“Once Upon a Time” and Other Formulaic Folktale Flourishes


Arts & Culture

Walter Crane, Beauty and the Beast, 1875.


We take the phrase “once upon a time” for granted, but if you think about it, it’s quite oddball English. Upon a time—? That’s just a strange construction. It would be pleasant to know its history: When, more or less, does it get up on its legs? Around when does it become standard procedure? My researches into this question, however, have yielded nothing conclusive.

Forget “upon a time.” Look at the “once.” That part really is standard from the beginning, and not only in English. Just this past weekend, I paged through fifteen volumes of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, and I’m here to tell you: The word once is in the first sentence of almost every single folktale every recorded, from China to Peru. There is some law of physics involved.

Folktales get right down to business, no fooling around. Once there was an old king who had two sons. Once there was a poor lace merchant who decided to make a trip. And if it doesn’t say “once,” it will say “a long time ago.” A long time ago, the fox and the hen were good friends. A long time ago, there was a man who had a shaving brush for a nose and who had two daughters, et cetera.

Why should it always be a long time ago. That’s easy. If you said, “When I was a girl, there was an old man in this village … ” you’d be opening yourself up for interruptions. Where is that old man now? Where are his two sons? But if the story took place a long, long time ago, or simply in undefined and undefinable history (“once”), interruptions will be … fewer.

I want to mention that not one story in Grimms’ Fairytales actually begins “once upon a time.” German doesn’t have that expression. They just say “once.” (The term is einmal. Es war einmal ein Mann und eine Frau … ). Italian, pretty much same thing. C’era una volta … (literally, “One time, there was … ”). All this counts as formulaic.

Carlo Collodi plays with this in the famous beginning of Pinocchio:

C’era una volta …

—Un re!—diranno subito i miei piccoli lettori.

—No, ragazzi, avete sbagliato. C’era una volta un pezzo di legno.

(Once there was … “a king!” cry my little readers. But no, children, you’re wrong. Once there was a piece of wood.)

But why is a formulaic beginning desirable. Ah, here we go deep into an insight that my guru taught me. She and I call it the cartoon insight. Consider: when a child is exposed to a cartoon, even before anything happens in the narrative, the kid knows a lot. Front and center, there’s the fact the presentation is intended for children. That’s huge. The fact of the thing being a cartoon means that almost all the dreariness of adult affairs, and the curdlingness of adult ambiguity, will be excluded. Instead, the presentation will be geared toward enjoyment. There will be humor and animals and other good things. Indeed, there’s nothing more disappointing in childhood than when this convention (cartoons are for pleasure) is violated. It’s like when old people put stuffed animals in their cars, in the space under their rear windshields, where the toys can be played with by nobody and will only become sun bleached. To a child, the waste of a toy is sickening.

Anyhow, to begin a story with a set phrase or set construction that signals the onset of a cartoon-like thing is obviously a good idea, and so the more predictable the opening flourish, the better, it seems to me. I was feeling surprised more languages don’t have some piece of rock-solid arcane lala at the beginnings of their folktales, like English does. But then, as I say, I paged through that pile of books last weekend. I made a number of pleasant discoveries.

For starters, it does make a difference if your source for a folktale is someone’s mouth rather than a piece of paper. Ethnographers who make oral recordings and then transcribe ’em will tend to give you a taste of the scene of storytelling, and such tastes are often charming. For example, the 1983 book African Folktales by Roger Abrahams is full of formulaic beginnings, many of which function something like the Hwæt! of Old English.

Apparently in Hausa (forty or fifty million speakers in Niger, Nigeria, and all over West Africa), you launch a folktale with, “A story, a story. Let it go, let it come.” Every single Hausa story in the book starts like that. For this formula, I experienced love at first sight, but I must confess I don’t understand it. I get the “let it come”; I don’t know what they mean by “let it go.” Yoruba meanwhile (thirty million speakers, Benin and Nigeria and elsewhere) has a similar seesaw formula: “Here is a story! Story it is.”

