As we are sure you all have noticed, faerie tales are making a media comeback, bit by bit and day by day. Not that they hadn’t, already, since Disney pretty much owned that part: they are just making their way into everything now. Two Snow White films (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror), a Hansel and Gretel film (although let’s admit that one appeared to be nothing more than a pretext for another grisly action movie), and the upcoming Jack the Giant Killer (which looks more promising and actually quite interesting). Best of all, however, is the ABC Family show Once Upon A Time, which both of us are completely hooked on and watch religiously every Monday when it comes out online. It’s like a tribute to all faerie stories, playing our best-loved tales so straight that the truest themes show through: true love, redemption, hope, faith… and so on. These themes lead us from the stories, through the culture which produced them, and back to the story which produced their culture: that of the Cross; more importantly for faerie stories, the story of the victory of the Cross–the Resurrection.
For those who aren’t familiar with Once Upon A Time, it is a TV show which airs every Sunday at 8 (or is it 9?) on ABC Family. The premise is that the world we know is not the only world that exists: it just happens to be one of the only worlds without magic. An evil queen cast a curse on her own world, which contained many characters from many stories within it who all knew or knew of each other, and transported them all into Maine, in our world, where they lost their memories of who they were and loved and lived in a frozen state for 28 years, until their saviour came along and broke the curse with the help of a little boy who believed in fairy tales. That is, in short, the summary of Season One, and Season Two (airing now) gets much more complicated, but many characters from many different stories all come together and become likely–or unlikely–friends.
Because of the nature of its content (faerie stories), Once Upon A Time has many themes upon which we could reflect and hearken back to the fact that faerie tales are rooted deeply in Christian culture. Given the latest episode, however (titled Queen of Hearts, and we will give you no more spoilers), it is appropriate for us to consider the theme of hearts.
That doesn’t mean the muscle which drives your circulatory system, nor does it mean the cute little shape on the end of a Cupid arrow: it is the depths of our character, the whole of our personality and moral psychology. It is the “place” which is the source of the actions we choose, the thoughts and feelings we entertain, and the direction we give our lives. Most importantly, it is the place where we actively decide to follow or turn away from God.
That is the “heart” in Saint Augustine’s famous line, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, o Lord” and in Pascal’s pithy observation, “The heart has reasons reason cannot know.” It is the same meaning of “heart” referred to in the “Sacred Heart of Jesus”–and here is the key. What is so special about a heart? Only people have hearts. Human persons and the Divine Persons both have hearts. But nonetheless, only people have hearts. Animals do not, and neither do plants. It is debatable whether angels do, either. But persons have hearts.
Hearts are the source of love. Whether the heart itself is pure or distorted then dictates the kind of love capable by it. Calling back to Once Upon A Time, there are two perfect counter-examples here: Snow and Charming have pure love for each other, while Regina’s love for Henry is rather distorted by the fact that she was never actually taught how to love (which is a topic for another, more spoilerific, post).
–Spoiler warning: Season Two spoilers below this point. Continue reading at your own risk.–
Okay, now that you’ve had enough space to turn away if you have not yet seen Season Two, we return to our regularly scheduled analysis. Somewhere in the midst of the first season, it is revealed that Regina has her own vault of hearts, where she stores the physical hearts which she has taken from now-helpless creatures and people. Controlling the heart of a creature is somewhat elementary, albeit quite dark magic, since creatures can be easily trained. It is the people hearts which matter most in the series and in the overall scheme of things. When you control a heart, you control the whole person, even against their will; and sometimes, they won’t even know that you’re controlling them.
The inevitable twist in the storyline is that the vault of hearts isn’t Regina’s. It belongs to her mother, Cora, who has been ripping out hearts since long before Regina was born. Her obsession with power, control, and the idea that “love is weakness,” counterpointed against Snow’s love, compassion, and absolute adoration for Charming, epitomizes the time-honoured debate: is it better to rule with love, or with fear? Cora’s MO is very clearly fear, to the point where she is almost controlling people to force them to love her. She wishes to rule the desires of others, rather than allow them to freely choose to love. In some sense, she is the evil inverse to the Virgin Mary, who is nothing but the purest love and compassion. Cora’s pitiful attempt to rule the hearts of all around her by force is a striking contrast to the true Queen of All Hearts, reminding us that it is, indeed, better to rule with love than with fear.
So what might this brief reflection on a TV show villain lead us to conclude? At least this: that the way to true happiness (another great theme of the show!) lies not with the rule of force, with trying to steal and cling to as many hearts as one can, but with emptying one’s own heart to fill the heart of another.