When I watched season one of the TV show Once Upon a Time, I realized that not only did it break the clichéd boxes of many of the most well-known fairytale characters, it also provided some fascinating illustrations of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment versus seeking salvation from outside yourself.
Last week I hinted at Rumplestiltskin’s role as a main factor in the tug of war between enlightenment and fundamental darkness in the fairytale character’s lives, and how they are the source of his power because they keep being tempted to do things the lazy or desperate way by relying on his dark magic for anything from getting out of poverty to having a baby.
I particularly threw Cinderella under the bus for originally being one of the laziest and most dishonest of the “good guys” while she was a princess in fairytale land. Once the curse that propelled the characters into our modern-day world started to weaken enough for the characters to be able to think, she was actually the first to try and change her life through her own intelligence and efforts, despite everyone else’s assertions that she wouldn’t amount to anything. As a poor single mother instead of a married princess, she decided to take the difficult path of keeping her baby, and going to night school so she could gain skills to create a better life for her and her child.
Jiminy Cricket, once again in human form and working as the town’s psychologist, had been at the mercy of Queen (now Mayor) Regina to brainwash her adopted son (and presumably anyone else) who believed in magic in Storybrooke; a few episodes in, he stood up to her and revealed he did have power he could use against her, if he was ever called to testify in a court battle between her and her child’s birth-mother (who happened to be the prophesied “savior” whose arrival in town is what started to weaken the curse).
These two examples show that, while this probably wasn’t his original intent, Rumplestiltskin actually did these characters a favor by removing magic from their lives so they could no longer use it as a short-cut that hindered their ability to do anything for themselves (and to be free of debt to evil people).
This is a fascinating illustration of the Buddhist concept of turning “poison into medicine,” or using what we gain and learn from overcoming our sufferings to attain enlightenment and absolute happiness—victory in life and happiness that are not dependent on exterior circumstances.
This contrasts sharply with the conditional happiness that some of the fairytale characters had in their original world—Happiness that had no foundation because it was dependent solely on maintaining the bliss of their “happy ending”—the longed-for spouse or kingdom or baby or whatever they wanted (and which Rumplestiltskin usually had a hand in procuring for them). Their world’s happiness, then, really wasn’t so much different from what often passes for happiness in our world—and thus, after they got their memories back following the breaking of the curse, it seemed they really were no worse off for being sent here.
When the curse broke in the last episode, the characters weren’t transported back to their world. The implication is then that they will retain both sets of memories—from fairytale land and modern-day Storybrooke—and thus actually have power without having magic. In contrast, Regina and Rumplestiltskin have no power without magic, so they are now at a potential disadvantage to their former victims who now no longer need magic to figure out how so solve their problems.
Now that the characters have actually experienced living instead of just existing and reacting, and can take some ownership of their life-situations, I look forward to seeing if this means they can bring with them the skill-sets they learned in this world back to their own land (if they ever go back) and make a much better world for themselves in which they have ownership of their happiness, and provide more intelligent opposition against any remaining foes.
Or, if they stay in Storybrooke, at least they can learn how to be truly happy and successful without having to rely on an evil, giggling, leather-clad gnome and his purple smoke to conjure it for them while asking for their souls in return.
Image: "Eye of an Enlightened One" by Karla Joy Huber, 1995; chalk pastel