“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves
as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
I can add “failure to hire leather-trousered pirate as childminder” to my Mother’s List of Shame. My kids are a tad irritated that Captain Hook is not their babysitter; instead he’s doing the job for some kid in Maine.
Actually, I sympathise: Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue, Aquarius Sun) is deliciously watchable — simultaneously melancholy and dashing, kind and cruel — in ABC’s Once Upon A Time, which we are currently binge-watching. I’d quite like him to come babysit me too.
My favourite character though is the tortured “saviour” Emma Swan — played by zingy Jennifer Morrison, one in a line of great feisty Aries TV heroines (Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy, Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and The City, and Lucy Lawless as Xena Warrior Princess). Emma is a single mother, bail bondswoman, ex-jailbird and abandoned child, who is called on to save a town.
The thing about this town is that all the characters in it actually come from a place called the Enchanted Forest. Snow White, Prince Charming, Rumplestiltskin, Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio and all have been transported by a curse to somewhere really “horrible”, that is a little seaside town in modern day America. Emma’s task is to break the curse and send everyone back to the Enchanted Forest — but first she needs to learn to believe in magic. (And that’s just the first series. Series five is currently airing.)
Now if that sounds quite absurd to you, how about the scenario for NBC’s Grimm. Homicide Detective Nick Burkhardt discovers that he has a kind of psychic vision that allows him to see the true nature of certain people, who are really wicked fairytale monsters in disguise. He is a descendant of the Grimm brothers — who collected much more than fairytales, apparently; they were monster-slayers.
Both shows are a mash up of modern life and fairytales. Grimm is essentially a police procedural with supernatural stuff. Once Upon a Time is a family soap with magic: Joan Collins’ part is played with panache by Lana Parilla as the Evil Queen.
Now, it’s easy to see that the scriptwriters have taken on board Joseph Campbell’s ideas in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. In fact, tons of scripts coming out of Hollywood these days seem to be based on arc of the “monomyth”, thanks presumably to the work of writers like Chris Vogler. Quite right too. The mono myth works regardless of age, gender or culture.
At this point you may be curling your lip and muttering, “This is kid’s stuff.” In fact, Grimm often gets a 15 rating because of the violence. But how about Game of Thrones? A big, hairy fairy tale. Like a lot of current TV shows (hello, Ray Donovan and Borgen), it signals its “adult” status with sex — usually within the first two or three scenes.
OUAT, Grimm and GoT shows kicked off in 2011 — this was the year that the planet of dreaming, movies and imagination, Neptune, moved into his own sign Pisces for the first time since 1848-1861. Neptune will stay in Pisces until 2025, shaping our ideas about art and beauty, music and madness.
So what was happening in the 1850s? The legends of Arthur, the plays of Shakespeare and fairy tales were revivified by the Pre-Raphaelites in England: the Brotherhood was formed in 1848 just when Neptune changed signs. The first fantasy novel, Phantastes by George MacDonald was published in 1858. The composer Richard Wagner, exiled in Switzerland, was re-imagining the myths of the north — tales of gold, lost rings and magic potions. He was putting together his dream of a Gesammtkunstwerk — a totally immersive work of art made up of dance, theatre, music, vision — which would eventually become the Bayreuth Festival — or maybe the cinema. Northern artists, who had for a long time, looked south to Greece and Rome, were finding inspiration in the stories of their own lands.
The fairytales collected by the Grimms in the early 19th century had been translated and were in circulation across Europe and America, inspiring other collectors to do the same in their own countries. Most notable among these was Alexander Afanasyev whose collection Russian Fairy Tales (published in 1857-1863) contained the stories of Vasilissa the Beautiful, the Fire Bird, the 12 Dancing Princesses and the Giant Turnip. Hans Christian Andersen had become internationally famous and his stories — The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes among many more — were also being read in English, French and German as well as his native Danish.
Frozen, set in a cold Scandinavian sort of place, is, of course, the hugest Disney hit this decade, and Fairytale TV has a distinctly northern feel. Although Grimm draws from many folklore traditions, its central lore is germanic — monsters (called wesen, the German for creatures) have names like hexenbiest or blutbad. Once Upon A Time seems to rely entirely on Walt Disney (one assumes money is involved) — but then Walt’s crew relied on northern European fairytale tradition for the most part.
Both OUAT and Grimm are shot in grey Bergman light. Grimm is set in Portland, Oregon and OUAT in Storybrooke in inter-season Maine (that is shot in Vancouver, Canada).
Throneland’s aesthetic is part Viking and part Orientalist fantasy. It has been described as one in the genre of Blood, Tits and Scowling. It’s the Northern fantasy version of this genre — as opposed to The Borgias, Rome, The Tudors.
Just in case you’re pondering the fashion for the North, let me mention some other successful current TV shows: Thor, Vikings, Outlander, Wolf Hall — not to mention the Nordic Noir, Wallander, The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing.
So why would the North be in fashion astrologically? Following the path of Neptune, which rules fashion, through the signs might give us a clue. According to Vivian Robson, the direction for Pisces is North by East and Neptune rules long voyages by water — which we might translate into long voyages into the collective imagination. Of course, one of the effects of binge-watching is that you are able to enter the realm of your show much more completely. If you watch two or three episodes night after night, you become immersed in a show. Our Victorian ancestors were, of course, reading serialised novels aloud to each other in much the same way. They would have settled around the fire — if they could afford it — and listened to the best reader read the latest despatch from the pen of Mr Dickens, Mr Eliot (!), Mr Collins or Mrs Gaskell. We might have travelled in mind to Walden Pond or on the high seas hunting a great white whale.
These, of course, were books depicting the current times or times just gone, and this taste for realism was reflected also in the art on the Salon walls in France. But that is Neptune working as a mirror, and perhaps better for another post. Here I am writing of Neptune opening a portal to other worlds: worlds of imagination, but also of cultural history and collective identity. The revival of interest in folklore pioneered by the Grimms, who started collecting and publishing fairytales while Neptune was in Sagittarius, the sign of wide learning, publishing and exploration, and turned into the “highest” art by Richard Wagner while Neptune in Pisces conjoined his natal Pluto, would eventually lead to something much more dangerous.
“It is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia only because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl’s films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached…”
—Susan Sontag, Fascinating Fascism
Through fairytales we can look at our origins and make a slantways assessment, in America anyway where these shows are being produced, of national identity. It’s interesting that OUAT is about a group of people exiled from their own land. These fairytale characters are in some senses refugees. GoT is, of course, all about nationhood — and Grimm is about people who are different on the inside (and know it) but are having to pass as “normal”. Here, fairytale characters have to hide their true natures, or be persecuted.
Bruno Bettelheim was right when he wrote: “The unrealistic nature of these tales (which narrowminded rationalists object to) is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.” The Uses of Enchantment: The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales
But they are more than that, they tell us about the inner processes taking place on a collective level too.