Why do fairy-tales begin, ‘Once Upon A Time’?

Why do fairy-tales begin, ‘Once Upon A Time’? by Miss Olivia

Sometimes, it’s not easy to know where to start. Beginnings are tough. Waters are unchartered. We feel like reluctant protagonists of quest-narratives. 

It’s easier to begin when endings are predictable. It’s one of the reasons that fairy-tales and folklore universally begin with the word ‘once’, to let us know that this narrative that will spook, scare and concern us, happened far in the past. At least far enough for the spooky, scary, concerning things to never hurt us. 

Just ask my Year 9s. Yesterday, once we’d finished comparing the dull, yawn-inducing manners of Victorian-tea party etiquette with the whimsical, surrealism of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter tea party, I asked them, ‘Which one would you prefer to attend?’ They obviously chose the Mad Hatter’s tea party. For the excitement, the thrill, the wonder, the colours, the absurdity, the comedy, the plasticity. The escape-real-life-and-have-an-adventure ‘magic’ of it all. 

But then I probed a little further.

‘What, if like Alice, you didn’t know you would ever make it out of Wonderland?’


Their responses, once so animated and excited, drastically changed. They became hesitant, expressed fear about being stuck in Wonderland, and said that they’d panic if they felt like it would never end. If they didn’t know how it would end. 

Life feels that way amidst any significant change. In the present moment, hindsight does not walk beside us. But perhaps our lack of imagination for the future makes us more panicked than we ought to be?

Our delightful Year 7 cohort are full to the brim with imagination. We’ve begun our study of Fantasy literature, closely analysing the ways in which a key trope of fantasy literature is that it begins with a normal character, stumbling through ordinary life before with a resounding ‘thud’ they’re shoved into an adventure story. Trust me when I say that, collectively, their ideas rival that of Neil Gaiman and J. R. R. Tolkien. Just give them the sentence starter ‘Once upon a time…’ and they’re off, with enough characters and plot twists to feed three novels of a Fantasy series. 

With the new school year and the new school campus, we all get to be the authors of a really exciting story. Sometimes, we might get bogged down with the minutiae of the plot. What my students have taught me this week is this: we needn’t overthink the end before we’ve begun. Some of the most thrilling ideas come from the heart, at the start, before we’ve had a chance to overthink how things will pan out. So I challenge you to grab this new start with the tenacity of a Year 7. 

And simply, begin.