But now switch over to South America—Chile in particular. There, the basic once-upon-a-time formula is, “Listen to tell it, and tell it to teach it,” but the storytellers often put in all kinds of curlicues. The following specimens are all from Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions (2002), incidentally the very last book published under color of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library:

If you ask to hear it you’ll listen and learn it, and any who can’t will have to drink tea; for sleepy wits it’s a mother’s remedy. There was an orphan boy, his name was Antuco …

Listen and learn it, learn to tell it, and tell it to teach it; if any can’t learn it they’ll buy it if any can sell it. The shoe fits, yes? No? Ouch! It pinches my toe.  There was once a gentleman who …

If you learn it you’ll know it, so listen and learn how to tell it; now, don’t pick the fig until it’s big; if you want a pear you’ll need a ladder; and if you’d like a melon, marry a man with a big nose. There was an old woman called Dolores who had two children …

If I tell it to know it you’ll know how to tell it and put it in ships for John, Rock, and Rick with dust and sawdust, ginger paste and marzipan, triki-triki triki-tran.  It’s about a rich widower and his daughter …

Speaking of curlicues, Inea Bushnaq records case after case in her wonderful Arab Folktales (1986). Again, there is a basic formula: “There was or there was not [a man who, et cetera].” But look at the embellishments:

This happened or maybe it did not. The time is long past and much is forgot.

There was or there was not—is anything sure or certain but the greatness of Allah?—a king so powerful that man and Djinn bowed before him.

There was or there was not (is anything sure or certain but that God’s mercies are many, more numerous than all the pebbles on the land or the sum of the sea’s sand?) a rich man and his wife who had one son …

And then, late in the game, the “or” turns into “and” …

There was and there was not a man burdened with years who saw the Angel of Death, snatcher of souls, hovering near.

There was and there wasn’t, O Ancient of Days, a king who had one daughter [italics in both these quotations are mine].

All of this is fairly irresistible, I should think. But I’ve saved a special treat for last. I’ve been speaking about formulaic beginnings, but we must give a glance to the weirdest formulaic endings in the world. I mean those of the Russians.

My source text here is a classic: Russian Fairy Tales, by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanas’ev, translated by Norbert Guterman, 1945 (the oldest book in the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library). This book is of special interest, in that its editor was basically the Russian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm. Nineteenth century, same kind of work… only I think Afanas’ev did six volumes, with thousands of stories, compared to the Grimms’ roughly 250.

Now, on the one hand, Russian folktales, more than any others I looked at, showed a strong tendency to end on the same note as Victorian fairytales: “And then they lived happily ever after.” That’s not as standard an ending as you would think; Russian and English seem like sisters on this point. But then it turns out there’s this extremely recurrent “nonsense” ending, where the storyteller suddenly reveals that he (it’s assumed to be a “he” for reasons that will be clear in a moment) had a walk-on part to play in the end of the narrative. For instance:

When Ivashko got down off the eagle, the eagle spat out the piece of flesh and told him to put it back into his shoulder. Ivashko did so, and the shoulder healed. He came home, took the maiden of the golden kingdom from his brothers, and they began to live happily together and are still living. I was at their wedding and drank beer. The beer ran along my mustache but did not go into my mouth.

“I was at their wedding”—? “The beer ran along my mustache”—? Keep in mind these are the very last sentences of the stories in which they appear:

The fisherman made a fish soup out of him, ate it, and praised it highly, for the flesh of the pike was quite succulent. I was there and ate the soup with him; it ran down my mustache but never got into my mouth.

They went, and lo and behold, the children were alive. The father and mother were overjoyed and in their joy gave a feast for all. I was at that feast too, I drank mead and wine there; it ran down my mustache but did not go into my mouth, yet my soul was drunk and sated.

The brothers were so frightened that they jumped in the river. And the knight married the princess Paliusha and gave a most wonderful feast. I dined and drank mead with them, and their cabbage was toothsome. Even now I could eat some!

And here, friends, I close with the granddaddy of ’em all:

The king received him hospitably and gave him his daughter in marriage; they celebrated their wedding, and are still alive to this very day and chewing bread. I was at their wedding and drank mead; it ran down my mustache but did not go into my mouth. I asked for a cap, and received a slap; I was given a robe, and on my way home a titmouse flew over me cackling, “Flowing robe!” I thought she was saying, “Throw away the robe,” and I threw it away. This is not the tale, but a flourish, for fun. The tale itself is not begun!


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.