When creating a fairytale world, certain language marks the tale as timeless.
Why timeless? Stories which begin in a fairytale fashion share the quality of essential truth. Earlier audiences assumed this essential truth to be the essence of God’s own voice:
In the beginning was the Word.John 1:1
Fairytales begin with a similar, familar phrase. This phrase sets the tone and tells the reader: “This is an old and distant story tied to modern times only thinly.” These beginnings all serve the function of effacing a particular voice. For more on that see Psycho Narration, especially the bit about dissonant and consonant narrators. (A Once Upon A Time story has a ‘dissonant’ narrator, with no personality of its own.)
A Once Upon A Time beginning also tells the reader that “This could be anywhere. Its heroes could be anyone. This hero could be you.” For the same reason, fairytale characters are archetypes.
“First thing you have to remember,” Granny Catherine hold her granddaughter, Yejide, close on her lap, “is that there was a time before time.” She press the first layer of tobacco down into the ebony bowl. The flame from her silver lighter make a small blaze in the cavern of the bowl and the pipe settle between her lips. “Before we come to live in this house, before the settlement in the valley, before the quarries, when the forest was so thick that no man could cross it, Morne Marie was the home only of animals. But not like animals we see now, oh no!” Catherine open her eyes wide and the blue smoke curl out of her nostrils. “The ocelots was big like tigers, the deer run so fast that no man could catch them even if he dare enter the forest to hunt them, and the little green parrots that sing at dusk was as big as the blood-red ibis that live in the swamplands. The animals could talk to each other, just like I talking now, and they build a mighty city in the forest. But this city was nothing like Port Angeles. It had no buildings, no boundaries, no gates, and the animals live together without territory to guard and borders to mind.the opening to When We Were Birds, a 2023 novel by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo set in Trinidad.
FAIRYTALE BEGINNINGS IN VARIOUS LANGUAGES
Some languages e.g. Japanese say ‘A long time ago…’ (Mukashi, mukashi…)
There once was a king/queen/princess…
It was once…
German: Es war einmal… (Once upon a time)
Armenian: There was and there was not…
Korean: Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…
Czech: Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…
Lithuiana/Persian/Thai etc: Once upon a time, a long long time ago…
VARIATIONS ON ONCE UPON A TIME
Some stories simply start with the word ‘Once’. This is enough to invoke the ‘Once upon a time’ tone.
Other stories utilise “Once Upon A [X]”
Header illustration by Eloise Wilkin