the immature masculine congratulates himself for her work. Here one must appreciate Barrie for being at least a bit more self aware than Shel Silverstein.

As I wrote here, shadow work is strongly implied in Once Upon a Time. Rumpelstiltskin is the very embodiment of the collective shadow, having taken "The Dark One" into his being. Toward the end of season 2, it became apparent that shadow reclamation was emerging as a broader theme. The sweet and gentle Belle, long frustrated in her attempts to break the spell's hold on her beast, becomes Lacey in Storybrooke. She is every bit as as dark as Belle is light. Even Snow White violates her strong moral code and learns that her heart is marked by the darkening of her soul.

Season 3 revolves, so far, around attempts to rescue Henry from Neverland. To do this all the primary characters must work together. Heroes and villains must unite for a common cause. It is speaks to the potential for a total reintegration of shadow and light. Henry is a living embodiment of unity. He is Emma's son and Emma is wholeness itself, born of the alchemical union of Snow and Charming. Henry's father is Baelfire, making him the grandson of Rumpelstiltskin. His adoptive mother is the evil queen. Henry holds the key to the reclamation of the shadow and the redemption of the fallen.

In this most recent episode, for instance, Neal, aka., Baelfire, had to be rescued from a cave of echoes. Hook explains that the key to this cave's magic is that people must tell their darkest, most shameful secrets. Why? I would posit that it's because we are as sick as our secrets.

We still don't know much of Peter Pan's backstory. But we do know that he and Rumpelstiltskin have a connection going back to childhood. Their obviously very complicated relationship will no doubt be revealed in due time. We also know that Pan as reinvisioned here is also the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Easily one of the darkest fairy tales ever told to children, modern allusions include such personages as the at long last defrocked Stephen Kiesle.

Peter Pan's Neverland is the home of the "lost boys." The dark implications of that should not be understated as they often are with the cartoonish reimaginings of Peter Pan. "Lost boys" is a somewhat archaic euphemism not only for dead children -- like James Barrie's brother -- but also for missing and exploited children. Orson Scott Card's gut-wrenching novel Lost Boys revolves around said use of the term. This theme is explored in the movie The Lost Boys in which adolescent boys are stolen away and murdered in the sense that they are made undead. This takes on an even darker significance when we consider that it is also the film that united Corey Feldman and the late Corey Haim -- two horrifically exploited children. Feldman also spent a good deal of time at the famed Neverland ranch.

Dreaming? Awake? Hard to say.

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