[This blog is not about earnest subjects like law and policy which I write about elsewhere. It is a blog about subjects which interest me even if I have little knowledge, still less any expertise. If you think I should stick to writing things about what I know, you are no doubt right…]
I am binge-watching Once Upon A Time, and a question is nagging me: where does the idea that characters from separate stories and distinct traditions can be put together in one story – or shared universe – come from?
This post is my attempt at addressing that question.
(Warning, minor spoilers below for Once Upon A Time and Fables.)
Once Upon A Time is a good place to start.
It is a US television show first broadcast in 2011.
A premise of the show is that many of the best known fairy tale characters were once together in one place – the Enchanted Forest – and then were somehow transported so as to live together in modern day America. There are other imaginary worlds connected with the Enchanted Forest – Neverland, Wonderland, and so on – but there are connections between them, if you know where to look.
Once Upon A Time in turn followed the Fables comic series created written by Bill Willingham, which was first published in 2002 (and came to an end earlier this year).
Fables too had as a premise that the best known fairy tale – and nursery rhyme – characters were once together in one place, the Homelands, and were now based in modern day America.
When Once Upon A Time came out, some Fables fans were concerned that the story elements had been taken from Willingham’s creation.
But in 2011 Willingham said he accepted the explanation offered by the creators of Once Upon A Time that the concept was developed independently:
It’s perfectly reasonable to assume it happened as stated. I am the world’s best example that the human mind is far from a computer with perfect memory. Offhand, I can list (as I’ve mentioned many times before) a dozen projects that came out in my lifetime that influenced the creation of “Fables.” They include the “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons, “The 10th Kingdom,” “The Charmings” (which I never saw in its short run, but I knew about), “Into the Woods,” “Castle Waiting” and so many more. “Fables” was inspired in part by all of those things, but ripped off not a one of them. And here’s the rub: I’m certain there are just as many more stories and properties that I read, or watched, or heard, or heard of, that I couldn’t recall now to save my life, but which also went into the idea-mix that eventually spawned “Fables.”
This was a generous reaction by Willingham – for at the time, Fables was a best-selling and prize-winning phenomenon, and many thought that the TV programme had ripped off the comics.
Willingham had a point. Nothing was new.
For example, The Charmings was a 1988 TV show which transported the Snow White characters to modern day America. So taking figures from fairy tales and placing them in the contemporary world was not a radical innovation.
And imagining that the famous fairy tale characters inhabited the same pseudo late medieval early modern world also was not new. The musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine did that that in 1986.
So what Fables and Once Upon A Time did was, in effect, to marry the Into the Woods notion of a shared fairy tale universe with The Charmings’ notion of transporting fairy tale characters to modern America.
But what I find interesting – and this may be because of the limits of my amateur research – is that there is not much evidence of a single shared fairy tale universe before Into the Woods, that is before 1986.
Was the idea of Snow White living alongside Red Riding Hood in the same place really something younger than, say Star Wars and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?
Of course, the familiar canon of famous fairy tales has not always been around – at least not in its current form.
Up to the mid 1800s, to the extent you had the tales written down at all, they were usually associated with certain authors or collectors. So you would have had Perrault’s tales, Grimms’ tales, the stories by Hans Christian Andersen.
What mixed all the stories together were the later Victorian anthologies of fairy tales, most notably the hugely popular Fairy Books of Andrew Lang after 1889.
The variously coloured books – The Blue Book of Fairy Tales etc – jumbled the stories: Grimm with Perrault with British traditions like Jack the Giant Killer.
It would thereby seem that the modern notion of traditional fairy tales being much of a muchness, set in interchangeable lands far away, long ago once upon at a time, dates from the late 1800s.
(Whilst we are in the late 1800s, what is fascinating – at least to me – is that some of the “traditional” fairy tales are relatively recent. For example, Pinocchio first appeared in 1881 (making him 16 years younger than the more modern-seeming Alice in Wonderland); and Goldilocks appears only to have got her name in 1904 (so only four years after Dorothy Gale got hers) – and the Three Bears story itself may not be much more than one hundred years older than that.)
Not all the now famous fairy tale characters inhabit the pseudo late medieval early modern world. The fairy tale canon now includes characters from invented worlds like Wonderland (1865), Oz (1900), Neverland (1904), and even Narnia (1950).
Unlike the lands far away of the “traditional” fairy tales, these invented worlds can supposedly be visited by us (by various unlikely means) and are connected to our mundane world. They were intended to be fantastic bolt-ons to our universe.
