Once Upon a Time – A Visionary Fiction Perspective

I first started watching Once Upon a Time with my daughters this year.  The visionary fantasy story was created for television by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. It focuses on a young boy, Henry, who believes that his book of fairytales is based on real-life events.
The setting is Storybrooke, Maine where Henry’s foster mother, Regina, is the town’s mayor. In actuality, she is the Evil Queen.  She spends most of her time plotting revenge against Snow White, who inadvertently blurted out a secret that led to her lover’s death.  Unable to kill Snow White, Regina casts a spell that transports all the fairytale characters from the Enchanted Forest to Storybrooke, each without memories of their previous lives. The story takes off when Henry’s birth mother, Emma, arrives in Storybrooke.  Henry reveals to Emma that she is the long awaited Savior who must help the residents remember who they are and  liberate them from Regina’s control. He also discloses that Snow White and Prince Charming are her parents.

Villains and Heroes

What makes OUAT stand out as visionary fiction is the character arcs.  As there are many characters in this story, the focus of this article will be on the three leads that personify the symbolic archetypes of darkness and light.  The two main villains, Rumpelstiltskin and Regina are three-dimensional, which helps make them sympathetic to the viewer. Through their backstories, we are shown that evil isn’t born but rather created out of circumstances along with the choices that stem from those circumstances.  Regina turns to the dark side after the murder of her lover.  Rumpelstiltskin’s weakness and inability to care for his son leads him to enter the world of dark magic. He believes his power as the “Dark One”  is  what makes him strong. His only weakness is that he can be controlled by anyone who takes possession of his sword.

As with real life, even the heroes realize they’re not perfect. Emma doesn’t want anything to do with her Savior destiny and takes Henry’s revelation about Storybrooke as nothing more than a fantasy.  As the series progresses, Emma accepts her Savior status.  She battles dragons, witches and warlocks, but her toughest battle is fighting her own inner-demons.  The battles are unrelenting until the very last episode where Emma’s story arc concludes with her final battle against the Black Fairy. Visionary Fiction enthusiasts will appreciate how this battle is handled.  Hint…it’s all about inner-growth!

Warning: If you prefer to go into the show with no further explanation, stop reading here. While I don’t give away any story plot, I do get into a little more depth about the characters and their motivations. 

Happily Ever After?

Regina and Rumpel both want happy endings but don’t believe that it’s part of their destinies.


“My life was never just one story. It was many stories. To some, a villain. I hurt people… in ways I can never make up for. To others, I’m… a hero. They’ve seen my strength, my ability to do the hard things, even when I thought I couldn’t. I want to start a new story. One where the Evil Queen doesn’t get a part.” Regina

The evolutionary journey isn’t static. It’s in constant motion, which is not unlike real life.  Tragedies happen, relationships end. This is where our villains really have to prove their worthiness to move forward.

“Want me to have faith in you? Have faith in me.”  Henry to Regina

Regina’s love for Henry forces her to take a detour on her dark path, and she evolves into a hero.  She  also manages to fall in love again…with Robin Hood! However, a tragedy cuts their romance short, which again makes Regina wonder whether she’s worthy of a happy ending.

Hoping to erase her past, Regina casts a spell to remove the Evil Queen portion from herself. Can one’s past be scrubbed by a spell? Regina gets her answer when she is forced to battle her former evil-self. The original Regina is set to win, but destroying her dark counterpart no longer feels like the right solution.  How she handles the outcome will demonstrate that she’s finally accepted her past.

“You are not all evil and I am not all good. Things are not that simple.” Snow White to Regina 

Evolution isn’t Linear

Out of love for his son, Neal, Rumpelstiltskin sacrifices his own life to save the people of Storybrooke.  However, when Zelena, the Wicked Witch from Oz resurrects him and keeps him locked in a cage,  he regresses to his previous dark self.  His regression initially makes no sense. After the ultimate sacrifice, why turn back? Then the answer comes:

“Once you give in to darkness, it’s almost impossible to resist its calling.” Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin admits that his love for power overshadows his love for his wife, Belle.  But we see his current struggle when his younger son, Gidian returns to Storybrooke to kill Emma.  Rumpel, as he is called by those close to him,  is faced with the choice between love of power and love for his son.  This dichotomy  tortures Rumpel’s soul throughout the series.

