Folkdays: Folktale Openings


Come and have a seat. The campfire has been lit, dusk is drawing on, and the golden flames appear ever more vivid as the sky darkens. Somewhere, a blackbird trills his evening song.

Look into the depths of the fire. Perhaps you see blue there too, maybe green? As vivid as a mermaid’s scales. Keep looking, and I’ll begin the story.

‘Once upon a time…’



‘I’ll never tire of hearing your stories, but please, begin them with words other than ‘once upon a time’.’

It is true that nearly all folktales in English culture typically begin with ‘once upon a time‘. This phrase has come to signify the telling of folk- or fairy-tales, and in modern times, is usually only to be found in children’s literature or films. However, its presence is sometimes so predictable that it can often go unnoticed, glossed over, or even be met with a roll of the eyes. But ‘once upon a time‘ is a part of a much wider family of folktale openings, and while these openings may vary from culture to culture, all are the first stage in a wider folktale formula.

In this Folkdays post, I’m going to look a little into the oral tradition in which folktales belong, and outline – with examples – the various folktale openings which have been documented through time and from around the globe.

Back in a time before television and cinema, before radio, and even before literature was widely accessible, entertainment came mainly in the tradition of tale-telling. Many cultures, from all over the world, held (and some, still hold) the tale-teller as a person of high esteem. In some places, the telling of tales was the domain of one sex over the other; in others, sex was irrelevant and it was age, with the older folk becoming known as tale-tellers. In many places, it was a craft to be taught by one generation to the next, to keep the tradition alive.

The motive for tale-telling could vary: sometimes it was to please a ruler or benefactor, and earn food and lodging; sometimes it was simply a way to wile away long winter nights. Rarely was there such a thing as a ‘professional’ tale-teller: individuals may gain prestige, build their repertoire, innovate and experiment, and cultivate their voice. The stories they told were often well-known to their audiences, but it was the pleasure of hearing it, in that tale-teller’s unique style, that was such a marvel.

Particular tales, and particular tale-tellers, brought with them their own folktale openings: basic openings were expected, but more elaborate ones were delighted in. Compilations have been made of these various openings, from all locations and cultures; one of the more renowned collections was developed by folklorists Johannes Bolte and Georg Polivka. More accessible today, perhaps, is the list which can be found here, originally compiled by Sharon P. Johnson and put online by Betsy Bybell. It is from this latter collection that I quote below, translated from their native language to English.

Once upon a time‘ holds a prominent place in this family of folktale openings. It comes from a direct translation of the French “il était une fois‘ , and is not too dissimilar from the German ‘es war einmal‘ (‘it was once’), or the Danish ‘der var engang‘, (‘there was once’). These expressions all revolve around the notion that the tale to be told happened in the distant past, in a very different time to that of the tale-teller and their audience. This gives the tale a mystical quality, as well as helping to explain away its fantastical elements, and relieve the tale-teller from having to define certain truths. Introducing the tale as having happened long ago can be done in many different ways, and can become increasingly fantastical:

  • At the time when men and animals were all the same and spoke the same language…
  • Before the beginning of time, before the beginning of everything, before there was a beginning…
  • Long ago, so long ago, I wasn’t there or I wouldn’t be here now to tell you the tale…
  • Twas not in my time, ’twas not in your time, but it was in somebody’s time…
  • In ancient times, when the magpie was a Cossack chief and the duck a policeman, the bear had a long stumpy tail, as splendid as Mistress Fox’s.

Another way of creating mystery around a tale is to place it in uncertain or unbelievable origin. This can be done by expressing ambiguity over its truthfulness, or over the manner in which it came to be told.

  • Once there was, and twice there wasn’t…
  • In a land that never was in a time that could never be…
  • Here’s a story I learnt from an owl. I told it to a king. He gave me a purse of gold and this pin…

Folk- and fairy-tales differ from fables in that they do not always have an overt message, or moral, to take away or learn. Yet sometimes, the folktale opening will reveal the importance of tale-telling, or allude to the act of passing tales down through generations.

  • Now we are about to begin and you must attend! And when we get to the end of the story, you will know more than you do now…
  • Just tell it, straight up, let the listener decide what’s at the heart of it…
  • What the ear does not hear, will not move the heart…
  • This is my story which I have told you. If it be sweet, tell it to someone again and then some of the thanks will come back to me…

Lastly, some folktale openings reveal the delight that is taken in both the telling of and the listening to folktales. These expressions, sometimes expressing reverence for the tale-teller and their craft or anticipation for the story, reinforce the respected status of tale-tellers, and the importance of folktales as a means of entertainment.

  • Here is a story! Let it come! Let it come…
  • [Following an entertaining prologue] That’s the flourish just for fun; the real tale has not yet begun…

I find these various folktale openings interesting and colourful. For me, they really evoke a sense of the culture in which they were created, and reveal a love for tale-telling – both the act of telling and listening – that feels really special. At first glance, we may feel this folktale tradition, and our raw love for hearing them told, has been diminished by modern technologies. We might worry that less children are being told bedtime stories, and more are going off to bed with a game of Candy Crush on their parents’ tablet. But we must remind ourselves that tale-telling is still there, though in a slightly different format – and it’s still as important. Especially at a time like today when, just like those folk on long winters nights, we are depending on ways to spend the time, and keep our spirits up.

So I’ll end this Folkdays post with just a few last folktale openings, some of which you might be more familiar with.

  • A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… (Star Wars, as recent as 2019)
  • In a land of myth, and a time of magic… (BBC’s Merlin, until 2012)
  • Not so long ago, in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada… (Scott Pilgrim vs The World, 2020)

Photos are my own!

For more ‘Folkdays’ content, see my blog.

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