Watching this show from a Buddhist perspective, I realized it gives some fascinating symbolism for enlightenment versus the delusion (which Nichiren Buddhists call fundamental darkness) that all power to change our lives must come from outside ourselves. In this story’s world, instead of a deity, that power is in the form of evil sorcerers and sorceresses who can fake being saviors for long enough to dupe the desperate (or the simply lazy) into selling their souls in exchange for fulfillment of desires that they could have fulfilled themselves through their own problem-solving efforts, hard work, and use of their moral compasses.
On one hand, Rumplestiltskin and Queen Regina (Snow White’s stepmother) are the obvious villains—They have no moral compasses, derive satisfaction from other people’s misery, and seek to increase their own power by taking power from other people. On the other hand, all the fairytale princes, princesses, wannabe princesses, and commoners they dupe are just as blameworthy: Not only do these so-called good guys seek shortcuts out of their problems through making desperate deals with Rumplestiltskin (even while telling him to his face how dishonorable he is), they then try to cheat their ways out of their contractual obligations to him, and even imprison him so he can’t come after them in revenge for their trickery.
These “heroes” then rationalize their own virtue with the justification that they made their bargains with him for good causes—to save their kingdoms, or get out of poverty, or connect with their true loves; and it’s a bonus in the backs of their minds if they can out-trick the trickster by turning his own greed against him in some way. It’s the old “the end justifies the means,” which has always been morally problematic, and in the end, didn’t work, because almost all of their so-called “happy endings” were illusions that Rumplestiltskin created, and thus owned—just as he owned their social status or their earthly treasures or their first-born babies—and could take back at any time.
In their quest to out-smart and then try to neutralize Rumplestiltskin, the heroes missed an important point: The source of his power was them. Evil can only be as strong as we allow it to be, and they created and maintained the need for him. They even continued to make deals with him for information about magical fixes after they imprisoned him, demonstrating that they learned nothing in their supposed victory over him.
Regardless of his reputation and other people’s warnings, one character after another had continued to fall prey to his temptations to take a supposedly easy way out, despite Rumplestiltskin’s own warnings that magic comes at a steep price, and in some cases even his reminders that they had the option of doing the work themselves instead of making a dubious deal with him. He told Cinderella, “You don’t like your life? Change it!,” and she still chose to give in to her desperation and the idea that hard work and patience were beneath her, and made a careless deal that cost her a price she wasn’t willing to pay.
Rumplestiltskin got the last laugh from his prison cell by giving to Queen Regina a curse he created, which dissolved all those “happy ending” delusions at once and plunged everyone into our world. Once they were “cursed,” with all their magical crutches and shortcuts taken away, the characters were then forced to do what they should have done all along: Use their own brains and actually work to solve their own problems. When they started to do this is when the characters actually became likable to me, and when the show started to get interesting.
I’ll continue my explorations of this fairy tale to end all fairy tales in my next post.
Image: “Clashing Magic” by Karla Joy Huber, 1992; centrifugal-force splatter-painting