“Maybe you should take a piece of advice from a man who has pushed away every chance of happiness because it was never enough. If it’s within your grasp, if you know where it is and who it’s with, then you should run to it, grasp it and never let it go.” Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpel’s struggle to evolve is a constant part of his character arc. There’s a major revelation about his true identity made this season, which rocks him to his core. How he deals with it isn’t revealed until the very last episode of the season. Visionary Fiction fans will again appreciate how it’s handled.

Love is the Catalyst of Evolution !

In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning, “Holocaust survivor, neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl wrote about how “love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.” Frankl realized the  “meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart; the salvation of man is through love and in love.”  Poetry and other forms of art speak to us the truth and power of love. We see this demonstrated in OUAT, where the underlying theme that leads to the evolution of consciousness is love!  We don’t only see it with Regina and Rumpelstiltskin. It’s the driving force of the whole show. To see how this theme plays out, check out Once Upon a Time. It isn’t just for kids!

This season marks the conclusion of the story arc.  The good news is that the series has been renewed for a 7th season, but it will focus on a new story with some new characters.  Past episodes are available on Netflix, and the current season is on HULU.

Eleni Papanou is an award-winning author and perpetual student of life.  Visit her website for news and updates


16 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time – A Visionary Fiction Perspective

  1. Jodine Turner says:

    Thank you, this is a wonderful synopsis and analysis of the transformational character arc of OUAT and its Visionary Fiction components. OUAT was such a well written TV series.

    I liked how you said that evolution is not linear. Very wise – and in writing VF, this non-linear growth in consciousness adds an interesting and important element so that our characters do not end up flat, unreal, and two-dimensional. OUAT handles that well.

    I also like how you point out the love is the catalyst of evolution. I happen to totally agree. It is demonstrated well in the series…and it is the underpinning of all of my VF novels!

    • Eleni Papanou says:

      Thanks for your reply. Yes, I’m certain many of us can attest the long and windy road to enlightenment. All my books also use love as a catalyst. It’s truly a powerful force! Did you see the last episode of the season? They show a teaser of the direction of the show next season. I’m certainly intrigued!

    • Eleni Papanou says:

      I’m glad to hear that! Their use of symbolism is also very well done, particularly with the heart.

  2. reanolanmartin says:

    Excellent! I like Rumpelstiltskin’s struggle in particular–the return to darkness even after so much sacrifice. Great job!

  3. margaretduarte says:

    Hi Eleni. I’m aware of this series, but have never watched it. Actually, I rarely watch TV at all. Crazy, since I could learn a lot about plot, characterization, etc. I’m glad to learn that a modern-day TV series imparts a spiritual theme (that the salvation of man is through love and in love.). I am encouraged by the film industry’s increased recognition and production of stories that include concepts of spirituality and create inner change that catalyzes outer change.

    • Eleni Papanou says:

      Me too. And the show’s popularity demonstrates that there’s an audience for VF on the little screen.

      • Saleena Karim says:

        Second everything Margaret says. Eleni, great article – and thanks for revealing the visionary within this series. I too had never watched it so this is an eye-opener.

  4. Robin says:

    What a wonderful synopsis! Now I must watch this. Have you ever watched Outlander? I am totally amazed at the storytelling, and the beautiful handling of character transformation. Nothing obvious, nothing cliche. Thank you for a wonderful post, Eleni.

    • Eleni Papanou says:

      I haven’t heard of Outlander. I just checked out the synopsis, and it looks cool. I love time travel stories. Have to put it on my watch list. Hopefully it will go on Hulu soon.

  5. Victor Smith says:

    Apology that it took so long to read this, Eleni. I hope you still see this acknowledgement of a thoughtful analysis well-done. As much as we writers might like to think that people still read like they used to (when there was little else to entertain), various media, TV among them, now own most former readers. That well-conceived and presented material like OUAT is now being created is a cause for celebration. I hope your piece is coded so people looking for reviews on this series are directed to it. There may be a way to nudge them over here. Thanks much.


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