Once Upon A Late-ISH Night

It’s the classic fairytale opening: Once Upon A Time – but what does it actually mean? Apart from the obvious “this happened in a distant past that may or may not have been our past”, it’s kind of difficult to say.

I do wonder about the now-forgotten person who created that opening, though. Did they (probably he, if it came through the tradition of traveling bards/storytellers, although I’m not going to say definitely since there were female storytellers – we just don’t know nearly as much about them) flounder around looking for just the perfect way to start their newest piece? Did they start with something that had the right general feel and tweak it until they got it just so?

In some ways verbal storytelling has it a little easier. The thing isn’t pinned down on paper (which despite the ephemeral nature of the medium and the even more ephemeral nature of electronic literature starts to feel like it’s been carved in stone as soon as it’s there in black and white or whatever text and background color you prefer), and there’s the immediate feedback from the audience. You can even say, “Ah, this one doesn’t interest you, how about I tell you something else. Something with adventure, fighting, and no kissing.” (or minimal kissing, anyway, since most stories for grown ups wind up with kissing in there somewhere).

Precisely why I think of The Princess Bride when I think of storytelling is a story on its own. Many years ago, not too long after Princess Bride was released, I found – to my delight – a copy of the book. I expected a standard-issue movie novelization, or possibly a longer, more involved story that had been compressed to fit into a movie timespan.

What I got was… well. It’s a book within a book, just as Princess Bride is a story within a story. And the outer outer story is loaded with asides about what was cut from the fictional book to produce the readable and enjoyable version that is in my hot little hands. As well as the fighting, adventure, torture, and the rest of it, of course. And a certain amount of kissing. Although it most definitely is not a kissing book.

Anyway, why do the fairytales have this semi-classic/semi-cliche opening? (And why do so many of the successful fairytale-ish books, movies, etc. seem to do something that’s got the same feel? (A Long Time Ago in A Galaxy Far Far Away…. )). I won’t say I’m correct on this, but these openings clearly place the story that follows somewhere other. They’re in a world that isn’t this one – despite being rather similar in a lot of ways – and in a time that isn’t this one. They’re also somewhat timeless, since they don’t usually have a definite era they can be pinned to. Some time before modern conveniences for the most part (or in the Star Wars example, so long ago/far away that the entire civilization is probably long gone), and in a world where magic happens, but where goodness (usually as defined by whoever’s currently in charge of such mores) is rewarded and wickedness is punished. Which is not to say that wickedness doesn’t usually get a pretty long time to run free before the virtuous hero/heroine has suffered enough to receive their reward.

It’s a way to signal that this story is one of those, one where the proper morals are reinforced and behavior that’s anti-societal (and usually antisocial as well, since things like eating children are usually frowned upon) is punished – a way to pass on to others what proper behavior is (yeah, you look at the fairytales and there’s always a moral lesson in it. Although a lot of them these days the lesson can be pretty unsettling – the non-sappy versions of The Little Mermaid come to mind).

Finding the older versions of them to see the older lessons is an interesting if unnerving exercise. The Grimm Brothers, whether they made up the ones they published or used modified folk tales as their base, are pretty horrifying to modern sensibilities. The bowdlerization and softening that’s happened over the years says a lot about how we’ve changed as a society (or as multiple interconnected societies, really). We’re a lot further from the blood and the death than we used to be even a hundred years ago.

Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Oh, and have a “helpful” Westley.

23 comments

  1. It’s an invitation to suspend disbelief whereupon all things become possible and fiction becomes fun.

    1. Oh, quite. Fiction _should_ be fun. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong. (Which is not to say “a bundle of laughs” – there’s value in the cathartic cry your eyes out fiction as well and it in its own way is “fun” when done well.)

  2. I like the German openings and closings. “There was once . . . And if they are not dead, they are living still.” Not “and they all lived happily ever after,” because this is a Germanic story, and even princes and princesses have bad days and lose their temper or the kids act like brats. Another one I’ve heard is, “And I know this is true, because I danced at their wedding and brought home a piece of cake.”

    1. And for some of those, that had to be one _massive_ cake.

      I do like that ending, though. Much more down-to-earth than “and they all lived happily ever after”.

    2. “And last time I was down to see them, they was doing all right.”

      American fairy tale.

  3. A bit tangential, but the “scary woods” thing is also a relic of the past. Although, with the reintroduction of predators and the non-hunting of others, that is changing back (e.g. mountain lions on bike paths).
    An urban animal – ‘gator in the pool, bear in a dumpster, etc… – is somehow not nearly as scary as the danger lurking in the forest, despite being equally able to kill you. Perhaps because it, rather than you, is the anomaly.

    1. Well, also the forest was largely unknown territory way back when. These days there’s not a whole lot of unknown territory within reach of most of us. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.

      1. I did love David “BET ME” Brin’s short “Those Eyes”, wherein the Fae had been disbelieved right out of their original habitat and were now doing duty as Grey aliens instead, because apparently nosy human youngsters combined with “And THEN what?” are their natural enemy.

    2. Eh, a fair number of them would find the woods scary. I still remember the sign with the warnings that after the sun sets the mountain is dark.

  4. This is not a true story, but it is a story reaching for something that is true.

    1. Another good one. And sometimes that which is not factual can be true because it speaks to the heart and soul.

  5. It means this story is about other than dreary mundania. It is a reminder that not only do monsters exist, they can — via luck and pluck — be killed.

    Leading to the conclusion that in dreary mundania, you know that monsters exist but now you know they can also be killed via luck and pluck.

    1. This may explain why certain types are so against fairy tales and escapism. They want the monsters to be endured and accepted as part of dreary mundania. They don’t want a hint of the notion that you can make your own wonderful world with a bit of luck and pluck and imagination.

      1. I have been known to describe the heroine of The Princess Seeks Her Fortune as, actually, a typical fairy-tale heroine, and observe that makes her unique among modern-day fairy-tale-based fantasy.

        I’ve never really had anyone argue the point.

  6. There are other somewhat formalized story beginnings. The classic, “No shit, there I was…” The less classic, “You won’t believe this, but it happened to me…”

    “…and if they are not dead, they are living still.” Oh! Love that. I feel like I’ve heard/read it many times before but never made note of it.

    1. “No shit, there I was…” is the literary equivalent of “Hold my beer and watch this”, isn’t it?

      1. I’d say “No shit, there I was…” is the beginning of “first being an eye-witness then getting dragged along with things. As in “No shit, there I was, standing on the corner minding my own business when…”

        1. Famous joke/quote:

          The difference between a fairy tale and a sea story is that a fairy tale begins ‘Once upon a time…’ and a sea story begins ‘No shit, there I was…’

        2. You do realize that standing on the corner minding your own business is one of the most dangerous things you can do? Just as the staff of any ER… Its apparently one of the most common explanations for injuries.

  7. A tale told by the immortal Nammu Chen of her meeting with Miaoshan, priestess of Temple of the Fragrant Mountain:

    “Long ago, when the world was young and I was not, a band of ragged brigands irritated me…”

  8. To me “Once upon a time” is proof of the magic that can be found in even a simple phrase. It gives me a sense of seeking out something I never find but still want to look for.

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