Journeying Into the Deep
By Lori J. Fitzgerald
Each week we find ourselves falling into the realms of Once Upon a Time, deeply immersed for an hour in plot lines and characters that are drawn from the pages of literature and given a new life. The phrase “into the deep,” which is also the title of Episode 2x08, and the word “deep” itself, can have several connotations: being fully involved with something, such as “deeply in love,” or a “deep sleep”; taking a plunge, as literally diving into deep water or figuratively risking a chance; and journeying into the depths of the mind or subconscious. In their story arcs so far, both Prince Charming and Regina have gone “into the deep” in their own ways. Their journeys as dynamic, or changing, characters mirror the words of Robert Frost and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two American writers who also wander “into the deep.”
One of Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) most famous poems is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a simple yet profound poem which explores going “into the deep,” in this case a winter wood:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
On the surface this is a simple poem about a person who pauses in a long journey to contemplate the quiet beauty of a winter scene. However, when literary analysis is applied, it becomes clear that the poem has a deeper, and perhaps darker, meaning. “The darkest evening of the year,” implies that it is the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, but it also is symbolic of the “dark night of the soul,” the time of greatest despair and self-doubt in a person’s life. Prince Charming’s darkest hour has several aspects of the scene in this poem: in the Season 1 Pilot and again in “An Apple Red as Blood” (1x21), he arrives on horseback in the forest with the snow falling on Snow White’s glass casket, and the despair is evident on his tear-tracked face when the seven dwarves tell him he is too late. Charming does not know that true love’s kiss will awaken her; he believes she is dead and simply wishes to kiss her goodbye. The snowfall, the scene’s quiet sadness, and the view of the wood’s depth when the curse is broken are a parallel to the setting of Frost’s poem.
The last stanza of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is considered the key to unlocking the poem’s hidden meaning. The speaker obviously has responsibilities to which he must attend, “promises to keep,” before his long journey is finished. Central to Prince Charming’s journey throughout the plot lines is his promise, “I will always find you.” Promises are sacred in Once Upon a Time. In “An Apple Red as Blood,” Regina accuses Snow, “You promised to keep my secret. You promised, but you lied.” David breaks his promise to Mary Margaret to be honest about their affair to Katherine, and the whole town ostracizes Mary Margaret as a result. Rumplestiltskin declares to Cinderella, “No one ever breaks a deal with me, dearie!” in “The Price of Gold” (1x04). To break a promise to Rumplestiltskin incurs disastrous results, as Cinderella learns when her prince disappears. However, Rumplestiltskin himself broke his promise to his son, thus losing Baelfire to the land without magic. In the Season 2 premiere, Belle walks out on Rumplestiltskin because he broke the promise to her not to bring harm to Regina, although he tries to use semantics to twist the situation to his advantage. In “Into the Deep,” Charming demands to be put under a sleeping curse in order to keep his promise to Snow and bring her back to Storybrooke.
When one is enspelled by a Sleeping Curse, one falls into a deep sleep with the appearance of death. Deep sleep can be a metaphor for the subconscious mind, the realm where often the deepest truths about ourselves reside and are revealed through dreams. Although Prince Charming, as all the princesses under sleeping curses before him, is in a death-like slumber in one world, he is quite awake in another. In “An Apple Red as Blood,” Regina informs Snow of the mechanics of this curse: “Your body will be your tomb. And you’ll be in there with nothing but dreams formed of your own regrets.” Mr. Gold adds to this by telling Charming in “Into the Deep” that the soul under the curse goes to a “Netherworld.” This Netherworld is a dark, quiet room of mirrors, illuminated by a single torch. A mirror is symbolic of truth and self-realization; it does not lie. Its reflection symbolizes one’s knowledge of oneself (Cooper 106). One can imagine that in this mirrored Netherworld the cursed would stare at themselves in solitude for all eternity, and their thoughts would constantly reflect inwardly what they wish they had or hadn’t done. Self-reflection for all eternity could be a torturous punishment. Similarly, in the novel Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, the Mirror of Erised reflects one’s deepest desires; a person can become trapped by their own regret for what they want or have lost, and so waste away in front of the mirror.
In the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the speaker declares in the second to last line that he has “miles to go before I sleep.” Obviously the journey will be a long, arduous one before it reaches completion. However, it is the repetition of this line, perhaps the most famous repetition in the entire poetry genre, that brings a more ominous depth of meaning to this journey; in the emphasis created by repeating these words, the journey becomes life and the end of it is death. Prince Charming being placed under the sleeping curse echoes the poem and especially this last stanza on several levels. In order to keep his promise to his wife Charming is entombed in a death-like sleep which would be endless until broken by true love’s kiss. While in this deep sleep, he will endure an eternal “darkest night of the year,” in which he will be trapped with his own regrets in the dark, mirrored room. Finally, as Snow White despairingly states, perhaps it is part of his life’s journey that they must lose and find each other again and again. However, there is hope that this pattern can be broken; the Winter Solstice can also symbolize hope, in the rebirth of the sun, as the daylight hours begin to increase.
The American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) has his own idea of going “into the deep” in a famous quote in one of his journals: “Be not the slave of your own past….plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old” (June 19, 1838). Regina has been looking into the depths of herself, trying to find the self-control to keep her promise to Henry not to use magic. She has even started sessions with Dr. Archie Hopper, perhaps in an attempt to regain and hold this self-control, but perhaps also to further an understanding of her psyche and her past in order to break free from it. In particular, Regina must break free completely from her mother, Cora. It was Cora’s controlling acts, such as causing Snow White’s horse to bolt and killing Daniel, that were the greatest contributing power to Regina taking a dark path in life. Even in Storybrooke, Regina regained her magic through the book her mother once had. Regina attempts to have Hook murder Cora because her love for her mother was the greatest hold on her heart, and thus her greatest weakness, which she must banish before enacting the dark curse.
Emerson’s “plunge into the sublime seas,” means to take the high road, which Regina tries to do by having faith in Henry, and thus she uses her magical power to ensure the safe return of Snow and Emma from the well. Doing the right thing should ideally increase one’s self-respect; however, in this case, Regina’s exclusion from Henry’s rightful family and Mr. Gold’s biting comment, “Perhaps one day they’ll invite you to dinner,” may have the opposite effect. Regaining Henry, if she can at all, may take many right acts; Regina will have to “dive deep and swim far,” but it remains to be seen if she will have the psychological stamina to only perform good deeds, of magic and otherwise, for so little immediate reward.
Prince Charming and Regina journey literally or figuratively into the depths of their subconscious minds in Once Upon a Time in an attempt to keep promises and regain someone they have lost. Prince Charming wants to keep his ever-renewing promise to find Snow and bring her back to Storybrooke, so he braves the sleeping curse and its mirrored room of self-reflection; Regina attempts to keep her promise to Henry through therapy sessions and abstinence from dark magic in order to regain Henry’s love and trust. Both journeys have been and will continue to be long and arduous ones; Charming may have Frost’s “miles to go” ahead of him before he and Snow White will have their “happily ever after,” and Regina may have to sacrifice her ego repeatedly or relinquish both her mother and magic utterly if she is to have Emerson’s “new power” in the true love of Henry. Whatever paths of true love, redemption, or even destruction these characters choose to take in Once Upon a Time, we are eagerly prepared to follow them “into the deep.”
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames &
Frost, Robert. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Halcyon House, 1939.
Porte, Joel, Ed. Emerson in his Journals. www.books.google.com
Special credit goes to Christine Fitzner who provided added information about the Winter Solstice. Ten points for Ravenclaw.
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