But what seems to have also happened is that (subject to the law of intellectual property) these created worlds became bolt-ons to the universe of “traditional” fairy tales: so Snow White and the Evil Witch can challenge Peter Pan and Captain Hook can have a rivalry with Rumpelstiltskin (as in Once Upon a Time), or the Nome King can sit round a table with Snow Queen and Geppetto (as in Fables). Characters from these newer worlds can even meet up with each other, as Alice, Dorothy Gale and Wendy Darling do in the imagination of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie.
So in the mind’s eye many fairy tale characters, traditional and modern, became members of one single cast of characters – a big singing and and dancing parade such as in Disneyland (opened in 1955).
But why did it take so long to add the characters together in shared stories? Even Walt Disney kept the stories carefully separate in the films, if not on street marches in holiday resorts.
Crossovers and team-ups are not new.
They are not even modern: the list of Argonauts included pretty much every hero of classical mythology.
Similarly the Arthurian round table expanded so as to sit figures such as Tristan and Gawain. Robin Hood’s merry band took in the unconnected story of Marian at a late date. This was not unusual; it is a natural dynamic of passed-on story telling.
In art – quite apart from the religious paintings which placed Biblical figures together – it was also not uncommon to place disparate figures in one frame.
Here is Raphael’s super-team of philosophers (1509-11):
And this is Peter Brueghel putting all the proverbs of his time in one painting (1559):
Fairly soon Frankenstein’s monster meets many other horror staples, and they all meet each other in almost every possible permutation. By the mid 1960s, the notion that major horror characters all inter-related was such a commonplace that it sustained two popular American TV shows, The Munsters and The Addams Family, both of which were first broadcast in 1964. (Of course, in the background to this monster mashing was the development of Hallowe’en in America as a hotchpotch of anything “horror” related.)
In comics there were also crossovers, though usually with the characters owned by the same publishing company. So, as early as 1940 we have this splendid (non-Arthurian) round table:
By the 1960s, it was difficult to find any comic superhero who had not been joined up to one team or another.
It was not just films and comics; in the early 1990s Kim Newman created a sophisticated world which incorporated many of the literary characters of late Victorian Britain and after. Alan Moore took this idea back into comic form with his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
So perhaps the real question is not therefore why by the 1980s were fairy tale characters being grouped so as to share adventures but why it had not really happened before. The fairy tale characters may rub shoulders in successive chapters of illustrated children anthologies and on Disney street parades; but why not in the same story?
The best response to this question is perhaps not to answer it but to examine if it is the right question to be asked.
The “traditional” fairy tales associated with Perrault, the Grimms, and (to an extent) Andersen were often not fresh inventions. They were instead the captured (if refined) products of long story telling traditions. Elements were taken from various stories and added together, and separated: a prince added here, a cat from there, a stepmother from somewhere else; a continual process of telling and re-telling.
Take, for example, the various versions of Cinderella. It may be that the names of other fairy tale characters were not crossed over; but the elements of other stories usually were. Elements of Prince Charmings and Evil Witches did not stay within one discrete tale but fed into other tales.
What seems to me to have happened after the 1800s was that – notwithstanding the children’s books and street parades – the stories temporarily stopped evolving and cross-fertilizing, and became as fixed as a still from a Disney film. And, if this is so, what has happened since is not something new but a revival of exploring what can be done with the characters from these stories. This can be seen not only in Into the Woods and Fables, but also many other films, re-workings and re-tellings (some of which are even licensed by Disney).
Crossovers and team-ups of any kind will always be attractive for some people to make and for other people to appreciate. The creator does not have to work so hard on characterizations (or situations) from scratch; the reader or viewer does not risk having to understand something entirely new. The talented or skillful creator can play with these initial preconceptions; the less able creator can try to get by with them. It can be done well and it can be done badly.
Mixing and matching characters and stories (especially those in the “public domain”) can be evidence of a lack of originality – a mere glorified form of fan-fiction. Or it can indicate a healthy critical relationship with received culture – taking on what has been handed down, and seeing what you can do with it. It is not inherently right or wrong, valuable or worthless; but it is not an artificial exercise – most stories take something from other stories. It is natural.
And so to address my original question of where does the idea come from that characters from separate stories and distinct traditions can be put together in one story or shared universe.
Maybe the better question is: where does the idea come from they should not be?